Chris and I have been fortunate to have taken a number of trips this year including a camping week on the Isle of Mull, Scotland; a long weekend in Northern Ireland; a family week in Belgium and I had an amazing trip to Dubai and Southern Africa with my daughter. However since our global travels of 2016 we hadn’t taken a trip on our own so far in 2017.
With our wedding anniversary in early November, this seemed the ideal time to take a holiday together. We were looking for somewhere warm, somewhere with a bit of vibe and culture, somewhere we hadn’t been before and somewhere we could use my Virgin Flying Club miles to keep the flight costs down…
Yes… Antigua seemed just the ticket!
This was confirmed when we caught our first glimpse of this little round shaped emerald green island dotted in the dark blue waters of the Caribbean. We peered from our airplane window as the hilly landscape grew closer and we could make out the white beaches providing a neat frame between them and the now sparkling turquoise sea as the plane circled above and descended into Antigua’s international airport. This was a particularly welcome sight having left a grey and drizzly Gatwick airport a few hours earlier!
As mentioned, Antigua is a Caribbean island with its official name being ‘Antigua and Barbuda’, the two largest of this small group of West Indian islands. Sadly over 90% of Barbuda’s infrastructure was destroyed in September 2017 when Hurricane Irma rampaged its way through. Most of the population of 1800 were evacuated to Antigua.
Antigua and Barbuda gained independence from the British as recently as 1981 and as well as the main spoken language being English there are other hints of a British colonial past for example with old sugar plantation houses, a strong association with cricket and places called Falmouth and English Harbour.
Antigua is a round island with a jagged coastline containing lots many inlets and bays. Indeed Antigua is famous for having 365 beaches or one for each day of the year. All of Antigua’s beaches are open to the public so even the exclusive 5* hotels are not allowed to section off chunks of beach for the exclusive use of their guests. We visited about 14 different beaches and have a separate blog post dedicated to the Antigua beaches we visited!
We stayed in the Admirals Inn (above), a small boutique hotel in English Harbour. Being part of Nelsons Dockyard, a UNESCO heritage site, this place was steeped in history. With its old pillars and 18th century stone buildings you could easily imagine the old naval officers shouting out their orders to the ship workers. Well, that or being smack in the middle of the Pirates of the Caribbean set!
Our room was right outside the Pillars which the Admirals Inn restaurant is named after. They previously supported a boat house with a sail loft until an earthquake destroyed the roof in 1871.
The Gunpowder Suites are also part of the Admirals Inn and we were able to swim in the infinity pool and have lunch in Boom restaurant. The hotel provided a courtesy speedboat across the short stretch of harbour which separates them.
We stayed in the Admirals Inn for 10 days which was just the right length of time for us. Antigua is a small island and we covered much of it during the 4 days we rented a car. There are several hiking trails, kayaking and snorkelling opportunities which kept us occupied on the other days. This is our summary of Antigua in a nutshell…
Starting on our doorstep, the Admirals Inn was located inside the entrance of the historic Nelsons Dockyard and as such, guests of the hotel don’t have to pay the entrance fee. We were able to wander around the Dockyard as we pleased throughout the 10 days which was often busy with tourists during the day but once they had all gone it became a quiet and picturesque retreat.
The Dockyard was abandoned by the Royal Navy in 1889 when it began to fall into decay. Restorations began in the 1950’s and there is now a museum, two hotels, a few shops and a marina.
This little tour of Antigua continues with some Caribbean culture… well somewhat touristy but cultural all the same. Every Sunday evening Shirley Heights is host to a huge party for tourists and locals, younger and older generations alike. There is a steel band, rum punch, Caribbean barbeque and later on live reggae, Soca and calypso bands. This starts from around 4 pm and continues into the night until about 10 pm.
We took a taxi from and back to the Admirals Inn and stayed for 4 or 5 hours. With the beat of the steel drums and amazing laid back atmosphere it was really easy to meet fellow tourists and we shared a few rum punches with a lovely couple from Sheffield.
Antigua road trippin’
With the average cost of $80US for a round trip taxi from one side of the island to another or paying for an excursion where you get on and off a mini bus with others on the trip we felt the best way to explore Antigua would be to independently hire a car.
The cost was $45US per day with an additional $10US per day for insurance. All visitors have to pay $20EC (cash) for a temporary driving licence. So including fuel we had freedom for 4 days for under £200 for both of us!
Driving in Antigua is relatively easy as driving is on the left and there is much less traffic than we are used to. The maximum speed limit is 40 mph. There are just a few more hazards to watch out for… dogs, goats and chickens randomly crossing and people who walk in the road as often there are no footpaths… And ginormous potholes!
We booked the car through our hotel after arriving in Antigua and it was delivered the following morning. We decided the explore the island in sections as described below:
Day 1 – South East and East: Shirley Heights – Half Moon Bay – lunch in Beach Bum bar & grill – Devils Bridge – Long Bay – Betty’s Hope
Day 2 – South West: Fig Tree Drive – Curtain Bluff beach – Turners beach – Darkwood beach – Ffryes beach – lunch at Sheer Rocks – Coco beach
Day 3 – North West: Fort Barrington – St Johns – lunch in Ana’s on the Beach – Dickenson Bay – Jabberwocky beach
Day 4 – North: Prickly Pear Island
Unspoilt and remote south east of Antigua
Following the fun evening we had previously had at Shirley Heights we decided to drive up and have a ‘proper’ look when we had the car. With so many people at the Sunday evening bash it was difficult to fully observe and appreciate the amazing and iconic Antigua views of English Harbour.
From Shirley Heights we continued driving through the national park and made our way towards Half Moon Bay.
Spectacular views along the way…
Wild, pink-tinged and beautiful! Totally un-commercialised but with a fab little beach bar at the car park, this was one of our favourite spots in Antigua.
Next up was Devils Bridge an arch carved out by sea erosion. Devils Bridge is so-called as it has a rather sombre past. Apparently it was an area of mass suicide… slaves used to throw themselves into the sea with the understanding nobody ever came out alive…
We drove to Long Beach in anticipation of doing some off-the-beach snorkelling but this didn’t happen… this is covered in our Antigua beaches post!
Betty’s Hope is the site of a former sugarcane plantation which was established in 1650. We were anticipating this to be a tourist trap with a cafe, gift shop and organised tour but it was extremely low key. We, together with a security guard who was having a nap when we arrived were the only ones there! We had a wander around the grounds and looked in the small museum before making our way back to the Admirals Inn.
South west coast beaches
Fig Tree Drive
The following day we set off to explore more of Antigua’s spectacular beaches along the more commercialised south west coast of the island.
Our day began with a drive along Fig Tree Drive, a well known scenic road which snakes through the rainforest. Fig Tree Drive is home to the Rainforest Canopy tours for zip-lining and there are also stalls selling home made jams and local produce such as pineapples and mangoes.
On this day we drove (in order) around the coast to Curtain Bluff beach, Turners beach, Crabb Hill beach (where we stopped for a drink in OJ’s beach bar), Darkwood beach, Ffryes beach, had lunch at Sheer Rocks and spent time on Coco beach. The beaches are covered in our Antigua beach blog post!
North west Antigua
From the Admirals Inn we drove straight across the island to Fort Barrington. This was built in 1779 to protect the British (who occupied Antigua) from the French. We parked the car and crossed the small river where we climbed the hill. It only took about 10 minutes to reach the fort at the top although as we were the only ones there it was silent and with its small pitch black rooms, a bit creepy!
We were however rewarded with great views from the top!
St John’s (above) is the capital of Antigua, the docking place for cruise ships and home to a lively Saturday market. As shopping and markets are not our thing we didn’t stop in St Johns but decided to drive through and find somewhere for lunch in a quieter and more picturesque spot.
We found Ana’s on the beach where we had a delicious lunch, had a wander along Dickenson beach and continued driving to Hodges along the north coast and finally to Jabberwocky beach, which again we walked the length of!
Prickly Pear Island
We didn’t do too much driving on the fourth day of car rental as we had booked a snorkel trip to Prickly Pear island (please see separate post). However as the speedboat left from Ocean Point on the north of the island it was handy to have the car to drive the 45 minutes to get there and another 45 minutes back. This meant we could get there when we were ready, decide when to leave and it was more cost effective than the $80US round trip taxi fare would have been.
The Admirals Inn had complimentary kayak hire available so we spent some time kayaking around English Harbour. The bay is sheltered meaning the sea was calm and there didn’t seem to be much in the way of currents… between us we easily rowed the Freemans Bay area just in front of Galleon beach, around Nelsons Dockyard marina and Fort Berkeley without too much trouble.
During our beach stops we often tried to snorkel just to see if we could see anything. Of course, fish usually tend to hang out near rocks so unless there were any rocks or reefs it was probably unrealistic to expect to see much! We were fortunate to have a couple of excellent snorkelling experiences which are covered in our Antigua snorkelling blog post!
There are many well marked hiking trails in Antigua and some are particularly close to English Harbour. We have a separate Antigua hiking blog post!
Neither Chris or I have ever tried diving but apparently an excellent place to do this is at Hercules Pillars. You can dive and see the limestone rock formations both above and below the surface of the water and also see a wide range of colourful fish and coral. We were fortunate to be taken round on the complementary Admirals Inn speedboat to look at the Pillars following the snorkelling we did on Galleon beach nearby.
Dining in Antigua
Compared with most places dining is expensive in Antigua with the average main course alone costing around £25-30 in many restaurants. The advantage of staying in a hotel room only basis meant we could try different food options throughout our 10 days. We therefore had a complete mixture ranging from top quality meals on some days to snacks on others!
One day we had lunch in the upmarket Sheer Rocks… wow what a fabulous and romantic setting with its billowing white linen drapes as you sit overlooking Coco beach and Valley Church Bay. We had tapas for lunch which were tasty and the cocktails were luscious.
By contrast another day we had a super cheap but delicious snack in the Beach Bum bar & Grill. Quite rough and ready but a lovely experience overlooking Half Moon Bay.
Above is a mouthwatering tuna steak cooked to perfection in teriyaki sauce on a bed of noodles which we had in Pillars restaurant at the Admirals Inn. Although expensive with the average dinner for two costing £80-90, Pillars restaurant has a delightful setting overlooking English Harbour which, with its slightly cooling breeze is magical in the evenings.
Lunch in Boom restaurant at the Gunpowder Suites at £60 for two was another delicious and sophisticated but also expensive affair.
However, an equally tasty lunch option on other days was a freshly made vegetable pasty from the little bakery on Nelsons Dockyard just a few meters from our room, washed down with a cold Wadadli (Antigua’s national beer) all for about a fiver for both of us.
While dinner in Pillars was wonderful, there are several great restaurants within less than 10 minutes’ walk of the Admirals Inn. This gave us some variety and, as with the lunch variations, helped to balance our budget!
When it comes to holidays, trips and adventures we have no fixed agenda and enjoy trying new experiences and new options. On this occasion we had chosen a unique little hotel on a room only basis rather than one of the huge all inclusive luxury resorts for which Antigua is famous. This gave us complete freedom to explore the island and try different cafes, restaurants and even different breakfast options around the island without feeling tied in anyway.
We also wanted to mention that Antigua seems to be one of the cleanest holiday destinations we’ve visited. The beaches are generally much cleaner with very little in the way of rubbish being washed up; you don’t see much rubbish piled up in the streets and the grassy verges are more rubbish-free than those in the UK.
Perhaps influenced by our accommodation right in the heart of English Harbour and Nelsons Dockyard, Antigua seems to most ‘English’ of the Caribbean islands I’ve visited on past holidays (others being Barbados, St Lucia, Dominican Republic and Jamaica). With its English feel, expensive restaurants, yachting heritage and even pink sandy beaches we both felt that Antigua reminded us a great deal of our trip to Bermuda in January 2015.
Travelling home in style…
With the world being so large with so much to see and with time and money often being short, we usually prefer to spend as little as possible on flights. However thanks to a healthy stash of Virgin Flying Club miles, we thought on this occasion we would upgrade to Premium Economy for our flight home from Antigua to Gatwick. Hey… its another travel experience…
This was the first time either of us had flown anything other than economy class and found it a real treat to be ‘priority boarders’; getting on the plane first, being served a glass, yes glass of Prosecco while everyone else boarded, having wider and more comfortable seats, getting served first with food from ceramic dishes… oh well… the next flight we have booked is with EasyJet…