A Singles Holiday in Antigua

My first trip to Antigua was a 10 day singles holiday, in a hotel at Jolly Harbour. Arrival was at the island's single airport, VC Bird Airport, named after the first prime minister, following independence, in 1981.

Jolly Harbour

The hotel itself came in at acceptable - a three star with an outdoor restaurant that was reminiscent of a holiday camp - wooden communal bench tables.

Most days, I walked down to the beach, at Jolly Harbour, to spend my time idling. The little port is one of several on Antigua which serve yachties. There is a web of small canals here (it used to be a swamp), where the boats ply back and forth. It's an interesting stroll. This is a view taken from the helicopter when I went to Montserrat, for the day. (It wasn't all idling.) You can see the harbour, the hotel, the golf course and the supermarket!

The beach was prettier then that it is now, and much quieter. ( Antigua, with Barbuda. has 365 beautiful beaches - so they say.) There were still plenty of beach bars, but the sand is exceptionally gorgeous, powdery white. Wandering down to the point, watching the seabirds on the rocks, is rewarding. I'm also on the look out for snakes, as I've read that the Antiguan racer is among the rarest snakes in the world. I'm not sure I really want to see one. And, no doubt, they're sensible enough to hide up in the hills.

St John's, the Capital of Antigua

It was a singles holiday. I spent most of the time on the beach. But I did get about a little. The capital city, St. John's. is home to 22000 people. It has a deep harbour, which can accommodate large cruise ships, so sadly (or not, depending on your point of view) it’s a thriving cruise ship port. It's also where the ferry departs for Barbuda, so I'm back here for a later trip. It's not the prettiest town from the sea, the the white baroque cathedral dominates. The church is in its third incarnation (fire and earthquake put paid to its predecessors) and its dedicated to St John, of course. There's also a little fortress, Fort James, at the entrance to the harbour, dwarfed by a mountain of container boxes.

St John's is one of the larger Caribbean metropolises, with plenty of shopping malls, as well as boutiques throughout the city, selling designer jewellery and high end goods. Fortunately, there’s also still plenty of Caribbean colour, with bright wooden buildings, markets and locals wearing Rasta hats.

There are also several museums, the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, mostly for cricket matches, a tiny Botanical Garden and the (slightly crumbling) Government House. V.C Bird has cropped up again too. There's a bust of him in the middle of town.

English Harbour and Falmouth Bay

English Harbour, on the south-eastern coast, is perhaps the most famous of the harbours on Antigua. It's a good place to visit on a day cruise. This pretty and well protected bay provides protected shelter, during violent storms and became a naval base not long after England acquired colonial British Antigua and Barbuda in 1632. It was a good place from which to keep an eye on the French navy and 'chase ye pirates'.

It is also the only harbour in the region large enough to repair big ships. It's the site of the restored 'Nelson's Dockyard'. It's named of course, (but not till the 1950s) after Admiral Nelson. Horatio Nelson, a major figure in Antigua history, arrived in the late eighteenth century, as the captain of the H.M.S Boreas, sent to Antigua to enforce British laws in the colonies. However, he got into rather too much trouble with the locals, when he tried to implement the Navigation Acts. These prohibited trade with the newly formed United States of America and most of the merchants in Antigua depended upon American trade. It put his career back a few years. The former Admiral’s House now contains the Dockyard Museum.

Round the corner is Falmouth Bay, yet another harbour. This one is where the rich and famous hang out.

Betty’s Hope

As with much of the Caribbean, Antigua rapidly developed as a profitable sugar colony. The only two surviving structures of the first large sugar plantation on Antigua are two restored and picturesque sugar mills. These have been incorporated into an open air museum at Betty’s Hope. The plantation was owned by the Codrington family who led the first British settlers.

Devil's Bridge

Another must see, on my tourist itinerary, is Devil's Bridge, a natural rock arch, near a village with the great name of Willikies. Here, as well as the arch, are natural blowholes, shooting up water and spray powered by waves from the Atlantic Ocean.

Hug a Sting Ray

I joined in with a boat trip to Stingray City. It seems compulsory now for tropical tourist areas to have these interactive ray sessions on the reef, where the fish are enticed with regular squid feedings. The rays burrow into the sand and then launch themselves against your body. They’re surprisingly velvety soft, but it’s also a strange tickly sensation. There’s much squealing. I can’t help thinking about naturalist Steve Irwin, who was killed by a ray. However, I’m told that the southern rays are so friendly that they’re known as the puppy dogs of the sea and love to be affectionate.

There were also a few bars. Maybe more than a few.

Antigua again

Flying visits again, to Antigua, when I'm Tall Ship Cruising. Then back again, from Saba and Statia, via St Kitts, so I can visit Barbuda. The ferry leaves from St John's and Antigua fills the skyline for much of the journey. Just time to visit Ocean Point and Hodges Bay - more glorious soft white, (if small), beaches, before another wistful departure.

(Read more about Antigua and Barbuda here.)

A Brief History of Antigua and Barbuda

  • Antigua was first settled by the Ciboney. Native American hunter-gatherers around 3100 BC. They were followed by the pre-Columbian Arawak-speaking Saladoids and then the Caribs. Antigua is known as Waladli (or ‘Our Own) by the native population, but was named Antigua (Spanish for ancient) by Christopher Columbus, after an icon in Seville Cathedral, "Santa Maria de la Antigua" - St. Mary of the Old Cathedral. Apparently, he made a vow to name many islands after aspects of St Mary that year.
  • Barbuda is Spanish for 'bearded'. It's thought it might refer either to the male inhabitants of the island, or the bearded fig trees found there.
  • Antigua was colonised by the British, from St Kitts, and became Britain's 'Gateway to the Caribbean' in 1632. Barbuda followed, in 1678. Christopher Codrington settled on Barbuda in 1685 and was handed control of the island. at this point the island was known as Dulcina. Tobacco and then sugar was grown, on both, worked by a large population of slaves transported from West Africa, who soon vastly outnumbered the European settlers.
  • After prolonged wrangling both internal and external. Antigua and Barbuda gained full independence on 1 November 1981; Vere Bird became prime minister of the new country.

Facts and Factoids

  • Antigua and Barbuda consists of two major inhabited islands, Antigua and Barbuda, and a number of smaller islands. including Redonda, Guiana Island, Bird Island, and Long Island
  • Antigua measures around 108 square miles (280 square km). It is mostly low and undulating, but in the west there are volcanic rocks that rise to 1,330 feet (405 metres). There are no rivers.
  • Barbuda, formerly called Dulcina, sits 25 miles (40 km) north of Antigua. It is a flat coral limestone island and it receives less rainfall than Antigua. Codrington is the only settlement and it sits on a lagoon to the west.
  • Redonda is an uninhabited volcanic rock, home to many seabirds. Redonda means round. Apparently, this tiny island is actually its own kingdom with its own king. A Montserratian trader called Shiellin announced this (he was the king, he said) in 1865. The island is inaccessible except by boat in the right sea conditions. It's actually closer to both Monserrat and St Kitts, than to Antigua.
  • The economy relies largely on tourism and the country is trying to position itself as a luxury Caribbean escape.
  • However, there's been a more recent income stream, as tech companies vie for addresses using the country's internet domain -.ai
  • Barbuda also exports a lot of fish, especially lobster.
  • The permanent population is approximately 100,000, with 97% residing in Antigua.
  • St. John's, Antigua, is the country's capital, major city, and largest port.
  • Mount Obama is the highest point. The name was changed from Boogy Peak (sometimes written Boggy) on 4 August 2009, when it was renamed after Barack Obama, who has his birthday on this day. The former title, Boogy Peak, came about because slave masters told the slave stories about the Boogie Man who took spirits and lived on the mountains. Their attempts to dissuade escapees weren't always successful.
  • Fungie, pronounced foon-jee is the national dish. It's cornmeal with a vegetable mash, sauce and saltfish (usually).

What To See on Antigua and Barbuda?

  • This is an economy that is very dependent on tourism, especially in Barbuda.
  • The climate, again, especially in Barbuda, is classified as tropical marine, which means that there is little seasonal temperature variation. In January and February, the coolest months, the average daily high temperature is 27 °C (81 °F), while in July and August, the warmest months, the average daily high is 30 °C (86 °F).
  •  Antigua and Barbuda claims, conveniently, to have 365 beaches, many of them beautiful. Barbuda's coast is virtually lined with beaches. 'Pink sand' and karst rock formations are found on both. Water sports abound and Stingray City is a popular excursion from Antigua. Antigua is also home to historical sites, most notably Nelson's Dockyard and old sugar mills.
  • Barbuda’s Codrington Lagoon National Park has the largest frigate bird colony in the western hemisphere. More than 2500 roost in the mangroves every year. The best time to visit is mating season, from September to April.
  • Read about my trips to Antigua here and cruising when I called into Antigua here.
  • Read about my visit to Barbuda here.

Saturday - Great Bay and a Plethora of Caribbean Martins

I've flown into Sint Maarten from the British Virgin Islands. The contrast between here and the Virgin Islands couldn't be more marked. I've gone from quaint backwaters to full on 'civilisation'. One guide book refers to this as the Las Vegas of the Caribbean. The narrow road from the frighteningly efficient spanking new airport is lined with high end shops almost the whole way. Chopard, Tiffany, diamonds abound, as you would expect, interspersed with the odd casino. Philipsburg is Cruise Ship Central. And even though this part of the island is Dutch everyone speaks English with American accents and trades in dollars. Though, here on the Dutch side, they also use the pre-euro florins.

Sint Maarten, The Friendly Island - in a Nutshell

  • Most of the Caribbean islands round here (Leeward and Windward) were named by Columbus. (Actually he named Nevis St martin but the name was accidentally transferred.) Sint Maarten was discovered on the feast of St Martin. It's a teeny island, unusually divided into Saint Martin and Sint Maarten, a bit of the Netherlands and a bit of France.
  • The island was nominally a Spanish colony, but the Dutch found it a convenient halfway point between their colonies , settled there and began mining salt. After ongoing tussles the Spanish repossessed the island and then abandoned it again. Now it was the turn of the French and Dutch to fight over the land. The Dutch colonists came from St. Eustatius, while the French came from St. Kitts. Eventually, but nota ta all amicably despite the document's name, they signed the Treaty of Concordia in 1648, which divided the island in two.
  • Both French and Dutch imported large numbers of African slaves to work the plantations, but as their numbers grew, the slaves staged rebellions, and in 1848, the French abolished slavery in all their colonies including the French side of St. Martin. Slaves on the Dutch side of the island protested and threatened to flee to the French side to seek asylum. The local Dutch authorities then had to follow suit or slaves just escaped to the other side of the island.
  • The Dutch section of the island takes up just under half of the land area.
  • Sint Maarten is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, along with the Netherlands, Aruba and Curaçao. countries
  • Sint Maarten is dubbed The Friendly Island.

Today's beach is Great Bay. The hotel and sands are ultra-boutique, white canvas umbrellas, rattan chairs and piped saxophone - from seven in the morning. Hulking ships monopolise the horizon. I can see the sailing clipper I am booked to travel on for the next week bobbing around behind them. It looks really tiny in comparison. The quay where it is moored is called Dock Maarten - really.

And now perhaps I should go get a Martini?

Caribbean Cruising On Board the Star Clipper

One of the three tallest ships sailing the seven seas. It's all very - well, nautical. Brass and wood with navy and gilt upholstery, and lots of knots. They haul the sails up ceremonially every day to the Van Gelis 1492 theme tune. It's surprisingly moving, though there isn't much wind and we use the engines most of the time. I'm secretly quite glad. The sails are very picturesque, but I'm told the tall masts make for a lot of rolling if the sea is remotely rough.

The crew are very cosmopolitan - Filipino waiters, Goan sailors, Eastern European officers, Swedish Vikings on the sports team. It's their job to entertain us at night as well as look after us during the day. They deliver an amateur variety package, including comedy sketches and a fashion show, involving a surf board. The passengers are mostly retired Americans. Others are English, French, German, I'm the only single on board.

Sunday - Nevis - Pinney's Beach

We've reached Nevis overnight, so today it's Pinney's Beach. Columbus thought the central volcano looked as if it had snow on it (nieve), so that's how it got its name. Last time I was here I got the ferry over from St Kitts and explored the tiny main settlement of Charlestown. It’s very colonial, but then so are both islands, They were 'The Mother of Colonies'.

More plantation houses, sugar mills and forts than spectacular coasts. The beach here is pretty, but narrow. There’s not a lot of shade, unless I wander up to the one hotel, and the sports team forgot to bring the umbrellas. So I get the tender back to the ship and lounge on the deck, by one of the two wedge shaped swimming pools. Most of the Americans are very friendly. I know everyone's life history already.

Monday - Dominica - Cabrits Beach

Dominica (named as it was discovered on a Sunday) is famed for its natural beauty and lush foliage.

I skirt Cabrits Beach – it’s black volcanic sand - on my way up into the mountains for a nature hike in the rainforest. There are very few buildings, certainly more vegetation than habitation.

Dominica, Nature Island of the Caribbean -in a Nutshell

  • Dominica is nicknamed 'Nature Island of the Caribbean'. It is purported to have 365 rivers, one for each day of the year. Though no-one seems to have checked this convenient number. This is another island that passed from French colonists to the British. It became independent in 1978.

Unfortunately, the guide puts in a no show and so do most of the birds. It’s damp and misty, more Jurassic Park than cheerful Caribbean. There is forest, stretching as far as the eye can see, with just glimpses of cobalt ocean. The canopy stretches above. There are tree roots like the flanges of giant wheels and lianas tangle around them.  The odd hummingbird zigs in and out. Any chance of an additional sighting is thwarted by the shrill tones of Claire from Key West. I don't think she pauses for breath once, on the whole circuit.

I go to avail myself of a relaxing massage on the upper deck when I get back. But I can still hear her squeaking away in the bar below.

Tuesday - Les Saintes - Anse Crawen

Les Saintes are nine weeny islands (two are inhabited), which are part of Guadeloupe. They are very green and very hilly. Today's beach is Anse Crawen, on the quietest part of Terre-de-Haut Island, There is a log to perch on, plenty of sand flies and some reasonable snorkelling round the headland. As on most cruise ships, there's no shortage of food. There are always snacks available and you can order what you like from the dinner menu. Tonight, I have three main courses.

Wednesday- Guadeloupe - Caret Island

First of all, I'm famous. There was a trivia quiz last night where you had to run up and beat a drum. As most of the questions were geographical I won fairly easily, seeing off the French and the Germans. So today everyone is congratulating me. That wouldn't have happened in the UK, where I would have been ostracised as a ‘know all.’

The ship has taken us to Guadeloupe proper. We've docked at the little town of Deshaies, on the northwest tip of the butterfly. It's famous as being the location for the filming of Death In Paradise, which regularly features the gorgeous local beaches. The distinctive red steepled church dominates the skyline, but it’s a short acquaintance.

We pile into a creaky bus and zip across the top of the butterfly wing, to Sainte Rose, to pick up a little motorboat. Thence, sputtering through a scattering of mangroves, eyed warily by pelicans and egrets perched on almost every available branch, to a proper little reef and some decent snorkelling. Then lunch on minuscule Caret Island, so swathed in palm trees we have to be seated on lashed wooden poles laid on the sand. Classic Robinson Crusoe.

Guadeloupe - in a Nutshell

  • Guadeloupe is not a country, but is an overseas département and region of France, so the currency is the euro and flights to France are 'domestique' .
  • The archipelago contains many islets and four inhabited islands, other than Les Saintes.
  • The original colonial name (bestowed by Columbus) was Santa María de Guadalupe.
  • The two main islands, Basse-Terre (west) and Grande-Terre (east), form a butterfly shape.

Then, dinner with the captain. This involves a lot of champagne (before he goes onto scotch) and conversation that refuses to veer from politics, ships and alcohol. He's from Ukraine and is clearly still mourning the demise of the Soviet Union.

Thursday - Falmouth Bay - Pigeon Beach - Antigua

I've been in Falmouth Bay before - it's just round the corner from English Harbour and is the Caribbean Mecca for yachts belonging to the rich and famous. The main pastime is trying to guess who owns what. And I'm feeling a little queasy, as the ship is rolling something rotten, there's been a swell all night. Antigua is a country of beguiling bays and is reckoned to have 365 beaches (that convenient number again), so there is nothing for it but to head to nearby Pigeon Beach, which is yellow and gorgeous, and laze on the sand.

Friday - St Barthelemy - La Plage de St Jean

St Barths is a replica of the Côte d'Azur. The capital, Gustavia, is full of high end shops - and beautiful people. La Plage de St Jean has sand floored beach bars, plush hotels and the whitest sand, with water for which the word aquamarine was invented. The beautiful people parade up and down in their designer gear. It is très, très chic, with prices that are très, très high to match.

Alongside the beach, is possibly the world's smallest and scariest airport. The air taxis come in over the road which runs across the top of the island (the cars have to stop) and bump down the hill to the beach. When they take off, they zip straight over our heads, accelerating madly in a bid to gain height, before they hit the sea. It's a local pastime to sit in the water and watch them; it's a bit like playing Russian roulette.

Our last night on the boat. Much to everyone's amusement the captain asks for my email address. I think he just wants some photos.

St Barthelemy - in a Nutshell

  • St Barthelemy (named after Columbus' brother) and commonly called St Barths, is another piece of the French West Indies, an overseas collectivity. The island was a Swedish colony in Napoleonic times. Hence the capital is called Gustavia. It was the only Swedish colony in the area and the islanders voted to return to French rule when a century had passed
  • St Barthelemy was once also part of Guadeloupe, which is an overseas département of France. For this reason, it is part of the European Union and the euro is used as currency. In 2003, the people voted in favour of becoming independent from Guadeloupe and the French Parliament passed a bill granting autonomous overseas collectivity status in 2007 (at the same time as St Martin).
  • The slogan of St Barths, plastered everywhere is :Toi Là! Je t'aime! (Hey you! I love you!)

Saturday - St Martin - Grand Case

Back on dry land, in St Martin. This time nipping across to the French Side, as the border signs say. I'm getting a free ride with Bob and Sandra from Somerset, as they are booked into the same hotel. It's truly a schizophrenic island, it's much quieter over here, but still relatively built up and very clean, organised and prosperous.  There is no official border, other than the sign, but you have to make an international phone call to talk to the other side and here the first language is definitely French.

My gorgeous little hotel is right on Grand Case Beach, a large turquoise bay, with views across to eel shaped Anguilla. Grand Case is renowned for its French restaurants - about 50 of them lining the waterfront. I have views across the bay from my balcony and a nonstop natural history documentary by my door. Two straggly little dove chicks are ensconced in an untidy nest that is balanced precariously on a palm tree branch. Mummy and Daddy Dove watch anxiously from the telegraph wires, cooing loudly when I walk past. Dad forages around the hotel balconies for food and Mum arrives at regular intervals to feed her offspring or to attempt to perch on top of them, even though there really isn't enough space and it seems that she will topple out at any moment.

St Martin, the Other Part of The Friendly Isle - in a Nutshell

  • Like St Barths, St Martin was part of Guadeloupe, an overseas département of France. and it is now an autonomous overseas collectivity (from 2007). So, it is part of the European Union and the euro is used as currency.
  • It is the larger, but less densely populated part of the island of St Martin.

Sunday  - Maho Beach - Ducking Planes - a Caribbean Pastime

Today takes the three of us to Maho Beach, on the Dutch side, which is pretty, but crowded, as it offers more airport entertainment (this seems to be a Caribbean pastime).  This beach is right at the end of Princess Juliana International, so visitors get their kicks by hanging off the perimeter fence to experience the force of the slip stream as the jets take off. Some of the thrill seekers are blown right over. There are signs saying its dangerous (!) but access doesn't seem to have been restricted in any way. When planes come in over the sea to land, the voyeurs leap about, waving at the poor pilots, as they roar above us.

Monday- Marigot Bay

My trip to Anguilla is cancelled as it is raining. Not all bad news as it clears up quite quickly. It's exhausting lying on a beach bed all day and I can at least see Anguilla across the water. We eat Creole supper at a Lolo (local food restaurant) on Marigot Bay, lights twinkling on the marina.

Tuesday - Il Pleut - Orient Bay Beach

Today, it really is raining, with a vengeance. There isn't much to do on St Martin except go to the beach or shop and most of the shops are the expensive duty free kind. Orient Bay is one of the contenders for best beach on the island - there are several, but it isn't very welcoming. The damp Caribbean weather is encouraging the mosquitoes; this is slightly worrying as there are even PA announcements on arrival at the airport here warning about the dangers of being bitten. Dengue fever is more of an issue than malaria and we are told there is an increasing threat also from chikungunya fever. Neither has a cure. In addition to the usual mosquitoes there are pesky miniature versions called 'no see ums' that zip in the smallest crack the moment the door is opened.

Wednesday - Baie Longue

Today I fly to Antigua so, perversely, the weather is gorgeous. A quick stop at Baie Longue on the way to the airport, just to say good-bye. The flight is a disaster though. The Caribbean carrier plane is badly delayed (LIAT = Leaves Island Any Time) with no announcements whatsoever. Eventually it is cancelled altogether and I am squeezed onto the earlier flight, which is even more badly delayed. I arrive in Antigua minus my luggage and nobody seems very sure about where it is or how I will get it back. And it was only a 30 minute flight...I am exceedingly grumpy when I eventually arrive at my hotel sans toothbrush, well sans everything.

Thursday - Jolly Harbour, Antigua

I’m in Jolly Harbour, where I’ve also been before, but I'm still grumpy, despite the name. My hotel has definitely seen better days (it’s only two years old) and the service is decidedly indifferent. It's trying to rain again. However, there is some Caribbean cheer, as my bag arrives mid-morning and entertainment is provided by three kittens who have decided to adopt me and take it in turn to sit on my veranda.

I saunter down to the nearest stretch of sand. On the way,  I pass a large supermarket and a motley collection of shops and cafes, gathered round a small yacht basin that’s part of a large lagoon. There’s a huge hotel formed of several large blocks surrounded by an unkempt garden and a lot of wall. It has a gigantic beach café that serves copious amounts of alcohol, so everyone is indeed making merry. It’s all a bit uninviting, nowhere near as pretty as it used to be. Maybe it’s the weather colouring my vision.

TGIF in the Caribbean

A last chance to enjoy the heat and colour. It's sunny again, well naturally, as I'm on my way home from the Caribbean. Life's a beach...

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