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Antigua : British by Design, Carribbean by Nature

Explore Antigua For the Perfect Caribbean Getaway

by Tom Wuckovich

I shielded my eyes against the radiant Caribbean sun deliberately inching its way toward the horizon on a sultry late afternoon in Antigua. My vantage point for this inspiring view was an antique fortress wall atop Shirley Heights, where I imagined that a British soldier might have occupied this same spot 300 years ago, eyeing not the sun, but the gaggle of French warships offshore intent on capturing this key Leeward Island. With the British already entrenched at Antigua and holding the prime military position on Shirley Heights, the French sailed down to Guadeloupe to regroup and plan their invasion strategy.

Just below the Heights is English Harbour, a deepwater harbor protected on three sides by rugged cliffs. Here, the ships of the Royal Navy massed, safely out of harm's way of an enemy more devastating than the French fleet-violent tropical storms. And providence, it seems, was on the side of the English. A vicious hurricane swept through the Caribbean, decimating most of the French armada at unprotected Guadeloupe and leaving Antigua and many of the other Caribbean islands safely in the hands of the Brits.

No doubt there was great jubilation at Shirley Heights upon learning of the French disaster in Guadeloupe, and provided good cause for celebration. And here I was centuries later, watching a party of a different sort, and likely more lively than the merriment exuded over the British military victory. The Lookout at Shirley Heights is a restaurant/bar, and on this Sunday in July-and every Sunday from 6-10 p.m.-locals and island visitors assemble for the Rum & Reggae Party that is a frenzied mix of music and swaying bodies while the rum flows freely. I would almost prefer facing the French fleet than driving down from these heights and sharing the narrow island roads with these revelers. But you're supposed to have fun on a Caribbean vacation, and you can find plenty of it in Antigua.

Antigua Nelson's Dockyard

Some of it is right there at English Harbour, where Nelson's Dockyard is located. Named after British naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson, the area has been painstakingly restored and houses boutique hotels, a museum, restaurants, bakery and a quaint shaded quay where local vendors sell handmade handicrafts, t-shirts and the like. There is a narrow pedestrian lane out to Fort Berkeley Point and another trail to Shirley Heights, but it's a formidable walk to that lofty spot, and a taxi is the preferred alternative. From atop Shirley Heights, named for the island's first Governor General, there are splendid views of English and Falmouth harbours, and on a clear, cloudless day, the islands of Montserrat and Guadeloupe can been seen to the south.

Nelson's Dockyard is also the scene of one of the world's foremost maritime events-Antigua Sailing Week. The annual yacht regatta draws more than 250 vessels to this island and spawns a week of racing and revelry unlike anywhere in the Caribbean. Sailing Week is without question the premier event in Antigua, but by no means is it the only attraction on this hilly limestone and coral island ringed by a jagged coastline that has created hidden coves, picturesque bays, inviting harbors and beaches-lots of beaches!

Antigua Beach

Antigua boasts that it has 365 beaches, one for every day of the year…unless you count Leap Year. All beaches are open to the public by law and much of the sand appears to have a pink tint. Along the developed northwest coast, Fort James, Deep Bay and Galley Bay are popular, with the latter two attracting surfers. For a more quiet and secluded outing, the southwest corner of the island offers Fryes Bay, Darkwood Beach (where locals congregate), Rendezvous Bay and Doigs Beach. If time permits, make your way to Devil's Bridge, a natural bridge at the head of Indian Creek, where spectacular blow holes and raging surf greet onlookers. Legend says that if you throw two eggs into the water to boil, the devil below will keep one and return the other.

Antigua had been a British Colony for more than 300 years before being granted self-rule in 1967 and independence in 1981. The island is proud of its British heritage and flaunts it at every opportunity. At Dow's Hill Centre near Shirley Heights, there is a multi-media presentation about the island's unique history that is extremely well done. A National Museum in St. John's, the busy capital, also offers exhibits on the geological history of Antigua.

Most of the vacation properties on the island have that laid back, genteel British reserve. Most notable is Curtain Bluff on the southern tip of Antigua. The bluff is a peninsula surrounded by a reef that protects the property's two inviting beaches. The 72 guest rooms and suites are roomy and well-appointed, with more than 40 of the older rooms redesigned into 40 junior suites. Curtain Bluff offers some of the finest dining in the Caribbean and meals are included in the price. In keeping with British tradition, afternoon tea is served on the Sugar Mill Restaurant's romantic terrace, along with complimentary hors d'oeuvres and English scones.

Jolly Good!