Ah, the Caribbean – home of beautiful beaches, clear blue waters, romantic sunsets and typically tropical food.
It’s a holiday destination made for rest, relaxation and fun in the sun. So we were thrilled when Pork Belly won a trip with LetsGo2 – a week’s stay at the wonderful Blue Waters Resort, the epitome of luxury, with five star dining and attentive staff.
It was all too easy to spend the day lounging beside sparkling blue pools, listening to the hush of little wavelets sweeping the shallows of Soldiers Bay. Or to take a leisurely stroll through beautifully landscaped gardens, bursting with blooms of hibiscus, frangipani and bougainvillea.
Plus every day, from our own personal balcony, we watched the leisurely progression of pelicans skimming the waters then returning home at sunset, like evening commuters, to rest on nearby rocks.
With delicious food and delectable cocktails served by knowledgeable mixologists it took extraordinary mental effort to drag ourselves away from the elegant surroundings,
You get the picture?
The ever-restless Pork Belly unwound for two whole days before he began to get even the slightest hint of wanderlust.
Because there’s so much more to Antigua than sun, sea and sand. It was time.
Time to strike out, away from the hedonistic delights of our resort.
The island itself is small, just 108 square miles, so a round-trip should be pretty straightforward, right?
Well not exactly.
If you want a quiet life you can always hire a taxi, shuttle bus tour, leisurely cruise or private safari to take you to the island’s main sights.
But for us it’s all about going it alone.
We like the freedom…
… And the challenge.
So we rented a car and, armed with a downloadable Google map plus a back-up printed one, we set off, cautiously, on our first outing.
You can’t get lost on Antigua, the island is so small, but driving is interesting. They drive on the left, like we do in the UK, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
We’d been warned to allow plenty of time to get anywhere because the speed limits are low – between 20 and 40 miles per hour. In fact we hardly ever hit the top speeds, even on the major roads, because of traffic, roadworks and the most vicious speed bumps we’ve ever encountered.
Antigua uses these lumps in the road as the main method of traffic calming. They’re undoubtedly effective and more than a little scary. We found them near every possible traffic hazard including schools, day nurseries, churches, pharmacies, complicated junctions and each and every sharp bend. Unless you’ve splashed out on a jeep-style vehicle, approach them with extreme caution and expect to hear awful scraping sounds from your undercarriage. No noise? Well done! Now move along with a sigh of relief….. ’til the next one.
Another hazard we met almost straight out of the gate was an oncoming car, not fast but implacable, on our side of the highway. ‘What the….’ was Pork Belly’s instant response, slowing down and preparing to take evasive action. With a cheerful wave the oncoming driver neatly slipped back onto his side just in time.
Seconds later we discovered what it was all about – a huge pothole taking up almost the entire roadway. We quickly learned to give way with grace, and that we could expect the same courtesy from oncoming drivers when a chasm opened up on our side of the road.
I’ll never moan about potholes here at home ever again!
The lack of road signs or any indication of what lies ahead was fun! There are few direct routes on the island so to get east-west or north-south you have to take an irregular, zigzag path. The main arteries soon become familiar and you quickly learn which ones to avoid – those that are in a semi-permanent state of ongoing repairs, the ones with constant queues or the tricky left-and-then-immediately-right type junctions.
Ah yes, Junctions. Another Antiguan driving delight. All junctions, even on the main roads, look like someone’s driveway. In stern navigator mode I’d report well in advance: ‘In half a mile, turn right.’ Then repeat, ‘Just up here you’ll turn right’. Then Pork Belly would demand. ‘Where? Here? Really?’ only for me to yell ‘Yes, yes, turn now!’ And there we’d be manoeuvring wildly onto a major route.
Thank the gods of the road there was hardly any traffic about! And we soon found that if we missed a turning there’d be another one along in a moment to link us up with the original road.
So we learned to chill.
Until we attempted a night drive.
Street lights are in short supply and sunset comes fast in the Caribbean with no long, lingering twilight. So unless you’re a confident night driver we’d suggest making sure you get back to your hotel or villa before nightfall.
If you are out at night, pay special attention to the street lights where the road runs alongside the waters’ edge. Hatchling sea turtles are drawn to light and artificial illumination confuses them and puts them at risk of humans and their vehicles. In these areas the usual white lights have been replaced with soft red LEDs, whose ruby glow does not disturb the turtles.
If you find yourself in a red-light district, it’s worth finding a safe place to park and do a bit of wildlife spotting.
But best of all was the attitude of our fellow road-users. We got lost, we missed turnings, we dithered and dallied on our first few outings. Never once were we beeped, shouted at or overtaken in a cloud of dust.
Everyone on Antigua seems to accept that the roads are slow for locals and visitors alike so take the plunge, hire a car and head out to explore the island away from those beautiful beaches.
So having gone solo on the island roads, what is there to see?
Take in the view from Shirley Heights
People say it’s the place to be on a Sunday for steel bands, barbecues and sunset over English Harbour, but go on your own at any other time of the day and you’ll have the place almost to yourself.
On the opposite side to the sunset view you’ll see Standfast Point and with a pair of binoculars get a sneak peek into Eric Clapton’s back yard!
Don’t miss the nearby Dow’s Hill Interpretation Centre – the guides there are fun, friendly and very knowledgeable. A small admission fee of US$8 per person for tourists applies from 8am till 6pm and gets you into the national park area around the Heights and Nelson’s Dockyard in the harbour below so allow yourself time to do both.
And do wander through the Dockyard Museum for a fascinating insight into Antiguan history.
Idle along Fig Tree Drive
A five-mile stretch of winding road through Antigua’s remaining rainforest is not to be rushed. Firstly there are several tiny towns and villages dotted along the route plus roadside shacks selling local fruits, takeaways and clothing.
Dogs, children and the occasional goat will add to the hazards plus the road winds tightly up and over the island’s spiny back before sweeping down to the southerly bays and beaches.
To really experience the rainforest, stop off at Wallings Nature Reserve for a hike to the reservoir or up Signal Hill for the 360 degree views. But if you don’t have much time just enjoy the lush tropical vegetation on either side of the road as the clouds roll in. You’ll soon be back in bright Caribbean sunshine at the end of the road.
Dally at Devil’s Bridge
A dusty, unmade road takes you to the end of Willikies Peninsula where the full power of the Atlantic rollers batter the rocky promontory, wearing over time a huge limestone archway.
Devil’s Bridge allegedly got its name from the desperation of slaves who would throw themselves off the cliff into the stormy waters below. Now a national park it has its own wild beauty – you can spend hours here, mesmerised by the crashing waves, sprayed by spume from the blowholes and spotting crabs scuttling away into the crevasses while seabirds wheel overhead.
Just take care because the rocks are pretty slippy – proper shoes advised not flip flops!
Dive into St John’s
The island’s capital city, with a population of just over 20,000, epitomises Antigua’s laid back vibe. Here you’ll meet the closest thing the island has to traffic jams and parking on street is free but a bit random.
Time your trip for when the big cruise ships are not in port and you’ll enjoy a bustling but not crowded shopping and food centre.
If you crave peace and quiet take a break in the Antigua and Barbuda Museum in Long Street then stroll a little way uphill to the magnificent cathedral of St John’s, currently undergoing a major restoration programme.
Discover the sad sweet history of sugar
Tourism is the major industry in Antigua today but for centuries it owed its commercial success to the slave-driven sugar plantations.
The island is dotted with ruins of old sugar mills but the best known is Betty’s Hope. A conservation project spanning many years is slowly bringing the estate back to life, showing how it would have been in the 17th and 18th centuries under the Codrington family.
The two windmills are partially restored but the Estate House, Boiling House and Still House (where rum was produced) remain in ruins. You can arrange a tour but most people just wander around the open air museum, exploring for themselves and enjoying the peace and quiet.
So get off your beach and into your car to spend time exploring Antigua.