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Antigua, Actually

Phil stopped dead in his tracks and pointed. I could just make out the dark shape against the clear breaking wave. The black sickle-shaped fin stuck menacingly out of the water. We had stalked through the warm Caribbean water to get to this point and I knew that I would only have one chance. I tore handfuls of line from the reel then cast out to where Phil had pointed to the Permit fish. The fluorescent fly landed just beyond the fish and as I pulled in the line the Permit grabbed it. I struck hard and the line zipped off the reel, then before I knew what had happened the line went slack. So near and yet…….

Fly fishing in Antigua

When you mention Antigua most people will think of beautiful Caribbean beaches or West Indies cricket. Fly fishing is not something which usually springs to mind. However, Phil’s Eco Fishing company will introduce you to the delights of fly fishing for Permit, Tarpon, Barracuda, Snook, Tuna and Bone fish. It involves an early start with a stop off at the oldest bakery in Antigua for fresh rolls. You will fish at various spots depending on the conditions and Phil will take you back to your hotel around lunch time. It is certainly the highlight of many people’s stay, especially if they have fly fished back in the UK.

When God created Antigua he obviously consulted the heavenly marketing department first. How else can one island have 365 beaches, one for each day of the year. A less well known fact is that there are only 4 official road signs on the whole of the island. This makes navigation a little hit and miss, yet this is often the best way to explore an island, especially one where the locals are so friendly and ready to point you back in the right direction.

Antigua is one of the Leeward Islands of the Eastern Caribbean and is easily accessible from the UK. Direct flights from London are available with BWIA, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Air 2000 and take around 10 hours. Bird VC International Airport sounds very grand but in reality is a rather hot, humid place lacking in facilities and air-conditioning.

The island was named after the statue of the Virgin in Seville Cathedral, Santa Maria de la Antigua, by Christopher Columbus in 1493.  However, Columbus never actually landed on the island and it wasn’t for another 139 years until Antigua was settled as a colony by the British.  Sugar production was the principal source of income, using West African slaves as labour.  Full independence was granted in 1981, with V.C. Bird Snr. as the first Prime Minister. The sugar plantations continued until 1971 when an attempt was made to utilise arable land for more varied crops. However, tourism is undoubtedly the main source of income for the 65,000 islanders.

The best way to explore Antigua is to hire a jeep for the day and only costs around £25. Don’t be fooled into getting a car rather than a four wheel drive – the roads are notorious for their crater like pot holes and many a small hire car has been known to disappear without trace!  Whilst there are precious few road signs, there are also very few roads on which to get lost and so exploring is not at all nerve-racking. On your tour of the island, stop to sample some wonderful wines at C&C Wine House by Parham Harbour. They are all imported but there are some excellent vintages to be tasted. The drive out to Devil’s Bridge  and the old fort on the east of the Island is well worth the effort, although at times you wonder if you will ever get there.  Half Moon Bay is exactly what you would expect from a Caribbean beach, picture perfect and a place to get your camera out.  The views across Willoughby Bay from the road near St. Philip’s church are also breathtaking.

Beach at Curtain Bluff Hotel

For a complete contrast to the rugged coastline and beaches, drive along Fig Tree Drive in the south of the island. Here you are in a Jurassic Park rainforest, surrounded by dense green foliage where ever you look. The road surface is such that you have no option but to drive slowly and admire the views.  The road takes you out at Carlisle Bay where you will find two of the best hotels on the island. The Carlisle Bay hotel only opened in early December and is the brainchild of Campbell Gray who also owns One Aldwych in London. They share a similar ethos of contemporary luxury and excellent service. All eighty-eight air-conditioned suites face the sea and there are six treatment rooms in the spa. This is definitely unadulterated luxury, aimed mainly at the European market.

Equally luxurious is the Curtain Bluff Hotel which is located just around the corner from Carlisle Bay, perched on a dramatic promontory overlooking two sandy beaches.  The hotel opened in 1962 and is still run by Howard Hulford. Every room and suite is built to make the most of the cooling sea breezes – there are no air-conditioning units to keep you awake at night. What sets this impressive all-inclusive resort apart from others in the Caribbean is the staff. There are only two staff who are not locals and most have worked at the hotel for years. They treat repeat guests as friends as well as guests, and vice-versa. The general manager, Calvert Roberts, started at the hotel in 1969 as a bus boy and has worked his way up. The restaurant has one of the finest wine cellars in the Caribbean with over 25,000 bottles from around the world. Another key to the success of the hotel is the discretion of the staff – they never brag about the rich and famous who stay there.

The drive up to Boggy Peak, at 1319 feet the highest point on the island, or Green Castle Hill gives fabulous views out to sea and over the sailing boats moored at Jolly Harbour.

The capital, St. John’s, is well known to cricket enthusiasts as the home of the Antigua Recreation Ground (ARG) where the West Indies usually play the Fourth Test in their home series. This was the ground where Brian Lara scored his world record 375 runs in 1994. The first Test Match was staged in 1981 and saw its first world record. Against England, Viv Richards scored the fastest century (off 56 balls) in Test history. He now lives within a stones throw of the ARG. Although there are no official tours of the ground, a friendly chat with one of the groundsmen usually elicits a much more interesting unofficial tour and the chance to stand on the square and go behind the scenes.  There are two well-known Antiguan characters who deserve a mention when discussing ARG cricket, both entertainers who input into Test cricket at the ARG is legendary. Chickie runs a massive music system in the West Indies Oli Double Decker stand. He is heard throughout the match whenever the ball is our of play. Whenever a 4 or 6 is scored, or a wicket taken then it’s ‘Pump up the volume, Pump up the volume!’. Chickie has his own “World Record” at the ARG. In a rain washed encounter with India in 1996, he was given the Man of the Match award for his efforts in keeping the crowd at the ground even though play was impossible – the only non-cricketer to receive this accolade.  Gravy, on the other hand is a visual one-off! Like a string-less marionette, a veritable cross dressing icon he stands in a ‘seen better days’ wedding dress astride a platform in full view of the crowd, wielding a full size cricket bat!

Local on the beach, Antigua

Redcliffe Quay is the sight of many of the main shops in a mall type complex. This is right next to where the huge ocean liners dock and disgorge their passengers. Far more interesting shops are to be found on the streets leading away from the mall. St. John’s Cathedral is worth the short walk and the wonderful views it gives over the town. The Art and Crafts, and Fruit and Vegetable Markets located near to the West Bus Station are also worth going to visit just for the array of colours on show.

When it comes to buying rum, steer clear of the stuff found on the shelves of the supermarkets and instead head for the village of Bolans, near Jolly Harbour. At the roadside you will find Angelo Barreto who brews his own ‘Best Matured Rum’. It is only sold on the island and he has several varieties which he will be only too happy to let you taste. He’s a real colourful character with even more colourful taste in shirts!

Over two hundred years ago the Trade Winds guided Admiral Nelson to Antigua. Nelson’s Dockyard, on the south of the island, soon became Britain’s most important Caribbean base. The views from Shirley Heights, the hill overlooking the town, is magical both during the day and at night. Sunday night is party night at Shirley Heights, and tourists (and one or two locals) descend from all over the island to dance the night away to steel bands and reggae music.

If you are looking for something a little bit different to do whilst in Antigua then why not head for Jabberwock Beach and join world kite-board champion Andre Phillip for the latest in extreme watersports. You are attached to a huge kite and skim the water on a board, leaping up to thirty feet in the air – or at least that is the theory. It is colourful spectacle to watch even if you don’t have the nerve to try it yourself.

For family holidays, Sunsail’s Club Colonna Resort can’t really be beaten. It is located on the north of the island in Hodges Bay, a mere ten minute transfer from the airport. The buildings are reminiscent of Italian style red roof houses and are located right on the beachfront. The pool is one of the largest on the island and is used by the on-site PADI dive centre to introduce both adults and children to scuba diving. A half day introduction to diving starts in the pool, covering the basics, then whisks you out to see to complete a forty minute dive down to a coral reef.  Where Sunsail win hands down is the quality of equipment and instruction on offer. The instructors all hold Royal Yachting Association (RYA) qualifications and can provide lessons from beginner through to advanced courses. Children can be looked after from the ages of 4 months upwards in the Minnows, Snappers, Sea Urchins, Gybers and Beach Team clubs. The resort has over 46 windsurfers and 78 sailing dinghies, including 10 Hobie catamarans. There is also a fleet of Logic Reef Boats, power boats which can be taken out and are ideal for reef snorkelling and fishing. All you have to do is attend an hour long session on how to safely handle the boats. There are two small sandy beaches next to the beach bar so whether your thing is reading, drinking, sailing or snoozing, it is all covered. Accommodation ranges from 3 bedroom villas to twin/double rooms. Sunsail also have a base on the south side of the island for their flotilla of yachts, which can be chartered for the day or longer.

If you want one place to eat then head for Papa Zouk’s in St. John’s, a favourite with the locals where they serve the most incredible seafood. If it’s good enough for the locals, it’s good enough for you – and not over-priced. Harmony Hall, an old plantation house, combines an art and craft centre with a fabulous restaurant, one of the best on the island.

Antigua is well known amongst those who regularly sail in the Caribbean, however it is still quite off the beaten track for many British holiday makers. This will soon change as people catch on to the direct flights and laid back pace of life. There may well be 365 beaches but you’ll be hard pushed to explore more than a handful as there is so much to see and do.

Travel Facts
Kite surfing –
Phil’s Eco Fishing – or (268) 723 4303 / 560 4882
Curtain Bluff Hotel –
Sunsail Club Colonna –
Papa Zouk – (268) 562 1284
The author travelled to Antigua courtesy of Sunsail. Prices start at £645 for one week in October, flying with Air 2000.

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