A gorgeous, rum-fuelled dream of an island
Antigua is one of the world’s more accessible paradise islands – there are daily eight-hour flights from the UK. A lush verdant interior, scattered with colourful villages and churches, gives way to pristine sandy beaches and startling blue sea. When you tire of the sun lounger you can explore historical sites, such as Nelson’s Dockyard – the world’s only working Georgian dockyard – and Betty’s Hope, a picturesque restored sugar mill. Adrenaline junkies will enjoy zip-wiring through rainforest or taking kite-surfing lessons, while those looking for complete relaxation can enjoy sea-facing sunrise yoga, or gentle hikes on fragrant headlands. Relish the opportunity to swim with stingrays and snorkel with turtles, and when you get hungry you can eat conch fritters from roadside shacks or lobster salad at a gourmet restaurant. Whether you choose an high-end all-inclusive resort or a laid-back local b&b, you’ll be sure to find a friendly welcome.
Hot right now . . .
Antonia Windsor, our destination expert, offers her top tips on the hottest places to eat, drink and stay this season.
Nicole Arthurton lives on a hilltop ridge north of St John’s, where she offers Caribbean cookery classes at Nicole's Table (00 1 268 764 8366). The latest offering is a two-hour rum sampling involving aged English Harbour rums.
The US celebrity chef Edward Lee has claimed the upper-floor restaurant of the newly opened Hodges Bay Resort (Sandy Lane, St Johns; 00 1 268 484 8000) in the north of the island, calling it NaCL (Salt). His fusion menu includes duck confit wonton soup and beef short rib with blue cheese polenta.
Antigua’s newest hotel, The Royalton (Five Islands village; 00 1 268 484 2000) has opened its doors on the site of the old Royal by Deep Bay beach. It brings with it the concept of the over-water thatched cottage – a first for the island.
48 hours in . . . Antigua
You’ll want to have a leisurely breakfast with a view of the sea, and your accommodation will probably provide this. If not, head to Castaways Beach Club (Jolly Beach; 00 1 268 562 4446), which opens its doors at 8am and serves an Antiguan breakfast of patties with a choice of salt-fish stew, fried fish or two eggs any style (or you can opt for a full English or eggs Benedict). The accompanying view is of the white sand and turquoise sea of Jolly Beach.
If the beach doesn’t pull you in for morning of lounging, call a taxi (try St James Travel and Tours on 00 1 268 562 2192) and head to Betty's Hope Sugar Plantation (00 1 268 462 146). This was the island's first sugar plantation, built in 1650, and it ran for 300 years, first with slaves and then with island labourers. The information boards in the restored old mill will fill you on the island's history of slavery as well as the story of sugar production.
Head to the magical Cecilia’s High Point Cafe (Texaco Dock Road; 00 1 268 562 7070) for a spot of lunch. Take a table on the white-washed verandah overlooking a palm-tree-fringed sea and tuck into delicious plates of homemade pasta or lobster salad.
If you can drag yourself away from the conviviality of Cecilia, head into the capital St John for a spot of shopping. At Heritage Quay (High Street; 00 1 268 462 0480) you’ll find shops selling jewellery, perfumes, leather goods and branded clothes such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Guess. You’ll get a duty-free price if you remember to bring your passport and airline ticket with you. Further south is the historic Redcliffe Quay (Redcliffe Street; 00 1 268 562 5610), where the shops become more boutique and arty. Try Rastapasta (Redcliffe Street; 00 1 268 469 6303) for Afro-Caribbean crafts such as jewellery, hammocks, handmade bags and musical instruments. You’ll also find similar products in the nearby vendor’s market, where you can haggle the price.
While in Redcliffe Quay it would be churlish not to stop for an aperitivo at C&C Wine House (Redcliffe Street; 00 1 268 460 7025), where you can sit in a pretty courtyard picking on olives and coconut shrimp while enjoying a glass of chilled South African white wine. You may get sucked in and find yourself still sitting here at midnight, particularly if it’s a Friday night, when you’ll be joined by the after-work crowd. But for a change of scene head to Beachlimerz (00 1 268 723 9534) on the west-facing Fort James beach where you can watch the sun go down and 'lime' with the locals, perhaps to the sound of a steel band or some live reggae.
Get ahead of the cruise-ship crowds and head to the zip wires (Walling's Dam, Fig Tree Drive; 00 1 268 562 6363) for some adrenaline-fueled fun in the rainforest canopy. If you’re feeling particularly brave add on the optional challenge course at the end, which is much more nerve-wracking as you tackle tightropes and overcome obstacles.
While you wait for your heartbeat to return to normal, browse the artworks in theFig Tree art studio next door (Fig Tree Drive; 00 1 268 460 1234) or if you fancy exploring the forest further head to Wallings Nature Reserve (John Hudges Village; 00 1 268 727 0218) just down the road, where you can walk among the silk cotton trees.
You’ll be ready for lunch after all that fresh air, so it’s time to head to the beach. Try Pigeon Point, the main beach on the south coast, just at the mouth of Falmouth Harbour. Here you’ll find Catherine’s Café Plage (00 1 268 460 5050) where you can sip ice-cold rosé and eat French-influenced dishes such as escargots and steak frites.
After a little snooze on the beach, you’ll be ready to explore historic Nelson’s Dockyard and wander around the shops and boutiques of English Harbour – try Zenergy Boutique (00 1 268 736 7552) on Dockyard Drive for cute clothes and souvenirs.
In season (December to May), English Harbour is the place to be in the evening and the bars fill up as the sun goes down. Stop in for a drink at Life on the Corner (Dockyard Drive; 00 1 268 722 0020) a lovely local bar that has a killer happy hour from 4pm to 6pm. Then head to Trappas (Dockyard Drive; 00 1 268 562 3534), for a plate of surf and turf or grilled fish before heading next door to the Lime Lounge (001 268 785 3779) for some live music and dancing.
Where to stay . . .
A charming, refined resort running along a headland boasting a beach on either side – one with surf, one calm. The atmosphere at Curtain Bluff is familial with a weekly cocktail party hosted at the home of Lady Hulford. Food is excellent and service is top-notch – little wonder the same guests return year after year.
Doubles from US$827 (£653). Carlisle Bay; 0800 051 8956
The secluded Hermitage Bay is a beachside resort of 30 wooden cottage suites. The Hillside suites are the most private and feature a wraparound open-air deck that has a private plunge pool, lounge area, day bed and dining area. Come for the early morning yoga and pilates, the fresh local produce and the impeccable service. This is a place to relax and revitalise.
Doubles from US$1,200 (£918). Jennings New Extension; 00 1 855 596 2747
Jolly by name, jolly by nature. Starfish Jolly Beach Resort is a lively three-star all-inclusive hotel that occupies a prime spot on a curve of white sandy beach on Antigua’s west coast. A timetable of activities includes aqua aerobics, beach and pool volleyball, coconut bowling and tie dye. The large 'fantasy' pool has a swim-up bar and there is a quiet pool as well.
Doubles from US$205 (£162). Bolans Village
What to bring home . . .
You’ll be spoilt for choice for bottles of rum, but you don’t want to carry home any old liquor. Go for a bottle of English Harbour that’s been aged for five years. It’s won loads of awards and is pricey to buy in the UK.
Susie's Hot Sauce is an island staple and will let you add some Antiguan warmth to your cooking. For added kitsch look out for a bottle with Barack Obama’s picture on the label.
Both the rum and the sauce can be bought at Epicurean Fine Foods & Pharmacy in St John (North Street; 00 1 268 484 5400).
When to go . . .
Antigua is blessed with a year-round warm and sunny climate but the best time to go is during the season (December to May), when the yachts turn up for winter sun and the bars and restaurants are fully open. Many sailing events happen during this time, culminating in Antigua Sailing Week at the end of April, which will explain the occasional spike in flight prices. January to July is also the cricket season and prices get expensive if England is scheduled to play. You will get the best deals from May to mid-November, but the nightlife hub English Harbour will be quieter and some restaurants outside resorts will have reduced opening hours. One advantage of travelling in the summer is you might catch the 10-day carnival, which runs over the last week of July and first week of August.
Know before you go . . .
Flight time:(from UK) 8 hours
Currency: Eastern Caribbean dollars, but US dollars are widely accepted. It's actually better to bring the latter because you won’t be able to take any remaining Eastern Caribbean dollars out of the country.
International dialling code: 00 1
Local laws and etiquette
• As many of the tourists come from the US, tipping has become expected, including leaving tips for maids in hotel rooms on departure.
• Helpfully the licence plates of buses contain the word BUS and those of taxis contain the letters TX. Buses, however, are not often used by tourists as they mainly run between the capital St John and the local villages, rather than the hotels or the airport, and the service stops at 6pm.
• Taxis are safe and government regulated. Taxis will provide a fixed fare for journeys, rather than operating a meter and all taxis should include a rate card. Taxi drivers will also often provide a tour guide service. If you need to call a taxi you can try the West Bus Station Taxi Stand in St John’s on 00 1 268 462 5190 or Rufus Taxi in English Harbour 00 1 771 7751. If you want a more upmarket chauffeur service, try St James Travel and Tours (00 1 268 562 2192).
• If you want to hire your own car you will need to show your current driving licence and pay US$20 for a local licence. The speed limit is 40mph. There is a rumour that taxi drivers have removed all the street signs to discourage self-drive, so you may get lost!
• It is an offence for anyone, including children, to dress in camouflage clothing.
• LGBT+ couples should be wary that some homosexual acts are illegal in Antigua and a public display of affection can be met with negative attention.
• Antigua is a generally safe island but it is advisable to lock valuables in a hotel safe and be careful of valuables when at street parties or in crowded areas.
• Take care when swimming as currents can be strong, and always refrain from swimming when red flags are flying.
Antonia Windsor grew up in Jersey and exploring other islands is a passion. As an Antigua expert she visits several times a year but has still only managed to sit on about 29 of the island’s 365 beaches.
Experience Antigua with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel's best hotels, tours, cruises and holidays in Antigua, tried, tested and recommended by our Antigua experts