Antigua is famous for having 365 beaches, one for every day of the year. It goes without saying, lazing on the pink sand under the Caribbean sun sipping a rum punch. Yes, it’s undeniably a great way to rewind, to chase away the stresses and strains of everyday life. With so much sun, sea and cocktails on offer, it’s quite understandable why most visitors to this East Caribbean island don’t stray beyond the fancy confines of their all-inclusive hotels. But there’s so much more to see and do on Antigua, and its smaller neighbour Barbuda. It’d be a shame to fly all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and not sample the delights on offer.
I’ve visited Antigua many times over the years. I love the place. It’s bright, brassy, laid-back and Uber-friendly. It has a dark history and some of the most stunning scenery you’re likely to see. If you’re planning a trip to Antigua, here’s my tried and tested favourite activities. Get that concierge to order you a taxi, and explore the island and all it has to offer.
Zip Lining in the Rainforest
Antigua was stripped bare of its rainforest by colonists from the UK and Spain, in order to make way for sugar and coffee plantations. In more recent times, a concerted effort has been made by the government and environmental charities to replant and regrow relatively modest areas of rainforest in the South East of the island, to the North of the Uber-classy resort of Carlisle Bay. Here, on Fig Tree Drive, is where you’ll find the Antigua Rainforest Canopy Tour company and their zip line trails.
Anyone from the age of 4 to 99 can take part, but if you have a fear of heights you might want to check out some of the launch platforms and line runs before purchasing a ticket.
After being handed your helmet, gloves and harness a guide gives you a thorough safety briefing accompanied by a short video. You’re given clear instructions on how to hitch your harness to the zip lines, how to push yourself off and how to control your speed (or sloth) as you zip along the lines. After the briefing, in a small group you make your way around the zip lines, across rope bridges, up ladders and wooden staircases to reach the launch platforms. There are staff on both the launch and destination platforms. The different lines vary in height and length. The ones with the higher launch platforms and longer lines obviously allow you to generate the most speed as you fly above the tree tops like a Flying Fox. It’s easy to control your speed by the tension you apply to your connecting line or by your body shape, so don’t worry if zooming along through the canopy sounds daunting, it doesn’t need to be if you prefer a more stately approach.
There are also a selection of canopy walking trails, a cafe and a craft/souvenir shop on site.
Swim With the Stingrays
The rather touristy named Stingray City is where you get to swim (well more like wade or paddle) with real, live Stingrays. You arrive at a pleasant small-holding on the East Coast near Glanvilles. From here you’re taken a short distance out into the bay on a power boat. The water is still shallow this far out (I’m 6 foot and it came up to my waist), and as clear as glass. You’re given a snorkel and mask and then helped out into the water.
The instructor stays with you at all times, and his instructions are clear. You have to walk with a shuffle, to avoid stepping on the rays. They’re wild animals, not held in captivity. They flock to this part of the bay knowing they’ll get fed. They swim around your ankles and occasionally pop above the surface to say hello and love nothing more than being stroked. You can also feed them with the fish provided.
Circumnavigate the Island by Boat
The Wadadli is a catamaran that takes you around the entire coast of the island. Sometimes it uses only the power of the wind and as any sailor will tell you, these are special moments. It’s also good that it has powerful engines as backup, just in case. The boat makes several stops around the island, including a picnic lunch and snorkelling in beautiful bays and a walking trip onto the inhabited Bird Island. As the boat navigates around the north-eastern coastline you’ll hit what the crew like to call “The Disney Bit” – not after Mickey Mouse, but after the rollercoasters of Disney World. Even on a gloriously sunny day, you’ll encounter half an hour or so of ocean swell. I’ve been on sailing holidays before and even felt a little queasy. If you dislike boats, be prepared to weather this part of the trip out inside the cabin, trying not to look at the top of the swell above you!
Note that the catamaran holds a large number of people and your fellow passengers will include families, couples but also groups of youngsters all wanting to enjoy themselves. The beer and rum will flow and there is a party atmosphere on the boat. If you want something a little more peaceful with less reggae music, then consider one of the smaller cruises, such as the one offered by Creole. I’ve also done a similar tour on a boat called Excellence. There are alternatives, so do shop around for the best deals.
Snorkel or Scuba Dive at Cades Reef
Photo Credit: Francesco Ungaro.
Antigua has several beaches with decent reefs for snorkelling, but it’s not up there with the major scuba and snorkelling islands elsewhere in the Caribbean. However, you can’t visit the Caribbean islands without marvelling at the underwater wonders of a coral reef, so where is the best place to snorkel in Antigua. The answer is the famous Cades Reef. Unlike the small reefs you might find off the beach of several hotel resorts, this reef is pretty big. You can only get to it by boat (unless you’re an Olympic swimmer) but most of the hotels will organise a private boat taxi or group trip to Cades Reef, or book an organised tour. I went here whilst staying at Hawksbill Hotel which had a resident, independent sailing charter moored to its jetty. For a reasonable fee, we sailed down to the reef and spent most of the day snorkelling.
The reef is off the south-east coast of the island, equidistant between English Harbour and Jolly Harbour. Carlisle Bay, Rendevouz and Turners Beaches are the nearest resorts.
Watch the Sunset with a Rum Punch at Shirley Heights
Imagine the sweet tones of a Steel Pan Band wafting across the headland, rum punch in your hand, staring out over English Harbour as the sun sets on the distant horizon. This is the sundowner experience at Shirley Heights. The view is astounding and if you can ignore the crowds and find a nice quiet spot to sit on the ruins of the old fortress, you can enjoy a moment of tranquility and romance with the one you love.
There are several tours that will take you here, most hotels can also organise a taxi to take you, wait for you and bring you back later that evening.
Discover Antigua's Turbulent Past at English Harbour and Nelson's Dockyard
You can’t visit a Caribbean island without looking into the turbulent colonial history of the place. Antigua is no exception and there are several sites dotted around the island that evoke its dark past. Learn about the slave trade and how the islands, and the African people forced to settle and work here, suffered and eventually won their freedom and right to a future. You can also find out about Admiral Nelson and the British naval base, and the constant battle against pirates as well as French and Spanish naval incursions. There are also some great restaurants and bars here, and you can take boat trips from the marina.
Want a guided jeep tour that takes in all of the history and stunning scenery Antigua has to off, try a Scenic Island Jeep Tour and Lunch.
Antigua Food TourS
Places to Stay
There are many great resort hotels on Antigua, most of them on the coast and many with direct access to stunning beaches. There are also lots of lower-cost options around English Harbour and St Johns. My particular favourite hotels to use as a base for exploring the island are:
Coco’s (just look at the colour of the sand and the water in the photo below) and Cocobay were my favourite All-inclusive high-end resorts. They’re both on the West coast, so guarantee the most amazing sunsets. Keyonna Beach is similar in size, style, luxury and price and is also highly recommended, though I haven’t stayed there myself. Also in the same sort of 4* bracket is Hammock Cove and this seems to be making waves amongst luxury travellers at the moment.
St James and Verandah are also good, mid-range resorts. Pineapple Beach Resort has a reef and is great for families (you can walk to Pineapple Beach from the Verandah Resort).
Blue Waters or Jumbo Bay give you that five-star experience, but be prepared for your credit card to melt.
For a more rustic, lower-cost all-inclusive option, check out Hawksbill which has its own small reef and three quiet beaches, including the island’s only nudist beach if that’s your thing.
Places to Eat Beyond Your Hotel
In my experience, the restaurants in the four- and five-start all-inclusive hotels have been fantastic. However, there’s nothing like getting out and about and experiencing proper local cuisine in a local run, independent eatery. Antigua has its fair share of restaurants, cafes and bars where you can get a good value, home-cooked Caribbean meal and experience the unique feel of a night-out in the Caribbean.
I’ve only eaten in five restaurants outside of hotels, all five were fantastic and I’ve listed them here. However, I can highly recommend the post by fellow travel blogger, Vicky Flip Flop Travels, if you’re looking for more recommendations.
My five recommendations are:
- Cloggy’s – English Harbour
- Jacqui O’s Beach House
- Papa Zouk
- The Outhouse