St. Johns – Antigua and Barbuda
With almost 100 miles of coastline and literally hundreds of beaches Antigua certainly delivers to all those looking for the white sands and azure seas aspect of the tropically idyllic. However, this compact land mass of the Leeward Islands is so much more than just and has plenty of the naturally magnificent kind –from rain forests to coral reefs teeming with marine life. There are seemingly 101 ways to explore this loveliness too with hiking, biking, snorkeling, horseback riding, zip-lining, boat cruising and cycling just a small selection on the menu of choices. The human history of this island where the Caribbean Sea meets the mighty Atlantic Ocean has left behind all kinds of fascinating remnants. Ruled over by the British for 350 years, evidence of this colonial past can be seen in forts and hilltop gun batteries as well as amid the ruins of sugar plantations and in the beautiful architecture of churches and former mansions. Like much of the Caribbean, slavery and the heart-rending histories wrapped within this era are also part of the Antigua story and the descendants of these people have infused the island with a distinctive heritage evident in its cuisine, music and traditions.
The colonial era has also given Antigua a UNESCO World Heritage Site –the beautiful Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour. Here you can wander amid exquisitely restored Georgian buildings from the 1700s and walk in the footsteps of Admiral Lord Nelson whose fleet commandeered the port in the 18th century.
St John’s, the island’s capital, is a tapestry made up of historical candy-colored wooden buildings which have often been lovingly restored, a picturesque waterfront where tiny boats bob in the Trade Winds breeze and a general air of Old World charm. Things to see and do here range from hunting down bargains at the duty-free Heritage Quay, discovering both the pre-Columbian and colonial past at the national museum and eating and drinking your way through everything from rum punches to gourmet-standard seafood feasts.
No matter how you intend to invest your hours on this idyllic island there is no doubt you will leave it with incredible memories, not least of all of the warmth and welcome offered to visitors from the people who call Antigua home.
A Morning in St. John’s
Antigua is an island woven together from various cultural elements and historical chapters –each of which has left something behind.Two of the easiest ways to explore the island story is by heading to one of the colonial British forts followed by a visit to the national museum. If you have time you can also include the capital’s cathedral where spectacular views await.
Just as with so many other Caribbean islands which were claimed as prizes by formerly great colonial powers, Antigua’s settlers made every effort possible to keep their treasures safe. On Antigua it was the English and their measures to defend the island and repel any attacks can still be seen today in the shape of old forts, ramparts and other military fortifications. For various reasons the colonial military leftovers of Antigua have not been as carefully preserved or restored as they have been on other Caribbean islands and several today are used to house restaurants, entertainment venues or have otherwise been turned into something else. The remainder of the leftovers are usually little more than ruins dotted about the landscape but these atmospheric places are nevertheless often worth a visit.
Fort James –named for the English king at the time, King James II –was erected in the early 1700s at St John’s harbor entrance and is one of the best (if not the best) examples to be found on the island that clearly demonstrates the colonial might of the past. Although it was never large, this fort at its strongest housed 75 men, kept constantly on standby should the need for defensive action arise.
Morning Coffee in St. John’s
When you have finished your explorations of one of the city’s atmospheric colonial leftovers you can head back to downtown St, John’s to decide where to take your morning break. If you want to continue with the historic theme head to Hemingway’s Caribbean Cafe which is housed inside a wooden house from the 1800s. Here you will find a lovely little first floor balcony which catches the breeze and overlooks the streets. Inside the bright space is dotted with tables covered in homely gingham tablecloths while colorful artwork adorns the walls. Both hot and cold drinks are offered here along with warm and welcoming staff and all kinds of snacks if you need refueling before continuing your Antigua day.
Should you prefer to swap a street-watching view for an exceptionally lovely waterside spot make your way to the Harbour View Bar and Cafe. Waterfront spots are something of a rarity in the city center but from the covered open-sided balcony above the wooden pier here you have a prime seat to watch the watercraft both tiny and huge coming and going. Despite its highly sought after location the drinks here are reasonably priced and the staff have something of a reputation for great customer service. There are some sweet and savory coffee accompaniments on offer with the rum cake consistently raved about by past customers.
Museum of Antigua and Barbuda
After a while spent people or watercraft watching with your morning coffee you can head out into the St. John’s streets to continue your day. Just a few minutes’ walk from either Hemingway’s or the Harbour View cafe will bring you to a beautiful and impressive building which once served as a colonial courthouse and is believed to be the oldest remaining structure in the city. Dating from 1747, this white portico building today is home to the excellent Museum of Antigua and Barbuda which takes visitors on a journey through time. The museum covers the story of the twin islands of Antigua and Barbuda from their geological birth millions of years ago when they were one land and not two islands, through the history of the Amerindian cultures and colonialism and on to independence in the 1980s after more than three centuries of British ownership.
Organized into themed exhibits such as ‘Archaic Age Tools’, ‘Basketry’ and ‘Plantation Life’, the museum is home to a fascinating and diverse collection of artifacts, much of it unearthed during archaeological digs.
Some of the highlights include a real-scale pre-Colombian era Arawak house reconstruction, locomotives which were once used on the sugar cane plantations, old photographs of the grand courthouse and an ancient dug-out canoe. Despite having such a wealth of treasures, for many Antiguans on this cricket-loving island perhaps the most precious of all the exhibits here is a bat which once belonged to Viv Richards. Generally considered to be one of the greatest cricketing batsmen who ever lived, Viv Richards was actually born in St. John’s and spent the first 20 years of his life here before finding international fame.
St. John the Divine Cathedral
During their 350 years of rule on Antigua the British left behind nor just military fortifications but a wealth of buildings both beautiful and grand along with a collection of churches. The most famous and striking of these is the capital’s cathedral which majestically perches atop a hill. Just a short four minute walk from the museum, it is definitely worth making time for just before you break for lunch.
The original two churches which stood on this site both succumbed to earthquakes in the 17th and 18th century; the third –this twin-towered baroque-styled building you see today –dates from 1845. The iron gates which give entrance from the south side pre-date the current cathedral. Erected in 1789, the gates are adorned with bronze statues representing St. John the Divine and St. John the Baptist and which, so the story goes, were forcibly seized from a French vessel in the 1700s by an English ship.The magnificent interior, which many liken to a ship because its entirety is made up of glowing pine-wood, has been beautifully restored in the last few years. The marble tablets which you will see adorning the walls are another feature which predate the current building, actually salvaged from the churches which stood in this location previously.
Even if you have no interest in ecclesiastical architecture it is worth visiting this spot if for no other reason than to take in the magnificent panorama of the island which is the reward for all who venture here.
Lunch in St. Johns
Like several of the Caribbean islands, Antigua has earned itself something of a reputation as a culinary destination, not least of all because of the abundance of seafood in its surrounding waters. Along with fresh produce and a wealth of Caribbean flavorings, the islanders are also known to be both passionate and joyful about preparing food and this is something which is made typically evident no matter whether the venue is a humble shack or a grand restaurant. All of this adds up to wonderful dining experiences for visitors.
While the capital has a collection of eateries in every guise there are several areas within super-easy access of the city which offer alternatives too. Closest of all these is the lovely Dickenson Bay area just 4km up the coast where, at the lovely pink, white and black Ana’s Restaurant,you can lunch right at the beach. Also operating as an art gallery, this beach-living-relaxed but stylish and elegant venue has a lovely shaded terrace which catches the breeze and also a scattering of daybeds and tables for those who want to be right on the sands.
The menu has something of a Mediterranean theme with offerings such as pastas and risottos but there are also curries, salads and more and, as is typical on the island, succulent seafood plays a major role.
Another tropically dreamy destination to head for lunch and just five minutes by taxi from St. John’s is Dutchman’s Bay. One of the choices here is where the views are full of turquoise sea, the music a jazz serenade and the customers a mix of locals who return here time and again along with visitors who have been lucky enough to stumble across it. Named for its Swedish owner, Cecilia’s may be distinctly casual but the dishes are crafted with painstaking care with an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients and flavorful plates. The daily specials board is dictated by whatever catch has come straight from the boat that morning and is typically made up of a diverse choice while fixed-menu favorites include such things as lobster Catalana and the salmon pasta
This fabulous beach-front lunch spot offers both a choice of deck or tables and sofas placed directly on the sand and if you have the energy afterwards you can take a stroll along this private and tranquil stretch of beach to work off any lunch excess.
An Afternoon in and Around St. John’s
One of the great joys of Antigua’s small size – just 11 miles across and 14 miles from top to bottom–is that exploring anywhere on the island is easily achievable and despite its compactness this is a destination which manages to pack a lot in. So much so that it isn’t possible to cover all there is to see and do on the menu of possibilities in one day but the following offers a choice of three exceptionally wonderful but very different ways you might choose to spend your afternoon hours.
Just 20km from St. John’s can be found the lovely English Harbour which is perhaps even more of a popular destination than the capital itself thanks to a marina where glamorous yachts bob around, a collection of souvenir shopping opportunities, colonial forts and a string of wonderfully placed harbor bars. However, the jewel in its crown is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Nelson’s Dockyard whose rich history includes a three year chapter from 1784 when Admiral Lord Nelson used the port to command his British fleet during the Napoleonic wars with France. Today the site is a fantastic collection of painstakingly restored Georgian buildings, the earliest of which date from the 1700s. All are home to craft shops, hotels or tourist-centered concerns which together have enough to keep you busy for rather more than the afternoon hours you will be giving it.
You can simply stroll this area gazing upon the beautiful buildings and hunting down some gifts or souvenirs or you can rest your legs and watch the world go by at one of the charming restaurants surrounded by the splendors of the past. If you want to use your time to learn something of the area’s history you can visit the Dow’s Hill Interpretation Center or the naval-themed Dockyard Museum which is home to a telescope once owned by Nelson. For those who don’t mind expending a little energy your entrance to Nelson’s Dockyard also includes a free visit to Shirley Heights which is arguably the island’s most spectacular look-out point. With breath-taking views which encompass both English Harbour and Falmouth Harbour and reach as far as the island of Montserrat, Shirley Heights is also the site of a former gun battery and military ruins dating from the 1700s. Should you feel in need of some refreshment after your exertions stop off at the aptly named Lookout Bar and reward yourself with a rum punch.
The island’s plentiful supply of circling reefs, crystal clear waters and an underwater environment teeming with marine life together add up to idyllic snorkel conditions. Not surprisingly this is a popular pastime on Antigua and opportunities abound whether you want to go exploring independently or with a guide and there is even the possibility of such things as kayak and snorkel combinations. Of the various different ways to have a snorkel adventure perhaps the most exciting of all is to take the helm of your very own 2-seater inflatable. Heading out from Jolly Harbour, the Reef Riders tour guides you to Cades Reef, generally considered to be the premier pick of the snorkeling sites. The lovely journey along the south coast is a highlight in itself before you don flippers, snorkel, mask and buoyancy belt to enter into an underwater world full of color and life. As the largest of the island’s reefs and a protected zone, Cades has a great diversity of marine life and with a water clarity which can make 30m visibility possible on the best days you will not be short of things to marvel at.
For those who want an adventurous afternoon but prefer to keep their feet dry Antigua is home to an exciting zip-line which plunges you into a lush rain forest environment. Offering you both thrills and the chance to see the rain forest from above, the Antigua Rain Forest Company’s zip-line course is made up of 13 cables which traverse the gorge, suspension bridges, aerial walkways and even a secret tree house where you can catch your breath. Part of the course leads you along ground level vine-hung trails where you will be surrounded by bird song as you pass fascinating flora and a pretty jungle rock pool.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in St. John’s and Antigua
While high quality rum and the freshest seafood might be the most famous of Antigua’s eating and drinking choices there is so much more to the island’s bar and dining scene than just this. Most definitely a destination for foodies, Antigua has something for everyone –from rustic bars for beach-lovers to sophisticated venues serving the type of gourmet quality you will be unlikely to forget in a hurry. Of course the waterside harbor-settings or views giving directly onto bleached white sands and azure seas offer dining locations as idyllic as it gets anywhere in the world.
While pretty much any drink you care to think of is probably served somewhere on the island there is no doubt that rum and rum punches are the most commonly found choice and the island’s most beloved alcoholic drink. If you want to sample Antigua’s best most will agree this can be found at Papa Zouk in St John’s itself and while this venue doesn’t have a beach or waterside view it does have more than 200 rums to choose from; the must-try punch is the establishments most famous –the Ti’ Punch. So iconic is this concoction that locals talk about it from one end of the island to the other.
If a Caribbean sunset is your aim one of the most amazing spots to enjoy it from with a sundowner to hand is Sheer Rocks a few kilometers south of St. John’s. Perfectly located above Coco Beach atop a west-facing bluff with terraces set into the cliffs themselves, you will have a spectacular and interrupted view of the sun dipping into the sea as the skies turn crimson and bronze.This is both a beautiful and elegant venue where the discerning gather to sip wine and cocktails on wooden decks surrounded by fragrant tropical blooms and infinity pools.
Antigua’s cuisine includes both a wealth of international choices such as Italian, French, Chinese and Swiss-German with plenty of local specialties for those who want to have an authentic island dining experience. Look out for conch dishes (similar to clams in texture and taste) and the creations based on salt fish and fungi which is the national dish of Antigua.
Where location is concerned, if you prefer to stay close to the capital to dine you have a diversity of options but other hot-spots which cluster together restaurants can be found at Dickensen Bay, English Harbour and Jolly Harbour. Besides these hubs there are countless more gems scattered around the island too.
Just a little north of Dickensen Bay and just 6km from St. John’s can be found what must surely be a contender for Antigua’s most romantic dining spot at the Blue Waters Resort’s Cove Restaurant. Cliff perched and candlelit, this open-sided venue is sophisticated enough to have a dress code and is ideal for those who want a stylish intimate dining experience with Caribbean Sea views. The menu here is relatively small but still manages to include seafood, steak, lamb, chicken and duck with a ‘Connoisseur’s Choice’ selection guaranteed to satisfy even the most discerning diner.
For those who want the lovely but prefer to swap formal for a rather more casual vibe BeachLimerZ is a wonderful option. Infused with a laid-back beach ambiance, dining at this locally-owned bistro will give you a truly authentic Antiguan experience as well as placing you right on the edge of Caribbean sands less than 100m from Fort James. Perched on stilts, breezy BeachLimerZ surrounds you with a wealth of wood while the copper light fittings are the creations of a local artisan and if you’re lucky you get live music too which might be calypso, reggae or jazz. It won’t take you long after arriving at this rather special place to understand why it is called BeachLimerZ -the term ‘liming’ used throughout the Caribbean to mean chilling out. The focus here is seafood and the owner displays a passionate commitment to creating authentic Antiguan dishes which you can wash down with the island’s very own brewed Wadadli beer or some of the most unique cocktails found anywhere on Antigua.
If you found your own little slice of paradise at Sheer Rocks and can’t bear to tear yourself away once you have enjoyed both sunset and pre-dinner drinks you don’t have to because this elegant and idyllic spot offers a diverse a la carte dinner option. The menu centers around local produce and ingredients sourced from Antiguan artisan suppliers and the restaurant offers an excellent wine list and wine pairing suggestions.
An Evening in St. John’s
Tropical nights cooled by sea breezes and enough beaches for every day of the year mean it is little wonder that after-dark on Antigua tends to center around beach side bars and eating venues in idyllic locations where diners linger over plates of lobster or after-dinner cocktails.The hubs are St. John’s, English Harbour, Jolly Harbour and Dickensen Bay but there are all kinds of other gems scattered around too from stylish bars cut into cliff faces to cozy lounges inside old historical buildings. For those who want to try their luck at the tables Antigua has a few casinos, the largest of which – King’s Casino –is centrally located in St. John’s. The table games here include the perennial classics such as roulette and poker with some island versions too such as Spanish 21 and Caribbean stud thrown into the mix. For those who prefer to sit back and watch the action you can simply order your favorite tipple at the bar and enjoy the buzz.
Quite what other entertainment you mind find during your after-dark Antigua hours will depend on when you are visiting although there is always something going on in the capital which has a fairly packed calendar of events. Perhaps you will luck into an annual festival or find yourself amid live music performances, cultural events or celebrations of heritage and history. The island’s official tourist website includes a comprehensive what’s on itinerary which encompasses everything from the smaller community get-togethers to large-scale fiestas which spark off quintessential Caribbean festivities across the island.\