Antigua is famous for its 365 beaches. The locals proudly claim that a visitor can enjoy one different beach every day of the year. We didn’t know much about this Caribbean isle prior to our visit, but a week on Antigua quickly rectified that. The highlights of our Antiguan vacation included a visit to Devil’s bridge, cruising with Adventure Antigua’s Eco tour, scuba diving with Jolly Beach Harbor’s dive crew, strolling the pretty beach at Dickinson Bay, skimming the top of the trees while ziplining at the Antigua Rainforest, and avoiding the insane influx of tourists all crowded up at Shirley Heights for the Sunday bash.
3 APR: Upon arrival at VC Bird International Airport in Antigua, we were greeted by Zouk rhythms and rum punch. Not a bad reception! Despite the influx of passengers arriving from different flights at approximately the same time, the ever efficient immigration officials kept the lines moving and the wait time to a minimum. After collecting our bags and breezing through customs, half of the group hopped into a taxi to check into our villa at Dickenson Bay, while we decided to hang out to work out a rental car deal. The best we came up with was a minivan for a 24 period, including mandatory license and insurance for $100.
Our lodging at Dickenson Bay was with Antigua Village (www.antiguavillage.net) which is normally out of our price range, but with the World Cup Cricket Tournament going on, lodging options were limited (and we had a group of 10 to accommodate). After checking into our condo, we strolled the lovely beach (and passed by the Sandal’s couples-only resort). Dickenson Bay has all sorts of water sports on offer, and everyone seemed to be having a good time out in the sun.
Our Antiguan vacation was spawned because of EasyCruise. Our cruise itinerary included ports of call of Antigua, Nevis, St Martin, St Barts, Anguilla, St Martin, St Kitts and return back to Antigua. For our second week on Antigua, we had booked two villas at Jolly Harbor through Liam McCauley (email@example.com). We had been sold on the villas because they came fully equipped with stove, oven, cutlery, microwave, and a large deck with patio furniture, BBQ and gazebo. Plus all the facilities of Jolly Harbor (swimming pool, marina, restaurants/bars, and grocery store) were right down the street. We had coordinated with Liam to store some frozen foods that we were bringing in for dinner feasts our second week, so we rang him up and loaded up his car with our groceries.
Later that afternoon, we decided to take a road trip to find a grocery store. The locals pointed out a massive shopping complex and we were able to stock up on some key ingredients for dinner.
Dinner was lovely with roasted duck and pork (courtesy of NYC’s Chinatown), fresh green peas, and brown rice. Over dinner, we took the time to get to know everyone who had joined us for our EasyCruise vacation. Steve (aka “Uncle Bubba”) & Patricia hail from Chicago and Maui. Patricia is extremely well spoken, and we kept nominating her to lead dinner prayer after she wowed us one evening with her eloquence. Uncle Bubba is quick witted and always has a joke on hand to lighten the mood. He also kept us entertained with his incredible harmonica skills…what a performer! Shannon is from Pittsburg and was able to take advantage of Easter break to join us. She is super athletic and put us all to shame on the zip line excursion by making it all look too easy. Her sketch book has some amazing drawings and we can only imagine what sources of inspiration this trip provides.
We still had two other members joining our group later on in the evening, so at around 11 pm, we drove out to the airport to pick up Frances and Kammi. Frances is pining away for her husband, Joe, who was unexpectedly extended in Afghanistan. This trip was actually put together primarily to get to know Joe and his side of family and we were all saddened to hear of his extension. Nevertheless, Franny was ready for a good time with family and friends. Kammi is Joe’s sister and hails from Maui, Hawaii. She designed several of our bikinis which we wore with pride on the vacation. Her jewelry designs are absolutely amazing too, and we were all super impressed with her artistic vision.
Antigua airport is perhaps one of the only airports in the world that can process its passengers through immigration, luggage and customs before the scheduled arrival time! We managed to get there just as our new arrivals were strolling out the customs looking for us. Everyone was pretty tired so we called it a day and got some shut eye.
4 APR: An early morning stroll down Dickenson Bay Beach can’t be beat. Birds swoop overhead, the water is calm, and the sand is pristine. Today wasn’t a beach day however, so after taking a dip in the Antigua village pool and eating fresh fruit and cereal for breakfast, we decided to pile into the rental van to discover the island. With no strict agenda in mind, we felt that a circular island drive would cover most of the highlights, so we headed out in a counter clock wise direction. Kammi was still wiped after her transatlantic flight, so she slept in. Luke and Shannon were busy playing football on the beach, but everyone else was game to explore so off we went.
St Johns is Antigua’s capital city, and we could peer towards the harbor to see several large cruises that had pulled in for the day. Since we would be able to board our EasyCruise after 3 pm, we decided we had plenty of time to explore St Johns later. The imposing St John’s Anglican cathedral caught our eye, but we were already on Antiguan time and decided ‘later’ would be a better time to explore.
Driving in Antigua can be tricky at times. The roads aren’t paved that well in some areas, and with narrow roads, it is prudent to let oncoming traffic pass before trying to drive around parked obstacles. And we had to constantly remind ourselves to drive on the left hand side of the road. Renting a car is a definite must, as it gave us the freedom to go where we wanted to when we wanted to. Signs for Jolly Harbor were prominently displayed from the road side, and a glimpse of Jolly’s perfectly hued baby-blue water made us glad that we had booked our second week there.
Darkwood beach looked so inviting that we decided to pull over and get our feet sandy. It was pretty packed with day trippers who were snorkeling, swimming and enjoying the sun. We moved on and pulled over at Johnsons Point, where we could see Montserrat’s volcano fuming in the distance. Fig Tree Drive was next, and in all the tourist brochures, we read that its supposed to be one of the prettiest drives on the island. While it was scenic in some places, listing it as one of the “best of” is definitely overrated and far fetched. Nevertheless, we did see the Antigua Rainforest Canopy Tour (aka “the Zip Line”) and were hooked. We figured we’d save that for our return trip to Antigua. Something we didn’t know but later found out is that Antiguans call bananas “figs”, so that explained why “Fig Tree Drive” was surrounded by banana trees!
Falmouth Harbor and Nelson’s Dockyard were our next stops. We weren’t ready for Shirley Heights yet (and the mandatory $5/adult entrance fee deterred us), so we decided to break for lunch near Nelson’s Dockyard. What a good choice that ended up being! We saw a sign that said “A Taste of the Caribbean” and followed it all the way to a small shack. With delicious passion fruit and tamarind juice to quench our thirst, we mightily enjoyed our Antiguan style fare (fungi, curried goat, fresh conch salad, lobster and fresh catch of the day). What a gem of a find, especially considering this restaurant was not listed in any of our guidebooks!
After our late lunch, we decided to drive onward to Devil’s bridge (a natural arch caused by the erosion of the sea on the Eastern coast), before circling back to Antigua Village to check out by 6 pm. Our LP guide describes Devil’s Bridge as “a modest coastal sea arch, Devil’s Bridge is at Indian Town Point, an area thought to be the site of an early Arawak settlement…Be careful when you’re walking near the arch as the Atlantic breakers that have cut the arch out of these limestone cliffs occasionally sweep over the top”. We saw a local spear fishing near the cliffs, but the water did look very rough and this is one of Antigua’s rare “no swimming” zones.
On our way back to Dickenson Bay, we came across a couple of road detours, due to the World Cricket Championship between England and Sri Lanka (go SL!). A sizeable crowd was enjoying the game, and the police were out in full force redirecting traffic. Even with this slight delay, we made it back to Antigua Village in plenty of time to pack up and check out by 6 pm. Robby made the first run to drop folks off near Heritage Quay to board EasyCruise, and leave it to dad to sweet talk the immigration staff to allow Robby to drive the rental all the way up to the cruise! By doing so, the luggage only had to be dragged up the staircase onto the first deck for security check by EasyCruise staff.
After our second group had boarded the cruise and a minor situation with the rooms had been sorted out (our quad cabin door was inoperable, and could not be secured! Thankfully there were only two of us so we moved into a much smaller double cabin), we returned the rental while everyone else headed into town for dinner. Even though we didn’t get a chance to explore St John’s, we figured we’d have plenty of time on our return trip back to Antigua to check out the capital.
4-11 April: Easycruise around the Caribbean (Antigua, Nevis, St Martin, St Barts, Anguilla, St Martin, St Kitts & return back to Antigua)
11 APR: Our EasyCruise wasn’t able to pull into Heritage Quay at St John’s because there were several other bigger cruise lines already pulled into dock. Instead, we disembarked where cargo vessels normally unload. Thankfully, our driver knew where to meet us. Benji was awaiting with a sign placard and after loading all of our luggage into two vans, we zoomed off to Jolly Harbor.
Jolly Beach has some of the most unbelievable colored waters in the Caribbean. Its located on Lignum Vitae Bay, and one of our travel brochures described it as the following: “Bring decent sunglasses to iridescent Lignum Vitae Bay, about 10 miles SW of St John’s. Not only can the brilliant white sand of its beaches turn your pupils into pinholes, but so can the reflection of the pale flesh of the roasting masses. About a mile long, Jolly is split almost in half by a narrow canal. On the Southern side are a couple of resorts. On the northern half is a public-access area known as South Beach, which accepts frequent deposits of cruise ship passengers and borders a development of shops, restaurants, condos and a marina called Jolly Harbor.”
We were staying at Jolly Harbor Villas, and after checking in and signing for our keys, we checked into our two villas. Both of them were perched on the marina, and we found that instead of walking on the road to get to each other’s villa, we could simply hop over the balcony and walk the gangplank to get to the adjacent villa’s balcony where we’d hop back over. It took a bit of balance and limberness, but soon we all got the hang of it! Once Joe & Judy arrived a few hours later, they started taking bets in anticipation of who would fall into the water first!
We really didn’t have much on our agenda today so we simply hung around the Jolly Beach complex and scoped out the dive shop (Jolly Dive). The beach was lovely, and we walked from one end to the other. The fantasy pool at Jolly Beach Resort was actually quite shallow, and we could just imagine how many people pee in the pool (there is a poolside bar with bar stools permanently adhered in the pool…and from the look of the sunburned backs of the folks perched atop the stools, they didn’t leave the pool often!)
There was definitely a friendly vibe at Jolly Beach as the locals smiled and vacationers played cricket by the sea. We took frequent dips in the ocean which was great for a cool down. However, there is absolutely nothing to see in the water…it almost has the consistency of chalky blue milk and you can’t see five inches beneath the surface. So we ruled out snorkeling but the jet skis looked intriguing. Once we heard the price ($45/30 min), we ruled that out as well and opted to just hang out for free.
Dinner consisted of roasted pork, duck, brown rice and salad. Delicious! It was great having our own kitchen to cook from. And having a fully stocked grocery store right down the street made our location at Jolly Harbor that much more convenient.
12 APR: Disappointment reigned today. We had absolutely no agenda other than chilling on the beach and reading some novels. But first we decided to reserve a couple of tours so we stopped by the reception area to book a trip to Barbuda. As it turned out, the Barbuda Express ($50, www.antiguaferries.com) was not operational. So we tried with to book the Excellence Barbuda Day Tour but their boat was also undergoing maintenance. There was absolutely no other way to reach Barbuda…except a helicopter tour. We scoped that out and it was way out of our price range. To rent a charter flight would cost us $1500 for 6 pax…just a wee bit out of our price range! Barbuda just wasn’t meant to be…
So we settled on Eli’s Eco tour (Antigua Adventures: www.adventureantigua.com), as we were assured there were plenty of seats still available. We made a reservation for our group, and spent the rest of the day hanging on the beach. While at the beach, we linked up with the friendly staff at Jolly Dive, and made arrangements for a two tank dive for Saturday. The rest of our day was spent simply hanging out and enjoying the Jolly Beach facilities. Another relaxing day in paradise.
13 APR: No one really knew what to expect today for Eli’s Eco tour, courtesy of Antigua Adventures. Their website indicated that today would be spent beachcoming, caving, snorkeling, exploring the reefs, mangrove forests and wildlife, stopping only to take a delicious BBQ lunch break, along with the potential for a nap on a deserted white sand beach.
Our Adventure Antigua tour pulled out from Jolly Harbor at around 0930. We immediately could see that this was an extremely popular excursion. The boat was packed. Our friendly guides introduced themselves (Eli was not on board but we were still in excellent hands) and gave us a brief synopsis of the day’s events: “During the tour guests have the opportunity to participate in a variety of activities. Before lunch, a snorkeling lesson will be given for those who have not snorkeled before or who want a refresher. All equipment is supplied and crew members will accompany both guided snorkeling sessions after lunch. For those who wish to enjoy spectacular views of the North Sound and the north coast of Antigua, we recommend taking the easy nature trail from the beach at Great Bird Island, up to the summit, and if you really want to get off the “beaten track” there will also be a chance to explore a cave. However, if you simply want to relax, there is plenty of shade on the boat and of course, easy ladders for those of you who fancy a refreshing dip. There is also a chance to bathe in the natural jacuzzi at Hell’s Gate island. And throughout the day there will lots of time to take those souvenir photos that will make you the envy of your friends back home! Local fruit juices like Passion, Tamarind, Guava, and Lime are available throughout the day and the delicious lunch is served on the boat while it is moored in one of the breathtaking bays of Bird Island. As the tour draws to a close and the boat heads home into the setting sun, Eli’s ‘secret recipe’ rum punch is presented to make a perfect end to a perfect day.”
We had a blast on the Eco tour…from admiring the view at Jumby Bay Resort (a super exclusive resort for the rich & famous….Princess Diana used to holiday here), to climbing up Great Bird Island for an incredible panorama of the scenery, to squinting for marine life in and among the mangroves, and carefully jumping into the natural Jacuzzi at Hell’s Gate, and ravenously chowing down on the delicious BBQ’d chicken, fresh salad and banana bread. The day was wonderful and the rum punch was the best way to end another perfect day. Everyone enjoyed being out on the water all day and we were glad that we had booked this excursion. Definitely one of Antigua’s highlights.
After dinner, we decided to crash the party at the Jolly Harbor poolside bar. Although 70s, 80s, and 90s music was advertised, the DJ was playing bump n’ grind music. We managed to hang in for an hour before the lyrics got to be a bit too much. Hey, at least we tried our best to bring a party atmosphere!
14 APR: A two-tank dive was the only commitment we had arranged for ourselves today. The crew at the Jolly Dive shop (www.jollydive.com, look for the shack at the center of the beach on Jolly Harbor/Beach, open daily except Sunday) was on it early this morning. Our gear was lined up and ready to go, and our tanks had already been loaded onto the boat for us. We had reconned the operation several days earlier, and had been impressed with the friendliness of the staff and their willingness to work with us to ensure a fun dive. There were several divers who were completing their open water certification today that were joining us, but we were still able to dive the dive sites we wanted to, and weren’t held back by the novice divers. Just what we wanted to hear! And since Jolly Dive had been operating successfully from Jolly Beach/Harbor for over 25 years, we knew that we’d be in good hands.
The diving in Antigua was surprisingly good. We got a glimpse of a large nurse shark, barracuda, colorful reef fish and lobster. As our dive master explained to us, fishermen used to trail the dive boat to find out where the best marine life was. And even though it was illegal for them to hunt in the area, they’d pick the lobsters clean of the coves and spearfish the large fish once the dive boat had departed. It was really sad to learn what we considered a “decent” amount of marine life was in actuality a fraction of what it used to be. After helping to unload the dive boat after we pulled back into Jolly Harbor, we rinsed our gear off and thanked the crew for a fun morning.
Over lunch, we discussed doing the zip line tour tomorrow. Patricia called to make a reservation for everyone who was interested, and we booked Benji as our driver and negotiated a fare to include transport for the zip line tour as well as up to Shirley Heights for the Sunday fiesta.
Dinner was supposed to be a roasted turkey, but we found to our dismay that the turkey hadn’t been properly frozen right away (back when we gave it to Liam, our villa’s owner at the beginning of our trip), and it stunk to high heaven. Robby was given the unenviable task to “drown” the turkey out in the harbor, but it kept bobbing up and resurfacing. It did attract several dolphins who amazed us by jumping out in the harbor, quite close to our deck. So instead of turkey, we settled on roasted pork and visions of the turkey popping up in the harbor set us off in hysterical laughter. None of us will ever forget the story of the turkey that would not disappear.
15 APR: Thoughts of skimming the tree tops on the Antigua Rainforest Canopy Tour (aka the “Zip Line Tour”) was high on our minds this morning as we got ready for our 9:30 am pickup. We debated whether or not to wear long pants versus shorts and flip flops versus sneakers and in the end, decided it would be wise to be err on the side of caution.
Our day’s agenda included the rainforest tour in the am, followed by an early afternoon at Shirley Heights’ Sunday barbeque. The Zip Line tour is advertised as “Antigua’s Greatest adventure ride in the heart of the rainforest…including 9 zip tours and one challenge course (Cat Walk, Elvis Dangle, Wobbly Bridge, Islands in the Sky, Burma Bridge dam, and Leap of Faith, a controlled 36’ decent). Entrance price is $85 a person for just under 3 hours of fun per person. (For more details, visit their website: www.antiguarainforest.com or call Tel: +1 (268) 562 6363/64).
Benji pulled up on time for our morning excursion. We piled into the van and drove on down towards Fig Tree Drive. The Rainforest reception center was very well organized. After we had signed our liability waiver forms and paid for the tour, we headed down towards the zip line center to get our gear on. Armed with our climbing harness, helmet, gloves and carabineers and pulleys, we watched as our guides demonstrated the proper form we had to position ourselves in at each Zip line station. The goal was to sit as upright as possible, with our dominant hand positioned to brake if need be.
The first four traverses were quite easy, helping all of us become at ease with the zip line concept. The fifth ride was the longest, and what a ride! We definitely have to say that the Canopy Tour is a lot of fun…the guides are professional and safety conscious. They kept trying to pump us up for the challenge course at the end of the tour. We soon found out that we were all up for the challenge. Shannon definitely felt at ease as she nimbly tackled each obstacle course, making it all look too easy. Our 3 hour canopy tour seemed to end too quickly but what a high! We definitely give the Antigua Rainforest Canopy tour two thumbs up. Maurice was waiting to bring us back to Jolly Beach where we decided we’d break for lunch before gathering to go out for Shirley Heights. Benji recommended being ready to go at 4 pm, so we cut him loose until then.
Lunch was a simple affair with everyone helping to throw something together. We had a couple of hours to relax before heading out to what is touted as Antigua’s biggest party, the Sunday BBQ/steel drum band of Shirley Heights. When Benji returned to pick us up, all twelve of us squeezed into the van and headed off to see what the hype was all about. Benji was an aggressive driver, although we really didn’t know what the rush was. At one point, he cut off another driver, whose car scraped the side of our van. We won though, cause the guy ended up crashing into a ditch. Unbelievably, Benji kept driving. That must have infuriated the other driver, who managed to catch up with us, overtake us and stop suddenly, blocking the road so that Benji had no choice but to stop. We were prepared to witness Benji getting pummeled in the driver’s seat, but to our surprise (as well as the antagonized driver), Benji knew the guy and escaped with a verbal tongue lashing. We didn’t realize it at the time, but that was to be the most exciting part of visiting Shirley Heights!
It seems that every single tourist on Antigua is fueled with stories about how great Shirley Heights is on a Sunday afternoon. It sure felt that way as we strolled up the hill to the kiosk to purchase our entrance tickets ($5 normally but bumped up to $8 a person on Sunday). There must have been hundreds of tourists descending in hordes upon Shirley Heights, and we were certainly a part of the masses. The view overlooking the harbor was spectacular, but the crowd of people was unexpected. There really wasn’t any room to mingle about, and the steel drum band was deafening. The food was overpriced, although the BBQ stand was conducting brisk, efficient business. After scoping out the joint, we all laughed at having been conned into joining one of Antigua’s biggest scams…overpriced food, mediocre music, and absolutely no elbow room. The sunset was absolutely gorgeous, but we decided we would have enjoyed it a lot more sans crowd. No worries though…we called Benji to pick us back up and donated our entrance tickets to a couple of arriving folks.
Benji was still pretty surly about the damage done to his vehicle, but he wasn’t getting any sympathy from us. His reckless driving was absolutely uncalled for, and thankfully he kept under the speed limit on the drive back home. He did try to swindle us on the fare but thankfully Bob pulled out the mighty calculator and carefully did the math. Ha ha….poor Benji lost his tip trying to pull the wool over our eyes, but hey…he probably figured us for a bunch of novice travelers!
Joe and Uncle Bubba cooked dinner, which turned out to be vegetarian fare. Linguini with garlic and olive oil, garlic bread, salad and wine. Turned out to be a lot better (and a hell of a lot cheaper) than the food offered up at Shirley Heights, and we certainly enjoyed the company a whole lot more.
16 APR: Benji was running a little late but showed up as promised. We loaded up the van and were surprised to see two extra passengers already in there…perhaps that was why he recommended bumping up our pickup time by over an hour? In any case, we were at the VC Bird International Airport in no time, with the American Airlines counter just opening up for business. Checking in was a breeze, and we duly filled out our US customs forms for arrival to Puerto Rico when Robby returned empty handed from both ATM machines. Neither one of them would accept Cirrus, so thankfully Uncle Bubba came to the rescue and helped pay for our embarkation tax (EC$50 or US$20 per person). Antigua was quickly becoming a distant memory as we worried about the ongoing Nor’easter affecting numerous flights on the East Coast. Sigh…two weeks on the islands and we almost forgot what it was like to not have to focus on life’s every day worrisome details! Overall, we were stoked to have spent two blissful weeks hanging with friends and family…a Caribbean break was the perfect respite and we look forward to exploring this region of the world again some day.