Exploring Antigua, West Indies - My Family Travels

This tropical island near St. John beckons with wonderful weather, unusual sights, great beaches and interesting history.

Legendary Admiral Horatio Nelson claimed Britain’s most important Caribbean base when he sailed into Antigua in 1784, to conquer the prized coastline that had taunted and lured the French, Spanish, and English for centuries. Over 200 years later, the island’s cool trade winds, pristine beaches, coral reefs and endless sunshine still transform Antigua, the main island of the small nation of Antigua & Barbuda, into one of the Caribbean’s most alluring family destinations.

From villages with colorfully painted houses, historic churches, sugar mills and forts, there’s much to squeeze in between sun tanning, swimming and sailing. Just decide how you want to enjoy your time and Antigua will take care of the rest.

Part of what makes Antigua unique is the scalloped shoreline that is gently caressed on the leeward side by the Caribbean, providing shallow, calm waters and safe, secluded beaches. These areas are an iridescent water wonderland of undersea activity for scuba diving, offering 500 different dive sites with coral canyons, sea caves, shipwrecks and wall drops.

Out of the water there are many varied sports available for participants or spectators including golf, tennis, horseback riding, squash, netball, basketball, cycling, soccer, yoga, and kite flying. For the hiker or casual walker, there are scores of trails that make navigating through unbelievably picturesque and remote parts of Antigua a very pleasant experience. Always make sure to go in groups or with a knowledgeable guide.

Sights to Enjoy

Everyone can experience the lifestyle of a sophisticated and charming Caribbean island by strolling around Antigua’s capital city of St. John’s. Heritage Quay, set in the middle of downtown, is a modern complex of boulevards, duty free and chic luxury shops. Here you will also find street vendors selling the island’s bananas, mangos, guava, coconut, breadfruit, spices and vanilla beans. Historic buildings and traditional architecture further add delight to this urban gem. The neighboring Redcliffe Quay, a complex of beautifully restored warehouse buildings that now serve as boutiques and restaurants, is certainly worth a visit.

Built in 1674 by British sugar planter Sir Christopher Codrington, Betty’s Hope Estate (269/462-1469) is the first full-scale sugar plantation on Antigua. For more than 300 years, this prominent plantation has played a leading role in, and influenced the lives of, many generations of Antiguans. Its unique twin mills sit amid gently rolling countryside. The north mill has been restored to become the only working historic sugar mill in the Caribbean, and it remains one of the most beautiful attractions on the island.

Set at the head of Indian Creek in Indian Town is the natural limestone Devil’s Bridge. Along this very rugged part of Antigua’s coastline, the waves crashing into the rocks make a spectacular sight. Several blowholes carved into the volcanic rock and spouting surf create the most dramatic and picturesque explosions of spume and foam found anywhere.

Along the scenic southwest Caribbean coast to Old Road, Fig Tree Drive climbs up and down hillsides and inland roughly to the center of the island. This is a very worthwhile and picturesque drive through the lush vegetation of the rain forest bursting with mango guava, orange, coconut and banana trees (fig is the Antiguan name for banana).

Famous for its striking natural beauty, English Harbour is one of the world’s top yachting destinations as well as one of the finest natural harbors in the Caribbean. It is well known as the home to the Antigua Classic Regatta and the Antigua Sailing Week, both renowned throughout the world’s yachting community. Many tours including circumnavigation of the island by catamaran are offered by Elvis George & Son Tours (268/461-5660).


Don’t Miss Nelson’s Dockyard National Park

Nelson’s Dockyard (268/460-1379) in English Harbour is Antigua’s most prized historic possession, a treat for the whole family, and not to be missed. It is not only a great monument to the past, but is now a lively focus of activity. The Admiral’s House is furnished in the style of the period and used as a nautical museum, and several other buildings stand as a memorial to Admiral Horatio Nelson who made it his base in the 1780s.

In 1889, when the ships became too big to negotiate the landlocked harbor, the dockyard went into decline and was abandoned. Now restored, it looks much as it did in Nelson’s day with many fascinating facts and history detailed on mounted showboards.

Nelson’s Dockyard National Park offers five easily walked trails, each up to 1½-miles-long in the hills around Nelson’s Dockyard. Set in the National Park, the trails go through wooded valleys, across hilltops, past old fortifications and stunning vistas that are seldom seen by visitors and few Antiguans. To find these trails, start at the entrance to the Dockyard or the Museum and pick up a copy of “A Guide to the Hiking Trails in the National Park.” It will explain where the trailheads start and what you can expect to see along each path.

Built among the ruins in the Nelson’s Dockyard National Park, the Dow’s Hill Interpretation Centre provides an historic overview of Antigua’s past. “Reflections of the Sun,” a multimedia presentation, is a journey through the dreamy corridors of six periods of the island’s history.

After visiting the Dockyard, ramble around the extensive fortifications, barracks and powder magazines of Shirley Heights. At the top of the Heights is a lookout where you can contemplate the magnificent panoramic view of the whole area. The all-inclusive US $5.00 per person entrance fee includes access to Shirley Heights, Dow’s Hill Historical Centre and all of Nelson’s Dockyard.

A Day Trip to Barbuda

A ferry or catamaran from Antigua will transport you in a little over an hour to this land of unparalleled beauty. To get there, take the Antigua-Barbuda Ferry Service (268/560-7989) that runs five days a week between St. Johns and Barbuda. Additionally, the Excellence, an 82-foot catamaran run by Tropical Adventures (268/480-1225) is available for sea tours, island safari and kayaking on a limited basis and reservations are required.

There’s much to see on Barbuda, a flat coral island fringed by acres of coral reefs that teem with hundreds of varieties of marine life. It’s a nirvana for divers with some of the best-preserved wrecks found anywhere.

The Frigate Bird Sanctuary (268/462-0480), the only one in the Caribbean, is reached by crossing the Codrington Lagoon into dense mangroves where you can observe these magnificent huge creatures, less than 20 feet from their nest. Other avian species here include the West Indian Whistling Duck, the Brown Pelican, warblers, herons, kingfishers, tropical mocking birds, oyster-catchers and cormorants. Barbuda is also home to turtles, white-tailed deer, fallow-deer, wild boar, donkeys and red-footed tortoises.

History enthusiasts will enjoy Martello Tower, a large cut-stone fortification that once served as Barbuda’s lookout, signal station and main defense during the early 1800s.

Details, Details

The impressive VC Bird International Airport in the north of the island, is just under four miles from St. John’s and is serviced by American Airlines, Continental Airlines, US Air and Air Canada. It’s also a vital hub for some of Antigua’s smaller neighbors, including St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Maarten, Anguilla, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Dominica.

The Copper and Lumber Store Hotel (268/460-1160), a unique hotel of the 18th-century, is situated within the walls of the historic Nelson’s Dockyard at English Harbour, 14 miles from Bird International Airport and 12 miles from St. John’s. It’s family-friendly with studios and suites, all with kitchens.

St. James Club & Villas (800/858-4618) has accommodations ranging from club rooms to premium beachfront and bay suites to villas. A wealth of sporting and dining options are at your disposal here. The Kids Club has a covered terrace for kids dining, toy storage and air-conditioned playrooms for indoor evening activities.

The all-inclusive Jolly Beach Resort (866/905-6559) offers standard rooms, suites, and family cottages starting at moderate rates. Their all-inclusive rate includes meals and snacks, beach access, tennis, basketball, watersports, and daily and nightly activities. There’s also a Jolly Kidz Club featuring garden walks, lizard hunts, movies, games, sports, and story time for children 3 to 12-years old.

One of the best ways to know Antigua is to rent a car or take a private tour for a drive completely around it, stopping at historical sites, taking photos, and talking to the Antiguans, for an experience that will long be remembered and treasured. Keep in mind driving is on the left side of the street. For self-drive, a wide range of vehicles from cars and jeeps to mini vans are available at Titi Rent-A-Car in Falmouth Harbour. Vehicles can be delivered or collected from the airport or from your hotel or villa at no extra cost. For information, rates and reservation requests, call them at 268/460-1452.

For family tours, Lawrence of Antigua (268) 464-4428) caters to all ages with specially designed tours of the island’s most enjoyable and interesting sites. They will also arrange stops at any one of Antigua’s 365 beaches. Jackson Taxi & Tours (268/460-3612) also offers scenic experiences of their beautiful island.

Photos by Mel Greenberg

For detailed information on other housing options, day trips and brochures, visit the Antigua & Barbuda Tourist Office at: www.antigua-barbuda.org. And for more touring ideas, take a look at this video about Antigua.