“You’ve never been in the Caribbean before and you’re starting with Antigua?” Friends say this when they hear about my upcoming West Indies debut, as though there’s a proper order for breaking into the Antilles.
“Also,” says another, “it’s An-tee-guh. Not An-tee-gwuh.”
I’m not confident that’s correct, so I make a mental note to pay attention to how Antiguans say it. What a bit of pretrip Googling turns up, other than photos of palatial resorts sprawled along beaches or plunked on rocky cliffs, is that the island nation comes in two chunks — rolling Antigua itself and Barbuda to the north, flatter and not nearly as developed, but fringed on the west by the white-and-coral 17-Mile Beach, allegedly the longest unbroken beach in the Caribbean. Antigua’s coastal claim, meanwhile, is that it has 365 beaches — “One for every day of the year.”
For someone who once suffered a mild case of sunstroke in Scotland, the prospect of virtually inescapable sunlight is both exciting and unnerving. Reservation confirmed at the small, family-owned Catamaran hotel, I pack three bottles of sunscreen (two SPF 30s and a 45), an insulated cold-water bottle, a straw hat, flip-flops, sunglasses and white linen pants like you see on folk in Caribbean travel ads. I’m eager to see what brings nearly a million visitors to this set of little Leeward Islands every year, albeit in October, a month or so before cruise-ship hoards start flowing into the capital city of St. John’s. If it simply turns out to be bright strips of sand and robin’s egg-blue water, I’ll be ready.
Antigua was Britain’s most valuable Caribbean colony by the 1700s. For protection from hurricanes and enemy navies and for access to the trade winds, there were no better anchorages in all the West Indies than the island’s southern Falmouth and English harbours, and the Admiralty turned the area into a tropical stronghold.
Today you’re more likely to see dozens of yachts flying as many countries’ flags than a fleet of British cargo and gun ships, and the coastlines are divided between forested hills, restored naval dockyards and stone forts, marinas and boutique hotels.
The Catamaran, at the head of Falmouth Harbour, isn’t a converted Georgian historic site, nor is it much like the opulent resorts from my Antigua image searches. But it’s precisely what I’d hoped: comfortable and clean, and furnished with a story all its own. Owner Feona Bailey and her children have run the inn and marina since it passed to her from her father, Hugh Bailey, one of Antigua’s great sailors.
For decades he had cared for the little retreat’s original owners, an older British couple, taxiing them around, performing repairs and running their errands, and after both had died he was stunned by a lawyer who called with news that the whole property had been left to him.
Today the lush grounds and my tasteful room relay that this place is still loved. The bed comforter is patterned like the blooming hibiscus shrubs outside, and the morning reveals a balcony view of a small groomed beach and milky-blue water opening up into the harbour. It inspires me to take a morning swim, which is how I discover that I failed to pack swim trunks.
That’s why I’ve been lazing in the Catamaran’s outdoor lounge area watching land crabs and house geckos (and wondering how long cotton shorts take to air dry) for half an hour when John Henry of J.H. & Son taxi service pulls up in his black SUV. He’s been hired to guide me around the island for the week, collect me from beaches and after boat rides. Henry is a lifelong Antiguan, a local historian and, it turns out, a riveting storyteller with a wry wit. He might be 45 or 65. He eventually tells me 67.
After a good laugh at the expense of my packing skills, Henry begins a welcome lesson on the fruit groves and plantations we’re passing on our tour of Fig Tree Drive, on the western rainforest side of the island — papaya, coconut, banana and pineapple to name but a few — how they grow and which country roads have the best fruit stands. His father was head gardener at Jolly Beach resort and a prolific farmer, and it rubbed off.
“Take that banana tree,” he says. “The plant gives you but one bunch, then it’s gotta die. The bunch is the heart of the plant. If you take a man’s heart from his chest, what’s gonna happen?”
I’ll never look at a banana the same way, I admit.
Henry talks also about the villages along our purposely roundabout route, many named for the last plantation owners on the land: Swetes, John Hughes, Bolans, Jennings. The British, who started colonizing Antigua in 1632, eventually answered Europe’s booming demand for sugar by covering the island — and many others — with sugarcane and by shipping in African slaves to plant, cut and process it. Slaves weren’t emancipated until 1834, and it was decades before many former slaves and their children benefited from their freedom, and longer still before tourism replaced the cane as Antigua’s economic mainstay.
“Take that banana tree,” Henry says. “The plant gives you but one bunch, then it’s gotta die. The bunch is the heart of the plant. If you take a man’s heart from his chest, what’s gonna happen?”
I’ll never look at a banana the same way.
We order a lunch of conch fritters at Turner’s Beach Bar and Grill on Johnsons Point, then double back to Betty’s Hope. Built on a windy hilltop in 1674 and named for the daughter of Sir Christopher Codrington, governor of the Leeward Islands, it was Antigua’s first large-scale sugar plantation. Now it’s a sobering open-air museum of ruins and two looming stone sugar mills, one fully restored. At the plantation’s peak, when there were more than 200 such mills in Antigua and 84 per cent of the island’s population was slaves, around 400 were bound to Betty’s Hope alone, and each windmill crushed two acres of cane a day. When the wind died, beasts of burden would be harnessed in to turn the huge mechanism. When they would not cooperate, slaves were set to it. As I learn this, it’s 32 C in the shade.
“People were happy to see the back of the sugar industry, which lasted long into the 1900s,” says Henry. “Even after slavery, it was a hand-blisterin’, back-achin’ job. But we want people to see this place.”
Henry shows up one morning with a mango, a bunch of “finger rose” bananas and a prickly green lump called a soursop, which he had pointed out dangling in a tree the day before. It’s filled with a soft, fibrous white flesh — the sharper, pulpier love child of a pineapple and a banana. “Now at least you’ve had a chance to taste it!” he says. “And the mangos here are pretty sweet and juicy, so don’t mess yourself up right away. I’m takin’ you to some of the best beaches in Antigua today.”
The sandy chain where I end up, on the island’s southwest side, is indeed idyllic and all but empty. But as if Henry had set the tone with the soursop, it’s tropical fruits that define the day. Between splashing around under the flaring sun and seeking palm-shade on Ffryes Beach, I’m approached by a local selling fat bunches of pale green-shelled “guineps.” They’re shiny and smooth, and about the size of Brussels sprouts.
“They look delicious, but I don’t have cash right on me,” I say, honest on both counts. My shorts are still dripping.
“That’s a’right. Enjoy somma these anyway,” he says, squeezing the salmon-pink flesh from its casing and into his mouth to prove they’re safe. Then he drops three clusters on my towel and saunters off.
The edible part of a guinep is a layer of tangy sweet pulp around a large seed, and I shuck a branch’s worth on the 10-minute walk between Ffryes Beach and busier Coco Beach. When my tongue can take no more I soothe it with the rich water straight out of a green coconut, expertly macheted and topped off with a generous shot of “bush rum” and a straw. The young man wielding the machete — who introduces himself as Damien O’Connell Lynch — is camped out under a palm with a table, a coconut stack and an unlabelled bottle of the brown rum. He says he infused and aged it himself, for one and a half years. “A family recipe,” he smiles, and starts hacking at another of the head-sized fruits for the next customer.
Sautéed calamari and gin and tonics follow at nearby Cocobay Resort’s elevated and alfresco Sheer Rocks restaurant. It’s one of the finest views of the trip — Technicolor greens and blues and the occasional bolt of white foam as a Sea-Dooer dashes along below. The high point of the neighbouring island of Nevis sits in the distance. The local squid is light and delectable, but the constant produce intake has curtailed my appetite for more from the popular tapas menu.
That doesn’t surprise Henry when he returns, recalling the childhood he shared with 10 brothers and four sisters.
“There was a time when 99 per cent of what we were eatin’ were fruits and vegetables,” he says. “Guavas were plentiful to us, avocados, papayas, mangos, oranges, bananas, carrots, the prettiest cucumbers and tomatoes. The only time you’d feel hungry was before dinner, because you were home and you could smell the fish. But no one ever went hungry. If you did, it was your fault.”
The days more or less flow by like a warm current: sunny breakfasts at Pillars Restaurant in the Admiral’s Inn and Gunpowder Suites overlooking English Harbour; a catamaran voyage north to Barbuda to wander a fraction of 17-Mile Beach and be surrounded by a protected colony of magnificent frigatebirds; bobbing around in bright blue waves, reapplications of sunscreen and always more fruit.
But on the last evening, there’s no option but the Shirley Heights Sunday Barbecue Party. The historic site, a former British military lookout and gun battery, was co-opted more than three decades ago for this weekly event, and partygoers start arriving at 4 p.m. to listen to a traditional steel drum orchestra and celebrate the knockout sunset view of English and Falmouth harbours from the 150-metre-high perch.
Spiced rum punch and piña coladas flow, and long grills are piled with jerk pork, ribs, chicken and lobsters. After dark, a live reggae and soca band takes the stage and dancing begins.
By all accounts, the Sunday Barbecue Party is one of the biggest “limes” in the Caribbean, and while it might sound like a cut-and-dried tourist trap, Shirley Heights is teeming with sunburned foreigners and locals alike. Antiguans know — and revel in — what they have here. The lime is a perfect distillation of their compulsive hospitality and the island’s farmed, wild-picked and fresh-caught bounty.
As we leave Shirley Heights, I remember to ask Henry about the correct pronunciation of Antigua. I’m pretty certain he’s been saying it both ways, story dependent. It’s not a simple answer, and involves Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage for Spain, his naming the island after the church Santa María la Antigua back in Seville and so on. “So An-tee-gwuh is Spanish, and was always the way,” says Henry. “But once we get around to later generations and everyone’s speakin’ English, they mostly drop the U. It’s still all right to say -gwuh, but if your friends say -guh, don’t be lookin’ at them hard, ’cause you know what? They’re right too.”
That’s good enough for me, and I promise not to look at my friends too hard. Pronunciation aside, I add, it will be hard to leave the island tomorrow, and not because I haven’t seen 365 beaches.
“Well, you can always come back,” says Henry. “It’s always like this here. As long as you’re on the island, no matter who you are, Antiguans want you to know that Antigua is also yours.”