Barbuda - What To Expect?

Barbuda 's renowned for its beaches I know, but I'm not sure what to expect from this island, which often gets dropped from its country's name, Antigua and Barbuda. It wasn't easy to afford reasonably priced accommodation. I'm hoping for tranquil relaxation, to finish my island hopping trip from Trinidad, via Saba and Statia.

Ferry to Barbuda

Barbuda is about 30 miles north of Antigua and today, the December winds have dropped and it’s not too choppy, as the larger island recedes behind my ferry from Antigua’s capital, St John’s. And I’m not inclined to be sea sick though the stench of marijuana, rising from the deck below isn’t helping my resolve. They’ve put me on the cargo ship instead of the advertised Barbuda Express catamaran. And sent me reminders with the wrong departure port and time on. Fortunately, I’m able to check. Cases and sundry crates are hidden under a couple of orange tarpaulins on the flat wooden deck below. Its going to add two hours to the ninety minute journey.

Barbuda the Beautiful

Barbuda’s nothing like Antigua, however, more the Caribbean as it was before the tourists arrived (or so I imagine). It’s coral limestone and pancake flat – it’s hard to make it out, on the horizon, until we’re very close. This is one of the most sparsely populated islands in the Caribbean. The 1800 or so population nearly all live in Codrington, the one and only town. It looks like a lattice of spaced out dwellings, with wire fenced compounds. there are Caribbean gaily painted cottages, a church, a bank and a couple of supermarkets.

The airport forms the southern border of the town. You walk off the runway into one of the side streets. Two cafes that are closed all the time. And there are a couple of restaurants - I’m told, but its hard to tell, as very few buildings have signboards. And I discover that Codrington’s not really a grid either, as I get lost every time I go out. The lack of signposts doesn’t help.

Hurricane Irma destroyed more than 90 percent of Barbuda's buildings, in 2017, and the entire population was evacuated to Antigua. By February 2019, most of the residents had returned to the island. Reconstruction is ongoing. I’m told that signs are on their way. Meanwhile, I have to try to use Google to navigate. And she’s being as tricky as ever.

I’m staying in a dinky little purple cottage. It’s wooden, on stilts, like most of the traditional houses here and it serves its purpose, except I manage to lock myself out, by twiddling the wrong knobs on my first excursion. The supermarket and fisherman’s quay are four minutes walk.

Getting Around in Barbuda

I’ve rented a car. I don’t know how legal my transaction is. No-one has even asked to see my driving licence and only cash has changed hands. The windscreen has a huge crack running across it, there are warning lights on the dashboard (‘Don’t worry, it’s only the engine overheating’), the cover is coming off the control panel in the door and it rattles like crazy.

Mind you, anything would rattle on these roads. There’s one concrete stretch from the ferry half way to Codrington and the rest is unmade and very bumpy or very old broken pitch, with huge potholes. So, slow is the order of the day. (Though I can’t be certain how slow, as the speedometer doesn’t work). Especially, as I also have to avoid the cattle, goats, chickens and donkeys. It reminds me of Turks, with its roadside cacti and aloes, salt ponds, scrubland and wandering wild asses. And, every so often, another whiff of marijuana, even in the middle of nowhere.

I say roads. There’s really only one, Route 1, which runs from Two Foot Bay in the north east, across to Codrington in the middle, down to the ferry and past the beaches in the south. It’s about 12 miles long. And the island is almost totally fringed with stunning empty beaches. I’m stopping to sample them, as I bump along.

Princess Diana Beach is the Winner

So far, Princess Diana Beach (it was called Access Beach before she came here, with Wills and Harry) is winning. A fabulous swathe of soft white sand with swirling cobalt water. And Enoch’s bar. He only serves drinks and grilled lobster (to order). The lobster (Barbuda is famous for them) is delivered by boat, fresh from the sea, whilst I watch. Then it’s placed on the smoking barbecue. Enoch, smiling, serves up a huge plateful, beautifully succulent. with baked potato. I look at it, think, that’s not bad for 30 USD and I consume it very happily. He then says, ‘Would you like the other half now?’ And he follows it up with Haagen Daaz ice cream. What more could you want?

Tales of the Unexpected

Barbuda is not what I expected. It's a hard island to categorise. It’s definitely not cheap. Cottages like mine are the economic way to visit. There are some, way more expensive, on stilts, by the sea. Other than that, there are three resorts - said to be of the expensive exclusive variety. And they’re artfully hidden away. A helicopter flits in and out of the airport strip belonging to Coco Resort, behind the Princess Diana Beach. Water taxis whizz their VIPs across the lagoon, to the west of the island. It’s a recluse’s version of Anguilla. There are restaurants like Uncle Roddy’s at Coral Group Bay, with a kitchen full of earnest chefs and an upmarket menu. And 'Oh look darling, there's a Nobu', nestling serenely, by the sand, in the middle of nowhere. Tenders from the mega yachts moored at the little wooden landing stage.

But it definitely has tranquil relaxation in abundance.

Trying to Find Two Foot Bay

Well, it's relaxing some of the time. I'm searching for the caves at Two Foot Bay, at the top of Barbuda. Google is not happy with this instruction at all. She takes me to Two Foot Bay Beach which is to the north of my goal, gorgeous wild, windswept and littered with driftwood and flotsam and jetsam. And totally deserted, which is just as well, as I realise I’ve forgotten to lock the car, when I get back from my reconnaissance mission. And then the signal drops out. to the rescue, although the caves aren't marked on here at all. The road is, however. Up to the giddy heights of 125 feet, in the 'Barbuda Highlands '. First, a quarry. This is a little alarming and I beat a careful retreat and try another route. I'm glad I persevered. Limestone has been raised and eroded to form picturesque karst pinnacles and caves, along this rugged coast. I'm not so interested in clambering up the spiky slope, to explore the caves, but the views are spectacular. There's even the ruins of a house, built up against a rocky outcrop. It’s thought it was related to the phosphate mining which took place here once. At the far end, is a sparkling sapphire bay.

The Flying Frigates of Barbuda

My most rewarding excursion here is a boat trip, into the mangrove lined lagoons on the north west corner of Barbuda. Codrington Lagoon National Park is home to the largest frigate bird colony in the western hemisphere (some say the world). More than 2,500 of the birds roost in the mangroves every year (some say 5000). And I’m here in December, right in the middle of the mating season, (from September to April).

I’ve booked with Solomon, The Pink Sand Water Taxi Man, but when I turn up, at the agreed time, I have to wait ‘five minutes’, as he’s bagged another job and another four clients are on their way. Half an hour later, five Americans turn up. (This is the Caribbean.) But the trip, across the shallow lagoon is well worth it.

The frigate birds display their very best mating performance, red chest pouches ballooned to extraordinary sizes. In between, they take to the skies, wheeling and diving. It’s their only exercise. Frigate birds have such small legs and tiny feet they can’t walk. So they either sit on a solid enough branch or fly and they need a high branch to take off. The fluffy checks have to say in their fragile twiggy nests for eight to ten months, until they are sure of being able to launch themselves into the world.

Frigate birds can’t swim either, their little feet aren’t webbed and their feathers aren’t waterproof. So, they either have to scoop up squid or fish, which are floating or resort to mugging. They’ve become adept at jostling other birds, so that they drop, or even regurgitate their catch. Then they swoop in and grab it, with their beaks.

This is much more impressive than the colony I saw on the Galapagos, though I thought that was wonderful, at the time. They’re altogether astonishing. It’s not surprising that frigate birds are also known as Man O War birds.

The Elusive Pink Sand Beach

And beyond the mangroves, where the birds are ensconced, is Eleven Mile Beach. Along with Bermuda, and a pocketful of other islands, Barbuda lays claim to pink sand. But, so far it’s been elusive. There's a beach called Pink Sand, down south by a Martello Tower fort (it was built by the British in the early 1800s, and had three cannons, it looks just like a sugar mill and is now a popular wedding venue). But as far as I can see, that beach isn’t pink at all. I've read it depends on the wave action. I know that the pink is the effect of tiny shells in the sand. Maybe they only look pink when suitably wet.

But Eleven Mile Beach really is pink. Well, in patches, as the waves swirl in and out. It’s delightful.

Problems in Paradise

What problems does this paradise pose? More No See Ums (sand flies). I’ve acquired several itchy bites. There’s music from some of the hideaway restaurants. ( I tried one called Timbuk-1. It boasts a 'casino' - several slot machines). There are also some very noisy dogs. There’s a cacophony of yipping, as I try to drift off to sleep, and it’s back again at six in the morning, with some intermittent bouts during the night.

They’ve changed my boat back to Antigua to the cargo ship again. (And sent me more reminders with a departure time that’s half an hour later than it should be.) That’s not the only problem. I’m so sad to leave. This is an utterly gorgeous place. The beaches are probably as good as those in Anguilla, which I awarded Overall Best Beaches in the Caribbean. I’m considering putting Princess Diana Beach on my Top Beaches in the World List. You could see everything I’ve visited in a day tour from Antigua. on the elusive Barbuda Express. But you wouldn’t be able to savour it. Days spent on the beach here are bliss.

(Read more about Antigua and Barbuda here.)

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.)

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