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What must life have been like back in 1739. That was the year the foundation stones were laid for Fort James on the northern entrance to St. John's Harbour. Upon completion of the fort, it became customary for every vessel passing to pay a fee of 18 shillings to the captain of the fort or risk a shot being fired across its bow! With 10 cannons capable of firing 24 lb balls for over a mile on the ramparts, as you can imagine, ships generally paid the fee. Today, Fort James still sports its signature cannons pointing menacingly out into the harbour. Most of the other structures within the fort though, have crumbled. In their place, at least on the north side of the fort, is a quaint restaurant: Russels. There you can cap off your trip back in time with "old-fashioned rum punches", fresh fish, peas and rice, and other traditional fare... Something like they must have eaten back in 1739.
You see it while dodging massive potholes on the dirt road just a bit past the entrance to Coconut Beach Club; looming atop Goat Hill. Fort Barrington was one of the first lines of defense for St. John's reporting ship movements to nearby Rat Island via flag and light signals. While just a lookout station, being on the front lines wasn't easy. Fort Barrington likely saw the most action of any fort on Antigua, being captured and liberated from the French going back as far as 1652. The fort as it stands today was built in 1779 and is one of the best ruins to explore. Not only does its position atop Goat Hill provide a short but invigorating climb, there are also several rooms to explore, and the view from the top is unmatched for its sea view — blue stretches for miles.
English Harbour is one of Antigua's crown jewels, so it should be no surprise that Fort Berkeley was erected to protect this excellent protected bay. Placed on the peninsula on the western entrance, this fort has been enforcing entry to the anchorage for nearly 300 years. Today, the fort is mostly ruins, but it still supplies visitors with stunning views of the harbor. From Nelson's Dockyard it's a fairly short 10-minute stroll to the ramparts and well worth the walk. From here you can see the dockyard's waterfront, every boat that enters the bay, and beautiful Galleon Beach on the opposite shore.
Blue Waters is luxury and elegance made manifest and placed with love amid 17 acres of lush Caribbean gardens in the northwestern corner of Antigua. What could you hope for from a resort like Blue Waters? Spacious, well-appointed bedrooms? Of course. Romantic cliffside dining that supplies stunning views of Caribbean sunsets? A soothing, bougainvillea-wrapped spa stocked with Elemis products—the leading British luxury skincare brand? How about not one, not two, but three secluded beaches at your disposal? Or maybe you'd prefer an immaculate infinity pool that juts practically right out into the Caribbean Sea? If you've dreamed it, Blue Waters likely has it... Or better.
You run across a lot of churches while driving around Antigua. Modest, majestic, and everything in-between, there’s a house of worship to suit most every style. Then, there’s St. Barnabas… Upon first seeing St. Barnabas, though, I just had to stop. It’s just so… umm… striking. Yes, that’s the word: striking, both in its seemingly random mishmash of structural additions and its color *ahem* scheme. It’s the green that really struck me the most; a most unnatural hue (or so I thought) that called to mind the horror of Frankenstein, or the slime from that old Nickelodeon slime. At least that would be someone's first impression. Upon learning a little more about the structure, you're bound to hear about something called Antigua green stone. Indeed, the structure and its color are as natural as can be! The unique stone comes from the Liberta area of Antigua, where the Church is found. All around here you see homes, walls, and other buildings sporting the same green hue.
Shirley Heights is less a fort to explore and more of a sprawling military complex. Named after Sir Thomas Shirley, governor of the Leeward Islands and credited with strengthening Antigua's defenses in 1781, Shirley Heights was Britain's last stronghold in the Americas, along with Barbados, after they'd lost every other colony in the new world. In those tumultuous times, Shirley Heights' formidable fortifications protected Antigua's large sugar-producing estates and the all-important dockyard where war ships and trading vessels docked, restocked, and left to sail the Caribbean for Britain's interests. Today, the majority of the complex has long crumbled away, but it's definitely worth the visit. The main lookout is now a restaurant hosting a large weekly sunset party on Sunday as well as concerts, but beyond that history buffs walking these walls can come in contact with Antigua's rich history.
Draped across a picturesque bluff jutting out into crystal clear seas in the south of the island, Curtain Bluff is an Antigua classic. Originally opened as a small 22-room labor of love in 1962, constant love, improvement, and expansion has turned this island home away from home into a 77-room world-class resort. On a recent visit, I stayed in an older portion of the property, but you wouldn't know it. The deluxe room was well appointed with a rain shower, spacious bedroom, and, best of all, a terrance that lead straight out onto the sands of Surf Beach — complete with an idyllic hammock hung between two palm trees barely 10 feet from my door. While those features were more than enough to make my stay memorable, know the property also boasts a brand new spa, multiple excellent restaurants, two beaches (with another right next door), and even four championship hard tennis courts!
Hidden out past quaint Five Islands Village, Hawksbill resort is seamlessly sprinkled over 37 acres of Caribbean gardens right on the water. Sure, Antigua is known for its 365 beaches so it shouldn't be a surprise when a resort has more then one beach, but Hawksbill has, an impressive, four secluded strips of sugar-white sand easily accessible to guests with a fifth accessible to truly intrepid sun worshipers. Besides the sheer quantity, Hawksbill also sports a one-of-a-kind beach for Antigua. Beyond the southern point of the the 99 non-smoking guest rooms, down a little path, through a white fence, and around the bend is Eden Beach — Antigua's one and only extremely concealed clothing-optional shore. It's here, a matter of meters into the Caribbean Sea, that you'll find majestic Hawksbill Rock (so named for its uncanny resemblance to a hawk's profile) from which the property gets its name.
Pop quiz, hot shot! Define Caribbean luxury in 2 words or less. My answer is easy: Carlisle Bay. The moment I walked across the dark wood bridge (flanked on both sides by billowing, flaming torches) that carries guests over a reflecting pool into the heart of the property's great house, I somehow suspected this truth. Then I was expertly shown to an ocean suite. Then I knew for sure. The rooms are a unique blend of modern, clean lines and classic, West Indian touches. From the charred coconut tree trunks serving as planters, to the unique prints gracing the closets, to the curved mahogany day bed on the oceanfront balcony, to a flawless orchid that's refreshed daily, the rooms are near perfection.
No guide to Antigua's beaches would be complete without including Long Bay Beach. Unquestionably, it's one of the island's finest beaches. The sand is almost blindingly white, like someone poured out a billion sugar shakers. The water is exceptionally clear and calm, especially at the eastern end where even toddlers could safely roam the shoreline without the fear of being barreled over by waves. There's even good snorkeling near the beach's reef, which you can actually walk out to! So, why don't I love Long Bay Beach? Well, it can get a bit busy for my taste. There's several restaurants including Mama Pastas, resorts including Grand Pineapple, and even a clutch of tiny shops selling local goods. So, if you're like me, get here as early as possible. Maybe go for a morning run on the impressive sand. Then move on as the masses begin to descend.
Completely off-the-beaten-path and almost totally secluded in the northwest of Antigua is diminutive Bush Beach. I was staying at Blue Waters Resort when I felt the need for a little exercise, so I swung by their water sports shed to check out a kayak. I asked where I should go, to which the guy answered: "You should really stay in the bay here where I can see you... but if you want, you can try going around the bluff. There's a beach back there no one goes to." A beach no one goes to? Sign me up! Kayaking around the bluff wasn't too difficult and the reward? Well, you're looking at it. An untouched bush-lined beach all to myself! For those not staying at Blue Waters, there's a slightly hidden path down to the beach from the road... Just don't tell too many people about it!
I generally have a thing against beaches next to the road. Usually, they're unfortunate victims to automotive pollution: obnoxious noises, exhaust fumes, and sneaky greases seeping into everything. Darkwood Beach is different. Sure, it's right on the road on the southwest coast of Antigua, but somehow it escapes the usual woes of roadside sands. Maybe it's because the road is fairly quiet. Or maybe it's the persistent onshore trade winds. Or maybe it's because people care enough to keep the beach clean. Regardless, what you, the traveler, get is a great beach with good swimming and snorkeling, plus a beach bar serving rum and traditional West Indian eats — complete with white plastic chairs in the sand.
Loud, local, and right along the road, The Buzz embodies many of the choice characteristics to look for in an authentic West Indian watering hole. The Buzz is probably most beloved for its BBQ chicken, but for that, you'd need to get there fairly early in the evening before it's long gone. But don't worry if you miss the chicken, their pork is smoky, saucy, grease-filled and messy – the perfect late-night munchie! The staff is also pretty cool, though not overly chatty. (There isn’t much talking with all the loud music that makes a night at The Buzz a night at The Buzz.) Like most places, everyone was plenty friendly and welcoming when approached with a smile. The Buzz is located just a few minutes north of Sugar Ridge right on the side of the road. It’s seriously impossible to miss, and well-worth a stop for great late-night BBQ.
Cavell’s Cook Shop hides in plain sight along the road that hugs the shore on Antigua’s southwestern coast. Its humble, nondescript outward appearance bears every likeness of a simple storage shed or roadside workshop. Thick, encroaching foliage on either side further suggest its owner might prefer his or her place to maintain a low profile. The long line of cars regularly parked astride the road outside Cavell’s at all hours of the day, however, tells a different story. So too do the savory aromas emanating from beneath her galvanize roof, and the smiles on the faces of her steady stream of people filing in and out of here. You see, small and simple though it may be, Cavell’s is the prime spot for real local food in Antigua. The sun pounding down on the galvanize roof combined with the heat put forth by the various cooking apparatuses maKe standing inside Cavell’s feel like limin’ in an oven. No one was complaining, though. Cold Wadadli’s and good company have a way of keeping things cool here. Come to Cavell’s with a smile, some patience, and an open mind and you’ll make friends of the broad swath of local Antiguans, representing all walks of life, easily.
Going all the way back to 1934, the Antigua Distillery has been producing some of the most popular flavors on the island. Back then, the fledgling distillery bought a number of estates and a sugar factory. This sugar, named Mucovado, was a favorite among Antiguans. In the early 1950s the molasses byproduct went on to become Cavalier Muscovado Rum—a hearty, full-bodied, black rum. As rum tastes evolved toward lighter-bodied expressions, so did the Antigua Distillery; refining their lineup to eventually include Cavalier 5 Year Old Rum. This amber spirit is just the thing for accompanying lazy days on Antigua's many beaches, visits to local BBQs, some light sailing, or taking in spectacular sunsets at Shirley Heights. Perfectly fine on its own over ice, expect a medium-bodied, fairly dry rum with a pleasantly long smokey finish.
Wadadli Gold is the stronger, somewhat meatier version of Antigua’s national brew. I say somewhat as its 5.6% alcohol by volume is only .6% beyond that of regular Wadadli. Wadadli Gold is decidedly more robust, potent, and cockier than its older sibling. The consistency is a bit thicker, perhaps more malty as well, filling your mouth and your belly like a boss. No, it’s not a great option for a day at the beach, but out at the bar, or at a cricket match, it’s mantastic! Look for Wadadli Gold in cans (it’s not available in bottles) all over Antigua… if you dare!
Produced by Antigua Distillery, the same company that also makes Antigua and Barbuda’s most popular dark rum, Cavalier, as well as Nut Power (a peanut-flavored rum cream made with the tree bark and reputed sexual stimulant known as bois bande), English Harbour 5-Year Reserve is that special kind of rum that delivers delightful drinks above its price range. No, it's not the most expensive rum Antigua Distillery makes, not even the second most expensive, but it is a polished copper colored, easy-drinking rum that rewards drinkers with hints of coconut, cinnamon, spice and smoke all wrapped up in this mature spirit.
You could travel to Antigua a dozen times and never know about Bushy’s 1 & 9 Best Matured Rum, but you would be missing one of the island's most treasured spirits... and now perhaps rarest. Made by one man: John Gonçalves, better known as Bushy, this rum begins life as an overproof base obtained form Antigua Distillers Ltd—the folks behind, among other things, English Harbour Rum. After a bit of aging in oak barrels and the addition of several secret ingredients and blending techniques Bushy would never reveal, you get a rum that's surprisingly smooth, dry, and even a little spicy with vanilla and nutmeg coming through. That explains why it's treasured, but why is it rare? Well, that's because Bushy passed away back in 2013 leaving no one to follow in his spirited footsteps. Should you find yourself in a proper local bar, try asking for Bushy’s, or, if you’re really in tune with the local scene, simply 1 and 9. If you're lucky, you'll get a last taste of an Antigua classic.
The local beer of choice in Antigua & Barbuda, Wadadli is also the original Amerindian name for Antigua. The beer was launched in 1993 by Antigua Brewery Ltd., which also produces the twin-island country’s supply of Red Stripe, Carib and Guiness, as well as a variety of soft drinks. Wadadli, though, is the most cherished among the lot by local residents and most beer-loving visitors to the island. Wadadli is the quintessential Caribbean beach beer. An easy-drinking champagne colored lager that refreshingly finishes light and crisp. You probably can't throw a stone on Antigua without hitting someplace that sells this national treasure, so stock up, grab some ice, and hit one of the islands 365 fabled beaches! Just remember, Antigua and Barbuda are the only places to get Wadadli, so when you're heading home, the party's over.
Goat water is basically a thin soup. Swimming in its brown depths you’ll find lumps of practically any part of a goat (usually bones and all), there’s clove, thyme, plus some other assorted herbs and spices, and depending on what island you find yourself sampling goat water, don’t be surprised to find some additional items in there like small dumplings, yams, and potatoes. You can find goat water on many islands in the Caribbean from Antigua, Grenada, St. Kitts, Nevis, and many more. It’s even the national dish of Antigua’s neighbor: Montserrat! On islands like Jamaica, expect a cousin of goat water to be served at weddings… Especially to the grooms. Why? Well, that version also goes by the name "mannish water" so can imagine what the expected results of slurping up a bowl!
Rice and Peas are a staple throughout much of the Caribbean from Spanish, to French, to English speaking islands. The only thing to consider when ordering this authentic Caribbean side is that us West Indians can be a little lax with names. So, when we say “peas,” we really mean practically any legume — actual peas like pigeon or cowpeas, plus kidney beans and everything in between could make the cut. Whatever you get, it’s sure to be a better choice than a burger and fries! Basically, any time you order a "plate" in a local eatery you can expect to receive this filling and fantastic side, just don't be surprised if it's different every time you order it!
What’s a roti? The simple answer is the ultimate comfort meal of curry wrapped in a thin dough—borrowed from India and perfected in Trinidad and Tobago. You have to understand — making roti is not an easy task. Like many other traditional Caribbean foods, it takes a lot of time and effort to make something this comfortingly delicious… And perhaps those hours of anticipation actually added a little something to the flavors when you finally got the finished, hot roti in between your hands. It starts with the “skin” or roti (officially, only the skin is called roti, but in the Caribbean, we apply the name to the whole package). This is where a roti becomes a success, or literally falls apart. Any time you buy a roti, this is always the thing most people comment on. “Skin’s too thin.” “Skin’s too thick.” “Skin’s too dry.” Etc. The roti skin has to be just right, or the whole thing will fail. My favorite type of skin is dhalpuri which is just what you'll find at Roti King — now just ask them to fill it with goat, chicken, or shrimp and you in business!
I HATE TOBASCO! Yes, I wrote that in all caps, because I feel this so powerfully, that all caps was the only way to concisely express my position in type. Yes, I hate it, but don't get the wrong idea, I LOVE hot sauce — or as we call it in the West Indies: "pepper sauce." What's the problem with Tobasco? Basically, it boils down to the balance these type of sauces much juggle between flavor and heat. Tobasco is all empty heat (and not even a lot of it) with zero flavor. Susie's on the other hand is a completely different story. This Antigua native has been providing a well balanced mix of flavor and heat since 1960. Sure, I've irked my Antiguan friends in the past when I've complained that Susie's isn't spicy enough, but what it lacks in heat, it more than makes up for in flavor. This stuff tastes good! If you're in Antigua, you should be able to find Susie's at any and every eatery from the most expensive to the roadside BBQ's and it's just what the doctor ordered to add a little kick to anything from fish to ribs.
No visit to Antigua is complete without taking in the sunset atop Shirley Heights Lookout at its weekly Sunday sundowner party. The view from Shirley Heights is without a doubt the most famous, most photographed, most celebrated vista gracing Antigua. Immediately below, English and Falmouth Harbours clutch their bays. On clear days you can see Guadeloupe to the south and Montserrat with it's still active volcano to the south west. It does get busy, so expect a crowd and while there might be a couple locals sprinkled in here and there, it's mostly visitors. Around 7ish, the tunes crank up with either some reggae classics, some pumping soca, or even live a steelpan band. Smoke from a collection of barbecues compete with the music to fill the air and stimulate your senses. Expect chicken and ribs slathered in local flavors, plus burgers for the less adventurous. I did have some trouble getting grilled fish on my last visit, but once I found some, it was charred to perfection.
I'd never touched a stingray before. I'd never wanted to. It went against everything I believe about interactions with wildlife: look, but don't touch and certainly don't harass. Yet there is something undeniably magical about motoring out to a shallow, off-shore location, hopping in the water, and finding yourself surrounded by huge, fear-inducing, stingrays — thanks to guides with pockets full of raw squid. The five foot wide, dark, rays resemble giant portobello mushrooms in look and feel. And should you visit Stingray City, you'll definitely feel them. The rays aren't shy about forcibly muscling against visitors as they swim around in search of a squid handout.
Markets have traditionally been central to life on the small islands of the Caribbean, so it shouldn't be a surprise that one visit to Antigua'a new Public Market Complex could transport you back to a simpler time before impersonal supermarkets, processed foods, and GMO produce concerns. Mingle among stalls offering fresh fruits, vegetables, curative roots, local drinks, and more — all at proper prices. Looking to pick up something to take home? Right next door is the Craft Market area where local artisans produce hand made goods from leather, shell, and even fish scales. Look for soaps and fragrances made from local West Indian ingredients. Personally, I'm not much of a shopper, but just milling around the market is a treat. Antiguan life fluidly bustles all around you, the air fills your nose with the smell of a real market, and for a moment you can forget the less-than-desirable side effects of life in the 21st century.
How can a "must do" experience on an island be leaving the island? When it's visiting the one-of-a-kind, totally off-the-beaten-path island of Montserrat. A modern day Pompeii, Montserrat used to be an emerald gem in the crown of the Caribbean. Rock royalty such as the Rolling Stones, the Police, and Dire Straights frequented the island to record at the legendary Air Studios. The rich and glamorous flocked to see and be seen in the capital of Plymouth. Then the island was devastated by a hurricane in 1989, but the knockdown blow didn't come until 1995 when Montserrat’s Soufriere Hills Volcano suddenly erupted, burying Plymouth under several meters of ash and turning nearly half of the island into an exclusion zone. The Montserrat that has emerged in the years since is a very different destination. Gone is the celebrity cache that came with the jet-set days of the 1970s and '80s. Now expect an overabundance of quiet, lush green hills, and pitch-black sand beaches all to yourself. Day trips from Antigua are easy to book, so definitely don't miss sampling this curious neighbor.
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