Having visited much of the Caribbean, and in search of a sunny holiday destination that would be relaxed and easy to visit with kids in tow, we read about Antigua and it sounded perfect: easily accessible island with some history and nice beaches. What more could a family want? It is also a former British colony, so as an ex-pat living in the Land of the Free, it presented a chance to get back to my roots without the rain, cloudy skies and dirt of London.
Instead of the usual hotel suite, we rented “Driftwood Cottage” from John and Sarah Fuller. We discovered it on the internet as we surfed for reasonably-priced lodgings with pools, thus eliminating a wide variety of waterfront estates. It was a quick five-minute drive from the airport — always a bonus when you have a child that is regularly carsick — behind Hodges Bay on the northern shore, the favorite island location for kite-surfing. If you are not similarly strapped for cash, then do stay in Curtain’s Bluff, run by the charming Rob Sherman. When we discovered that he knew the Fullers, we got preferential lunchtime treatment from the courteous waiter, Al. After that, we dropped the Fullers name everywhere: if you can’t afford the $500-$1000 a night of the Bluff, it helps to be staying on the property of the island’s top lawyer.
When we arrived, we found that the ‘cottage’ turned out to be a delightful pool house, located away from the main building where the Fullers live, but right beside the pool. This had the added advantage that while baby slept under the essential mosquito net (day and night), the rest of us could play in the water, secure in the knowledge that the little tike was a mere few steps away should he wake up.
On our first evening, we headed to The Beach Restaurant in Antigua Village for an easy supper. It is aptly-named as it is located right beside the water, on Dickenson Bay, steps away from the surprisingly peaceful Sandals Couples resort. We could literally feel the sand beneath our feet as we ate — and over them, as we smooshed sand to hide the usual floor mess created by baby as he played with his food. The meal wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t cheap either. ‘Cheap’ and ‘Caribbean’ don’t usually go together in the same sentence and Antigua is no exception.
For those who want a splurge, there is no better place than Harmony Hall that comes with its own four-star restaurant and art gallery combined. Located above Nonsuch bay on the eastern shore, it has its own sugarcane windmill and swimming pool. They welcome families and young children, in spite of the superiorly French accents of the wait staff. You can sleep here, too. We preferred to be ‘just passing through’ to avoid the fifty-dollars (U.S.) for the smallest entrée, and instead took a first right, not first left, on our return journey, and ended up at the magnificent but abandoned sparkling white mansion of one of the most famous drug-dealers on the island (who is now in prison or exile, no one seems sure). The windows were boarded up, the front door was bricked in, but sexy lingerie hung on a threadbare washing line from a second floor window. There was nothing to eat there either, so that night we ended up at The Beach again.
For breakfast the next morning, we wanted to try something different. We drove round the bay to the guidebook-recommended Lashings (closed), Millers (empty with blaring music, some correlation surely) and thus found ourselves once more unto The Beach, dear friends. This was to prove the usual holiday mealtime experience, except when we were feeling poor and then we would head to The Epicurian at Wood Center. It is the only place on the island that can realistically be called a supermarket: breads, fruits, crackers, some toilet paper and plenty of shampoo meets my definition quite adequately, thank you. There is also a toy shop in the Wood Center, which we promised to visit if our son behaved himself. His behavior was impeccable and visit it we did, but left empty-handed as the prices were three times that of the U.S. (import tariffs on toys are 100%, my kids are glad they don’t live here). It was hard to explain to a four-year-old that when we promised that we would visit the toystore, we didn’t actually say we would buy anything so we had not lied to him. Semantics are lost on the youth of today.
For the childless, Coconut Grove, a short sandy walk down from The Beach, has a lively bar scene and a more upscale dinner selection. My mouth watered at the Portobello Mushroom Pancake on the menu, but we didn’t dare go in with the kids. A reason to return in twenty years, perhaps.
There are lots of forts on Antigua (Forts James, Barrington, Berkeley, George, and other sturdy English names from times gone by), built by the British to protect the lucrative sugar trade in the seventeenth century. Most consist of a few ruins on a hilltop. Fort James is the best of the bunch as it has a few cannons peeping out from the shrubs, pointing wistfully seaward in memory of better days. It also has a few ramshackle wooden huts, barred from entry, though through the windows, we could see the remains of typical goods from three hundred years ago: discarded fridges, washing machines and the like (perhaps from the home of the afore-mentioned drug kingpin above). Shame. The government should really fix up the dilapidated buildings as this could be a popular destination for the daily multiples of cruise ships that dock in the main port of St. Johns. However, then they would be bound to charge an entrance free and right now it’s free, so maybe I should not complain.
There’s nothing much to St. Johns: a quiet town of a few small shops, mostly with glitzy jewelry for gauche tourists. When the cruise ships dock, it turns into a frenzied free-for-all, and the t-shirt sellers wake from their slumberous repose to ply their wares on all and sundry. The many market stalls selling tourist glitter come to life with their tie-dyed shirts made in Indonesia, arts & crafts, and thronged sandals, but they all looked and cost the same so I can’t make any particular recommendations. Pizza is tasty at the Big Banana Holding Company off Market Street, but take mosquito spray, particularly if you sit at one of the tables by the bar.
For a day out, it’s a pleasant drive round the coast to the most popular tourist spot: Nelson’s Dockyard. Stop on the way in English Harbour to admire the boats and grab an ice-cream at Sea Breeze (right at the end of the dock, behind the mini-mart — ask). If you don’t want an ice-cream, pull over into the two-floor pink building five hundred yards before English Harbour (the only real way to spot it is to go to the harbor, and then drive back the distance) and get a delicious hot pastry or sandwich from Francine’s. The chocolate croissants melt in your mouth, hand, and, with kids, all over your back seats.
The restored eighteenth century buildings in the Dockyard don’t have much to offer except t-shirts or yacht sales. Lunch in HQ, overlooking the harbor, is a pleasant experience more for the view than for any culinary delicacies. The English Harbour Race in late April is the highlight of the Antiguan sailing calendar, when the seas are overrun with two hundred boats, and the shores overcrowded with twenty times as many drunken sailors.
Another interesting adventure was our trip to Devil’s Bridge, located on the far east of the island. It’s a windswept rocky plateau, not for those with toupees, but apparently not too breezy to prevent the Coca-Cola man from showing up and offering us a sample. I prefer the local fizzy drink, Ting, an extraordinarily sweet combination of lemon and sugar. We never worked out the reason for the name of the place as we wandered around looking for either a devil or a crossing over water. No bridges, tunnels, viaducts, or other transportation devices. No rocks with human heads, murky waters or dark shadows. The only possible solution was a small overhang on the plateau, where a couple of narrow slits in the rock allowed water to boom up from time to time from the sea beneath. My husband suggested I walk across the slippery gap between the slits for a photo opportunity, but I firmly demurred.
We had high hopes for Betty’s Hope, the island’s first sugar estate, but they were dashed as soon as we past the cane windmill at the entrance (one of many on the island, Antigua’s most famous landmarks) and disappointment set in. The ‘museum’ is merely a collection of photos from old times in a small dark one-room building that doubles as a visitor center. This could do with restoration as well, but (just in case Baldwin Spencer, the Prime Minister, is reading) funding focus should be on Fort James first- it has the potential to be a lot more fun.
In case you haven’t had enough of sea views from the many hills and forts, head up to Shirley Heights behind English Harbour. The turning is easy to miss but as you leave the harbor, look to your right and you will see a narrow road and think to yourself “Well, that can’t possibly be it.” Then take it.
From the top, you can not only enjoy a view of the ocean, but also gaze inland and cast your eyes upon the home of your favorite rocker and mine, Eric Clapton. There would be no tears in heaven over the architecture of his house, tastefully blended into the trees and made entirely of wood. Thank God for telescopic lenses. Crossroads, a drug rehabilitation center is nearby on the island. This is not a coincidence as Eric set it up to help out all his friends and, possibly, the island economy. They have been quite successful with getting pop stars passed their sell-by-dates back on track, but I can’t name any names or John Fuller said I can’t stay in his pool-house again and I want to.
During our stay on the island, Antigua was only days away from the national election. Slogans were up everywhere. We were torn between Vote Johnson “No false promises, no sweet talk”; Asot the action man, “I just want to serve my people” and Vote Cutie “He does his duty”. I liked the last slogan best, but anything seems witty compared to the British government’s feeble “Cool Britannia” of the 1990s, so my standards are low. It was the ALP (Antigua Labor Party) versus the UPP (United Progressive Party) and I wanted the latter to win — I had visited both parties’ offices just outside St. John’s and only the UPP had given me a t-shirt. Antiguans are nice — it was simply that the ALP had none left to give.
To test my son’s level of courage, I booked us to visit Stingray City, from where a boat motored us twenty minutes offshore to shallow water where stingrays are trapped inside a large netted area. It is billed as environmentally-friendly and nice-to-rays, though this is circumspect since it is still an enclosed outdoor paddling pool, albeit a large one. My husband stayed with the baby, while Noah and I went off on the boat. It is a very professional organization and the staff are terrific. Two guides helped us off the boat into the water, and, once Noah had plucked up his courage to touch a ray, one of them dumped one of the slimy creatures into our outstretched arms while the other took an amazing photo. Guide 2 nipped out the picture so fast and Guide 1 snapped the shot so synchronously that the photo appears to reflect mother and son holding a ray independently. The truth is that the creature flipped its fin (leg? stomach? hard to tell) within a split-second of the photo op, and whizzed elsewhere in his restricted ocean of possibility. It was a marvelous experience and my best memory of the holiday. When we returned, Chris told me that the owner had had to go out for half-an-hour and asked Chris to man the fort (though there was no fort in this corner of the island, unusually, for Antigua). Bemused, Chris sold a few drinks and t-shirts and coughed up the proceeds to the relaxed owner when he returned from his errands.
I would try and give directions to Stingray City but the best I can do is say go to Satons or Long Bay and look really hard for the signs. Nothing is marked in Antigua, a common complaint of the tourist community. Once, I saw some workmen putting up a wooden placard and loudly yelled congratulations out of the car window. “You do realize, they were putting up a political poster, not a road sign?” my husband asked as we rounded the bend, finding my mistake hilarious.
If you don’t like stingrays, you can always go swimming with dolphins in Marina Bay instead through Dolphin Fantaseas. Either adventure will cost you forty bucks per adult (but at least for the stings, a four year old goes free mitigating the wallet pain). For those preferring more gentle watery experience, Darkwood Bay is generally agreed by islanders to be best for snorkelers and shell-gatherers. I spent an hour there in water and on land, but saw nary a fish nor remnant of a crustacean, just two confused Australians searching for the same.
Days passed with beach, pool, ice-cream, and fort. We had just about worked out how to navigate the whole island without a u-turn, but still with a map — we are not cartographic geniuses. Before we knew it, our week was up. When we got home, I proudly wore my t-shirt around town: “Maginley, Making Us Proud Again”. Three days later, the UPP won the election and, after twenty-eight years of continual ALP rule, Antigua suddenly had a new ruling party and new motto: Government in the Sunshine”. We must go back sometime and see if anything has changed. With that kind of slogan, at least I can guarantee the weather will still be nice.