With hundreds of beaches to choose from, this Caribbean island makes for an  enticing midwinter escape, but there’s lots more to enjoy here too, says Kate Simon

It’s lunchtime at Derek’s Cocktail Bar and Restaurant on a rocky promontory between Ffryes and Coco beaches in south-west Antigua. I’m visiting on a quiet day just before high season (now getting under way), but Derek is ready for the crowds. He has just opened a new bar overlooking Ffryes Beach, an addition to the restaurant in which I sit perusing a menu – lobster, creole fish, shrimp salad (001 268 728 5086).

December brings holidaymakers in force to Antigua, a small island at 14 miles by 11, sitting in the Leeward chain at the heart of the eastern Caribbean. Direct flights from the UK preserve its popularity with British travellers. In a year from now, it should improve still further: a new airport terminal is due to open in December 2013. It will make a better first impression than the current scruffy and overcrowded terminal.

Most visitors will spend their time in Antigua on the beach, though there is plenty more to do on the island and on Antigua’s sister nation,  Barbuda, 25 miles to the north and a 90-minute  journey by sea on the Barbuda Express (001  268 560 7989; antiguaferries.com; EC$220/£51 return). Barbuda is even weenier at just 68 square miles, and has one town, Codrington, named after the family that made it a slave supply base. Yet it’s big on attractions. This is the home of  the biggest frigate bird colony outside the Galápagos islands and some of its caves bear Arawak petroglyphs.

Back at Derek’s, I opt for a lunch of goatwater stew and am rewarded with morsels of soft meat in a delicately spiced broth served up with views of Coco Beach, which, like Ffryes, is a wonderful sweep of white sand dissolving into emerald waters. Antigua is renowned for its beaches – as the cliché goes, there are supposed to be 365, one for every day of the year. Most of the resorts cluster around the best of them on the north coast, though the bays of the south-west are popular, too. From my table, I can also see one of the island’s other natural assets across the water, the Sleeping Indian, a formation of hills that really does look like a stern chieftain in repose.

It’s all about the coast on Antigua. Yes, the interior has its lush moments – mostly in the south-west, where you can follow Fig Tree Drive into the rainforest through banana, mango and coconut groves; or climb to Antigua’s highest point, the 1,319ft Boggy Peak (given the rather more attractive name of Mount Obama in 2009).

The capital, St John’s, is a lively town of colourful clapboard buildings, worth half a day’s wandering around its streets. Visit St John’s Cathedral (stjohnthedivineantigua.com) and explore the island’s history, from Arawak artefacts to Sir Viv Richards’ old cricket bat, at the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda (001 268 462 1469; antiguamuseum.org; admission EC$8/£2) in the 18th‑century courthouse.

Go duty-free shopping at Heritage Quay, down by where the cruise ships dock, and browse the stalls in the Vendor’s Mall, where the handicraft hawkers have been tidied into booths. This is the place to watch the Carnival parades (001 268 462 0194; antiguacarnival.com) from 27 July to 6 August.

However, I prefer to be at the water’s edge – and not just for those beaches. At Indian Town Point, Antigua’s easternmost spot, where the Arawak once lived, the Atlantic has bashed a mighty arch out of the limestone (see “Sugar, Sugar, Sugar” opposite) and trumpets its  power by tooting fountains of water through boreholes in the rock.

However, the south coast hosts Antigua’s most impressive scene, Nelson’s Dockyard (see “Helping Britannia ...”), a national park centred on English Harbour, which mixes sheer natural beauty with some of the most important historic monuments in the Caribbean.

Natural highs

View the island from the treetops at the Antigua Rainforest Canopy Tour (001 268 562 6363; antiguarainforest.com; from US$60/£38). Subject to height and weight restrictions, you can choose how arduous a course of ziplines, suspension bridges and ropes you take on under the watchful eye of the rangers.

For younger kids, the Wadadli Animal Nature Park (001 268 779 2895; entry US$20 /£12.50, must book), at the Lyons Estate, recently opened to the public. Hour-long guided tours follow a trail around exotic and more commonplace animals and birds, from iguanas to geese, with children able to pet and feed the animals along  the way.

Sports illustrated

Sailors should head for English Harbour from 18 to 23 April for the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta, quickly followed by the annual Antigua Sailing Week (001 268 725 4692; sailingweek.com; 27 Apr to 3 May). Tracy Austin will be coaching adult tennis fans at the first annual Curtain Bluff Fantasy Tennis Camp (29 Apr to 3 May; 0800 051 8956; curtainbluff.com). An all-inclusive week, including transfers and five days’ training with Austin and other coaches, costs from £2,345pp; flights extra. Or you could soak up the atmosphere at the  Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Ground on  9 Feb, when the Leeward Islands play Guyana (001 268 460 9966; windiescricket.com).

Helping Britannia rule the waves

Antigua has the world’s only continuous working Georgian dockyard. Nelson’s Dockyard National Park (001 268 481 5021; nationalparksantigua.com; entry US$8/£5) is a fascinating insight into naval history in the Caribbean. It is set on the south coast at English Harbour and you can wander around a complex of well-preserved buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, with information on their original purpose. There’s Admiral’s House, now the site of the Dockyard Museum (001 268 460 1379; dockyardmuseum.org), and the Copper and Lumber Store, these days a luxury hotel (001 268 460 1160; copperandlumberhotel.com; doubles US$135/£84). Take the road up to the lookout at Shirley Heights for more nosing around the fortifications and artillery quarters, and to enjoy sweeping views to Montserrat. There’s a jump-up (party) here every Sunday from 4pm to 10pm. Go later if you want to avoid most tourists.

Sugar, sugar, sugar

The ghosts of British colonial rule still haunt Betty’s Hope (001 268 462 1469; EC$5/£1), near Pares, in the east. Antigua’s first major sugar plantation had its heyday in the 17th century but still produced sugar into the 20th century. Today, it is a benign open-air museum whose ruins only hint at the horrors of the slave trade. Head east for Devil’s Bridge (nationalparksantigua.com), a limestone arch from which it is said slaves leapt to their death.

Where to stay

Keyonna Beach (001 268 562 2020; keyonnabeach.com), above, once a small guesthouse, reopened last month as an all-inclusive resort at Johnson’s Point. The watchword is romance – with four-poster beds and no televisions, just a beachfront restaurant, and only children over 12 (doubles from $520/£325). Tropic Breeze (01752 880880; tropicbreeze.co.uk) has seven nights’ all-inclusive from £1,750pp, with flights and transfers.

Carlisle Bay (see ‘Getting There and Around’, opposite) is boosting family-friendly assets by reconfiguring the flow of its Beach Suites to suit families better. For budget options, try 1st Green Villa Apartments (01344 882355), overlooking the waterfront at Jolly Harbour, doubles from US$70 (£44). The Anchorage Inn (001 268 462 4065; antiguaanchorageinn.com), on Dickenson Bay and Runaway Beach, has 40 rooms from US$141 (£88).

Travel Essentials

Getting there and getting around Kate Simon travelled as a guest of British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Carlisle Bay (001 268 484 0000; carlisle-bay.com) and Carrier (0161 492 1354; carrier.co.uk). Carrier has a week at Carlisle Bay from £3,285pp, half-board in winter, or £2,575 all-inclusive from 14 April. Prices include BA flights from Gatwick and transfers. Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 2770; virginatlantic.com) flies to Antigua from Gatwick from £615.From the airport, a taxi to the main resorts costs from EC$42-EC$82 (£10 to £19). Car hire costs about US$40 (£25) per day. There are two main bus terminals in St John's from which minibuses and minivans operate. To hail one on the road, stick out your arm. Buses can be identified by a yellow registration plate which bears the letters BUS. Fares cost from EC$1.50 (35p).

More information: Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority (020-7258 0070; visitantiguabarbuda.co.uk).