Im standing in waist-deep water next to my husband Brage. We’re holding up a huge, squishy sting ray in our arms as a dreadlocked Caribbean man named Scooby Doo tells us to smile for the camera.
This visit to Stingray City was just one of the stops on our island-hopping tour of Antigua and Barbuda in the West Indies. Growing up in the Philippines, I never had the Caribbean on my bucket list, only because I felt it would be similar to what I’d see back home and the journey to the other side of the world seemed way too long.
After looking into it, I realized it wasn’t as complicated as I thought, especially if you are already in Europe or the US. As I live in London, an easy direct flight took me from London Gatwick to the VC Bird International Airport, named after the country’s first prime minister.
Antigua and Barbuda is a tropical paradise between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It was an English colony until it gained independence in 1981, and before that, some of the earliest inhabitants were the indigenous Arawak and Carib peoples.
Originally called Wadadli or Waladli, the country is made up of three islands: Antigua, with its many bays and white sand beaches; Barbuda, a smaller island known for pink, sandy beaches and delicious lobsters; and Redondo, which is uninhabited and barren. English is the official language, making it easy to get around, though we heard locals speaking dialects as well such as Antiguan Creole.
Though tourism is now the major economic driver, sugar reigned supreme during the colonial years. Remnants of the old mills are dotted around the island, including at Betty’s Hope, a former sugar plantation.
African slaves were brought in during that time to work on the sugar plantations, and it’s believed that diseases from Africa slaves and European settlers are what eventually led to the demise of the country’s indigenous peoples.
A YEAR'S WORTH OF BEACHES
A famous saying is that Antigua and Barbuda has 365 beaches, one for every day of the year. We decided to book ourselves into the Xtreme Circumnav tour by Adventure Antigua, a fullday excursion that allowed us to explore the entire Antiguan coastline by powerboat.
Aside from meeting the stingrays, we were treated to a beach lunch at the private Green Island where we saw sea turtles mating near our boat. We heard stories of the colonial period as we passed the yachts at Nelson’s Dockyard, and went for a guided snorkelling tour by the limestone formation called the Pillars of Hercules. There, we saw an octopus hurriedly change color as it tried to hide amongst the corrals. Our boat crew was fantastic.
As we made our way from one spot to another, they would pop over to tell us the history of the area and share fun facts. One of the guides, Charles, was especially skilled at pointing out all the massive mansions that towered above us, which were owned by celebrities such as Eric Clapton and J.K. Rowling.
We ended our tour with a visit to Rendezvous Bay. Although it started pouring down on us (liquid gold, as the locals call it), we didn’t mind because the crew had brought out their secret weapons—huge jugs of homemade rum punch.
STEPPING BACK THROUGH TIME
Another thing that Antiguans often tell visitors is: “The beach is only the beginning.” We sailed past a particular attraction on our tour which caught our attention: Nelson’s Dockyard.
At the UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors can see a well-preserved Georgian dockyard and learn about the island’s maritime history. The English Harbour was identified by the British Royal Navy as a strategic location, both as a lookout point to spot potential French invaders and as a safe haven for ships during hurricane season.
Named after Admiral Horatio Nelson, the dockyard now has a shopping hub, restaurants, and boutique hotels.
The former Admiral’s House has been converted into a museum, where we enjoyed browsing artefacts and reading stories about the people who lived and worked in Antigua and Barbuda throughout the years—from the first settlers whose stone tools were found across the island to officers whose quarters now house restaurants and shops to the slaves who built the dockyard itself.
LUXURY VILLAS, TURQUOISE WATERS
Situated in between Darkwood Beach and Ffryes Beach, Tamarind Hills offers a selection of luxury villas and suites that cater to your every whim.
All properties have an ocean view, and ours was tastefully decorated in neutrals with woven textures adorning the walls. There’s a dining area and kitchen (where a complimentary bottle of champagne was waiting for us), a lounge area, a working space, and a bathroom that had both a shower and bathtub.
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