Light flurries of snow in January. Nothing unusual in that, Mike Hampshire decided. But wait a minute, this was an Antiguan beach under blue skies with the Caribbean sun beating down and temperatures of around 28˚C.
In fact the snow flurries we were watching turned out to be hundreds of white butterflies flying jerkily across the sea and sand on their way to new feeding grounds. Struggling against a Caribbean breeze, these delicate insects were mesmerising to watch, living up to one of their collective nouns – a flutter of butterflies. This, evidently, is a phenomenon common in Antigua every January; magical and quite delightful.
Farewell butterflies, hello St John’s
We had only 10 days to explore Antigua and so it had to be a farewell to the butterflies and the glorious beach at the Coconut Beach Club and head off to discover the nearby capital of the island, St John’s.
The first sight of St John’s when approaching the city from the west is of vast cruise ships tied up in the port. These ships had slipped silently into harbour in the early morning enabling their passengers to have a full day’s exploration ashore.
Quirky shops and covered markets
With the sound of the welcoming steel bands echoing around the quayside, we too explored the quirky little shops and covered markets crammed full of colourful clothes and trinkets with the vibrant colours of the Caribbean – reds, yellows and greens – dominating the scene.
Seeking something more genuinely realistic of the life of the locals, we ended up in the fish and fruit markets and jostled with the shoppers; they intent on finding bargains; we intent on capturing the scene with our cameras.
Away from the port, St John’s is full of character. It is not pretentious, swish or modern, but instead seems to say ‘this is our city, take us as you find us, warts and all’. Here we spotted a tall man wandering around wearing a large aloe vera plant as a hat – he optimistically, following a two-second pavement diagnosis, can cure most ills with aloe vera.
Here too were the taxi drivers wanting to take us, with pride, to the cricket ground named after the island’s famous hero Sir Vivian Richards; and there were the smartly dressed and smiling school children always happy to give directions to lost tourists and hear about our home countries.
Getting out of town to explore the island
We had hoped to come across the man who skilfully slices coconuts in half with a hatchet offering the chance to drink the refreshing and healthy coconut juice, but he must have been out of town collecting more nuts. This seemed the appropriate prompt for us to also get out of town and explore the island more fully, perhaps to find our own coconuts, or whatever else Antigua had to offer.
There are numerous day tours available in comfortable taxis taking in most of the island sights. We especially wanted to explore Antigua’s maritime history, dominated as it was by the British Navy and Nelson, and also sample some of the local speciality dishes.
Saltfish and dukuna
Luckily our driver, John, reckoned it was indeed lunch time and on the southward journey dropped us off for an hour at Dennis’ cocktail bar and restaurant situated overlooking Ffryes Bay south of Jolly Harbour. Dennis personally welcomed us and in fact let us have a quick look into his compact kitchen.
Here he and his staff have devised a wide ranging menu using locally sourced produce, many using Dennis’ own hot sauce. His recipes seem to have been strongly influenced by his mother, and local people, as well as tourists, enthusiastically seek out his restaurant. He treated us to a traditional and delicious pan-fried saltfish and peppers dish served with red cabbage and ‘dukuna’, a sweet, steamed dumpling made from grated sweet potatoes, flour and spices.
Then, by way of dessert, we tried his speciality – a light bread pudding dressed liberally with rum! Sipping one of Dennis’ rum ‘romance’ cocktails at our table on the veranda, overlooking the sandy sweep of Ffryes beach and marvelling at the ever changing shades of the turquoise sea, it was a meal to remember.
Figs are what Antiguans call bananas
Antigua has to import a fair amount of produce from the neighbouring islands which have a higher rainfall, but it does grow the famous black pineapples, along with a large variety of mangoes in season. Other crops include sweet potatoes, guava, bread fruit, corn and chilli peppers.
Our drive south continued through coconut groves, old sugar plantations with their remains of sugar mills and along Fig Tree Drive (figs are what Antiguans call bananas). Here the vegetation and rain forest on the hillsides is very lush and goats and sheep graze freely in small clearings alongside brightly painted homes. As we travelled we caught frequent glimpses of little churches of various denominations, and through the trees a sparkling sea.
We soon reached our southerly goal of Nelson’s dockyard. The British identified the area as a safe haven for their Caribbean fleet and developed extensive fortifications around English Harbour in the 1700s. Ships moored in the inner harbour were out of sight from the sea and protected from any storms.
Today the harbour is a yachting paradise with expensive craft languidly rocking in the calm waters, whilst the old dockyard has been extensively restored into a national park with restaurants, shops and museums. Somewhat aloof pelicans perched on the prow of boats, whilst fish darted in and out of the mooring ropes, no doubt conscious of the pelicans’ presence.
To get a sense of the size of this natural harbour, drive up to Shirley Heights and take in the view. Incidentally, Shirley Heights really comes alive on Sunday evenings when crowds gather to watch the stunning sunset, eat snacks from the various stalls and listen to the steel and reggae bands. The atmosphere is electric.
On our return journey to our hotel we called in at Betty’s Hope, one of the first and largest sugar plantations to be developed on Antigua in the late 1600s. There is a simple open air museum outlining the importance of sugar plantations in the island’s history. The sad fact that this industry was built on the backs of African slaves was emphasised by the displays.
We stood quietly reflecting on the hardships and misery the slaves experienced. Devils Bridge, a natural rock arch made by the sea, is where, legend has it, many slaves chose to leap to their death rather than continue under the harsh regime.
Nowadays tourism provides Antigua’s main income and no visit to the island would be complete without taking to the water. There are numerous large catamarans offering trips around the island to view Antigua’s reputed 365 beaches, or a day trip to Barbuda to see the frigate bird colony.
Snorkelling on the reef
We chose a day’s eco tour which took us at high speed round the north of the island and involved visiting mangroves, exploring uninhabited islands and snorkelling on the reef dividing the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic. Our sharp eyed crew pointed out eagle rays and turtles and a large star fish skimming at speed along the seabed beneath our vessel.
After snorkelling, a rum punch was served with a hearty slice of banana cake. The day ended with our being delivered directly to our hotel beach requiring us to descend the bow-ladder into the shallows – luckily, no mishaps in front of the watching fellow hotel guests!
After our active day afloat it was time to relax with a cocktail at the bar overlooking the beach. The cruise ships, all lit up in the fading dusk light, would soon be slipping past us on their way to a new island. We ordered the cocktail ‘Antigua smile’; and raised our glasses to the friendly and relaxed people we had met and an island where it ‘snows’ in January!
Antigua and its sister island of Barbuda are part of the Leeward Islands: www.antigua-barbuda.org
Coconut Beach Club: www.coconutbeachclub.com
Virgin Atlantic: www.virgin-atlantic.com
Dennis’ Cocktail Bar and Restaurant: http://www.dennisantigua.com