Antigua – Ideal Destination – Yesterday and Today
All the signs pointed towards Antigua! “The island had warm, steady winds, a complex coastline of safe harbors, and a protective, nearly unbroken wall of coral reef. It would make a perfect place to hide a fleet.” And so in 1784 the legendary Admiral Horatio Nelson sailed to Antigua and established Great Britain’s most important Caribbean base. Little did he know that over 200 years later the same unique characteristics that attracted the Royal Navy would transform Antigua, and Barbuda, in one of the Caribbean’s premier tourist destinations.
The signs are still there, they just point to different things. The trade winds that once blew British men-of-war safely into English Harbour now fuel one of the world’s foremost maritime events “Sailing Week”. The expansive, winding coastline that made Antigua difficult for outsiders to navigate is where today’s trekkers encounter a tremendous wealth of secluded, powdery soft beaches. The coral reefs, once the bane of marauding enemy ships, now attract snorkelers and scuba divers from all over the world. And the fascinating little island of Barbuda — once a scavenger’s paradise because so many ships wrecked on its reefs — is now home to one of the region’s most significant bird sanctuaries.
Antigua (pronounced An-tee’ga) and Barbuda are located in the middle of the Leeward Islands in the Eastern Caribbean, roughly 17 degrees north of the equator. To the south are the islands of Montserrat and Guadaloupe, and to the north and west are Nevis, St. Kitts, St. Barts, and St. Martin.
Antigua, the largest of the English-speaking Leeward Islands, is about 14 miles long and 11 miles wide, encompassing 108 square miles. Its highest point is Boggy Peak (1319 ft.), located in the southwestern corner of the island. Barbuda, a flat coral island with an area of only 68 square miles, lies approximately 30 miles due north. The nation also includes the tiny uninhabited island of Redonda(0.6 square mile), now a nature preserve. The current population for the nation is approximately 68,000 and its capital is St. John’s on Antigua.
Temperatures generally range from the mid-seventies in the winter to the mid-eighties in the summer. Annual rainfall averages only 45 inches, making it the sunniest of the Eastern Caribbean Islands, and the northeast trade winds are nearly constant, flagging only in September. Low humidity year-round.
It would be difficult to overestimate how the arrival of Sir Christopher Codrington,one fateful day in 1684, has impacted Antigua’s history. An enterprising man, Codrington had come to Antigua to find out if the island would support the sort of large-scale sugar cultivation that already flourished elsewhere in the Caribbean. His initial efforts proved to be quite successful, and over the next fifty years sugar cultivation on Antigua exploded. By the middle of the 18th century the island was dotted with more than 150 cane-processing windmills–each the focal point of a sizeable plantation. Today almost 100 of these picturesque stone towers remain, although they now serve as houses, bars, restaurants and shops. At Betty’s Hope, Codrington’s original sugar estate, visitors can see a fully-restored sugar mill.
Most Antiguans are of African lineage, descendants of slaves brought to the island centuries ago to labor in the sugarcane fields. However, Antigua’s history of habitation extends as far back as two and a half millenia before Christ. The first settlements, dating from about 2400 B.C., were those of the Siboney (an Arawak word meaning “stone-people”), peripatetic Meso-Indians whose beautifully crafted shell and stone tools have been found at dozens of sites around the island. Long after the Siboney had moved on, Antigua was settled by the pastoral, agricultural Arawaks (35-1100 A.D.), who were then displaced by the Caribs–an aggressive people who ranged all over the Caribbean. The earliest European contact with the island was made by Christopher Columbus during his second Caribbean voyage (1493), who sighted the island in passing and named it after Santa Maria la Antigua, the miracle-working saint of Seville. European settlement, however, didn’t occur for over a century, largely because of Antigua’s dearth of fresh water and abundance of determined Carib resistance. Finally, in 1632, a group of Englishmen from St. Kitts established a successful settlement, and in 1684, with Codrington’s arrival, the island entered the sugar era.
By the end of the eighteenth century Antigua had become an important strategic port as well as a valuable commercial colony. Known as the “gateway to the Caribbean,” it was situated in a position that offered control over the major sailing routes to and from the region’s rich island colonies. Most of the island’s historical sites, from its many ruined fortifications to the impeccably-restored architecture of English Harbourtown, are reminders of colonial efforts to ensure its safety from invasion.
Horatio Nelson arrived in 1784 at the head of the Squadron of the Leeward Islands to develop the British naval facilities at English Harbour and to enforce stringent commercial shipping laws. The first of these two tasks resulted in construction of Nelson’s Dockyard, one of Antigua’s finest physical assets; the second resulted in a rather hostile attitude toward the young captain. Nelson spent almost all of his time in the cramped quarters of his ship, declaring the island to be a “vile place” and a “dreadful hole.” Serving under Nelson at the time was the future King William,, for whom the altogether more pleasant accommodation of Clarence House was built.
It was during William’s reign, in 1834, that Britain abolished slavery in the empire. Alone among the British Caribbean colonies, Antigua instituted immediate full emancipation rather than a four-year ‘apprenticeship,’ or waiting period; today, Antigua’s Carnival festivities commemorate the earliest abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean.
Emancipation actually improved the island’s economy, but the sugar industry of the British islands was already beginning to wane. Until the development of tourism in the past few decades, Antiguans struggled for prosperity. The rise of a strong labour movement in the 1940s, under the leadership of V.C. Bird, provided the impetus for independence. In 1967, with Barbuda and the tiny island of Redonda as dependencies, Antigua became an associated state of the Commonwealth, and in 1981 it achieved full independent status. V.C. Bird is now deceased; his son, Lester B. Bird, was elected to succeed him as prime minister.
This rambling array of gun emplacements and military buildings is best known today for the absolutely breathtaking prospect that it offers. From the Heights one can look far out over English Harbour, and on Sunday afternoons the view is accompanied by barbecue, rum punch, and the plangent strains of steel band and reggae music. The site is named for General Shirley, Governor of the Leeward Islands when the area was fortified in the late eighteenth century. Close by is the cemetery, in which stands an obelisk erected in honour of the soldiers of the 54th regiment.
Sea View Farm Village
Antiguan folk pottery dates back at least to the early 18th century, when slaves fashioned cooking vessels from local clay. Today, folk pottery is fashioned in a number of places around Antigua, but the center of this cottage industry is Sea View Farm Village. The clay is collected from pits located nearby, and the wares are fired in an open fire under layers of green grass in the yards of the potters’ houses. Folk pottery can be purchased at outlets in the village as well as at a number of stores around the island. Buyers should be aware that Antiguan folk pottery breaks rather easily in cold environments.
Harmony Hall Art Gallery
Harmony Hall, in Brown’s Bay at Nonsuch Bay, is the center of the Antiguan arts community. Exhibits change throughout the year, but the annual highlights are the Antigua Artist’s Exhibition and the Craft Fair, both in November. The sugar mill tower around which Harmony Hall is built has been converted to a bar and provides its patrons with one of the island’s best panoramic views, including a fine prospect of Nonsuch Bay.
Museum of Antigua and Barbuda
This charming museum tells the story of Antigua and Barbuda from its geological birth through the present day. A cool oasis in the middle of St. John’s, the museum contains a wide variety of fascinating objects and exhibits, ranging from a life-size replica of an Arawak dwelling to the bat of Viv Richards, one of the greatest cricket players of all time. Visit their website at: www.antiguamuseums.org
Betty’s Hope Sugar Plantation
Betty’s Hope was the first large sugar plantation on Antigua, and its success led to the island’s rapid development of large-scale sugar production. Although the only surviving structures are two stone sugar mills and the remains of the stillhouse, the site’s importance in Antiguan history has prompted the government to begin developing it as an open air museum. About a hundred stone windmill towers dot the Antiguan landscape, and the two restored examples at Betty’s Hope provide a dramatic sense of the way these mills must have dominated the island during the hundreds of years that sugar production was the dominant industry. Betty’s Hope was built by Sir Christopher Codrington, who came to Antigua in 1674 from Barbados, and was named for his daughter.
Indian Town National Park
Indian Town Point, on the eastern extremity of the island, is thought to have been an Arawak campsite prior to the arrival of European colonists. Devil’s Bridge, a large, natural limestone arch on the shoreline of Indian Town Point, offers one of the most spectacular sights on the island. At high tide, the rougher waves of the Atlantic force enormous geysers of water through boreholes in the rocks near the bridge. Guided tours of the site are available.
Built in the first half of the 18th century, this picturesque bastion was intended to guard the harbour of St. John’s. The walls remain in excellent condition, and a few of the cannons are still intact – but the main attraction today is the excellent view of the surrounding harbour. Nearby is Heritage Quay, which comprises a hotel, four duty-free shops, restaurants and a casino, all part of the newest development in downtown St John’s.
Fig Tree Drive
Antigua’s most picturesque drive meanders from the low central plain of the island up into the ancient volcanic hills of the Parish of Saint Mary in the island’s southwest quarter. The none-too-smooth road passes through an area of lush vegetation and rainforest and rises to the steep farmlands around Fig Tree Hill (figs are what Antiguans call bananas) before descending to the coastline again. Along the way are banana, mango, and coconut groves, as well as a number of old sugar mills and pleasant little churches.
Although St. John’s has long been Antigua’s capital city, the island’s historic heart is across the island at English Harbour. One of the finest natural harbours in the Caribbean, and located at a highly strategic position, English Harbour was used by Admirals Nelson, Rodney and Hood as a secure home for the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars. Today, Nelson’s Dockyard forms part of a designated national park, complete with a museum. shops, hotels, restaurants and a yacht haven. The park embraces the whole of English Harbour and Shirley Heights.
Green Castle Hill
The ‘megaliths’ that initially drew curious visitors to Green Castle Hill are almost certainly geologic features, but they are no less impressive and picturesque for being natural features. Green Castle Hill also provides an excellent view of the island’s interior, including both the southwestern volcanic mass (of which it is a part) and the interior plain. (due south of St. John’s, btw. Jennings and Emanuel).
There are 365 beaches on Antigua, one for each day of the year. The great majority rest inside the calm, protected waters of the island’s Caribbean side. All are open to the public, and so the challenge posed to a visitor is not how to gain access to the best of them but simply how to locate the beach that suits one’s taste. Exploring on your own is the best way to do this, although it is wise to bring a companion along to particularly isolated locations. Antiguans are understandably reluctant to divulge their own favorites, so here are a number of good starters. Be sure to acquire specific directions before you go.
Dickenson Bay and Runaway Bay, located along the island’s developed northwestern coast, are the place to go for those who want the fully-loaded resort beach experience. The beaches most convenient to St. John’s are Fort James, a locally-popular public beach, and Deep Bay. Galley Bay attracts surfers during the winter months and a joggers during the evening. The series of four crescent beaches at Hawksbill are also highly regarded, one of which is nudist.
Southwest and South Coast
The beaches of the hilly southwest corner of Antigua are generally less developed than those around St. John’s further north. On the road that winds along this coast are Fryes Bay, Darkwood Beach, and the beaches around Johnsons Point. Rendezvous Bay and especially Doigs Beach, both located on the central southern coast at Rendezvous Bay, are especially quiet beaches worth the rough travel necessary to reach them. Pigeon Point, near English Harbour Town, is a convenient balm after a day at Nelson’s Dockyard.
On the southeast corner of the island is Half Moon Bay, now a National Park and a good choice for a family outing. Long Bay, on the easternmost point of the island, is another good choice for families, as it is completely protected by its reef.
Barbuda’s smooth coastline is edged with long pink and white sand beaches protected by barrier reefs. In fact, the pristine pink beaches of the southwestern shore stretch as far as ten miles without interruption. The beaches of the island’s eastern shore, facing the Atlantic, are somewhat rougher, although they are outstanding for beachcombing.