Monday, 4 March 2019

Five Reasons To Put Antigua On Your Travel Bucket List.

It's been over a year since I went to Antigua so this may be one of the most overdue posts I've ever written. I really fell in love with the island though and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. Although I'd previously been to the Caribbean (I went to Barbados in 2005) I have to admit that Antigua wasn't really somewhere I'd considered visiting before - but there are a whole host of reasons why you should get it on your travel bucket list ASAP!

I visited Antigua, the larger island from the nation of Antigua & Barbuda, in February 2018, travelling there with my husband's parents, sister, nieces, and aunt and uncle. Not with my husband though, as he was busy rowing there as part of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. In order to raise funds for the Firefighters Charity, Blair and his brother Kris (aka Team Noble) rowed 3000 miles from La Gomera in Tenerife to English Harbour in Antigua, on a 23ft boat. They were at sea for a total of 55 days, 1 hour and 54 minutes, finally arriving back on land on February 7th - and we were all there to greet them. (If you're interested in their experiences at sea, there's a short documentary you can watch here).

Anyhoo, while rowing an ocean for charity is all very noble (see what I did there?), what is much more important is that I got to spend two weeks in the sunshine (I'm kidding... sort of). So what was it that made me fall so deeply in love with Antigua? 

The beaches

Antigua isn't large - in fact, it is only 281km² - but it boasts 365 beaches, one for each day of the year. Each of them has its own appeal, and if I could spend a full year visiting each of them and extolling their virtues - believe me, I would. Out of the handful I visited, my favourites were probably Pigeon Point Beach and Turners Beach. With incredible turquoise waters that no photos can do justice to, these pristine beaches are pretty much irresistible. If you're looking for a tropical getaway, you can't get better than Antigua. There are so many beaches that you're bound to find the perfect sandy shores for you - whether you're looking for a family-friendly retreat, something deserted and peaceful, or the best place for swimming and water-based activities. Seeing as winter is a great time to visit (it's outside of hurricane season for a start), these beaches are the perfect place to be when the cold weather sweeps the UK (I have definitely been dreaming of them over the winter period).

The people

I feel like the Caribbean is quite well known for having very friendly, helpful and kind people living there, but this is especially true in Antigua. We were constantly getting tips on places to visit from taxi drivers or sharing a joke with staff in restaurants. From the moment we arrived, we were greeted with smiling faces wherever we went - even at border control which is not usually known for being the most welcoming of places! Local people were also a huge part of supporting Kris and Blair's arrival after finishing the row - it was so lovely to see people who didn't even know us come down to the Dockyard to support everyone taking part in the race. The whole island is so welcoming and warm, without being overbearing or full of people trying to sell you things. It makes such a huge difference to your overall experience and I really noticed the difference when I stepped off the plane back in London and was immediately faced with an aggy bus-transfer driver. Take me back...

The history 

Antigua was colonised by the English in 1632, with settlers establishing sugarcane plantations that formed the basis of the island's economy for over a century. In the 18th century, Antigua became the headquarters of the Royal Navy Caribbean fleet, with Lord Horatio Nelson commanding from there. This lead to the establishment of the Nelson's Dockyard and the military fortifications on Shirley Heights. A lot of the historical buildings are still in great condition, and it is really worth a wander around the UNESCO site of English Harbour to learn more. 

Slavery is something us white people are pretty bad at acknowledging. It's incredibly important to recognise the reality of this appalling period of history and the continuing after-effects so you might be interested in a thought-provoking visit to the Betty's Hope plantation. The windmills that were used to process the sugarcane at the plantation have been restored and the area now houses an information centre as well as being a monument to the slaves who were forced to work there.

As a British person, Antigua is a stark and humbling reminder of our colonial past, and it is well worth visiting these historical sites in order to learn more about our effect on other nations.

The atmosphere

One of the highlights of our trip was visiting Shirley Heights, the military lookout on a hill above English Harbour. The perfect place to watch the sunset, on Sunday evenings both locals and tourists alike flood the place for the weekly party that has been hosted there for over 30 years. There's a huge BBQ feast, steel drum bands playing music to get you moving, and the most incredible panoramic view of the island. The atmosphere is incredible - imagine the best party you've been to and then add gorgeous weather and the friendliest crowd of people. Everyone's having a great time and you'd have to be practically a robot to be able to resist joining in. 

I also really would recommend finding a cute cafe or bar - there's nothing better than sitting on the sand with a cocktail in hand. The laid-back, slow pace of the Caribbean quickly infects you, and taking time out to just sit, stare at a view, and enjoy yourself soon becomes a way of life. If you're venturing to the north of the island, Cecilia's High Point Cafe is incredible. The location of this is so beautiful - try and grab the seats down on the beach if you can! I also really liked chilling out at Catherine's Cafe Plage on Pigeon Point Beach - we spent the evening listening to a local band and watching the sun setting over the water. Absolutely dreamy.

In general, this is a beautiful, peaceful island where I felt so safe and enjoyed every second.

The variety

Despite the small size of the island, there is such a huge variety of things to do in Antigua. We stayed in the south of the island, which was full of luxury yachts as lots of people sail across for the winter, but this isn't just a playground for people with big boats and even bigger bank balances (although if you have either of these, feel free to share with me). There are a ton of things to do, from hiking tours along the Signal Hill rainforest route, to visiting museums in English Harbour or even just doing a spot of (duty-free!) shopping in the capital, St John's. You can take a boat trip around the whole island, visit Betty's Hope sugar plantation, check out the local art galleries or visit the donkey sanctuary. If you're feeling extra brave, why not go zip lining in the rainforest? Or you could take the trip over to Barbuda, the tiny neighbouring island famous for pink(!) beaches.

If you're visiting at the end of July/beginning of August, be sure to check out the Carnival. It commemorates the emancipation of slavery and is a ten-day festival with music, pageants, parades and lots of colourful costumes.

No matter what you're looking for from your holiday, Antigua will come through for you. Whether you're looking to try new activities or just lie in the sun for a week, this country has something for everyone. If you'd like to get there without having to touch an oar, there are direct flights from London Gatwick on both Virgin Atlantic and British Airways. Think about it - only eight hours of flying between you and the island of dreams...

Have you been to Antigua, or the Caribbean? What did you enjoy most, or what would you like to do if you visit in the future?

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