By Diana Ballon
I had always wanted to visit Antigua and its sister island, Barbuda. So when I discovered that it was one of the first Caribbean countries to put mask mandates in place, and to mandate vaccinations in the entire tourism sector, it seemed like the fitting destination for my first international flight since Covid.
This may be a small nation but it affords big opportunities — to enjoy the healing powers of its seas, to navigate its trails across mountains and hills and into caves, to bask on its white and pink sand beaches, and be fortified by its delicious local cuisine.
While most people have heard about Antigua as a beach destination, hiking is another great activity on the island, which became huge during the pandemic, says Colin James, CEO of the Antigua Barbuda Tourism Authority.
With gyms and public beaches closed during lockdown, people started exploring the coastline and hills of Antigua, says James, who recommends beginning your hike early so you can see the sunrise or go after 4:30 pm and return before dark. Popular hikes are to Signal Hill, the second highest peak on the island, and to Sleeping Indian, which is a difficult 4.5 km loop trail that includes a challenging vertical climb up a rock face using ropes. This trail leads to Seaforth Beach where you can swim. Another worthy option is the Pillars of Hercules. Begin your hike from English Harbour, make your way to Shirley Head’s lookout and then follow the trails down to Galleon Beach, where you can snorkel. You can also enjoy a pool formed by sea water called Mermaid Garden, which is like a natural hot tub.
Finally, don’t miss Darby Cave if you are on Barbuda. Walk about 45 minutes each way, making time to go down into this large vertical-sided sink hole in what feels like a mini rainforest ecosystem.
Hike 365 is a National Trail Hiking Guide providing information on popular hiking trails in Antigua and Barbuda. Some hikes are difficult or not clearly marked, and may require a guide.
Despite Antigua’s small size, it has 365 pristine beaches, with one for each day of the year.
Dickenson Bay, where the Sandals Grande Antigua Resort is located, is more developed than other beaches, but is a long beach, with calm waters and beautiful white sand. Another good option is the low-key Ffryes Beach and Darkwood Beach on the west coast of Antigua, with the beautiful Tamarind Hills villas and suites on a bluff above. There is also a beautiful crescent-shaped beach at Half Moon Bay on the southeast coast of the island.
Admittedly my favourite, for pure seclusion, is Princess Diana Beach on the neighbouring island of Barbuda. Although K Club, where Princess Diana stayed, was destroyed by Hurricane Irma, you can now come for the day to enjoy lunch at Robert de Niro’s new Nobu restaurant. Or stay overnight in one of the magical beachfront bungalows at the luxury beach hotel, Barbuda Belle, which has 17 miles of beach, and is accessible by short boat ride.
I loved the Antiguan and Barbudan cuisine for its fresh seafood and many vegetable options. The national dish of Antigua and Barbuda is fungee — a cornmeal dish that is similar to polenta, and their eastern Caribbean-style of pepper pot, which is a medley of green leafy vegetables such as okra, eggplant, spinach, peppers cooked into a thick stew.
You can also find street food like barbecue pigtail and chicken, and grilled lobster on almost every part of the island. Other food endemic to this area are stewed codfish, fried plantain, boiled eggs, spinach chop up, and their sweet-tasting Black pineapple. Of course, any of this food can be enjoyed with their delicious rum punch and the national Wadadli beer.
Restaurant choices are also abundant. There are high-end options like the elegant Cove Restaurant at Blue Waters Resort and Barbuda Belle’s The Mangrove, with locally sourced fish, lobster and other seafood.
For more of a local feel, try BeachLimerz, a family owned and operated rustic beach bar and restaurant on the historic Fort James Beach, which Travelers’ Choice 2020 rated in the top 10 percentile of restaurants worldwide. Also fun are the Sunday night open-air dinners at Shirley’s Height Lookout for great barbecue, sunsets and live music.
One of the best places to snorkel in Antigua is at Cades Reef, a two-kilometre long barrier reef that is a protected area within the National Marine Reserve where I went on my Antigua Reef Riders adventure tour. Leaving from the west coast of the island, in Jolly Harbour, we drove about seven miles out into the open on a two-person inflatable boat that was like a cross between a jet ski and a Zodiac. I then donned flippers, snorkel and mask, and joined our intrepid guide Tigger as he pointed out various fish in what— felt like a private underwater world — far from big cruise boats and tour companies. I saw literally dozens of species of fish, from bright blue surgeonfish to colourful parrotfish to bloated looking pufferfish and beautiful coral and sea sponges.
Another day, we went to Sting City, where we took a boat out to a wooden platform to swim with the stingray. With the support of a guide, I managed to get my photo taken while nervously holding the underside of one of these slippery smooth creatures. Admittedly, the stingray were friendly — some describe them as “the puppy dog of the sea.” But swimming with sting ray felt like more of a controlled activity, without the feeling of expansiveness and discovery I felt snorkelling in the beautiful turquoise waters far out at sea.
If you go….
Direct flights are now available from Toronto to Antigua on West Jet and Air Canada. From Antigua, you can take a 2-hour ferry to Barbuda, or a short flight by plane or helicopter.
For more information, see https://visitantiguabarbuda.com.