Out of the Spotlight - Antigua & Barbuda - The Quiet Caribbean
Sun-lusting Northerner and EDGE contributor, Richard Frisbie, found that there is something wonderful about being in the Leeward isles of Antigua and Barbuda. Island life is so laid back, after a week there he decided he could get used to living in such a "Don't Worry - Be Happy" atmosphere.
If you're into a vacation that is all late nights and flashing lights you may want to look elsewhere in the Caribbean than Antigua and Barbuda. It's not that you won't find action here, but there is so much more to do than party. Besides, after all the swimming, sailing, hiking and snorkeling in the warm crystal-clear waters, you'll need your remaining energy to enjoy the local soca bands while sipping rum.
Getting Laid Back
On a recent trip to Antigua & Barbuda it took me exactly three days to lose my uptight, New England ways and "go native". I first noticed it the morning I went to breakfast in flip-flops. Up North I wouldn’t wear shower shoes out of the house, but here I was at St. James’s Club and Villas, hyphenated in flip-flops, cut-offs and a t-shirt with a "Don’t Worry - Be Happy" message across the stained front. (Not my fault! The previous evening I spent in a chaise on the beach drinking Rum & Coca Cola while a steel band played. Do you know how difficult it is to drink lying down?) Change my clothes? I though it was a big deal I’d shaved! Those clothes became my uniform for the rest of the trip, except when I was in a bathing suit, of course.
The beautiful waters surrounding Antigua are ripe for cruising. Catamarans, such as the motorized, "Excellence" and sailboats, such as "Ocean Nomad" offer day-long circumnavigation cruises of the island. They stop at secluded coves and some of the 365 beaches, "One for every day of the year" the guide said, for swimming and a barbecue. On Saturdays "Excellence" pilots its way to nearby Barbuda where a 17 mile pink sand beach beckons. Of the 3 hotels on the beach, one, Lighthouse, has only nine rooms (with private chef, $1500 per night.) Another is closed seasonally and the third has been closed for three years. It is so overgrown it is barely visible from the shore. A stop here offers a chance for exploration(beyond the No Trespassing signs) of the Caribbean island resort once favored by Princess Di. Offshore there are coral outcroppings to explore. With over 200 shipwrecks in the shallow waters around Barbuda, one must remember to bring diving and snorkeling gear. If you enjoy long walks on the beach and undersea exploration, you’ll love this day-trip! At $100-$140 each including lunch and drinks, I’d recommend both.
There are the all-inclusive resorts such as Sandals, which used to be just for couples but now allow singles so long as they pay doubles rates. (What?) Same sex couples are extremely rare here, so unless you’re seeking a very frustrating singles experience, or you are traveling in a larger party, you’ll stand out like a sore thumb. Better to try the Jolly Harbour area, (Galley Bay or Hawk’s Bill) or some of the hotels in St. John’s where you’ll be less conspicuous as a couple. Most are gay-friendly, although the general population can be somewhat homophobic. The Tradewinds Hotel, in Marble Hill, is frequently mentioned as the most friendly, especially their Bay House restaurant.
Traveling alone, I stayed at the 5-star luxury resort St. James Club and Villas. With tennis courts, four pools and a beautiful beach on both the bay side and the Atlantic, it is a gorgeous gay-friendly property. There are sailboats and kayaks for the asking, and three or four restaurants to suit every mood. I didn’t see another gay person there, but since there are many villas owned by such luminaries as Whitney Houston, Eric Clapton and top sports figures and politicians, there’s no telling who you’ll see, when.
Rain Forest Drive
As a New Yorker I can tell you that Antigua is the first place I’ve been where people drive on the wrong side of the road on purpose. It must be their old status as an English Colony. I anticipated an accident with every approaching car. It was most unnerving! If you don’t rent a car, you can have a taxi tour of the island’s sights. My driver knew all the history to make the three hour drive ($60) interesting. Fig Tree Drive is the scenic route through the island’s rain forest. For some reason banana trees are known as fig trees, so this drive has several banana tree plantations as well as a new zip line adventure ride that will have your head spinning as you zigzag down a jungle ravine. The drive connects to Old Road, logically named because it was the old road to the harbor. Stunning waterfront vistas, and the location of some fantastic beaches (especially Darkwood) and reefs for diving are along this stretch of shore before reaching Jolly Harbour.
Nelson’s Dockyard in beautiful English Harbour is a must for anyone visiting Antigua. You’ll find a deep, safe harbor operating as it has for 100’s of years, with modernized amenities housed in all the historic structures. Note the beautiful architecture. Many buildings are made from the bricks carried as ballast in the holds of ships arriving from England in the 18th century. There are shops, restaurants, even a quaint inn called the Copper and Lumber Store, all on the water’s edge. The harbor is especially lively during the yachting weeks of April when world-class sailing events such as the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta and the Stanford Antigua Sailing Week take place. Then the harbor becomes even more picturesque when accessorized with so many beautiful sailing vessels and the sailors who come with them.
Sugar & Rum History
Antigua’s history is all about sugar plantations and the rum, cod, slave triangle once connecting Africa, New England and the Caribbean. Having just visited the Italian island of Sardinia, which is famous for its 7000 stone Nuragic towers dating back to the Bronze age, I was startled to see similar structures dotting the Antiguan landscape. It seems that by the early 1700s most of Antigua was planted in sugarcane. The rock towers I saw are the remains of the 170 windmills used to crush the canes. Some are romantic ruins covered with the lush vegetation of the tropics, but one, Betty’s Hope, is restored to its functional beauty. A visit there and the attendant museum will explain Antigua’s colonial history as it chronicles daily plantation life.
Heaven in the Heights
Shirley Heights Lookout, an old defense embattlement on the ridge above English Harbour, is a place with arguably the most beautiful views of any eatery in the world. This is the place to congregate for their famous Sunday afternoon barbecue. The day I went it was clear and beautiful, with the sun slowly setting behind the low silhouette of Montserrat’s erupting volcano to the West. Far below, the lights of Nelson’s Dockyard blinked on as the last of the sunlight faded. Outside of the guardhouse on Shirley Heights the light from the barbecue stations spilled out from their open-sided huts, lighting the compound. Reggae music mixed with the rising smoke, mirroring the column of hot ash rising in the sunset. The pungent smells of hot sweat and smoke, and the aromas of grilling meats and fish mingled with the sounds of energetic playing from the steel band. Eat, drink and rub shoulders with the crowd.
Life is simple and sweet when you are close enough to heaven to embrace the stars. In Antigua I discovered that I really could get used to the laid-back life of the islands.
Antigua & Barbuda Tourism
St. James Club and Villas
Jeff Nathaniel - Jeff_bb_nate@hotmail.com