Entering paradise: Filled with Wonders and Steeped in History, Antigua and Barbuda Can Serve as a Fantastic Gateway to the Caribbean - Travel

“The beauty and sorrow that the site encapsulated was a reflection of the country itself.”

I’m 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. 

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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.

Photo by Rick Jamison on Unsplash

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. 

Sunset at The Cove Restaurant at Blue Waters Resort & Spa / Photo by Ina Yulo Stuve

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 full-day 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. 

The author with her husband Brage / Photo by Ina Yulo Stuve

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. 

Our terrace looked out onto the stunning Ffryes Beach, which ended up becoming our favorite beach on the island with its white powdered sand and turquoise waters. In the mornings we enjoyed our breakfast al fresco and in the evenings we jumped into the built-in hot tub to relax under the stars. 

Photo by Alec Brunelle on Unsplash

“Tamarind Hills is reaching a new stage in its life where I say it’s finally come of age,” shared general manager Keith Martel. He gave me a tour of the new developments—two- and four-bed villas with private pools and showed me the construction site where later in the year two restaurants, a bar, and a swimming pool will be finished. 

Martel told me that the changes will turn the former villa-only property into a more complete resort with a gym, spa, wellness center, and tennis courts set to launch next year. We walked around the resort as he excitedly went over their 10-year expansion plan which will take Tamarind Hills to apparent new heights. 

I met the development’s owners Poonam and Ron in their on-site office. We chatted about the beginnings of Tamarind Hills and how it has evolved throughout the years. They told me how all of the villas are privately-owned, mostly by international individuals. There are professional furniture packages and a rental management and maintenance program on offer to make it even easier for overseas investors. 

A sugar mill is kept intact right within Blue Waters Resort & Spa / Photo by Ina Yulo Stuve

We discussed the huge investment opportunity for Filipinos, especially with Antigua and Barbuda’s Citizenship by Investment program. With the island’s status as a former British colony, this would allow Filipino investors to travel visa-free to the Schengen area, United Kingdom, and most countries that are part of the British Commonwealth. 

Being on the island for close to 12 days, we ended up meeting the same people at different places. So it wasn’t a surprise that the “everyone knows everyone” feeling extended to the Antiguan hospitality industry as well. “Oh I actually moved to Antigua because of Blue Waters Resort & Spa!” exclaimed Martel. “Tell Gary I say hello,” he added.

Royal choice

“We want to embrace the independent hotel feel. We’re a multi-generational family place, but it’s not a kid hotel,” explained Gary Randall, managing director of Blue Waters Resort, as we joined him and general manager Kevin Phillips for lunch at The Palm restaurant. 

“We’re obsessed with enhancing the aesthetic and it works well,” Randall continued. “We’re intent on keeping the traditional elements of the Caribbean, which are appealing to young people now too. Barefoot elegance, as they call it.” 

Our room was within The Cove Suites, which are secluded from the main resort and have their own pool and bar service. A welcome package with local treats and some bubbles greeted us upon arrival. 

The décor had a contemporary feel that embodied a strong Caribbean vibe with pops of turquoise and an open-plan lounge. All of their guests benefit from the Cove Concierge service who support requests from restaurant bookings to planning excursions. 

Grilled lobster at Shirley Heights / Photo by Ina Yulo Stuve

It’s no wonder Prince Harry chose to stay there during his Caribbean visit a few years ago. Just a short walk away we find The Cove restaurant, where we enjoy the beautiful sunset as we feast on a French-Caribbean menu. 

“It’s been a tumultuous year with start-stops, but our guest numbers have now surpassed the pre-pandemic years,” Phillips shared. 

Looking around, it’s easy to see why. During our stay, we enjoy a mix of water sports like kayaking to a nearby beach and a relaxing massage at the on-site spa. The resort organizes live music, fishing lessons, morning walks, and yoga classes. It’s not surprising to find out that guests don’t feel the need to venture far from the resort gates. 

Sunset parties  

Sundays are one of the most special days of the week in Antigua. Most Antiguans are Christian, and while driving around, we enjoyed seeing the busy scenes outside the many churches spread across the island with worshipers socializing in their Sunday best. 

Music is another important aspect of Caribbean life and everyone on the island knows that Shirley Heights is the place to be if you’re looking for a Sunday party. Named after military officer and governor Sir Thomas Shirley, this was a former military fortress and gun battery on the south-western point of the island. 

The lookout point, which is about 490 feet above sea level, is known for having the best sunset views on the island, overlooking both the English and Falmouth harbors. Every Sunday and Thursday, Shirley Heights comes alive with lobster and jerk chicken on the barbecue, party tunes from a steel band, reggae crooners, and a host of vendors selling local handicrafts. 

The Cove Suites at Blue Waters Resort & Spa / Photo by Ina Yulo Stuve

We visited on a Sunday evening where the atmosphere was laidback and festive. The smell of grilled meats and seafood wafted in the air as guests stood up to dance by their tables. We had one of the best meals of our trip at the party and it was great to see families, groups of friends and couples, all dressed up to enjoy the food and music. 

Horsing around

We returned to Shirley Heights a few days later, but this time it was for a 2.2-mile looped hike. It started at the Jones Way Trail, crossed onto the Carpenter’s Rock Trail, and ended at Galleon Beach. 

Starting early to avoid the heat, we trekked through forests and over rock piles, came across a military graveyard, and admired the views from the cliffside. Not satisfied with the many adventures we had already been on, we decided to try out another once-in-a-lifetime experience: horse swimming! 

Photo by Simone Mascellari 🇮🇹 on Unsplash

I had heard about the Spring Hill Riding Club after doing some research on horse riding in Antigua. The stables offered lessons in dressage, show jumping, trail rides, and, of course, the popular beach and horse swimming experiences. 

We met yard manager Susie early one morning and were introduced to the other couple who would be joining our hack. Like us, the couple was made up of a woman who was an experienced rider and her partner who was a beginner. 

Susie paired us with horses that matched our abilities: I was assigned to Blanca, the rescued Thoroughbred ex-racehorse while my husband was paired with the chunky and dependable Paint, Judy. 

Our hack to the beach took us through the surrounding valley, where we enjoyed a comfortable walk before cantering up a hill. Being beginners, the boys were nervous but embraced the challenge. 

Susie was an excellent guide; she made everyone feel comfortable and gave clear instructions to help everyone along the way. She pointed out some of the tropical plants and fruits we came across as the horses sneakily grabbed a mango or two off the ground for a little snack. 

Once we got to the beach, we dismounted and changed into our swim suits. Susie untacked the horses and before we knew it, we were riding bareback and leading our horses into the sea. What an exhilarating experience! The horses waded in the shallows before we coaxed them into deeper waters, where you could suddenly feel their hooves leave the sand and they floated in an almost vertical fashion. 

Culture on a plate

Sitting right on Pigeon Point Beach, just a short drive from English Harbour, is crowd favorite Catherine’s Café. It is a beach bar and café owned by a British couple and popular with tourists. (We spotted British model Jourdan Dunn on one occasion). Its chilled-out ambience, strategically-located sun loungers, and a menu that embraces all things sur la plage make it a good draw. 

BBQ at Shirley Heights

Catherine’s became a spot we frequented during our trip due to the convenience of booking beach chairs in advance and the excellent food and drinks offering. Standouts included the foie gras parfait, salt-baked snapper, barbecued octopus, and the lime spritz to drink. 

The team behind Catherine’s is also responsible for Sheer Rocks, a fine dining outdoor restaurant towering over the waters on the island’s west coast. (The Antiguan Bouillabaisse was a highlight!)

Located within the Cocobay Resort, Sheer Rocks is an award-winning restaurant where guests can book plunge pools to lounge in while enjoying the afternoon tapas menu. On our visit, we were led to a table by the ledge where we spent the evening watching the fish swimming by the reef below. We were even lucky enough to spot a barracuda as it launched itself out of the water to attack its prey! 

Photo by Kelcie Papp on Unsplash

When it came to experiencing local flavors, there were two restaurants that had us returning multiple times: Cutie’s and Caribbean Taste. 

Once a slave market, Redcliffe Quay has transformed into a home for shops and restaurants that are often filled with cruise visitors. Surrounded by a white picket fence and with a mix of indoor and outdoor seating, Cutie’s makes diners feel like they’re visiting someone’s home for a comforting meal. 

Antiguans love hearty breakfasts, which Filipinos can relate to. We especially enjoyed Cutie’s brunch menu with the Antiguan Local Breakfast made up of salt fish, chop-up (a mix of various vegetables like pumpkin, okra, eggplant, spinach, and squash), boiled egg, plantains, and bakes (fried crispy dough that’s soft in the middle); succulent shrimp with extra garlicky grits; and a coconut crush to wash it all down. 

For casual meals in English Harbour, the well-hidden Caribbean Taste became our go-to. A sign hanging outside the brightly-painted restaurant proclaims that it’s an “Authentic Native Restaurant,” and that it is. 

Caribbean Taste is family-owned with a casual atmosphere, affordable prices, and a menu handwritten on a chalkboard. Traditional dishes like cod fish with fungee (Antigua and Barbuda’s national dish, made out of cornmeal and similar in texture to polenta), curry goat, and the seasonal conch are all expertly prepared and a great introduction to true island fare.  

Fond farewell

Waves were crashing aggressively against a captivating reef formation. The limestone arch loomed over the treacherous waters as we imagined the many slaves who jumped to their deaths at that very spot. We had just reached Devil’s Bridge. 

Photo by Mark Jordan on Unsplash

The beauty and sorrow that the site encapsulated was a reflection of the country itself. On one end shows a country that pulled together to restore itself after suffering through hurricanes. On another, it is a nation with a culture intrinsically linked to a devastating slave history that had risen above the suffering to embrace a new concept of being Antiguan. 

Our trip to Antigua and Barbuda was a fantastic introduction to the Caribbean. It showed me that despite my initial thoughts, the region was one that was exciting, full of surprises, and unique to any place I had been before. 

As we slowly start to make our way around the world again, don’t forget about the little Caribbean hideaway where a whirlwind adventure of history, culture, and fun in the sun are just a rum punch away.

This story first came out in the October 2021 issue of Lifestyle Asia.

Banner Photo by Mr. Söbau on Unsplash

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