Where to stay
Copper & Lumber Store Historic Inn The name alone enchants, but the historic building on the waterfront in Nelson’s Dockyard is also an intriguing place to stay. The self-catering suites and studios are furnished with period pieces which recreate a sense of 18th-century England. The bedrooms open up onto a bougainvillea-filled central courtyard. Studios from £142. English Harbour, Nelson’s Dockyard, 00 1 268 460 1058, copperandlumberhotel.com
Curtain Bluff One of Antigua’s oldest luxury, all-in resort hotels with a loyal following and welcoming atmosphere. The location in the south
of the island is hard to beat, with two beaches facing two seas, the
calm Caribbean and the wilder Atlantic. Discreetly set amid beautiful,
expansive gardens, you can play tennis, visit the gym and fabulous spa, or sample one of 4,000 bottles from the extraordinary wine cellar
attached to the hotel’s two private restaurants. Doubles from £575.
Morris Bay, Old Road, St Mary’s 0800 051 8956, curtainbluff.com
Hermitage Bay The ultimate in luxurious seclusion, these are elegantly
designed but low-key individual cottages on the beachfront or verdant,
terraced hillside. Some have private plunge pools and outdoor showers.
A fine-sand beach in a sweeping bay with no other building in sight on
the forested hillsides, wonderfully warm staff and superb food give the
words ‘natural paradise’ real meaning. Suites from £913. Jennings
New Extension, St Mary’s, 00 1 268 562 5500, hermitagebay.com
South Point Ideal for sailing enthusiasts, this contemporary boutique
hotel has a cool minimalist style. Spacious, open-plan suites include
walk-in closets, high-speed Wi-Fi and sleek kitchens, plus terraces
that are prime viewing spots for all the English Harbour regattas, races and yacht shows. Double suite from £240. Yacht Club Drive, English Harbour, 00 1 268 562 9600, southpointantigua.com
Part of the island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, Antigua is situated on the eastern side of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. Currency is the East Caribbean dollar (XCD) and time is four hours behind GMT. The average high temperature in February is 28C and the average low temperature is 21C. Flights from the UK take around nine hours.
British Airways runs daily flights from London Gatwick to VC Bird International Airport, which is located to the north of the island. ba.com
Virgin Atlantic offers a direct service from London Gatwick to Antigua. virginatlantic.com
The bus service in Antigua is limited, but the island does have an extensive fleet of private minibuses which run along the main roads 24/7. Fares start from 60p, with a surcharge between 10pm and 5am. For reliable bus timetables and related information, check out the Bus Stop Antigua website. busstopanu.com
Visit Antigua and Barbuda, the local tourism website, is jam-packed with essential information for navigating the island nation. Log on for restaurant recommendations, adventure-tour ideas and plenty of tips for getting the most out of your travels. visitantiguabarbuda.com
A Small Place by native novelist, essayist, gardener and gardening writer Jamaica Kincaid (Daunt Books Publishing, £9.99) is a candid account of the author’s homeland, a paradise island that hides crippling levels of corruption brought on by colonisation and lazy tourism behind its breathtakingly beautiful landscapes.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Antigua, visit climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 1.97 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £14.42.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses with a half-bottle of wine, unless otherwise stated
Beachlimerz Funky beach café with traditional Antiguan food and live music. Try the shark fritters and fish curry. This is ‘where food and drink make waves’. From £33. Fort James Beach, St John’s, 00 1 268 562 8574, beachlimerz.com
Catherine’s Café Long-established beach restaurant that promise a chilled-out vibe, cool playlist and smart, French-influenced menu. Laid-back brunches include steak baguettes (made onsite) and an impressive yellow-fin tuna tartare, with lobster risotto for dinner. Don’t resist the gin and tonic menu. From £36. Pigeon Point Beach, English Harbour, 00 1 268 460 5050, catherines-cafe.com
Dennis Beach Bar Restaurant Classic Caribbean beachside restaurant
specialising in great local dishes such as goat curry, fish stew, barbecued
ribs, plus a catch of the day. Unpretentious and easygoing atmosphere
with a soundtrack of waves gently lapping the shore. From £26. Ffryes
Beach, Bolans, Saint Mary, 00 1 268 462 6740, dennis-antigua.com
Hemingways Ever-popular town-centre haunt that’s a great choice for
seafood and Creole dishes. Grab a table on the wraparound first-floor
veranda of the old green-and-white wooden building. From £30. St Mary’s
Street, St John’s, 00 1 268 462 2763, hemingwayantigua.com
Hermitage Bay To sample some of the best cooking on Antigua you either have to be a resident at the eponymous hotel or book a table at the beachside restaurant when there’s availability. Clever but restrained dishes are stylish and polished and use produce from the restaurant’s own garden. Freshness is all, and the dinner menu is rarely decided until an hour before service. New takes on traditional dishes such as conch and green-pea fritter and seared cumin and garlic-rubbed snapper sit easily alongside more international influences. Jennings New Extension, Jennings, St Mary’s, 00 1 268 562 5500, hermitagebay.com
Papa Zouk The joint is always jumping at arguably the Caribbean’s greatest rum shop. Although there are more than 200 rums to choose from, there’s only fish on the menu. Go for the terrific bouillabaisse, snapper and knockout Ti’ Punch, kick off your shoes and plug into the high-energy zouk soundtrack. Cash only. From £36. Hilda Davis Drive, Dickenson Bay, St John’s, 00 1 268 464 0795
Qween’s Royal Treats Queues start early at this tiny café and
takeaway famous locally for its imaginative and colourful vegan dishes
and unusual flavourings, such as avocado burger, vegan pepperpot and
baked okra. Drink fresh passion fruit or tamarind juice. From £10.
Cedar Grove, St John’s, 00 1 268 770 0507
Sheer Rocks It’s a sybaritic dining experience at this small restaurant and bar perched on top of a rocky bluff and flanked by two pristine beaches. Relax amid the maze of flowery walkways, plunge pools and four-poster loungebeds. Tapas lunches and fine-dining dinners made using the island’s best ingredients are impeccably cooked and artistically presented. From £33. Cocobay Resort, Ffryes Beach, Valley Road, St Mary’s, 00 1 268 562 4510, sheer-rocks.com
Trappas Popular spot with both locals and visitors. The atmosphere here buzzes, the welcome is warm, and the menu, written on portable blackboards, features an extensive range of much-loved dishes such as breaded calamari, grouper fillet and grilled pork chops with a wonderful mustard and peppercorn sauce. Be sure to arrive hungry. From £30. Dockyard Drive, English Harbour, 00 1 268 562 3534
- Bull-foot soup
- Also known as cow-heel soup. Hearty, filling and cooked with cow heels and yellow split peas
- Butter bread
- A soft loaf that needsno additional butter once baked
- Cassava bread
- A flat, dry bread of African origin
- A soft mash of okra, pumpkin, aubergine and spinach
- (pronounced ‘conk’). The meat found inside the spiral shells that wash up on the beach. Slightly chewy, it can be prepared in curries, fritters and chowders
- A mixture of grated sweet potato, coconut, sugar and spices, wrapped in a banana leaf and simmered in water
- (pronounced ‘foon-jee’). Cornmeal and okra paste cooked ina yabba clay pot
- Goat water
- Stew seasoned with hot peppers, cloves and cinnamon
- A popular one-pot meal of meat, vegetables and spices, such as thyme, sage and mild-but-fruity ‘seasoning’ pepper
- Patties filled with curried potatoes, chicken or beef
- Rum cake
- Spicy, rum-infused cake (available to buy at the airport to take home as a delicious souvenir
- Salt fish
- Salt-cured and flaked white fish
- Seasoned rice
- Rice cooked with dried pigeon peas or beans, plus pieces of chicken, pickled pork and salt beef
- Pork cooked with lime, onions, peppers and spices
- Sugar cake
- Seriously sweet confection made with coconut and sugar. You’ll see them displayed in glass cases by vendors and sellers throughout the island
- Sweet and sour tamarind balls
Food and Travel Review
The novelist Jamaica Kincaid described the island of her birth, Antigua, in the compelling but coruscating anti-colonial polemic-cum-memoir A Small Place, published in 1988. Her views were grounded in an intense love of the island and its people. It is indeed a small place – smaller than some in the Caribbean, larger than others. It’s small enough for everyone to seem related to each other, to call you by your first name, and for the island to embrace you as a lost child. Long after you leave, the colour, vibrancy, rhythms and tastes of island life will dance in the memory.
Antigua is also the largest and most well known of the Leeward Islands, on the north-east shoulder of the Caribbean archipelago. On a good day, both Montserrat’s smoking volcano and the shores of Guadaloupe can be seen from the island. Together with its sister island Barbuda, the population is around 97,000; most of the inhabitants reside in the parish of St John’s.
Everyone on the island, visitor or resident, agrees on one thing: the island’s beauty. As Kincaid wrote, Antigua is not only beautiful, it is almost too beautiful. It resembles a stage set. The sea and sky are impossible shades of blue, turquoise and aquamarine, shimmering like a hummingbird’s wing. The puffy white clouds float across the bright sky and, when darkness falls abruptly after an explosion of fiery colours from the setting sun, the night sky turns deep and dark. It feels so close, you want to reach out and touch the mother-of-pearl moon and collect the stars.
‘Antigua is beautiful – almost too beautiful. It resembles a stage set. The sea and sky are impossible shades of blue, turquoise and aquamarine, shimmering like a hummingbird’s wing’
Colour is absolutely everywhere: in the scarlet, yellow, orange, purple, blue and white of the tropical flowers; in the rich oxblood earth and platinum sand; the verdant forests, trees and grass in a varied palette of greens; in the one-room wooden chattel houses or larger bungalows painted vivid shades of mango, papaya, plantain, watermelon, soursop and sugar apple. In season, there are roadside vendors of kenip fruit, related to the lychee, for which every Caribbean island has a different name. Then there are the unmissable Antigua black pineapples, first introduced by the Arawak Indians – along with nutty corn, sweet potatoes, cassava, guava and tobacco – that grow in the lush southern part of the island. Dark green and gold, with a thorny crown, they grow at ground level and are the world’s sweetest pineapple – the delicious small fruit of a small, delicious island.
There is colour in the yellow, green and red madras of the national dress worn on Independence Day; colour in the bird song, even in the chorus of nighttime crickets and tree frogs; colour in the music of the iron (steel) drums, pots and pans that musicians have long used to beat out benna, the satirical repetitive song of slavery and plantation life that gave rise to calypso. This was followed by the irresistible foot-tapping and hip-shaking sound of soca. And there is dazzling colour in the national flag: red for the dynamism of the islanders, black for the soil and African heritage; gold, blue and white for the sun, sea and sand.
Antiguan culture still reflects that African lineage: warri-playing (a game using seeds from the guillandria bush), carnival stilt-walking, vegetables such as okra, aubergine and eddo, and twinned dishes such as pepperpot and fungee. As one Creole proverb succinctly puts it, ‘Ebrey fungee ha e pepperpot’ – every person has their soul mate. Salt fish and fungee is normally eaten for Sunday lunch after church, the recipes for which are as many as the number of churches that seem to outnumber inhabitants.
Much Antiguan food, however, such as hot sauces, cassava bread, conch, breadfruit, goat water (stew) and rum cake, is shared with other Caribbean islands – a result of both a common natural environment, similar history and inter-island migration. Jamaican jerk chicken and ackee, for example, are now commonplace, as are roti from Trinidad. Nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and local honey add their own notes in both sweet and savoury dishes.
The waters around Antigua and Barbuda are rich in marine life: the population, in fact, consumes more fish per capita per year than any other country in the West Indies. The most popular catches are yellowfin tuna, marlin, kingfish, wahoo, grouper and snapper. The latter is widely served, but it’s a particularly special experience to eat it at Papa Zouk’s ever-poppin’ rum shop to an insistent French-Caribbean zouk soundtrack.
Spiny lobster and queen conch are on most menus, barbecued or made into fritters or curries. Unusually, many fishermen directly supply hotels, restaurants and households. At Curtain Bluff, for example, chef Christophe Blatz will get a call from Barbuda when lobster is being sent over on the connecting ferry.
The British colonial legacy, however, is a bittersweet one. Although these days Antigua plays host to A-list superstars such as Eric Clapton, Bono, Giorgio Armani and Oprah Winfrey, and is teeming with super-yachts, super-villas and their billionaire owners, the original celebrity visitor, Lord Nelson, was far from enthusiastic when he arrived at English Harbour in 1784. Although the harbour is now a beautifully restored historic complex, working Georgian dockyard and the epicentre of Antiguan sailing life, patrolled by frigate birds coasting on cooling trade winds, to Nelson it boiled down to a devastating three-word critique: ‘A vile hole.’
On the bright side, the British did introduce driving on the left and cricket. Sir Viv Richards, one of the greatest batsmen of all time, is a national hero. His legendary cricket bat, with which he scored the fastest test-match century in history in 1986, is showcased in the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St John’s. These days you might come across him on the island’s golf course.
‘Every bartender worth his or her bitters claims to have the best recipe for rum punch, something the dedicated can test by following the Beach Bar Trail. “So many bars, so little time” is the general consensus’
The complex history of the local sugar trade is recorded in the remnants of the many ruined mills dotted around the island. And, more agreeably, in the fruity, spicy and smooth Antiguan rums such as English Harbour and Cavalier. Every bartender worth his or her bitters claims to have the best recipe for rum punch, something that the dedicated can test by following the Beach Bar Trail: ‘so many bars, so little time’ is the general consensus.
Still, it’s worth remembering the saying: ‘Rum done, fun done.’ If the myriad fabulous cocktail choices muddle the brain, you can always lime, man, and chill out with a bottle of Wadadli, a refreshing light beer, although it’s no longer brewed on the island.
A belief in natural healing is wired into the Antiguan DNA. Eat ginger, I was told, if you have a stomach wobble. Everyone’s grandmother knows about botanical remedies, including ‘bush tea’ prepared with herbs and leaves gathered and dried from the wild.
Not everyone, however, has the acumen, determination and charm to launch their own brand of Antiguan tea. Carla Gonsalves-Barreiro did exactly that in a lush and remote mountain valley in Antigua’s ‘Green Corridor’ – a pioneering project in sustainable tourism that stretches along the south-west coast and is a designated area where locally owned businesses promote environmental stewardships, economic benefits, social responsibility and cultural preservation. This valley is where Carla forages for the organic herbs and spices she uses in her range of Paddling Duck Teas; the brand name came from her image of a duck that looks graceful on the surface but is paddling madly underneath.
‘In Qweeny’s popular café-cum-takeaway in the parish of St John, she serves Rasta-friendly dishes such as bean bites with barbecue and guava sauces’
Carla is what you’d call a phenomenon: a former model, sommelier and restaurant consultant who has revived this ancient practice and taken it to a modern marketplace. Christmas bush (bay leaf), Santa Maria and fever grass (lemongrass) all go into her popular, soothing Wellness blend; whole soursop leaves are used in the restorative Miracle Bush Tea; and the bold and balanced Island Girl blend combines fever grass, Santa Maria, Christmas bush, hibiscus flowers and noo-noo balsam.
In just three years Carla has seen an encouraging growth in the popularity of local artisan products, such as cold-pressed coconut oil. Her bush teas are as close to nature as you can get in a cup. ‘Grandma would always say, if there was something wrong with you, you should drink bush tea,’ says Carla. ‘She was always telling me that it would cure everything, even a broken heart!’ Meanwhile, another island community is seeing their traditions become mainstream. The Rasta, largely vegetarian or vegan, diet is a forerunner of the trend for plant-based eating in the Western world. They describe the way they eat as ‘ital’, a word derived from the English ‘vital’. The general principle is that food should be natural, pure and from the earth. Qweeny (aka Aisha Caleb) doesn’t advertise herself as such, but in Qween’s Royal Treats – her popular, small café-cum-takeaway in St John’s – she serves Rasta-friendly dishes such as bean bites with homemade BBQ and guava sauces, lentil stews, pasta with coconut sauce, plantain and avocado burgers, and beetroot salads (good for the blood). Qweeny is a creative and dynamic cook and a sassy lassie, who doubles as a journalist and talk-show host. When asked about the cookshop’s spelling of Qweeny, she tartly replies: ‘Why be regular when you can be exceptional?’ Why, indeed.
In a small island, the distance between farm and plate is minimal. There are obstacles for entrepreneurs: a certain amount of produce must be imported from other islands due to water shortage; a loss of agricultural workers to tourism; the economic realities of scale and delivery; and the depletion of agricultural land. But the choice is wide open for those wishing to support small-scale local producers of fruit, vegetables, cattle, poultry, sheep and goats.
‘Mangoes are especially appreciated in Antigua. Every July, the island holds a festival featuring a few dozen of the hundreds of varieties that are found there. Mr Christian grows more than 20 different kinds’
One Mr Christian rose to the challenge. He farms 24ha in the hilly, breezy interior of Antigua on land where his father once cultivated sugar cane. His produce is tiny, sweet ‘finger rose’ bananas, jujube or dumps (red dates), cashews, guava, sugar apples, carambola (star fruit), custard apples, breadfruit and more. Mangoes are especially appreciated in Antigua. Every July the island holds a festival featuring a few dozen of the hundreds of varieties found there. Mr Christian grows more than 20 different kinds. As he emphasises, it’s not a question of mango ‘season’ but of the right ‘conditions’ – a complex equation of water, blossom and fruit production. He has a cynical but considered view of the promotion of ‘organic’ food that is sweeping the island. ‘We should be more concerned about safe food than an organic label,’ he says. ‘Some practices described as organic can be detrimental to the quality of the plants. I prefer to think of natural, chemical-free food.’
He’s keen to work with young chefs and other growers to promote recipes that shine a new light on island old-timers, like sweet potatoes, corn and yams. As chef Desroy Spence of Hermitage Bay on the south-west coast says: ‘People turn away from a sweet potato because it’s always done in the same way. We have to show what you can do with these ingredients. It’s not just a question of restaurants leading the way. We have to involve schools, nutritionists and hotel colleges.’ He’s not the only one taking traditional food to a new level. Many chefs now offer reimagined local dishes or are using classic ingredients in a contemporary way.
There are 365 beaches in Antigua, one for each day of the year, endless strips of pristine sand, and warm, turquoise waters. It must have been a dream, if herculean, task to count them, but this unsung hero undertook it in the typically Antiguan ‘no problem’ warm spirit. Washed down, of course, with a few rum punches.
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