As the Stanford Series reaches its climax, Philippa Goodrich reveals another side to the cricket-mad Caribbean island of Antigua – from secluded beaches to colonial history and celebrity hideaways

A baking hot morning: the heat is fierce enough to fry an egg on the bonnets of the cars that encircle the ground. Plenty of people have chosen to stay inside their vehicles to get the benefit of the ball-by-ball commentary, but we opt for the stand. As we climb up to our seats, the Antiguans are fielding, their red caps bobbing around the pitch. It's the first day of the final game in the Leeward Islands championship and the home team are on their way to victory against St Kitts.

A pig wanders on to the ground, then changes its mind and heads towards the changing rooms. In the stands, a loud argument breaks out – not about the match, but about the origins of man and woman. The debate starts with the Catholic church and ends up, somehow, at Confucius. I wonder to myself if this game at the Police Rec, as it's known, is really an international match. It feels more like village cricket. The scoring is strictly manual and you are close enough to the players to see the red stain of the ball on the bowler's whites.

The Stanford ground is a different prospect altogether. We turn up at the final trials for Sir Allen Stanford's Superstars side one steamy tropical evening. The crease looks immaculate and when the rain comes down during the break a team of ground staff runs on to the pitch, dragging the covers across. We enjoy the spectacle from ringside seats at the Sticky Wicket restaurant where two gods of West Indian cricket, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, rub shoulders with a crowd of expatriates and wealthy locals. They didn't stay there for the whole game, however. When we go to the stands for the second half, they appear again and sit down among the crowd, shaking hands and high-fiving friends and fans. That casualness is typical of Antigua, and it extends to visitors. Don't expect to be made a fuss of.

The murders of the British honeymoon couple Catherine and Ben Mullany on the island earlier this year left us with, if I'm honest, a bit of trepidation in our hearts when we arrived. We needed to be reassured by a warm welcome, but in fact no one took much notice of us. Many of the Antiguans we spoke to were shaken by the tragedy, partly because it's so rare for that sort of crime to be directed at tourists.

Once we'd found our feet, we positively wanted to be left alone to explore the island. Antigua is only about 14 miles by 11, but there's a huge amount of territory to explore. For a start, the island claims to have a beach for every day of the year. One of our holiday pleasures was discovering as many of them as we could. There are deserted beaches, busy beaches, narrow beaches, curved beaches, beaches with hard sand, beaches with sand as fine as icing sugar, beaches where you're tiptoeing over sharp shells and beaches where the sand is coarse and granular. Take your pick, but be prepared to persevere in your quest, because most of them aren't signposted. (We never did manage to meet up with Rendezvous Bay.) The best thing is that the beaches are all open to the public, even when they form part of a resort. Antiguans take advantage of this fact, especially on Sundays when many families head down to the seaside along with their barbecues.

Our favourite beach during daylight hours was Long Bay on the east coast, by dint of its turquoise sea and white sand... except that, even as I write, several other contenders have popped into my mind: Pigeon Beach, Soldier Point, Half Moon Bay. By night, the prize went to Pasture Bay Beach on Long Island. This precious isle sits just off Antigua's north-east coast and is home to the exclusive Jumby Bay resort. If you have a few million pounds to spare, you might think about buying a villa there, but if you're of more slender means you can get in touch with the island's turtle conservation project and ask to come on a visit.

Every night between May and November the project's researchers begin their 12-hour vigil, following the faintest of u o tracks along the beach to find the females' nests. We were a motley crew as we fell into step behind them and I feared we'd scare away a shy hawksbill turtle. But once the moon had risen and its beams danced across the water, we struck lucky. We saw hatchlings soon after birth and helped tiny stragglers make their way to the sea. Once in there, they're on their own: easy prey for birds and fish. Apparently only one in a thousand makes it to adulthood.

I am part of a family that falls prey to strong sunshine: night-time expeditions aside, we pale-skinned redheads cannot stay on the beach for long. Yet on a small island you can do plenty of different things in the daytime. On the way to Long Bay one morning we followed the signs for Betty's Hope, a ruined sugar estate. The tumbledown mill towers of old plantations are dotted all around the countryside here.

The guide book told us that Betty's Hope had a visitor's centre, and it did, but in the low-key Antiguan way that we were getting used to, there was no one there, just a box for contributions. Outside, a gentle wind blew through the ruins of the boiling house. In 1827, we read, the Codrington Family owned 312 slaves here. Their names were listed alphabetically. Doll, Dorcas, Diana and Eliza were in the first gang, distilling rum. Sarah Charles was also working in the distillery, even though she had "a cancer in her breast". We peered at a model of the slaves' living quarters, reflecting on the burden of the past.

The back road from Betty's Hope winds across the island south to English Harbour. Nelson's Dockyard, tucked into the head of this well-protected bay, is a less sombre colonial experience. Horatio Nelson's Caribbean fleet was based here at the end of the 18th century. It was also a careening station; ships came here to have the barnacles scrubbed off their bottoms.

What is billed as the world's only surviving Georgian dockyard is still a working harbour, hugely atmospheric. There's something very pleasing about wandering among the elegant stone buildings and admiring the boats lapping at anchor – not naval vessels these days, but smart dinghies and day cruisers. The rhythm is slow; no one rushes in this peaceful place. Nelson's Dockyard is one of the island's chief tourist attractions, but its traders weren't trying too hard to get us to spend our money.

If you want glitz and glamour, you can find it in Antigua: it has its share of famous residents. Giorgio Armani's holiday home perches just above one of our regular beaches. Eric Clapton is another long-time fan of the island and founded the Crossroads rehab centre here. If you're a sporty type, you can buy a day pass to one of the resorts and go sailing or kayaking. After a bit of research, we plumped for a day at the Jolly Beach Resort and took advantage of its watersports facilities, plus the lunch and drinks that were thrown in as part of the deal. If you want to take it easy and spend the evenings gazing at another golden and blue sunset, rum cocktail in hand, as we did on the veranda of our cottage in Galley Bay, Antigua can accommodate that, too.

Actually, accommodate is an understatement: chilling out is what you do here. We'd planned to stay in different places to get the full flavour of the island, but once we got there it seemed far too much effort to move from the first place we'd found. There was no need to: we'd fallen on our feet. Sea Breeze cottage had wonderful views of the bay and the passing cruise ships, an easygoing landlady, and was only a 10-minute drive from the island's small, low-rise capital, St John's.

You'll find the the Police Rec on the outskirts of St John's. Of course, it isn't signposted, but anyone will point you in the right direction. As we sat in the stands there on the second day of the Leeward Islands match I couldn't imagine a more perfectly undemanding way of passing a few hours than watching the game and listening to the spectators break off from their interminable arguments to shout, "well done, well done, four runs boy!", after each particularly skilful thwack of the ball. It was hard to imagine that things would be any less laid back with $20m at stake back at the Stanford Ground.

Traveller's Guide

Serenity, revolutionary intrigue and a vintage golf course: Simon Calder's alternative Caribbean

Getting there

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virgin-atlantic.com) flies direct from Gatwick to Antigua; BMI (0870 60 70 555; flybmi.co.uk) flies from Manchester. Carib Aviation (001 268 481 2401; carib-aviation.com) flies from Antigua to its sister island, Barbuda. The Barbuda Express (001 268 560 7989; antiguaferries.com) catamaran service makes the same journey by sea (90 minutes) six days a week.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; reducemyfootprint.travel).



Staying there

Galley Bay Cottages, Galley Bay (001 268 464 6499; antiguanice.com). Rental of a one-bed cottage starts at US$135 (£79) per night.

Jumby Bay Resort, Long Island (001 268 462 6000; jumbybayresort.com). The all-inclusive villas start at US$3,013 (£1,772).

Jolly Beach Resort, Bolan's Village (001 268 462 0061; jollybeachresort.com). Cottages from US$282 (£166), all-inclusive.

Visiting there

Stanford Cricket Ground, Coolidge (stanford2020.com).

The Jumby Bay Hawksbill Project organises trips during nesting season (jbhawksbillproject.org).

Betty's Hope Sugar Plantation

(001 268 462 1469) open daily 10am-4pm; EC$5 (£1.20).

Nelson's Dockyard (001 268 460 1379), daily 8am-5pm; EC$13 (£3.15); antiguamuseums.org



Eating & drinking there

Grace Before Meals, English Harbour (001 268 460 1298).

Cecilia's Café, Dutchman's Bay (001 268 562 70).

The Sticky Wicket Restaurant, Coolidge (thestickywicket.com).



More information

antigua-barbuda.com; 020-7258 0070.

Providencia (Colombia)

This is the northernmost fragment of Colombia, a country with a ramshackle air permeated by a faint hint of impending catastrophe. Yet Providencia (pictured right)– blissfully marooned 500 miles north of the mainland – is a study in serenity. Tear-shaped, Providencia's geography is elegantly simple. It unfurls from the 1,200ft peak in the middle. Due north is the capital, Santa Isabel, whose haphazard wooden houses and chapels merge casually with the encroaching jungle. The airport (to use the term loosely) clings to the eastern edge of the island. The handful of leisure travellers who make it to Providencia occupy the west coast, around the hamlet of Lazy Hill. A string of villas along the shore cohabit easily with infrastructure such as Taylor & Son's Variety Store, while visitors encounter chores no more demanding than to select which tropical fruits to have for breakfast.

Getting there: fly to Bogotá; transfer to San Andrés; transfer again to Providencia.



Isle of Youth (Cuba)

The Republic of Cuba includes more than 1,600 offshore islands and cays, of which this is easily the largest. Shaped like a comma, the island was "discovered" by Columbus in 1494 and named La Evangelista. Later, it became the Isle of Pines, and is said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, though the author never went there. Under Batista, it became the place to which political prisoners – including Fidel Castro – were consigned. After the revolution, the jail became a museum and the island acquired its rejuvenating name. The wrecks and coral reefs offshore provide some of the best diving in the Caribbean.

Getting there: fly to Havana; take a domestic flight to the island's capital, Nueva Gerona, or a bus to the port of Surgidero and transfer to a hydrofoil.



Manchester (Jamaica)

This is the parish (a political entity roughly equal to a small English county) at the heart of Jamaica. Mandeville is its main town, a proper hill station created by colonialists to help them cool off. It boasts the oldest golf course in the Western Hemisphere and one of the oldest churches on the island: St Mark's, established in 1816, and best visited at 8am on a Sunday morning. As the sun streams through the doors and illuminates the stained-glass, everyone poses in their finery – more a fashion show than a place of worship. Best of all, Manchester is the base for a collective called Country-Style Tours, which among other things will arrange an encounter with a roadside fruit vendor, who explains the origins and benefits of the succulent produce of Jamaica.

Getting there: fly to Montego Bay or Kingston; find a reliable taxi driver; pay him around $80 (£55) to drive you there.

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