Of all the wonders the Caribbean has to offer there is perhaps no island so green and pleasant as unspoilt, tranquil Antigua. Bay’s Nick Smith packs his notebooks and cameras and heads to this little-known jewel in the Caribbean crown…
As the sun sets over the Caribbean Sea, the island of Montserrat in the distance, a man mooring up his yacht for the night in Carlisle Bay, my guide tells me why they call it Antigua. “It’s like your word ‘antique’,” says the fabulously named Eric Limerick, local legend, friend of the great West Indian cricket stars of yesteryear and font of all knowledge when it comes to things Caribbean. “Only it’s Spanish. Christopher Columbus named our island Antigua after La Virgen de la Antigua,” which it turns out, is a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Old Cathedral of Seville in Southern Spain. The explorer had a habit of naming places (that already had perfectly good names) after the Mother of God. Montserrat, slowly disappearing in the western nightfall, was once called Santa Maria de Montserrat after a statue of the Madonna and Child in a monastery perched on a mountain near Barcelona.
Although Antigua is a place of coconut palms, cricket pitches and sugar plantations, it is also a place steeped in history. Earlier that day Eric had escorted me around the elegant hurricane-battered ruins of Clarence House, built in 1804 for the Navy Commissioner, designed to impress visiting admirals, captains and royally appointed governors on their tours of duty. The rich and the famous, Eric tells me, as we stand in the garden where Princess Margaret held picnic teas on her honeymoon, have always loved it here. At the foot of the headland a few hundred feet below me, there’s the sleepy historical marina of Nelson’s Dockyard. Eric proudly brings me up to speed on the history of this tiny speck of volcanic rock tucked away in the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands. The threads of his tale weave themselves into an intricate fabric of colonial history, slavery and independence, sugar plantations with their cane-processing windmills and rum distilleries. There is the restored naval architecture from the days when Horatio Nelson was posted here as part of the British endeavour to safeguard foreign trade. There are verdant national parks teeming with exquisite tropical birds. And there are Antigua’s famous sons. As he steers me around the island, Eric shows me where cricketing legend Sir Vivian Richards used to live in the island’s capital city of St John’s. We get out of the car and he introduces me to an old lady, who turns out to be the great batsman’s mother. I tell her that I once saw her son playing for Somerset at St Helen’s Rugby and Cricket Ground in Swansea, all the way across the Atlantic.“That’s nice, dear,” she reassures me. I take a few photos of the bust of Sir Viv at the end of her road. A man comes up and for reasons I still don’t understand, gives me a head massage with an aloe vera plant he’s cut from nearby gardens. For the privilege I give the man five dollars US, but only if he’ll let me come back to photograph him. “Over there, on that headland,” says Eric as we drive away, pointing to a spur of land jutting into the turquoise sea, “is where my namesake Eric Clapton lives.”
Antigua is probably the most beautiful of all the Caribbean islands. Unlike so many of its neighbours, it is totally unspoilt, a stunning blend of emerald rainforest perched on vertiginous mountainsides rolling down to pale yellow coral beaches. “There are 365 beaches on Antigua,” says Eric with a note of local pride, “one for every day of the year.” They are all beautiful, he tells me. And for the people of Antigua, it’s important that they are all public. Anyone can visit any of them whenever they want. But inevitably some are more private than others. It would take a serious amount of rest and relaxation to check out Eric’s claim in any detail. But you just know that Carlisle Bay is up there with the best of them. A perfect semi-circle, protected by two dramatic headlands, the water is calm, clear and warm. At the Carlisle Bay resort where I was based for the duration, as I looked from my balcony through the coconut palms, a few sleek white yachts were at anchor while a fisherman hauled in his net with the day’s catch. A few guests were doing a spot of yoga on the wooden jetty, as the lagoon started to come to life with the calls of the island’s boisterously loud birdlife. This is where I spotted a pair of lazy pelicans. As I sipped a dawn coffee on my balcony I saw them gliding low over the mirror sea, occasionally wheeling up into the salty air before tucking in their wings and diving with perpendicular grace and precision, shortly to emerge with long silver fish in their elongated spoon-shaped bills.
Luckily, I wasn’t in the Caribbean to photograph birds otherwise I’d have been in real trouble because I am a terrible bird photographer. But the temptation to have a crack at them was overwhelming and so I bolted the longest lens I had onto the instrument and padded out barefoot to a convenient wooden jetty that got me nicely within range of my feathered friends. I made myself comfortable and waited. Now, I know that as grown-ups we’re not supposed to anthropomorphise members of the animal kingdom (although I do fervently believe that the only evolutionary purpose of penguins is to be photographed), but it was almost as if these pelicans knew I was watching them fishing. Unhurried, they sedately drifted out of meaningful range of my lens, flapped about a bit and then settled on the prow of what looked like a very expensive speed boat. That’s all right I thought. I’m a patient man. I’ll wait. And that is how I spent the next four mornings of my life: watching pelicans refusing to do anything photographable, boringly preening themselves in shaggy profile.
The resort at Carlisle Bay is the new way of doing things in Antigua. Brainchild of legendary hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray, it perfectly blends the two most crucial ingredients of the Caribbean bolthole experience. On the one hand you have the pristine isolation of Robinson Crusoe’s desert island, while on the other there is the hotel’s understated beach chic, where fine wine and an extraordinarily diverse menu bring a startling freshness to the old clichés of West Indian cuisine. Seen from out in the bay the overall effect is that of a classic sugar plantation mansion while, experienced from within it is all open plan, beach-facing, sandy and muted pastels. I spent my evenings in Coconut Grove, where beach meets bar. As you tuck into another discretely delivered cocktail beneath the stars, you listen to the palm leaves gently rattling in the evening breeze and the endless chirping of tree frogs in the lagoon.
To get a sense of what Antigua is really all about you’ll need to go exploring. It’s a bit of a wrench leaving Carlisle Bay because there’s always that slight feeling of holiday guilt that you should be spending more time lying in the sun. After all, it is one of the best chill-out, sunbathe and catch-up-on-your reading beaches you’re ever going to encounter. Then there is the windsurfing, snorkelling, tennis, yoga and all the other activities you can indulge in without ever setting foot outside the resort’s front gates. But there comes a time when it’s good to drive through the mango and banana plantations, park up at the trailhead and hike up into the mountains. Close to Carlisle Bay is Signal Hill, its name yet another reminder of the Caribbean’s naval history. From the island’s second highest peak you can see three-quarters of Antigua like a map spread before you. There are the towns of All Saints and St John’s, the rainforest, lagoons and cricket fields.
And of course, the famous harbours. Back in the late 1700s, Nelson’s Dockyard on the south-eastern tip of Antigua was – as its name suggests – a British port of key strategic importance. Concealed behind the menacing 18th century fortifications that protect the patriotically named English Harbour, the dockyard was a safe haven for British naval vessels to refit and resupply before making its anti-piracy patrols of the local waters, or the hazardous Atlantic crossing back to Blighty. In those days the Caribbean was the gateway to the New World and those who controlled it could reap the benefits of the vast wealth generated by the sugar plantations that grew in the fertile volcanic soil of the archipelago that stretches from North to South America. Sugar was a hugely valuable commodity, and as the newly founded United States of America broke away from the British Empire, Antigua became its last stronghold for protecting international trade. Apart from military threats, there was the ever-present danger of piracy and privateering. Britain needed somewhere safe to regather its naval strength, and with its deep harbours and dominant headlands, English Harbour was of key strategic value. Naval command seized the opportunity with both hands.
The dockyard is named after the legendary admiral Horatio Nelson, while the military lookout that was the early warning system for English Harbour was named after Sir Thomas Shirley, Governor of the Leeward Islands, who strengthened Antigua’s defences in 1781. But it was by no means plain sailing for the British, as nearly half the men who served on Antigua died of malaria, yellow fever or dysentery. Nelson himself avoided these diseases by refusing to sleep ashore as he mobilised his fleet to protect British interests in the region. But by the end of the 19th century the West Indies had lost its economic importance and the British left the dockyard to fall into disrepair. Local fishermen moved in to take advantage of a marina that provided them with protection not from the ravages of piracy, but the devastating Caribbean hurricanes. And it is here, after a hot sticky hike where it came as something of a refreshing contrast to take a short drive to board a yacht and sail north, retracing our steps with the hazy indigo silhouette of Montserrat in the distance. We sail from English Harbour up towards Carlisle Bay, followed by boobies, frigates and gannets, taking in the colour. There’s the deep inky blue of the ocean set against the Caribbean sky, and the lush olive green tones of volcanic peaks rising from the ocean. From on deck, Antigua is pristine, wild and beautiful.
The famous Sailing Week takes place at the end of April. But whatever time of year you go to Antigua it is absolutely crucial that your stay includes at least one Sunday evening. This is because no visit is complete without going to the weekly party at Shirley Heights, an old naval lookout with spectacular views over the Falmouth and English Harbours. Making your way to Shirley Heights involves being part of a seemingly end-less procession of taxis frantically struggling up to the observation point before sunset. But when you get there you’ll see why this is all part of the fun. Everyone goes to Shirley Heights and it is without doubt one of the great places for a sundowner – not just in the Caribbean, but anywhere. As the sun dips below the horizon a steel pan orchestra serves up a riotous mixture of calypso, Abba and even a bit of Mozart. Pan music – played on converted oil drums – is the sound of Antigua. Everyone loves to hear its percussive honky-tonk-piano-like tones and thunderous beat. As the coconut rum punch starts to flow, and with the serious business of the sunset out of the way, the party swings into action and no one goes home early.