Top 10 Reasons to Visit Antigua
New hotels, a vibrant food scene and historic attractions are just a fraction of what makes Antigua great.
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Antigua claims to possess one beach for every day of the year. This may or not be the case, but there’s no shortage of desirable beaches for every type of beachgoer. In fact, an entire chapter could be written about this, but for the sake of brevity, highlights include Half Moon Bay on the southern coast, often considered the island’s prettiest option. It doesn’t attract as many bodies as other beaches, although it’s beloved by windsurfers. There’s also a reef close to shore, making it ideal for snorkeling. Speaking of which, Long Bay and the Hawksbill Beaches are also great snorkeling spots. Families prefer Dickenson Bay in the north and Pigeon Point Beach in the south, as both offer calmer water, facilities and food options. Both are popular, especially when cruise ships are in port, but Dickenson can become beach central, what with its watersports, restaurants and hotels. Runaway Bay, Ffrye’s Bay (not a typo) and Johnson's Point are better bets for those who want pristine white sands all to themselves.
As Antigua’s capital, St. John’s offers plenty of ways the pass the afternoon. For starters, there’s the small waterfront shopping district of Redcliffe Quay, where 19th-century buildings, painted in primary colors and tropical pastels, are home to boutiques selling handmade crafts, clothes and jewelry, as well as restaurants. It can get crowded when cruise ships are in town. Retreat to the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, located in what’s said to be the capital’s oldest continuously operating building. Here you can learn about the island’s earliest inhabitants and history, where ancient artifacts (Arawak pottery, early tools) round out the small collection. Other points of interest include the 19th-century St. John’s Cathedral, and Betty’s Hope, a former sugarcane plantation.
Local Food Scene
Antigua possesses a vibrant local food scene with many native specialties. Pepperpot and fungee (cornmeal mixed with okra, often as dumplings) is the national dish, a filling combination of salted meat, pumpkin, spinach, squash and eggplant. Goat Water is another local favorite. In a misnomer, this goat stew isn’t watery at all, since its base consists of a flour-thickened gravy. Also look for salt fish in tomato sauce, typically served with ducana, a sweet potato dumpling. You can’t beat local lobster, conch or wahoo, all washed down with the local Wadadli beer. And don’t miss the Antiguan black pineapple, smaller and sweeter than its tropical cousins. You can find many of these staples at touristy and non-touristy locales around the island: The weekly Friday night fish fry at the Copper & Lumber Store Historic Inn covers the seafood bases, while the weekly Sunday dinner at the Shirley Heights Lookout restaurant is a great bet for jerk chicken and barbecue. Try goat curry at Miracle’s South Coast Restaurant, and pepperpot at Suga Beez Restaurant & Bar.
Though waterbabies will find all manner of watersports here, as with most islands, Antigua excels at snorkeling, windsurfing, scuba diving and sailing. Snorkelers have their pick of beaches: Long Bay, Hawksbill Beaches, Pigeon Point and Darkwood Beach. You need a boat to access Green Island, Paradise Reef, Windward Reef and the Pillars of Hercules — a looming limestone rock formation with cave openings —but their colorful marine life (coral reefs, sponges, lobsters, barracuda) is worth it. Windsurfers head to Half Moon Bay for its rough waves just beyond the reef. Newbies can take lessons at the nearby 40Knots Wind Action and Sun on Green Island. Many resorts offer scuba diving, but there are also companies around the island that offer dive certification and tours. Popular sites include Cades Reef, Red Rocks, Black’s Point and Pillars of Hercules. Sailing is also a way of life on Antigua; every year the island holds the Annual Classic Yacht Regatta (April 18-24, 2018), followed by the annual Antigua Sailing Week (April 28-May 4). Those who want to join in on the fun can arrange a sailing excursion, or, even better, take sailing lessons at places like Horizon Yacht Charters.
The Historic English Harbour
One of Antigua’s major attractions, the historic English Harbour offers something for everybody. Nelson’s Dockyard National Park, the largest in Antigua’s National Park System and a newly minted UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains the Dockyard Museum, a one-time Admiral’s House that details the harbor’s history; a marina and working dockyard; and shops, restaurants and hotels housed in buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Elsewhere in English Harbour you’ll find 17th century Fort George and 18th century Fort Berkeley; the popular Galleon Beach, good for watersports; and Shirley Heights, a former military lookout point. Besides offering unparalleled harbor views, Shirley Heights has also become synonymous with its weekly Sunday night barbecue, attracting revelers from around the island for jerk chicken, rum punch and steel drum bands. For more tasty meals, try local favorite Grace Before Meals; Trappas for seafood and the scene; and Dockyard Bakery for fresh cinnamon rolls. Walk off it by hiking to the unspoiled Rendezvous Bay beach.
Antigua Rainforest Zipline Tour
The popular Antigua Rainforest Zipline Tour caters to all levels and abilities. The simplest involves six zip lines and is best for all ages. The lines range from 52 to 328 feet long, propelling thrill-seekers above the rainforest canopy and across a gorge. There’s even a treehouse rest stop and an optional vertical descent. The next level tosses in 13 zip lines and three aerial walkways. Ultimate adrenaline junkies will love the challenge course, with its 12 zip lines and nine other challenging course features. Those who have trouble choosing just one activity can opt for combos that add either kayaking, swimming with stingrays or riding a jeep on the beach.
Even though Antigua has no shortage of destination hotels, you can look forward to some new additions in the near future. The luxe Hodges Bay Resort and Spa, opening this summer, is the first hotel on the island from the Elegant Hotels Group. The design aesthetic is minimalist and modern, with just 79 suites, villas and homes. Besides the spa, guests can expect two pools, a fitness center and classes, in-room yoga mats, watersports, three restaurants and a rooftop bar. An unexpected feature is the ability to watch cooking demos — in your room. Waldorf Astoria fans can look forward to the brand’s first foray into Antigua with a 2020 opening along the southern coast. Down the road, plans are underway for two more major projects, but no set opening date just yet. The first is Coconut Bay Resort, a $40 million project that will be under the prestigious Marriott Autograph Collection umbrella. The second involves redeveloping Half Moon Bay, eventually adding a five-star beachfront resort.
Horseback riding on the beach is de rigueur for even passing horse enthusiasts. Island Routes leads rides to the 18th-century Fort James, a historic fort that once guarded St. John’s Harbour; and of course along Antigua’s famed white sand beaches. As a win for everyone, each adventure ends with a dip in the Caribbean — while still astride your horse. Springhill Riding Club is a good option for experienced riders who wish to canter along compact sands, followed by a bareback swim. Of course, beginners are welcome too.
Antigua is among a number of Caribbean islands that hold their Carnivals in the summer. This year the 12-day carnival will be celebrated from July 27-August 7, kicking off with a concert and Glow Parade, filled with decorative floats all aglow for the occasion. The opening T-Shirt Mas parade is among the more popular events, drawing around 15,000 attendees who turn out for bands wearing one-of-a-kind tee-shirt designs. Then there’s a Calypso concert and a competition to become the next Calypso Monarch, and a separate competition to become the reigning Party Monarch, another high-attendance event. With 12 days to fill, there are also competitions to choose a queen; steel drum bands; plus corresponding junior categories for the myriad contests. The whole shebang wraps with Carnival Monday and Tuesday, an all-out costumed affair with bands and carnival-goers parading through the streets, celebrating not just the end of Carnival season, but also the end of slavery.
The natural limestone formation known as Devil’s Bridge is worth a stop while en route to nearby beaches. Thousands of years of erosion created this bridge, which should merely be admired from a distance — the limestone surface is often too slippery to cross, while turbulent waves can wait below. The churning sea isn’t the only aspect to be admired from a safe distance; there are also blowholes (blasts of water from sea caves), which sometimes make an appearance.