Antigua: Rum goings on in a beach paradise
I have a new screen-saver. It is one of the many beautiful beaches that I enjoyed on Antigua.
They tell you it is not all about the beaches, and my baseball cap reads that 'the beach is just the beginning'. Well hold on. These beaches are pretty spectacular. I had a lot to choose from and I enjoyed one more than the other and I am not one of those people who lies there sun worshipping. Blue water under blue skies and the sort of temperature that reminded me of a hot tub back home. I don't mind switching on the laptop each morning and getting a little reminder of just how good life can be.
The first thing I got right was to visit in July. May to August is their low season so it was pleasantly laid-back. That said, Antigua is so relaxed and friendly that even in high season I am sure it retains its no-hurry feel. In my week I did a mixture of looking after myself, going on organised day trips and going out in a Landcruiser with Cleo, my guide/tour director for the day (email@example.com). Cleo picked me up at the airport and suggested that I chill out at the Sugar Ridge pool, and she would collect me in the morning and go climb a hill. It is better in the cool, she told me, and her parting words were "see you at 5am!"
Sugar Ridge is a group of houses built on the slopes overlooking Jolly Harbour. The higher you go, the better the view. My air-conditioned room had a huge bed with mosquito net, but I never saw one of the pesky creatures. Even mosquitoes know I taste bad.
Far more important to me than any room is the balcony because that is where I will live. This one was spacious with a view and my own plunge pool should I ever feel discomfort in the perfect 30 degree dry heat. Discomfort is one thing I did not feel all week.
A five-minute walk through the well-kept colourful gardens brought me to the harbour and its well stocked supermarket, and I had nightcaps on the balcony sorted. Life was going to be good. Wifi in room and I sat on my perch watching the sun go down and resisted putting anything that would arouse jealousy on social media.
Cleo was as good as her word and drove in the gate at 04.59:35, setting a standard that she maintained all week. Antigua may be one of the most relaxed places on Earth but at long last I had met someone who was as good a timekeeper as me.
We were to climb Green Castle Hill, which was not far away, but I was lacking coffee and there is not a lot open at 5am on this small 100 sq mile island. Undaunted Cleo drove to the capital, St John's (pop 30,000+) where she guessed one of the ferry terminals would be awake. They were. One of the benefits of a good local guide on a small island is that they know everyone and pretty much everything. At that early hour the markets were all getting set up and that included a banana stall run by 'Gravy', who is world famous as Antigua's cricket mascot. He was in fine form at 5.15 in the am.
Not far away was Sir Vivian Richards street. Cricket is still huge and you will see children playing all through the day anywhere there is a wide open space. International teams regularly turn up to practice.
At 600-feet high, Green Castle Hill is described as the Stonehenge of the Caribbean, and our walk was led by a Rastafarian priest called Kidemi Shallum Isaac (firstname.lastname@example.org), who has single-handedly protected this volcanic/ megalithic site and keeps the small paths up the hill passable.
He was a font of information, including the important fact that there are no snakes on Antigua. The mongoose which was brought in by the sugar planters saw to that. We walked up though the wild lemongrass and acacia to a view of the island amid strange shaped rocks protruding from the earth. Crushed lemongrass gives off a beautiful refreshing smell.
A gentle walk down and Priest Isaac gave the site a Rasta blessing, which basically reminded us all that nature is fragile and not to mess it up, and I go along with that. Breakfast at Sugar Ridge by 9am with a small mountain under your belt is good. I went for one of their great range of omelettes and plenty of coffee and was assisted by a friendly peckish sparrow for part of it.
The rest of the day was spent being ferried around the island by Cleo and stopping when the mood took us. At Dennis's beach bar I broke all my rules and had a rum punch at 11am looking across the blue sea to Montserrat. The water was perfect and I swam lazily for an hour sharing the beach with only a few locals.
Dennis is famous for his St Patrick's Day party and I am now on the guest list for the next one. A lazy lunch of ribs and shrimp and lots of fizzy water hit the spot. You have to say no to rum punch sometimes. (dennisantigua.com). On such occasions I recommend Wadadli, which is the local beer.
That evening at Sugar Ridge the management held a welcome party which started with a - you've guessed - rum punch. I won a de-stress massage in the raffle, but since I never felt less stressed I earned a squillion brownie points by giving it to a woman who was celebrating her birthday. Dinner atop the hill in the open-air Carmichael restaurant with a view over the island was pretty damned good. I began with a wahoo sushi which tasted a little bit like mackerel, and then had lobster and drank a good white wine, but my host would not let me leave without cracking open his special Zacapa rum.
I rolled down the slopes to my home and sipped a red wine beneath the stars before a satisfying sleep, knowing I didn't have to get up until 9am.
It was zip-line day after another great omelette and coffee start. Already smiling, Dorothy knows I am a creature of habit and takes me to the same table and guesses my order. I was collected bang on time and we drove down Fig Tree Road towards Antigua Rainforest Zip Lines.
We stopped to look at fields of the local black pineapple and to buy sand-dried monkey nuts to nibble. I saw my first mongoose, which is like a big rat with a bushy tail. The roads are lined with Flame Trees, which are known for their flamboyance. Beautiful. There are churches catering for every Christian denomination imaginable, many of which I had never heard of. There are vendors by the roadside, selling everything from fruit and bread, to cakes and cooked crab. There are also sugar apples which are full of flesh-covered seeds and taste delicious. Along the way we pass houses and small villages painted in equally flamboyant colours, as locals sit outside rum shops playing the board game, Warri.
Suddenly I felt the fear as I looked at the 12 zip-lines and realised that the longest is over 300-feet long. And high. This is as close as I will ever get to skydiving. The staff were excellent and I faced it with valour. Staff everywhere on the island tend to be first class. Many had done hospitality training in the US, and standards are universally high. I faced my fear and it was worth it.
That night's dinner was in the rebuilt Nelson Dockyard in English Harbour. We were taken for a spin in a flat-bottomed boat by Paul Deeth who, with his sister Astrid, are the owners of Pillars Restaurant at Admiral's Inn and hotel, which has its own art gallery and splendid gardens. There is also the added attraction that you have to take to a boat in order to reach your bedroom; the rooms are known as Gunpowder Suites.
Paul and Astrid's father, an Englishman, built an early Antiguan resort and was a tourism pioneer. Now in his 90s he and his wife enjoy a house with this fabulous view. Paul points out the property where Princess Margaret used to stay. And the many cannons which protected the island in times long past. There is still a strong British feel about the place. This harbour was a colonial naval station and named after Horatio Nelson. Everyone speaks English, but you do hear a lot of the Antiguan creole. I learned how to order in a restaurant. "Wha U Ha Fuh Nyam?" ("What do you have to eat?"). The simple pleasures of travel!
A day-trip taken with Tropical Adventures Jeep Safaris (tropad.com)was a great day out. We set off at 9am in a Land Rover Defender driven by Big John at a lick that went crash bang wallop up a dirt track to the top of Convent Hill. When we got there, what a photograph. We could see most of the island, had a great view of English Harbour and could even make out Eric Clapton's house. What goes up must come down and we did so via Betty's Hope Sugar Mill which was built in the 1690s and is now a small museum. We had a packed lunch and I chatted to two honeymoon couples, one English and one American. I was not surprised to discover how popular a honeymoon destination Antigua is.
Next, a short visit to a donkey sanctuary before arriving at Crabs Peninsula, where we went kayaking around the mangroves for an hour. Again, our guide was full of chat and information and leaned over every now and again to show us a sea urchin, sea cucumber, a great sting ray and I think a barracuda. Conch are a delicacy, but were out of season on my visit. We headed on to Great Bird Island nature reserve via Stingray City for a snorkel and a well-earned rum punch before driving back via St John's, where the Friday night atmos was just beginning to build.
On my final morning, the thoughtful folk at Sugar Ridge booked me in for a massage in their health centre. They may have noticed I had not visited the gym and wanted to check me out. I get bored doing nothing, but this was an hour of being skilfully pressed and pulled as my therapist searched in vain for some stress. She told me I was in great shape and knocked about two decades from my age, for which I am eternally grateful. She was very good at her job but a stress-busting massage in Antigua is about as necessary as an ashtray on a Harley.
I will be back and will go to see her on day one instead! Now where is that rum punch recipe..?
Virgin Atlantic flies four times weekly to Antigua from London Gatwick and is offering return Economy fares from £479 (€558) per person, including tax. This fare is available for departures on various dates in 2016 and 2017. For further information visit www.virginatlantic.com. John’s flight was at 9am, so he stayed in London the night before in the very comfortable Z Hotel in Victoria (www.thezhotels.com)
Sugar Ridge, where John stayed, was about half an hour’s drive from the airport and 10 minutes for St John’s. He stayed in a Deluxe King room with a splash Pool. Rates are from £191 nightly, including breakfast plus 22.5pc ABST and service charge (www.sugarridgeantigua.com). The tourist website for Antigua and Barbuda is www.visitantiguabarbuda.com
It packs a punch
Old-Fashioned Antiguan Rum Punch begins with 1oz of fresh squeezed lime juice, add 2 oz of Cavalier or English Harbour rum, 1 oz of simple syrup, five dashes of Angostura bitters, a shake of grated nutmeg. Combine the lot into a glass of ice, stir, garnish with lime and another shake of nutmeg and enjoy! It goes well with a lazy swim in that perfect Caribbean water.
An island welcome
The 80,000 people living on Antigua are very reliant on tourism and they are good at it. Christopher Columbus was the first tourist in 1493 and he named the island. From the 1600s it was seen as Britain’s gateway to the Caribbean, and relied on sugar plantations and slavery. They left the Commonwealth in 1981 and are now fully independent. The island has a friendly Caribbean feel with a touch of England and America.
It's just not cricket
The locals are immune to the sound but for the tourist the evenings are accompanied by the sound of crickets. Sitting in the balmy evenings they are the permanent soundtrack. Often restaurants are without windows birds are always on the lookout for a nibble, and some are cheeky enough to land on your table. Sadly for the birds, what was left on my plate wouldn’t feed a sparrow.