Antigua & Barbuda: Sands of time

A distinctly English vibe and rich naval history belies Antigua's complex character. It's an island with a rambunctious carnival, a quirky capital and, in Barbuda, an intriguing twin sister

By David Whitley
Published 18 Mar 2016, 08:00 GMT, Updated 19 Jul 2021, 15:27 BST
Shirley Heights, Antigua

Shirley Heights, Antigua 

Photograph by GETTY IMAGES

Down at the docks, a shaggy-haired man is brandishing a knife. His victims are the freshly caught kingfish, blackjack and tuna that are laid out on a folding table.

He cuts out the guts and entrails with nonchalant efficiency before throwing them into the water, where dozens of huge kingfish are circling.

"Isn't that cannibalism?" asks the woman negotiating a price for the tuna.

The fisherman just shrugs. "Got to feed my pets, hey? They wait for the boat to come in every day."

In an attempt to avoid staining the bank notes with fish blood, he asks the woman to slide the cash into the pocket of his boardshorts. It would be fair to assume that the taxman won't be learning of this transaction, and it's highly doubtful that authorisation for this impromptu place of business has been granted by the Nelson's Dockyard National Park authorities.

Little moments like this shake Antigua's reputation for being incredibly English. By Caribbean standards, the island is rather restrained and proper with the volume seeming always a little lower than elsewhere. On the whole, it appeals more to those looking for a peaceful escape than those wanting a riotous party. But it's not quite a Surrey in the sun; you can still be sitting in a restaurant at night and spot half a dozen goats springing out of nowhere to make a break for it down the road.

Aside from rogue fishermen setting up trade, Nelson's Dockyard is where Antigua's Englishness is at its most pronounced. Named after naval hero Horatio Nelson, the Dockyard acted as the Royal Navy's primary Caribbean maintenance hub in the 18th century. Tucked inside the well-protected English Harbour, guarded by Fort Berkeley and a number of stone fortifications, it offered safety from both inclement weather and enemy ships. The island's position in the northeast of the Caribbean, meanwhile, made Antigua — and its ports — an ideal gateway to this area of the world for vessels arriving from Britain.

Today, replica capstans at the water's edge give some indication of the dockland's history and the vital strategic role it played for the Royal Navy. As well as providing a safe harbour, this was also the chosen spot for carrying out vital maintenance. Ships would be tied to the capstans, which would be rotated to make the vessels list. Men aboard smaller boats could then begin the process of scraping off detritus picked up by the hull during voyage, and repainting where necessary.

It was the decline of the sugar industry, coupled with the advance of steam power, that saw the dockyard dwindle into irrelevance during the latter half of the 19th century. Nelson's Dockyard officially closed in 1889, but many of its beautiful buildings — constructed using stone and brick originally brought over from England as ballast — have been preserved and since repurposed. The traditional copper and lumber store is now a small hotel, as is the old hospital. The latter is now considerably more comfortable than it once was: during the dockyard days, one of the few medicinal substances available was rum. However, it tended to be stored in lead-lined casks — meaning that if the disease didn't kill you, the lead poisoning might well do. Sailors, coincidentally, tended not to have a particularly high life expectancy.

Pleasingly, many of the old buildings are still used for purposes not far removed from their original functions. The old sawpit cabin, for instance, where timber for ships was once cut and stored, is now home to a sail manufacturer and repairer.

Today, the dockyard's businesses do a roaring trade thanks to the yachties that have replaced the Royal Navy. English Harbour and the neighbouring Falmouth Harbour are at the heart of what's arguably the Caribbean's biggest yachting scene. Sails billow and masts stand tall in this historic dock — and the owners and crew do their best to soak up as much rum as the Naval personnel did too.

Costume drama

As glorious as the area around English Harbour and Falmouth is, it hardly rings out with Antiguan authenticity. The lavish resorts on white-sand beaches, the influx of winter-fleeing Europeans and North Americans, the cashed-up sailors going for a spin on their beloved toys — it all seems to be part of a different world. For a culture-soaked trip, the island's capital is the place to go.

St John's has the same curiously underdressed atmosphere that just about every capital of a small Caribbean nation has — anyone who's been to a Southeast Asian provincial capital or transport hub will recognise the vibe. Cracked pavements give way to no pavement at all, partially faded shop signs are the norm and the market is more functional than exotic.

But there's also a refreshing lack of globalisation. St John's may be the closest Antigua gets to having a 'Big Smoke', but it's also far too small for big-name chain stores to bother with. Virtually every shop bears the name of the entrepreneur who set it up: the Johan Mansoor Top Fashion Store, Samo's Supermarket and Hakim's are among the dozens of outlets scattered along the shopping streets. Orderly presentation comes low down the list of priorities; after all, why leave space when you can drape the walls with every item you've got in stock?

Come April and May, the stores begin to really liven up. On Cross Street, a handmade sign saying 'Beautiful People' points towards a unique breed of pop-up shop. This is a Mas camp and, inside, elaborate yet eye-poppingly skimpy costumes are being prepared for the Antigua Carnival at the end of July.

The 10-day Carnival, which celebrates the 1834 abolition of slavery, is a raucous festival of live music, talent shows and blurred colours. Hundreds of competing Mas troupes take part every year, each trying to play their music louder than the others, and each trying to assemble the most impressive set of costumes.

Inside Beautiful People's camp, fashion designer Kareem Simon explains that this year's costumes are inspired by the previous year's tragedy. "The camp burned down," he says. "We can't prove it was deliberate, but…"

His overall costume theme is split into nine subsections, beginning with inception and jealousy and finishing with triumph and the phoenix rising from the flames. Kareem is part of a team of around 20 volunteers making costumes for the 400 or so troupe members who will strut and shimmy their way through the streets wearing these creations.

Big money is paid for these costumes: a full outfit, complete with headdress, costs in the region of US$1,295 (£910). The event is taken far more seriously than the carnival's joyful atmosphere may suggest, and allegiance to a Mas troupe can't be guaranteed — popularity with the crowd is all down to the design.

Two women walk in to survey the costumes on offer, and one of them pipes up on the issue of Mas troupe loyalty. "I'm the queen of switching. I go with whoever makes me look most beautiful," she thunders.

"Some people are loyal. I'm not loyal. I'm not loyal at all. If I think you make me look prettier than the guys I've been with for years, then it's bye-bye to them."

Local rivalry

St John's is also home to the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, a surprisingly interesting cultural institution. From the original Amerindian inhabitants to Sir Viv Richards and the bat he used to hit the fastest Test century, this is a vast and varied collection of history. But one topic ties many themes together: sugar.

The bustling industry is long gone, but reminders of its history here can be found all over the island. Whether in the hilly, green south-west or the parched limestone north-west, you never have to drive too far to find an old sugar mill defanged of its sails.

Only one still stands in all its original glory. The mill of Betty's Hope in the northwest perches on a hilltop, surrounded by the ruins of the plantation's other buildings. There's a small museum, but it's far more atmospheric when this is closed and the area is devoid of people. Then, there's an eerie stillness, punctured only by the breeze. It's a place to be alone with your thoughts and the ghosts of the past.

Betty's Hope plantation was owned by the wealthy Codrington family and worked by hundreds of slaves. The land was used to grow crops and livestock for feeding workers and slaves on the Codringtons' other plantations throughout the Caribbean. On Antigua's sister island, Barbuda, the family gained an infamous reputation: granted a lease that effectively made the island their own private fiefdom, they are said to have ran the land as a 'stud farm' or 'nursery' for slaves — ensuring a steady growth in numbers for the labour force.

The Codringtons bred slaves who were bigger, stronger and taller than average (although, this may have been more due to treatment and conditions than bloodlines). Even today, the 1,600 people who inhabit the island are notably tall.

Height, however, isn't the first thing that Antiguans tend to mention about Barbudans. The diplomatic types simply say that things are done differently there. The rest are rather more disparaging. Barbuda's reputation for stubborn resistance to change sees much grumbling over how government money is doled out.

Whatever the reason for the almost total lack of development in modern Barbuda, the island's distinctiveness is largely formed by it. The capital (predictably named Codrington) is the only settlement of any size — and no one even bothers to pretend it's a town.

The main draw is the huge lobster-filled lagoon that dominates the western half of the island, boasting dazzlingly white beaches, with just a couple of small hotels and a fairly basic beach bar puncturing an otherwise uninterrupted slice of idyll.

It's inside the lagoon, however, where the life and noise is to be found. The mangrove islets at the northern end of the lagoon are home to an enormous colony of magnificent frigate bird — elegant avian monsters with two-metre-plus wingspans and compellingly strange mating rituals.

Local boatman Pat Richardson explains that the males come back from a few months away in mid-August to pick out prime perches. They inflate their striking red throat pouches and start vibrating.

"The females start hovering to check out the males," says Pat. "She'll pick one she likes, sit next to him and rub his pouch. He'll deflate it when they've finished mating.

"We'll not see any of that today," Pat adds, "but we will see the results."

Sure enough, poking up among the mangroves are hundreds of fluffy, white heads. The mothers are still around, gliding over the water in search of food. These birds' feathers aren't waterproof, so they move above the surface of the water and grab with their long beaks. It looks fabulously awkward and ungainly — but it seems to work out alright for the squawking rabble.

Stingray City

The same mangroves that make an ideal home for the frigate birds play a vital part in purifying the waters of northern Antigua and providing breeding grounds for fish around the small islands just off the mainland.

These islands — one boasting the country's most exclusive resort, another home to the otherwise extinct Antiguan racer snake, others simply left to nature — are the initial attraction of Adventure Antigua's 'Xtreme' boat tour, which circumnavigates the island. They soon give way to a shallow patch of sandy-bottomed sea, where a couple of floating platforms bob peacefully on the surface.

This is Stingray City, where, over the years, scores of stingrays have learned that they'll get an easy feed if they hang out here. They're free to come and go as they please, but the park rangers make sure the rays get fed every day. The creatures are naturally inquisitive and swoop around human legs as if performing a graceful ballet. It's initially unnerving to turn around and see a barbed tail go by, but it soon becomes a heartwarming thrill to see the older females — often the size of table tops — flit past. Initial assumptions of deft nimbleness soon give way to realisations of occasional clumsiness. They clatter into thighs and investigate swimming trunks with disturbing vigour.

The high-speed boat trip continues into the Atlantic, past craggy cliffs and sheltered cove. It's a bumpy ride for those at the front and a wet, salty journey for those at the back. Near the entrance to English Harbour, the snorkelling gear comes out for a close-up look at the patchy coral and aquatic life.

The last stop, however, goes against all attempts to battle the lazy Antiguan holiday archetype. The boat pulls up at Pinching Beach, yet another stretch of powdery white sand. It's one that even most locals never get to visit as the only realistic way there is by boat. The sun beats down, the sea twinkles in turquoises and teals and the rum is poured. It seems that sometimes it's OK to just roll with the cliches…


Getting there
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic operate non-stop flights from Gatwick. Thomas Cook flies from Manchester.
Average flight time: 8h 45m.

Getting around
Local buses cover parts of the south, largely between St John's and English Harbour, with journeys costing US$2 (£1.40). Visitors generally use taxis. The fare from English Harbour to St John's will be around US$30 (£21). Car hire — either via international chains at the airport or local outfits from hotels — is another option.

For Barbuda, either fly with ABM Air or Fly Montserrat Airways, or go by ferry.

When to go
September to November is peak hurricane season, and is when a lot of hotels close. December to April is cooler and dryer and, consequently, the most expensive period for travel.

Need to know
Visas: None needed.
Currency: East Caribbean Dollar (XCD). £1 = EC$4.12. US dollars are almost always accepted at an exchange rate of US$1 = EC$2.70.
International dial code: 00 1.
Time: GMT -4.

Where to stay
Sandals Antigua Grande (Dickenson Bay): Lavish, all-inclusive luxury resort with spa and multiple restaurants.
Inn At English Harbour (English Harbour): Small-scale, demure property set on hillside, with free boat transfers to Nelson's Dockyard.
Copper and Lumber (English Harbour): Historic waterfront building in Nelson's Dockyard National Park.

More info
Antigua, St Kitts and Montserrat Footprint Focus Guide (Footprint Guides). RRP: £7.99.
Discover Caribbean Islands (Lonely Planet). RRP: £16.99.

How to do it
Scott Dunn sells seven nights at the Inn At English Harbour on a half-board basis from £1,721 per person, including flights from Gatwick and transfers.

Virgin Holidays sells seven-night all-inclusive breaks at Sandals Antigua Grande from £1,874 per person, which includes Virgin flights from Gatwick and transfers.

Published in the April 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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