There's something about Antigua that feels like times gone by. You know, when people treated each other with grace and respect. When strangers passed you on the street and said hello. Before the world became too over-developed and incivility was the norm. Genteel Antigua feels unspoiled, unfettered and ripe for sunny vacations and exploration.
Nestled in the middle of the Eastern Caribbean's Leeward Islands, the 108 square-mile isle of Antigua is well populated (87,000 people) but remarkably unspoiled. Perfect example: an intricate network of roadways traverse the island, yet there are surprisingly few road signs. Even with a map you can lose your way during the day, and at night, good luck. But you won't get lost. Why? Everyone is eager to give you directions. "Turn left at the pink church for the rain forest." "The Hideout Restaurant marks the road to the resort." "Veer right around the Texaco station to get to St. John."
Most of the friendly locals are people of African descent, but they were not the island's first inhabitants. The Siboney (an Arawak word meaning "stone-people") resided on the isle back in 2,400 B.C., the Arawaks reigned 35-1,100 A.D. and then the Caribs. Even Christopher Columbus stopped by in 1493, in time to name the mountainous, temperate (75 to 85 degrees year round) isle after Santa Maria la Antigua, the miracle-working saint of Seville. The English, in the 17th century, brought Africans to Antigua to work in the sugarcane fields. And today, the African heritage citizens who dominate the population speak Creole English (blend of African and English words) and English.
St. John the Capital City, the Gateway
Cruise ships dock in the northwest, in St. John, the capital city. The white baroque towers of St. John's Cathedral, built in 1845, are a beacon. Small shops, restaurants and banks (there are few ATMs on the island, get money here) line the streets. To view remnants of Arawak culture, colonial artifacts and an Arawak house replica visit the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in the Court House (circa 1750). Farmers bring their produce to the Friday and Saturday morning markets. St. John has the history, but the magic of the island unfolds once you leave town.
The West Coast
As you head out on island, paradise comes into view. West of St. John, when you drive your rental car past a string of neighborhoods, the road heads to Galley Bay Resort. A duck-friendly lagoon separates a small island with a three-quarter mile oatmeal-colored beach. Cross a bridge and there's 40 acres of land, dense with tropical trees (palm, coconut, date), flowers (hibiscus, frangipani, oleander) and impeccably landscaped grounds. Ninety-eight lushly appointed suites, many with sliding porch doors right onto the shoreline where waves rhythmically ebb and flow, offer adults refuge. No children. Mature couples. A smooth, vibe and serenity graces the resort.
The paper-thin flapjacks for breakfast at Sea Grape, the main outdoor dining room, are delectable. At Ismay's, the formal restaurant, start with the pressed duck liver with smoked beef brisket; segue to grilled beef filet mignon and shrimp. You'll be served a Lemon Cello (lime juice and rum aperitif) in between that main course and desserts like passion fruit and crimson grape cheesecake terrine. Easily the most romantic dining experience is at the outdoor eatery Gauguin, where each table sits under its own straw hut umbrella. Red snapper filet is fried to perfection and served on a bed of stir-fried vegetables with yellow rice and you have to follow it with Antigua bread pudding and a scoop of sorbet. For lunch Gauguin is picturesque, at dinner under the stars it's an aphrodisiac.
You can always bicycle or jog around the property or feed the ducks. A tennis court is there for the asking, as are water sports. Swim in the pool or snorkel in the sea. Or just relax on the uncrowded beach. And when in doubt, head to the Indulge spa, where treatments take place in outdoor elevated "pods" that look like chic Robinson Crusoe tree houses. The Au Naturale Wrap (an aloe-cucumber treatment) provides instant relief for sun-damaged skin. Couple it with reflexology and you'll be in seventh heaven.
Head South to the Rain Forest
Drive down Valley Road and you'll pass the west coastline, a few villages, unspoiled views of hills that are dotted with foliage and the sea, with countless beaches and bays. The sloping geography is reminiscent of St. Croix, not quite as dramatic as St. Lucia's. And unlike St. Thomas or Bermuda, there's a lot of untouched land. Just past Pelican Island, the roadway becomes Old Road and hugs the southern shores as it heads north on Fig Tree Drive, deep into the Rainforest.
The perfect way to see the forest is from a zip-line tour, which takes around 2.5 hours. At the Rainforest Canopy Tour, 12 zip-lines zigzag above treetops. Adults who are afraid of heights make the best converts. Once you watch a seven-year old slide across those wires, you know you can tough it out. You'd think the most awe-inspiring feat is the zip-line known as the "screamer;" it's 328 feet long and 300 feet high! But there's more. You have to try the 35-minute Ropes Challenge Course, an obstacle course with ten events that includes walking on a high wire 50 feet above the ground. Sounds scary, and it challenges your upper body strength, but when you finish you feel like you can conquer the world.
Go East to a Cozy Ecological Resort
Head north, turn left at Our Lady of Perpetual Help church (aka the Pink Church), then east and you'll reach Indian Town Point. Situated in what was once a nature preserve, is the eco-friendly Verandah Resort & Spa. In stark contrast to Galley Bay, this family friendly, 30-acre oasis is bordered by Devil's Bridge National Park. Children play in the Antigua's largest fresh water pool, adults lounge at two reef-protected beaches where the water is as smooth as a baby's bum. Kayaking, windsurfing and paddleboats abound. Golfers take off for the 18 holes at Cedar Valley Golf Club, the island's only championship, 6,157 yard, par-70 course.
When the sun descends in the sky, guests head to the mini golf course or smack some tennis balls around with the gregarious resort pro Quame, who has a very consistent and deadly forehand. Relax and stimulate body and mind with a Thai Yoga Massage at the Tranquility Spa.
On Tuesday nights at the Seabreeze restaurant, Caribbean food becomes the cuisine of choice with salt fish fritters, roasted suckling pig, ox tail and Johnny cakes. After you've washed it all down with a Wadadli beer, you can retreat to one of the 200, 700-square foot, two-bedroom suites. Each intimate, white bungalow features a spacious verandah with an OMG view of the beaches. Hence the resort name, Verandah Resort & Spa.
The Best Beach May Be in the South
On the drive south, stop off at the Montpelier Sugar Factory, or at Half Moon Bay, but make your final destination Indian Creek Point and the 100-acre, venerable St. James's Club Resort & Villas which sits on a peninsula. On the north side, waves churn and pulsate at Coco Beach, which is ripe for snorkeling. On the south side, at Mamora Bay, the still waters and a large crescent beach make this shoreline arguably Antigua's most envied.
Celebrities like Denzel Washington, Martina Navratilova, Maria Shriver and the late Whitney Houston have stayed in the spacious suites and villas. Families, couples and singles are welcomed. Five tennis courts are available. The Mamora Dive Center hosts one- or two-tank dives at Cades Reef, part of which is now protected by Antigua's underwater park. The water is only 30 to 50 feet; the colorful sea life is unforgettable, as is the wreck of the Andes ship, which dates back to 1905.
Dine at the swank Piccolo Mondo restaurant on mussels and tomato soup with pancetta and Sardinian cous-cous, or the tender roasted rack of lamb, or the white chocolate raspberry cheese cake with a pinot grigio infused mango sauce. Yum.
Antigua is distinguished from the other Caribbean islands by its vast unblemished landscapes, its friendliness and a variety of secluded, all-inclusive resorts that each have their own appeal. Antigua has a little something for everyone.
Visit travel writer Dwight Brown at www.DwightBrownInk.com