Faraway, and expensive when you get there?
East of St Kitts and north of Guadeloupe, you find the odd-shaped splatter of land that comprises Antigua – a little smaller than the Isle of Wight, and a cricket ball's throw from its little neighbour, Barbuda. Part of the Leeward Islands of the Eastern Caribbean, there is a distinctly English feel to this West Indian island, with its narrow streets and quaint villages.
Antigua is best known for its beaches and its cricketers, including Richie Richardson, Curtly Ambrose, and the inimitable Viv Richards. Some of the Caribbean's most exclusive resorts are sheltered in Antigua's wrinkled inlets and coves. Tycoons and celebrities flock there for the sunshine and sailing. The likes of Oprah Winfrey and Eric Clapton claim the island as their winter home. But it is not just for the super-rich: the greatest allure of the island is that every beach on the island is open to the public.
A short history?
The island thrived as a sugar colony after an English aristocrat, Sir Christopher Codrington, settled at Betty's Hope Estate in 1632. Tens of thousands of slaves were brought in; slavery was abolished in 1834, though many workers remained in desperate conditions.
Reminders of this history are provided by the 100 or so remaining sugar mills scattered around the island, most with a distinctive stone tower. Sir Christopher's family estate has become an open-air museum: Betty's Hope (001 269 462 1469; antiguamuseums.org ), which was home to the Codrington family for two centuries. It opens 10am-4pm daily except Sundays and Mondays.
Moves towards independence in the Eastern Caribbean began in reaction to especially harsh treatment on the island's plantations.
Antigua finally achieved independence in 1967. Today tourism is the source of much of the island's energy, but the murder of two British honeymooners last year has damaged its reputation. The Foreign Office warns of an increase in gun crime, and offers this advice to holidaymakers: "Ensure that your living accommodation is secure. Apply the same measures if you are staying on a yacht. Be vigilant at all times. Avoid isolated areas, including beaches after dark."
Where do I start?
St John's, the modest capital. It is a cheerfully dilapidated sort of place, spruced up just enough to draw the cruise ship visitors – a quarter of a million last year.
The island's museum is particularly worth a visit. Pride of place is given to the bat that Viv Richards used for his record-breaking century off 56 deliveries in a test match in 1986. Next to it – and looking sorry for itself – is the cricket ball that took the punishment, so bruised as to resemble an over-ripe passion fruit. The Museum of Antigua and Barbuda (001 268 462 1469; www.bit.ly/AntBar ) in St John's opens daily except Sunday; a donation of EC$5 (£1.20) is requested.
Antigua's British roots are never more apparent than when a game of cricket is on (the season runs from January to July).
The Sir Vivian Richards stadium, built for the 2007 Cricket World Cup, is a good venue but is regarded as too corporate by some of the locals. A friendlier atmosphere is likely to be found at the Antigua Recreational Ground (at the junction of Independence Drive and the Old Parham Road), which serves as a great reminder of Antigua's cricketing tradition. This is the place where Viv Richards scored his record-breaking test century and where Brian Lara set the world record for the highest individual Test innings of 400 not out in 2004.
Cruise-ship passengers are more likely to be found exploring the retail opportunities that multiply around any Caribbean port. Avoid Little Switzerland (a watch shop, not a series of Alp-like humps) and the King's Casino, in favour of ambling past the outsized Anglican cathedral of St John's that dominates the island's capital.
You could also take a stroll around the busy Heritage Market, which sells fruit and veg from Monday to Saturday. Situated opposite the West Street bus station, the market sells a huge variety of produce, including black pineapples, mangoes and sugar apples.
You are never more than seven miles from one of (it is claimed) 365 individual beaches: a different one, say the locals, for each day of the year. One side of the island slopes into the calm waters of the Caribbean, the other into the choppy Atlantic ocean. In the north you can do the beach holiday in style at Dickenson Bay and Runaway Bay or join the joggers and surfers at Galley Bay.
Nonsuch Bay is a new resort opening at Hughes Point next Thursday (001 268 720 3020; nonsuchbayresort.com ), offering 40 acres of lush, landscaped gardens.
The south-east corner of the island offers Half Moon Bay, a National Park five minutes' drive from Freetown village. The more peaceful beaches are hiding away in the less developed, hilly south-west of the island where you find the quiet Darkwood Beach and Fryes Bay.
And below the waves?
Diving is excellent in the unspoilt coral reefs around Antigua. The best sites are a short boat ride from the south coast at Sunken Rock and Cape Shirley. Expect to see an array of colourful creatures including angelfish, parrot fish, barracuda, nurse sharks, turtles and dolphins. There are plenty of dive operators scattered around the island, with boats going from all the main ports.
Ultramarine Caribbean (001 268 463 3483; ultramarinecaribbean.com) offers a two-tank dive for US$115 (£77), and provides SSI (Scuba Schools International) and PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) courses; Jolly Dive Centre (001 268 462 8305; jollydive.com ) offers single tank dives from US$60.
Snorkelling around the islands is excellent, too, and several of the dive operators take snorkellers on their trips, mooring near some good, shallow coral. A short outing will cost around £10, or go with Wadadli Cats (001 268 462 4792; wadadlicats.com ) for US$110 (£73). For this price you get picked up from one of the beaches on the west coast and then sail all the way around the island, stopping for snorkelling and taking lunch at Green Island off the east coast.
Any inland escapes?
Yes, Antigua's rainforest is easy to reach and full of surprises. Travel up the scenic Fig Tree Drive and begin at the Fig Tree Studio Art Gallery (001 268 460 1234) which has arts and crafts from Caribbean artists, and from where you can also take guided rainforest walks.
Carry on to take part in a spectacular two and a half hour tour with the Antigua Rainforest Canopy Tour Company (001 268 562 6363; antiguarainforest.com ). Having crossed a rickety wooden suspension bridge you'll don a harness to traverse a gorge 300 feet across, taking a scattered path along different zip wires. There are stunning views right to the bottom of the rainforest 350 feet below – if you dare to look. From there take a long walk down to Rendezvous Bay and Doigs Beach, which are secluded and well worth the trek.
The ideal conclusion?
"English Harbour" is still an accurate name for the ample bay that subdues Caribbean storms and provides shelter for around 100 yachts. Within the sanctum of Nelson's Dockyard, you hear plenty of British voices among the boat-owners, supplemented by American and Australian accents. But what you really notice is the bold Georgian architecture that turns the ensemble into a most characterful marina.
Two centuries ago, Antigua had a parallel role to its position today: as a maritime hub for the Caribbean. Nowadays aircraft home in on the island; but as the 18th century gave way to the 19th, this was the base for the Royal Navy in the region.
Horatio Nelson was a frequent visitor, though on one occasion he became so ill before departure for Britain that he ordered a cask of rum to be placed on board to preserve his body should he die.
An exhibition of naval paraphernalia includes old dockyard furniture scarred by ancient graffiti, and Nelson's telescope. Afterwards take the nature trail to Fort Berkeley. Shirley Heights offers fine views over English Harbour, where you can enjoy a lively Caribbean Sunday afternoon complete with a steel band, barbecue and rum punch.
What will I eat?
Hotel and restaurant menus offer familiar versions of European and American food, though with the bonus of plenty of fresh fish and lobster. Snacking opportunities are plentiful: corn here, coconut there, and the occasional curried goat served in unnerving proximity to the live, unspiced version.
Local food centres on chicken and rice, but the more interesting delicacies include seasoned rice with pig snout and bull foot soup (very good hot; served cold it will set) and ducana (grated sweet potato steamed with coconut milk and spices in a banana leaf). Try the Sunday breakfast of salt fish and anchova (aubergine), cornmeal pudding, fungi and rice pudding – actually a blood pudding bound with rice.
Outside St John's, Mama Lolly's (001 268 562 1552) at Redcliffe Quay is a colourful café and takeaway offering the best of authentic Antiguan vegetarian food.
For finer dining, English Harbour has the best – if priciest – restaurants. Try Cloggy's Cafe at the Antigua Yacht Club for a fresh hearty salad at lunchtime (001 268 460 6910) or Catherine's Café – accessible by road or sea – which serves good French food (001 268 460 5050).
The Reef at the Inn at English Harbour is an upmarket beach bar which serves breakfast and a lunch of tasty Caribbean treats (001 268 460 1014). For dinner venture to Trappas, a restaurant and bar which offers good food, cocktails and beers at reasonable prices and draws in the crowds (001 268 562 3534).
The Beach at Dickenson Bay provides a spectacular setting for fine food (001 268 480 6940), as does the more relaxed Gibsons at Crabbe Hill village, where lunch or dinner is served on the beach (001 268 562 2218).
Locals drink generous helpings of punch made from rum (both dark and light) with lime juice and brown sugar. The Antigua Distillery makes Cavalier and English Harbour labels; English Harbour Five Years Old is hard to find, but a real treat.
The local beer, Wadadli, is very good and can be found almost everywhere on the island along with plenty of fresh juices – don't forget to try the fresh pineapple juice from one of the local farms. Work your way from Falmouth Harbour to English Harbour for the best bars, not missing Skullduggery (001 268 463 0625) which is renowned for its espresso martinis.
Travel essentials: Antigua
When to go
* High season starts this weekend; between now and mid-April you can expect balmy temperatures with gentle breezes, much cooler than the sticky Antiguan summer. Hurricane season officially runs from 1 June to 31 October and is worst in September. The best combination of low prices and mostly sunny skies is in November and early December.
* British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virgin-atlantic.com ) compete from Gatwick to Antigua's V C Bird airport on the island's north coast, just outside the capital, St John's. There is a limited bus service from the airport, but most hotels offer a minibus service. Taxis cost around EC$20 (£5) to St John's or EC$80 (£20) to English Harbour on the southern coast.
* Numerous tour operators, including Kuoni (01306 747002; kuoni.co.uk ), British Airways Holidays (0844 493 0773; britishairways.com ), Thomson (0871 664 1100; thomsonworldwide.com ) and Virgin Holidays (0844 557 5825; virginholidays.co.uk ), offer inclusive packages in Antigua, using either scheduled flights. From Thomson, a fortnight in February at the Club Antigua costs around £1,250, including charter flights from Gatwick or Manchester.
* The currency in Antigua is the Eastern Caribbean dollar (EC$), shared with seven other nearby nations and locked to the US dollar at a rate of US$1 = EC$2.70. The US dollar is readily acceptable everywhere – but usually at below the official rate.
* A decent car for a week during high season will cost around £250 a week in high season if you book in advance through a broker such as Holiday Autos (0870 400 4468; holidayautos.co.uk ) or through Avis (0844 581 0147; avis.co.uk ). Bus services are frequent on most routes, if scary.
* Curtain Bluff on the south coast of the island is perhaps the most alluring location. Double rooms cost from US$995 (£665) per night (001 268 462 8400; curtainbluff.com ). Its neighbour, Carlisle Bay, has double rooms from US$800 (£530) a night (001 268 484 0000; carlisle-bay.com ).
Antigua becomes the ultimate yachtie hotspot in late April for the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta and the Antigua Sailing Week. The Classic week (15-20 April 2010) hosts around 60 yachts every year, including wooden pre-Second World War J Class yachts, schooners, sloops and yawls.
Antigua Sailing Week (24-30 April 2010) offers anything from chartered sloops to billion-dollar boats, which circumnavigate the island from Nelson's Dockyard. Falmouth Harbour, with its myriad marinas, provides the centre of this frenzy of maritime activity.
Sailing Hotspots: Barbuda Sandy beaches and goats
Antigua's tiny sister island, Barbuda, 25 miles north, is barely more than a sandbank – and one of the Eastern Caribbean's least-visited locations. Here wild horses and goats roam loose amongst the inhabitants of Codrington, the main-town-cum-tiny village that houses the island's air strip. Flights take 20 minutes for a fare of US$95 (£63) return (001 866 466 0410; fly-winair.com ), while the two-hour ferry ride costs EC$195 (£48) return (001 268 560 7989; antiguaferries.com).
Protected by barrier reefs, the smooth coastline is edged with long pink and white sand beaches that culminate in an uninterrupted 10-mile stretch on the southern shore. At the spectacular Palm Beach you can worship the sun in perfect privacy.
Barbuda has a few isolated resorts: Coco Point Lodge is secluded on its own 164-acre peninsula (001 268 462 3818; cocopoint.com ). Lighthouse Bay (001 268 562 1481; lighthousebayresort.com ) throws in a complimentary helicopter trip from Antigua for guests of the hotel, which offers horse riding, lobster fishing, sailing and kayaking for rates of up to US$2,499 (£1,660) a night. A two-bedroom suite at the luxurious K Club (001 268 460 0300; kclubbarbuda.com ) will set you back US$2,000 (£1,330) a night including full board. For the less extravagant there are a number of cheap and cheerful guest houses ( barbudaful.net has some details).