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Our Trip to Antigua

Christine and I on Shirley Heights overlooking Nelson's Dockyard

On July 3rd, Christine and I set out for a much needed week of vacation. We wanted to cross off a region of the world, the Caribbean, that we hadn't visited before, and we wanted a vacation that would focus on relaxation. In choosing Antigua, we aimed to avoid the more crowded and/or overly-touristy islands.

The trip down, via U.S. Airways through Philadelphia, was uneventful. I quickly noticed the heat upon disembarking from the plane. Our taxi driver gave us our first opportunity to get used to Caribbean accents and Antigua driving. Suffice it to say that they're not big fans of street signs, wide streets, or lane lines. The anti-war, song-of-the-oppressed, reggae-style music on our cabbie's radio let me know that we weren't in Kansas any more.

We arrived at our resort, CocoBay, and enjoyed a complimentary rum punch as we completed check-in. Here's a picture of the turn-off to the resort. Our travel agent accommodated our request for a resort similar to the Kona Village Resort where we stayed on our trip to Hawaii. CocoBay features individual cabins, and we were happy to arrive at ours.

Our cabin featured comfortable accommodations inside and a delightful porch, where we spent a lot of time relaxing in the hammock (sometimes getting a little too relaxed) and enjoying the view. After settling in, we took time to explore the resort. Throughout the week, we chose to stick to the beach, but CocoBay also offered a picturesque pool. Saturday was also our first opportunity to enjoy tea at the bar. (Antigua was a British possession until 1981, and most of the tourists at our resort were British.) Because alcohol was included in our all-inclusive stay, we had many other opportunities to talk to the bartenders and check out the drink menu. (Ask me to make you a Blue Lagoon next time you're over.)

St. Johns

After a day of relaxation on Sunday, we signed up for a half-day trip to St. Johns, the capital of Antigua. We weren't sure that half a day would be enough to see St. Johns, but as it turns out, it was. We strolled through Heritage Quay, a colorful shopping district, but were surprised to find that most of the shops sold unremarkable knick-knacks, jewelry, and/or various brand name goods available at malls throughout the United States. Presumably, they cater mostly to the cruise ship crowd. Most of St. Johns, though colorful, was nothing to write home about, as this view down a St. Johns street shows.

St. Johns did have two things going for it, however. We stopped first at the Museum of Antigua and Barbuba, which offers a small but interesting view of the country's history, both ancient and recent. Here are a few items caught in pictures: Christine with a hippopotamus skull, a map of the Leeward Islands with their Indian names (Antigua's is Waladli or, as it's more frequently spelled today, Wadadli), and colonial-era weights in front of a map of Antigua. The museum is free, supported by the gift shop and donations.

After the museum, it was on to the Cathedral of St. John, named for John the Baptist and John the Divine. (Antigua has many churches, including this cute little one, seen here from our porch, but most aren't anywhere near as large or ornate as the cathedral.) The cathedral is beautiful, both inside and outside. We enjoyed the stained-glass windows. One of the most interesting things about the cathedral is the plethora of memorial plaques and markers, celebrating the lives of both those who enjoyed prominence in life and those whose service probably went mostly unnoticed until they were gone.

Tuesday gave us another day to read (yes, I did read War and Peace) and play games, including Scrabble and Tilez, an interesting if somewhat confusing game.

Jeep Tour

On Wednesday, we opted to take the suggestion of the CocoBay concierge and spring for a jeep tour from Estate Safari Tours. Rather than worry about our own transportation (we went without renting a car) and navigating the confusing streets of Antigua, we could relax and spend the day seeing a variety of sights on the island with just a couple other people (who turned out to be a delightful couple from Vancouver, Canada). And did I mention that the jeep was air-conditioned? (In a relationship that features the occasional tug-of-war over the thermostat, Christine won a round with the trip to Antigua.)

So, guided and driven around by our man Stan, we set off to see the country.

We started with a look at one of Antigua's lesser-travelled political districts (possibly because the roads were dirt roads only now undergoing significant roadwork) and a stop to enjoy coconut juice from a couple of young guys at the roadside. Our first real stop was the Interpretation Center, which offered a multimedia story of Antigua's history and a nice spot for a picture. (One of the things that surprised me about Antigua was the mountainous terrain. Given that many islands are of volcanic origin, I probably shouldn't have been surprised. The more adventurous can take a day trip from Antigua to the active volcano of Montserrat.)

From there it was on to Shirley Heights, another great place for a picture (shown above). There are no guard fences, so it pays to be careful as one looks over the cliff and around the ruins of the British fort. Christine got up close and personal with a cannon, and we got a great view of our next stop, Nelson's Dockyard. Signs show you what you're looking at as you gaze down on Nelson's Dockyard and the harbor's defenses.

When we got down to the Dockyard, we visited the museum, where we looked at models of both the dockyard and ships that stopped there and had some fun at Admiral Nelson's expense. Outside at the dockyard, our tour guide pointed out the pillars of the sail house, where ships went through the significant effort of having their sails repaired. One of the more interesting things we learned is that a trip to the Nelson's Dockyard Hospital was essentially a death sentence. The main medicine was rum, which the hospital kept in lead-lined wooden barrels. As you can imagine, the rum ate away at the lead, so those patients who survived their original infirmity fell victim to lead poisoning.

After leaving the Dockyard and enjoying a cold Coke or Sprite (out of tall glass bottles), we made the trip over to Devil's Bridge. The Atlantic Ocean has chiseled away a walk-way, although it is safe enough to walk across.

We met up with the company's other jeeps for a tasty late lunch at the laundromat. (It's actually separate from the food room inside.)

After lunch, our last stop was the Betty's Hope Sugar Plantation. Antigua used to be covered with sugar plantations, and one still finds ruins of sugar mills all over the island. (Here's a ruin right near CocoBay.) Betty's Hope is an on-going restoration project that survives based on donations. Other than the small museum building, most of the plantation's buildings are ruins. One of the Betty's Hope sugar mills (at the bottom of the picture, you can see Stan sitting on the mill's sails) has been restored enough to see how it worked, and one can observe it both inside and outside. Stan explained that the long wooden beams running to the top of the mill behind Christine are the on/off switch (turning the top of the mill into or out of the wind makes the mill turn or stop).

Eco-Tour

On Thursday, we were off for Eli's Eco-Tour. Eli (on the left) is an Antigua native and grew up a devotee of the island's ecology and water sports. The Eco-Tour takes you almost all the way around the island, past all the resorts and by many of the outlying islands around Antigua. Along the way, we saw unique features of Antiguan geography, like Hawksbill Rock, and some Antiguan wildlife, like these roosting pelicans (the white things in the trees). We stopped for a surprisingly good picnic lunch on the boat at Bird Island, where we hiked to the top and took in the view. Lunch also gave us a chance to catch glimpses of the elusive Antiguan turtles, which were too elusive for a picture, unfortunately (although we did see several!).

After lunch, we were off for a swim, a picture, and a hike at Hell's Gate. On the way to the top, we walked through a cave and past this tidal pool, with algae-colored rocks.

Snorkeling is the highlight activity of the Eco-Tour (as long as you don't pay too much attention when Eli talks about the barricuda around the islands). Between the tour and the waters at CocoBay, we used our disposable underwater cameras to capture a variety of Antiguan undersea life, including a blue fish, a blue and purple fish, a blue and yellow fish, a spotted fish, a school of fish behind a rock, and even the elusive Josh fish.

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Along the way on the tour, we also learned a fair amount about the struggle to preserve the often delicate ecology around Antigua. As one might imagine, it's difficult for a poor Caribbean nation to refuse when a billionaire off-shore banking magnate from Texas, R. Allen Stanford, seeks to buy islands around Antigua and build exclusive resorts. Stanford owns major construction and financial companies on Antigua and has considerable sway with the government as a result. Environmentalists are extremely suspicious of Stanford. His planned resorts can't help but disrupt the ecology, and what little he's completed has already had significant effects. On one island, where he plans a golf course and a resort limited to favored banking clients, Stanford has produced an award-winning artificial reef... but only after dredging the natural, wildlife-rich sand flats. Not coincidentally, Stanford's artificial reef prevents any boats from approaching his island, something the flats did not do.

2011 update: It seems that life has caught up to Mr. Stanford. He is now in U.S. custody awaiting trial on financial charges. See the Wikipedia article. Other articles from the Telegraph and the Guardian are linked in this sentence, and Eli is quoted in the latter.

We really enjoyed and thoroughly recommend the Eco-Tour, which returned us to Jolly Harbour at the end of the day.

We reserved all day Friday and a little bit of time Saturday morning to get in some last relaxation. One of the most interesting things about Antigua was the animals. All over the island, one would see sheep, goats, cows, and the occasional horse or donkey (also note the chickens on the left in this picture). On Friday, I took a lengthy walk/hike near the resort to capture some of these four-legged friends, including this group, which prompted my question: Why did the goat cross the road? We saw many without even having to leave the resort, including the cat that always hung around at breakfast (and was picky about which breakfast foods it wanted), this great white egret on the bushes right next to our porch, and this less-pretty, less-cuddly specimen on our porch.

Saturday at lunch it was off to the airport. On the way, our friendly cabbie J.J. (whose entire family, from his father to all his sons to his grandson, also has the initials J.J.) enlightened us on how to differentiate sheep from goats. As it turns out, it's quite simple: "Goats, tail up; sheep, tail down."

Conclusion

We enjoyed our time in Antigua very much. If you're looking for an interesting Caribbean destination with a nice hint of British flavor, Antigua may be for you. The resorts run the gamut from quiet to posh to more party-oriented. The people are nice, the ecology beautiful, and the beaches plentiful. If you go in the summer, like we did, be aware of hurricane season (we went in early July so it wasn't really an issue) and remember that Antigua is in the tropics, so it will be hot. Also note that you are leaving the U.S. and heading to a relatively poor foreign nation, so if you want the tropical feel with American amenities and/or opulence, you're better off headed to Hawaii. Finally, as the mosquito netting on our bed in the picture above should have alerted you, there are quite a few mosquitoes in Antigua. The breeze kept them at bay a fair amount, but you should expect some bites, particularly if your resort accommodations are open-air and you have lights on at night. (For an appropriate variation on those Corona commercials, check out this picture.)




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