Ship-shape shore: English Harbour is a Caribbean haven rich in maritime history

Linda Cookson visits the Georgian dockside – and joins the ‘jump up’

It’s Sunday night up at the Shirley Heights Lookout, a former military observation post on the south coast of Antigua. The stars are out – and so, it seems, is everyone else. The island’s weekly “jump up” is in full swing, and tourists and islanders alike are joining in the party. Rum punch is flowing, live reggae is pulsing and the place is hopping like a flea circus. Down below, the lights of English Harbour are twinkling over an inky black sea.

This week Antigua was rocked after fraud charges were laid against Sir Allen Stanford, the tycoon who is also the biggest employer in the country after the government. But with coconut palms galore and a sugar-white beach for (it is said) every day of the year, Antigua will still lure travellers in search of a sunshine break. Its ritziest hotels deliver all the pampering that anyone could desire. If essential oil massages are essential to your holiday, then the island won’t disappoint.

But it you’re looking for something a bit more varied than a fortnight on a sun-lounger, the picturesque coastal enclave around historic English Harbour, on the southernmost tip of the island, is a fine place to base yourself. Besides being beautiful in itself, there is excellent scope for walking and exploring. What’s more, if you’re interested in getting a feel for a place’s past as well as its present, it’s also home to some of the most important remains on the island.

The location of English Harbour is stunning: a sheltered natural haven, cutting deep inland and fringed with lush forests and steep cliffs. It duly became a key naval base for the Royal Navy’s Caribbean Fleet in the 18th century. Antigua had been claimed as a British colony in 1632, and the Navy was charged with protecting the island (and its lucrative sugar crop). Two hilltop fortresses still stand on either side of the entrance to the main harbour. On the surrounding hillsides, a string of former military outposts – including Shirley Heights – are littered with ruined forts, gun batteries and old cemeteries, all bearing witness to Antigua’s heavily defended colonial past.

As a residential settlement, English Harbour is tiny – not much more than a scattering of houses and small businesses. But the harbour area in its totality encompasses a unique and diverse landscape of waterfronts, slipways, mangrove swamps, beaches and woodland. The whole area has been designated a National Park. And at the centre of the National Park is Nelson’s Dockyard, the island’s one essential “must see”. Work began in 1743, although most buildings were constructed towards the end of the 18th century. It is the only Georgian naval facility in the world that’s still in use.

The young Horatio Nelson was stationed there from 1784 to1787, and the dockyard has been re-named in his honour (ironically, he seems to have hated his time on the island and dubbed it “this infernal spot”).

For well over a century British ships came here to be repaired, cleaned and replenished – with officers and crews housed in lodgings while the work was completed. With the advent of steamships, which required much less maintenance than sailing craft, it gradually fell out of use, eventually closing in 1889. It re-opened in 1961, after an extensive restoration project. Once again it is a working harbour and year-round marina, although nowadays home to luxury yachts, not wooden warships.

If you arrive at Nelson’s Dockyard on foot rather than by water, you enter through a covered market area selling souvenirs – though there’s also a friendly local fruit stall under an archway to your left, where they’ll slice up fresh pineapples for you. Once you emerge from the market, the hustle and bustle slips away into a peaceful run of gracious Georgian walkways, shaded with exotic trees. Coconut palms flourish alongside tamarind, nutmeg and ironwood trees.

Little yellow-breasted bananaquits – known locally as sugar birds – flit among the mango and calbash trees in search of fruit. There’s also a 200-year old sandbox tree – so-called because its pods were sometimes deployed as office equipment: filled with sand, they were used by officers to sprinkle sand on to wet ink to help it dry.

Most of the weathered brick buildings in Nelson’s Dockyard have been converted into restaurants, shops and bars. The former Pitch and Tar Store is now the Admiral’s Inn, a hotel with an attractive waterside garden.

Next to the hotel, a dozen thick stone pillars mark what was once the lower floor of a boat and sail loft. Hulls were repaired and cleaned in the main building, with sails hoisted up through a trap door to be attended to in the loft. The former Admiral’s House has been converted into a maritime museum, with the nearby Admiral’s Kitchen now serving as a bakery selling “patties” – a kind of pasty.

Close by, the row of houses that made up the Officers Quarters has morphed into the upmarket HQ restaurant, which boasts harbourside views from its arcaded veranda. Meanwhile, a yacht charter company and a diving operation are based in Old Joiners’ Loft and Old Guard House respectively.

Beyond Nelson’s Dockyard, English Harbour offers plenty of other charms and attractions. A helpful Guide to the Hiking Trails in the National Parks (available free at the entrance gate to the dockyard area) sets out some spectacular short walks to a range of forts and observation posts.

From Fort Berkeley, a pleasant 10-minute stroll along a path behind the museum, you can glimpse the huge rock columns in the harbour mouth known as the Pillars of Hercules – a navigational landmark, only fully visible from the water. The walk to Shirley Heights takes you up through fabulously scented forests of cinnamon and loblolly trees. Go there on a clear day, and the views extend as far as the nearby islands of Guadeloupe and Montserrat.

Alternatively, pack a picnic and head west to secluded Rendezvous Bay for a swim and a sunbathe. What’s lacking in the sunlounger department is more than compensated for by the fun of playing at being Robinson Crusoe – though, if toilets and a beach bar are important to you, nearby Pigeon Beach is also an easy walk. Another option is to take a water taxi for the five-minute drift across the harbour to the white sand beach and shallow waters at Freeman’s Bay. It’s home to the Inn at English Harbour hotel – which, if you’re staying in the area, offers a tempting beachside alternative to the more “townhouse” hotels of Nelson’s Dockyard.

As the Shirley Heights “jump up” confirms, the other attraction of English Harbour is the area’s friendly nightlife – giving you the opportunity to meet islanders as well as fellow tourists. A vibrant string of shacks and night-spots patronised by locals on Dockyard Drive means that there’s seldom a dull moment.

In the Life bar, built on a wooden pier, take a perch on one of the rope swings suspended around the counter. and sip Wadadli beer. Or head for Abracadabra, with a sand stage out in the courtyard to dance the night away with live jazz as the moon melts down.

“It’s magic!” declares the poster. And so it is.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virgin-atlantic.com) fly from Gatwick to Antigua; BMI (0870 60 70 555; flybmi.co.uk) flies from Manchester (until 29 April).

Staying there

The Admiral’s Inn, Nelson’s Dockyard, English Harbour (001 268 460 1027; admiralsantigua.com). Doubles start at US$181 (£129).

Copper and Lumber Store Hotel, Nelson’s Dockyard, (001 268 460 1058; copperandlumberhotel.com)Double rooms start at $175 (£125). Inn at English Harbour (001 268 460 1603; theinn.ag). B&B starts at $600 (£429).

Eating & drinking there

Abracadabra, Dockyard Drive, English Harbour (001 268 460 2701; theabracadabra.com).The Shirley Heights Lookout Restaurant (shirleyheightslookout.com).

More information

antigua-barbuda.com; 020-7258 0070.

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