Antiguans like to boast that they have 365 beaches -- one for each day of the year. And while no one is really counting to ensure the accuracy of this catchy marketing campaign, it's true that this squiggly-shaped island is full of beachy gems, each with their own unique appeal.
Antigua was first occupied by the peaceful Arawak Indians around 200 B.C. They stayed until the arrival of the Caribs, an Amazonian tribe, whose name was derived from the Spanish word "caribal," meaning "cannibal." Then, the island was known as Wadadli until 1492 when Columbus, who never actually made landfall, sailed by and named the island in honor of Maria de la Antigua, the saint he worshipped in Seville. Eventually the English gained control, and retained it until just 25 years ago when Antigua achieved independence.
The island was an important colonial base of the Royal Navy with English Harbor serving as its headquarters. The remains of its presence are still some of the most fascinating attractions to tourists -- a walk around historic Nelson's Dockyard and the grounds of Shirley Heights reveals remnants of a working Georgian harbor, old forts and officer's quarters, as well as a multitude of crumbling sugar mills from the days when sugar plantations ruled the island. In more recent years, English Harbor has become the capital of international yachting and sailing, whose activities are responsible for the surge in population during the winter months from 70,000 to 100,000. The season opens in December with the Antigua Yacht Show, and ends in May with Antigua Sailing Week, the largest annual regatta in the Caribbean.
Since gaining independence, Antigua has all but abandoned its agricultural heritage in favor of a tourist economy. Antigua can hold its own in the duty-free shopping category, but the real highlights of the island lie well beyond the port town. With 365 beaches to explore, it's best to check out at least a few of them during your trip. Antigua's sister island, Barbuda, is accessible by ferry for day-trippers. The ferry drops you in the middle of 14 miles of unspoiled pink shell beach, one that used to be a favorite of Princess Diana.
Weather in Antigua averages a pleasant 84 degrees year-round, but in the summer when the trade winds die down, it's a slightly less hospitable climate. Antiguans celebrate these slower summer months with the annual Carnivale at the end of July. The island is susceptible to hurricanes, although they have not had a direct hit for over 12 years.
Antigua Quick Facts
On Saturdays, check out the public marketplace at the junction of Market Street, Valley Road and All Saints Road. Local farmers fill the bins by 5:00 in the morning with fresh produce from Antigua and the surrounding islands. Ask for a "mamie fruit" or one of Antigua's small black pineapples. Next to the fruit market is the arts and crafts market with beaded and shell jewelry, leather sandals and other goods.
Take in a cricket match at the Antigua Recreation Ground in the heart of St. John's. Antigua's known for world-class cricket teams and will be one of the islands to host World Cup Cricket in 2007.
Historic Nelson's Dockyard, a natural "hurricane hole," once housed 17 of the Royal Navy's warships during colonial times. Architectural remnants of the Georgian dockyard and officer's housing rest side by side with some of the largest sailboats and yachts in the world.
From Nelson's Dockyard, hire a taxi to take you up the hill to Shirley Heights, the ruins of the former lookout fort of the Royal Navy. You can have lunch here while taking in the most spectacular vista in Antigua -- a panoramic view of English and Falmouth Harbors. Steel drum bands play on Thursdays and Sundays.
Best beach for Active Types: Dickenson Bay, just a five- to 10-minute taxi ride from the cruise ship dock. Water sport rentals and beach bars abound.
Best for Snorkeling: Half Moon Bay, a semi-circular bay of fine white sand, is a great destination for swimming and snorkeling, and is considered by many to be the most the beautiful beach on the island.
Best for Families: Deep Bay, just a quick five-minute ride from the dock, has water sport rentals, hair braiders for the kids and a restaurant on the beach.
Best for Surfing: Galley Bay Beach is the surfing hot spot on the island, with the bonus of being just down the hill from Chez Pascal restaurant.
Best for Walking: Darkwood Beach offers a long white stretch of beach on the western side of the island with fine sand and beautifully hued waters. There is also a beach bar and restaurant.
English is the main language on Antigua, although in some of the smaller villages around the island you'll find Spanish as well.
Taxis: Immediately outside Heritage Quay you'll find plenty of taxis for hire. Rates are set by the government, but it's better to negotiate a fare before leaving.
Rental Cars: Avis (268-462-2840), Hertz (268-462-4114), Dollar (268-462-0362) and Budget rental car companies are available in downtown St. John's.
Guided Tours: Island Safari (480-1225) offers half-day excursions to the more remote parts of the island with spectacular vistas and scenic stops along the way.
Where You're Docked
There is one main dock at the Heritage Quay in St. John's, the island's capital city. Shopping, restaurants, bank machines and local transportation are all within a few blocks of the Quay.
Staying in Touch
Stop by the Comnett Internet cafe (14 Redcliffe Street, Redcliffe Quay, second floor), $3 for each quarter-hour.
Fun for the Whole Family: Guided all-terrain vehicle tours go off-road, snaking past old cane roads and through old estates on dirt tracks where few people venture and enjoy the natural beauty of the island. Minimum age to participate is 16 years old with a valid driver's license.
Secluded Beach Getaway: Visit a secluded beach accessible only by private boat and experience being the captain of your own vessel. Steer your own mini-boat through a scenic tour of the Caribbean's secluded waters. Each boat holds two people. Minimum age for participation is 8 to ride, 18 to drive.
Get Fired Up! Helicopter to Montserrat Volcano: Take a 45-minute flight over to the island of Montserrat and fly over the "exclusion zone," an area deemed off-limits to habitation or ground transportation for the past eight years. At the center of the tour is the Soufriere Hills Volcano, rising to 3,000 feet above sea level, still active and frequently emitting a combination of ash, smoke and steam. The helicopter will also fly you over Plymouth, the former capital of Montserrat, which is now uninhabited and in some places buried under 40 feet of ash.
Casual In-Town Lunches: Right at the dock, the classic cruise ship stop is Big Banana-Pizzas on the Quay (Redcliffe Quay, all day) -- these pizzas rival a New York City thin-crust! Hemingway's (St. Mary's Street at Thames, open all day), on Heritage Quay, is known for its grilled fresh fish. George Restaurant (open for lunch and dinner till 10 p.m.) -- just three blocks from the cruise ship dock -- has daily specials featuring fresh fish prepared with Caribbean flair.
Gourmet Dining: Chez Pascal (Galley Bay Hill, 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m., 268-462-3232) offers classic -- but casual -- French cuisine. A gem in the middle of Antigua, the chef, Pascal, trained in Lyon, France, before opening his family-owned restaurant. (His wife, Florence, manages the dining room). The view from the restaurant is unbeatable in Antigua, and the French music wafting in the background transports you to the Mediterranean as you dine on escargots, sole meuniere, sea scallops on a bed of leeks, and Pascal's famous rack of lamb.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Antigua uses the Eastern Caribbean Dollar (E.C.), although most of the vendors in town will readily accept U.S. dollars. Current exchange rate is $2.70 E.C. $1 U.S. Bank machines are available across from Heritage Quay at ABIB Bank and Scotia Bank.
Immediately off the boat, you'll face two indoor/outdoor malls for duty-free shopping -- Heritage Quay and Redcliffe Quay -- as well as several stalls of local crafts and souvenirs. Within easy walking distance of the dock are several downtown landmarks including the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (which dates back to the mid-19th century).
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