Proud, Warm and Welcoming
Babbie De Derian, Travel & Food Editor
Depending on your budget and state of mind, Antigua (pronounced Anteegua) with a population of 70,000, dishes up a spicy selection of resorts, restaurants, outdoor sports, and an impressive calendar of annual events and celebrations. This Caribbean island, named by Christopher Columbus, is a great place to spend quality time, recharge your batteries, learn to sail or party hardy. Antigua's people are friendly; the island is safe; the sun shines proudly on all 365 beaches... and Continental flies non-stop from Newark.
Antigua, rich in culture with a fascinating history, is often referred to in history as having been a pawn in a chess match between the British and Americans. Until the mid 19th Century, slave trade and sugar cane brought prosperity to the island. Rum, sugar and molasses were shipped to Europe. Bricks used to balance and weigh down returning empty ships, were then used to build Nelson's Dockyard at English Harbour. In 1971, when tourism took over as the main industry, it was a difficult transition. Drastic changes had to take place to meet the vast challenge of understanding the service business.
On a recent visit, as guests of the Antigua Tourist Board, Talent's publisher, Brooks and I experienced a diversity of accommodations, ate as much local seafood as possible, swam at as many beaches as time would allow, and absorbed a little island culture.
Sunday, May 23rd
Elizabeth Mason, a tourism coordinator greets us at the Antigua airport and transports us to COCO'S. The property's rustic cottages offer sweeping views of the sea and beach below, deck showers, and a small charming outdoor restaurant/bar. A quick swim and a shower prepare us for an evening at Shirley Heights Lookout, a historical site. Once a strategic protective post against invasion, it is now the place to be for Sunday Barbecues. We mingle with an international crowd of yacht owners and crew on the island for this week's Classic Sailing Race and next week's Annual Regatta; line up for a choice of chicken, fish or ribs smoking on outdoor grills; then dance to the music of a local reggae band. We are a captive audience to the lure and excitement of our first night in Antigua.
We head out to explore the island. Keron, our patient bus driver, shifts gears often as we climb and descend the winding roads. We stop at a roadside stand selling Antigua's famous sweet black pineapple (which really isn't black). Elizabeth has them peel off the skin and cut one into chunks for us to taste. Elaine, another local entrepreneur has been making and selling home grown fruit jams for 20 years. We buy pineapple and guava jam; then move on to check out TURNER BEACH, CARLISLE BAY (a high tech Italian style resort), and CURTAIN BLUFF (the legendary all inclusive five star Grand Dame of the Island). Built and operated by American owners Howard and Sherry Holford, this elegant and classic resort, with 70 ocean front rooms, has been gracing Antigua for 40 years. Manager Calvert Roberts extends a dinner invite, and we promise to return at the end of the day.
At English Harbour, we step back in time with a tour of Nelson's Dockyard, a National Park steeped in 200 years of nautical history and the oldest surviving Georgian shipyard in the world. We visit the restored Admiral's House, now a museum, The Copper and Lumber Store, now a hotel with rooms named after ships that fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, and have lunch in the garden of The Admirals Inn.
Dinner al fresco on Curtain Bluff's restaurant terrace is a gourmet treat: spicy yellow fin tuna tartar, ginger and cilantro marinated filet of mahi mahi served with roast potatoes and local squash, roasted suckling pig with apple bread stuffing and plantains... paired with a fragrant pinot noir. After dinner, Calvert shows me the hotel's wine cellar, one of the finest in the Caribbean. The sultry voice of a local singer and the beat of her back-up band fill the balmy night; dinner guests begin to dance, as do we.
The world famous ST. JAMES CLUB hosts our next stay. Now a four star property with five star ambiance, service and facilities, this family friendly resort, nestled between two white sand beaches, sprawls out over 100 acres. Built and maintained on the loyalty and dedication of its staff (many have been here for 22 years), The St. James Club offers four different vacations with its diversity of restaurants, activities and complimentary sports. Vice President of Operations, Alex De Brito greets us with a warm welcome. His hotel management background spans many countries, and he is indeed an asset to the hotel's owner Elite Island Resorts.
After an afternoon of shopping the local markets and art galleries in the bustling town of St. John, we join Alex for cocktails at the bar in the Piccolo Mondo Restaurant. The icy margaritas pack a tart punch, prepping our palates for the brilliant dinner Chef Renaldo prepares in honor of our visit. A heaping plate of meaty succulent lamb chops in a mint jelly sauce is served with local vegetables; lobster thermador cooked in a light delicate sauce delivers flavor, without the calories. After dinner, we try unsuccessfully to break the bank in the hotel's intimate casino, share a nightcap with other guests; then call it a night.
Nick, a new friend from Monte Carlo invites us for cocktails on a huge sailing yacht in the harbor, then to dinner at The Gallery, a new French restaurant in the English Harbour. After a superb dinner of tiger prawns, duck breast in orange sauce, jerk chicken and a couple of bottles of red and white wine, we amble down the road to Abracadabra, a popular local bar packed with boat owners and crew. The band is loud and effective in getting us moving and grooving.
The warm breeze ripples the sea. Some guests relax on the beach; others sail or paddle kayaks far from shore. Beach vendors are busy setting up their cache of souvenirs, clothing and accessories. I walk to the edge of the sand and surrender my body to the calming water.
May 28th & 29th
Occidental Grand Pineapple Beach Club is a laid back unpretentious reasonably priced all inclusive hotel on the other side of the island. The rooms can use tweaking, but the bountiful and diverse breakfast and lunch buffets, dinner selections, unlimited alcohol, friendly staff, pristine beach and the clarity of the sea add up to many repeat guests. My room is oversized, comfortably decorated and on the edge of the beach, as are most of the rooms, the restaurants and swimming pools. I make friends with Elizabeth, a vivacious lady from Wales who has been coming here for ten years. More like a social hostess, she introduces me to the staff and other guests. Manager Guillermo Guerra is elegant and charming.
Sunday, May 30th
Alwyn Knight, a local taxi driver drives me to the airport. He talks about Antigua's political and social stability, telling me "we are very peaceful people with much pride; we are like dogs that bark, but don't bite." He has great hopes for his island's future, is most appreciative of my visit and concerned about the impressions I will share with my readers.
Antigua is one big celebration, with a calendar of events you won't want to miss and a beat that's hard to resist. Come to Antigua; its colorful palate of history, culture and island charm will mesmerize your senses.
For more information visit www.antigua.barbuda.org, www.curtainbluff.com, or www.eliteislandresorts.com.