Shimmering seas, swathes of white sand and boats: this is Antigua to the uninitiated. But spend some time here and you'll find more than just that. It has pristine sections of forest, several preserved historical sites and its cultural diversity comes thanks to its proximity to the other Caribbean Islands and the international yachting community who sale around the Caribbean islands and moor their gleaming vessels in English Harbour and Falmouth Harbour at Antigua’s southern tip.
The well-maintained road network allows you to drive around the main attractions in a (long) day but that’s not the point of the Caribbean – you should settle into Antigua time, a relaxed approach to life where hot-headed time keepers are frowned upon. Of course, the laid-back attitude belies extreme wealth: you only need to take a walk around the harbours to witness perma-tanned yachties polishing their million-pound boats and upper-class holiday makers touring the sites to gain an understanding of the clientele the island attracts. And let’s not forget celebrity endorsement: both Oprah Winfrey and Eric Clapton own properties here, with Clapton also the proprietor of a rather grand rehabilitation centre. Antigua’s southern coastline attracts most visitors – its calm waters are away from the airport and the busy capital of St John’s, which is popular with cruise ships but well worth a visit.
Know before you go
- Hurricanes are a genuine threat during June-November. During this time, boats are moved from the harbour and many tourist sites close. A more reliable time to visit is from early December to mid April, when temperatures average around 25 degrees (and often rise to 30 degrees) and rainfall is minimal
- The official currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar but many shops and hotels accept US dollars, too
Where to stay
Steer clear of the all-inclusive package resorts and instead head to The Inn on Galleon Beach at English Harbour. It’s well known with the Caribbean holiday set due to its flawless standards and prime location which, thanks to a captained courtesy boat and local taxis, allows you to easily explore neighbouring Falmouth Harbour, snorkelling sites and Shirley Heights.
The hotel perches on a hill and guests are welcomed by expansive harbour views and a dining room and bar, before manicured paths lead down to garden and beach-side rooms and facilities. The grounds are large so despite the library, spa, organic garden, restaurant, pool and suites, The Inn rarely feels busy. There's no fighting for loungers - far from it, it's a civilised affair with staff on-hand to provide towels, sun lounge covers and complimentary water. Each day at 11am, guests are served tropical fruit and you’ll regularly see lithe staff members scaling coconut trees to retrieve the ripe fruits and crack them open for drinks.
The Inn's large swimming pool
A suite at The Inn, Antigua
The majority of rooms are housed in beautifully-maintained colonial-style buildings, which overlook a neat lawn and the swimming pool. The large, airy rooms have mahogany floors, four poster beds (in the deluxe rooms), white drapery and balconies to laze on. If you prefer to step out directly onto the beach, the beach cabana rooms are for you (and our favourite). There are only six of these, each a white-painted room, with a small bathroom and a terrace. They have a mini bar, tea making facilities and a TV but you won’t use them – not when you can take a few steps out your patio doors and climb into a hammock. They are also well-placed for breakfast, which is served in the beach restaurant, and the beach facilities, which include kayaking, paddle boarding and boat excursions.
Cabana rooms at The Inn lead directly onto Galleon Beach
Lounge by the pool at The Inn
It’s worth packing your glad rags for a stay at The Inn – dinner is a classy affair, usually served at the main house, overlooking the harbour, and occasionally down on the beach when a BBQ and steel band are put on for guests.
The dining room at The Inn, overlooking English Harbour
Food and drink
National dish fungie is made from cornmeal – it has a consistence to polenta – and is served with salted cod and vegetables. Plantain, aubergine and yams are regular staples. As with the rest of the Caribbean, seafood is popular with lots of crab, lobster and conch caught locally. You’ll find recognisable international alcohol brands, alongside island-brewed beer Wadadli beer and lethal rum based cocktails (Appleton is made on neighbouring Jamaica).
Rock hine fish dish, Caribbean style, served in St John’s
You will find great street food here – take a drive at lunch or dinner time and you’ll spy steel drums filled with hot coals and table and chairs set up on the road side. Established restaurants to look visit: Grace Before Meals at English Harbour serves wonderful roti; Papa Zouk’s Creole dishes are a highlight of St John’s (as is the well-stocked rum bar); and Harmony Hall in Nonsuch Bay serves up Italian and Carribean dishes overlooking a beautiful tropical view.
Things to see and do
For historical context, pay a visit to Falmouth Harbour’s former Royal Naval dockyard, now called Nelson’s Dockyard, in honour of the British admiral who lived there in the 18th century. The Georgian structures have been restored and there’s a museum filled with artifacts explaining the history of the area. There’s also a small bakery, café and – depending on when you visit – harbour-side bars.
Antigua's historical Nelsons Dockyard
Antigua’s snaking coastline is best viewed from up high. Best spots: Shirley Heights, a former military base, has a bar and restaurant and on some nights, a steel band playing. The terrace looks out over English Harbour, Falmouth Harbour and down towards the Pillars of Hercules, although you’ll need a boat tour to see the limestone formation. Boggy Peak – renamed Obama Peak – is 402 metres high and reached by the often-muddy, always steep Fig Tree Drive. It’s a dramatic journey, taking you through dense forest and high above the island for expansive views.
The view from Shirley Heights
While visiting Obama Peak, you could have a go at zip lining, too. Antigua Rainforest Zip Line Tours offer 13 zip lines, with the highest reaching 300ft high and 325ft wide. Various companies on the island offer ATV tours, allowing you to explore off-road aboard a quad bike and if you want an aerial view of the island, Caribbean Helicopters will take you over the island or the Montserrat volcano.
Antigua is famed for sailing – every spring it hosts Sailing Week, where racing and cruising yachts take part in a 52 nautical mile race around Antigua. If you want to take to the waters, Wadadli Cats offers three cruises on one of its 55ft catamarans: a general island tour, with lunch at secluded Green Island; a snorkelling trip to the reef and sailing to the tiny and beautiful Bird Island.
Best snorkelling sites
- Half Moon Bay, east of English Harbour, has one of the most beautiful stretches of sand in Antigua. Coral, urchins and fish are plenty here
- Darkwood Beach, near Jolly Harbour, is another top spot, especially when the cruise ships aren’t docked
- Prickly Pear island, off the north coast, is a great spot, with well-kept coral gardens and a relaxed bar and restaurant on the beach
There's one airport, VC Bird International Airport, which is undergoing an upgrade with completion set for April 2014, although that is likely to be extended. Taxis, shuttles and hire cars can meet you at the airport. Since the island is small, you could easily stay in 2-3 hotels in a two-week holiday but we'd suggest sticking to one and making use of taxis and boats to explore the island.
ITC Luxury Travel has prices from £1,769 per person based on 2 adults sharing a Beach Cabana Room for 7 nights on a half board basis and return economy class flights with British Airways from London Gatwick and private transfers. (Saving of up to £390 per person.)