Stephen Roe finds it all too easy to leave his watch behind as he parties his way around the largest of the Leeward Islands
Antiguans love to party. They will use any occasion to set the steel drums ringing and to beat out intoxicating reggae music until the early hours. This weekend marks the start of Antigua's two-week Summer Carnival when both impromptu and organised outdoor parties will be held on the island.

Antigua is also a year-round haven for yachting, diving, snorkelling or simply lazing on one of the island's 365 fine-sand beaches - one for every day of the year, as every local will proudly tell you.

For a few days of pure escapism, Antigua takes some beating. Just leave your watch at home. Punctuality does not fit well with the islanders' mentality and any expectation that things will run to schedule will simply lead to frustration.

A substantial increase in air seat-capacity has created a price war, with fares as low as pounds 250 return from the UK making short breaks in Antigua a realistic option for the first time.

When to go

High season is from 15 December to 15 April, when hotel rates are at their highest. Hurricane season (when there can also be heavy rainfall) is from June to September. Best-value and often best-weather months are May, October and November. Temperatures average from 22C to 32C throughout the year.

Apart from the Summer Carnival from 24 July to 3 August (tel: 001 268 462 0194)), the biggest and best parties are held during the International Hot Air Balloon Festival (22 November-2 December), Antigua Sailing Week (held annually in the last week of April), and during the winter cricket season.

Getting there

BWIA International (tel: 0181-577 1100) and Virgin Atlantic (tel: 01293 747 747) operate non-stop flights from London twice weekly. Caledonian operates regular charters three times a week and Britannia has a weekly charter flight throughout the year (tel: 01293 535353 for both). British Airways (tel: 0345 222 111) currently serves the island only via Barbados with four flights a week. Return fares are from around pounds 250.

Getting around

Public bus services do not operate to any fixed schedule but taxis are plentiful and renting a car is easy. And remember, most Antiguans drive on the left!

Where to stay

Almost every hotel on Antigua faces a secluded fine-sand beach. The most exclusive hotels include Curtain Bluff and Jumby Bay. The majority are in the three- and four-star bracket, such as the newly restored Blue Waters in Soldier's Bay (tel: 0181-350 1001 for reservations) and the all-inclusive Allegro Resort at Pineapple Beach (tel: 001 904 252 2332). There are no campsites or youth hostels.

Curtain Bluff is closed during summer and will reopen on 16 October with full-board rates from $555 (pounds 362) per couple per night (until 18 December), including all sports facilities. Reservations can be made through Windotel (tel: 0181-876 6624; fax: 0181-876 2980).

Jumby Bay has summer rates from $350 per night for a double room, rising to $450 from 2 November (tel: 001 268 462 6000; fax: 001 268 462 6020). It will operate on an all-inclusive basis from December.

A delightful alternative to the more conventional hotels is The Inn at English Harbour (tel: 0181-876 6624; fax: 0181-876 2980 for reservations), which has four-star cottages on the beach. The property reopens on 16 October with double room-only rates from $180 per night. The candlelit Terrace Restaurant, with superb views across the harbour, is not to be missed.

Sunsail (tel: 01705 222 222) offers half-board seven-day packages at Club Colonna (tel: 001 268 462 6263; fax: 001 268 462 6430), including flights from the UK and transfers, from pounds 730 per person based on two sharing. Bed-and-breakfast rates are available by booking directly with the hotel from $95 single and $120 double per night.

What to see and do

Most visitors are reluctant to drag themselves away from the beaches and crystal-clear waters during the daylight hours. And with good reason. With the notable exception of Nelson's Dockyard, dating from 1743 and now a national park, very few of the other historical and geological sights on the tourist map are worth the discomfort of Antigua's bumpy roads.

Typical sightseeing tours will take in the Anglican Cathedral, twice rebuilt since it was established in 1681, and the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, located in St John's Old Court House, which dates from 1747. Further afield is Devil's Bridge, a natural limestone arch created by the action of the surf, and Betty's Hope Estate, a sugar plantation museum dating from 1670.

Diving and snorkelling. There are endless opportunities for snorkellers to access superb reefs teaming with colourful fish, often right off the beach. Dive sites in Antigua consist of fringing barrier reefs, drop-offs, caverns, walls and wrecks, with plenty of opportunities to view barracuda, nurse sharks, rays, amberjack and lobsters.

Sailing. Excellent sailing conditions prevail around the island and Sunsail has recently opened a hotel and sailing centre at Club Colonna in Hodges Bay (see Where to Stay), with instruction courses in yachting, windsurfing and dinghy sailing for visitors of all abilities. During Antigua Sailing Week, more than 250 ocean-going yachts descend on English and Falmouth Harbours. With around 5,000 crew members on shore, the evenings turn into a kind of maritime Mardi Gras.

Catamaran Cruises. Two companies - Kokomo Cat (tel: 001 268 462 7245) and Wadadli Cats (tel: 001 268 462 4792) - operate catamaran excursions and snorkelling trips around the island with lunch on board, limbo dancing contests and drinks flowing all day.

Golf. Antigua has two 18-hole resort courses. Cedar Valley presents some interesting challenges and, at its highest point, there are superb views across the island. Jolly Harbour is a fairly flat layout, played around a yacht marina. Green fees are $35 a round and clubs, trolleys and buggies can be hired.

Food and drink

Antigua has a wide choice of restaurants, ranging from top-notch and pricey authentic French cooking at Le Bistro (tel: 001 268 462 3881) to smaller places serving local Creole dishes, pasta houses, pubs and lively places such as the Mad Mongoose (tel: 001 268 463 7900) in Falmouth Harbour. The service and authentic French menus in the newly opened Vyvien's Restaurant (tel: 001 268 462 0290), at Blue Waters, is pretty hard to beat.

In the St John's area, try traditional West Indian food prepared by local chef and proprietor Conroy White at the Commissioner Grill (tel: 001 268 462 1883), between Redcliffe and Heritage Quays. Hemingways (tel: 001 268 462 2763) is a breezy restaurant on the first floor of a typical wooden 19th-century house serving fresh island seafood, burgers, sandwiches and salads.

At Julian's (tel: 001 268 462 4766), guests can choose to dine al fresco in the pretty walled courtyard garden of this stylishly renovated 18th- century building. In the Dickenson/Runaway Bay area, fresh lobster is a speciality at the palm-fringed Coconut Grove Beach Restaurant (tel: 001 268 462 1538).

Deals and packages

Caribbean Connection (tel: 01244 355300) does a seven-night all-inclusive holiday at Allegro Resort, Pineapple Beach from pounds 1,211 per person, based on two sharing, from 16 August to 31 October, including return flights with British Airways and transfers.

Other tour operators with inclusive holidays to Antigua include British Airways Holidays (tel: 01293 437250); Carrier Tours (tel: 01625 582881); Elegant Resorts (tel: 01244 897999); Hayes & Jarvis (tel: 0181- 748 5050); and Kuoni Travel (tel: 01306 742222).

Further information

Contact Antigua and Barbuda Tourist Office, 15 Thayer Street, London W1M 5LD (tel: 0171-486 7073; fax: 0171-486 1466), for advice, brochures and a list of more than 50 tour operators offering inclusive packages.