“Antigua is beautiful. Antigua is too beautiful,” writes novelist Jamaica Kincaid in her 1988 essay, A Small Place. And it is, as my already sky-high expectations are quickly surpassed by the stunning natural beauty found here in abundance.
Nothing suggests paradise more than the Caribbean and Antigua – one of the Leeward Islands – is as pretty as they come, laden with golden sands, gently swaying palms and turquoise waters. Barbuda her sleepier sister lying 40 miles north, may rival her, promising idyllic natural riches and fewer people.
Arriving on the inaugural British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Antigua – the airline’s first for 30 years – we’re greeted by Antigua’s Minister for Tourism and Investment Charles Fernandez, as well as national television, ensuring we make the evening news. Mr Fernandez tells me that with 70% of Antigua’s GDP coming from tourism, this flight – and those which follow – are crucial for the livelihoods of the islanders.
With Antigua and Barbuda currently on the UK’s green list and averaging just two new Covid cases each day, the island is currently a popular destination in the Caribbean for holidaymakers. Almost 70,000 Covid vaccines have been administered so far for a population of around 98,000 and the wearing of face masks is mandatory, including outdoor spaces, although beaches are exempt.
As a consequence I’m told that the island has full occupancy of its hotel rooms for what is traditionally Antigua’s low season, with most tourists seemingly happiest spending as much time as possible either on the beach or in the crystal like waters.
And it’s water, where I want to be. At Antigua’s National Sailing Academy in English Harbour, I receive a sailing lesson from Joshua Daniels aboard his Hobie Cat. The academy, aware that 80% of the island’s primary schoolchildren cannot swim, aims to fix this by using revenue earned through tourism and donations to give free swimming and sailing lessons. Joshua knows the perils only too well – he tells me how, at the age of eight, he almost drowned. He learned to swim and is now the academy’s Deputy Sailing Manager.
Aptly, our lesson concludes with a swim, before I clamber onto a rubber tube to be towed at speed. A distant memory of water-skiing from 30 years ago reminds me to lean in and out in order to build up speed and zip across the water, but I somehow allow the line to go slack and the sudden force of it tightening again catapults me through the air. After smashing violently into the water, the tube and I are separated. It is thrilling, stupid and enormous fun.
I manage to recover in time for a trip to Sheer Rocks at Cocobay Resort, run by British-born Alex Grimley who has lived in Antigua for 14 years. While the restaurant excels at blending the best of Antiguan and Caribbean with international cuisine, it’s the ethos of providing jobs for school leavers and training them to progress to top positions that impresses me.
I sip on a rum punch topped with cinnamon and nutmeg as I gaze at the milky blue ocean. I ask Alex which is the most beautiful island in the Caribbean after learning of his extensive travels in the region.
“Hands down, Antigua,” he replies without hesitation. “I just think it is stunning.”
That beauty is reflected in our not so humble lodgings, Tamarind Hills, just a stone’s throw from Sheer Rocks and overlooking two of the island’s 365 gorgeous beaches, Ffryes and Darkwood, located on the sheltered, sunset-facing west coast.
Ten years old, Tamarind Hills is currently undergoing a refurbishment with an additional 42 suites, restaurant, swimming pool and beach club due to open in November.
My suite is simply four-poster heaven. Looking out across the sea from the huge balcony area, the sense of paradise outside is mirrored when I turn and walk back inside. I don’t want to leave.
Typically, the island would be preparing for carnival now, falling each year in late July and running until the first Tuesday in August. How I would love to see such a sleepy isle transformed into beautiful chaos, when different worlds collide. For now, I must make do with pre-recorded Antiguan soca reverberating from the speakers of Dennis’s Bar on Ffryes Beach, since live music and dancing are forbidden between the 11pm until 5am curfew.
For now, the focus is on long days so I awake early for a swim, watching in awe as Antigua’s famous frigate birds fly overhead. It’s not easy to leave the water, but I’m eager to visit the capital, St John’s, for its market day.
Saturday morning is the new Saturday night, providing a sensory riot of colours and fragrances. As I explore the various market stalls, I realise why Antigua is considered to be one of the safest and friendliest countries in the Caribbean.
My final visit is to Antigua’s new 22ft sculpture Boonji Spaceman, standing at the end of a small pier at Hodges Bay resort on the north coast. The piece, designed by Malibu-based artist Brendan Murphy, aims to lift the human spirit and highlights the artist’s fascination with space.
As I walk towards it, I hear music and spy a rather energetic dancer who later tells me his name is Tango. The sky darkens, rain falls, then stops before the sun beams back down again. Tango dances throughout, pausing only briefly when I thank him. As I walk away, Tango and the spaceman are still going for it. Not even a global pandemic is going to stop them.
Heading back to the Tamarind, I think about the laid-back Caribbean phrase “soon come”. Although nothing here happens in a hurry, it’s all in good time. Yet for anyone toying with the idea of visiting this chilled, stress-free corner of the globe, there’s really no reason to hold back. With sun, sea and sand this glorious, the only message is: “come soon”.
How to plan your trip
Suites at Tamarind Hills start from £250 per night. Visit tamarind-hills.com
British Airways now fly to Antigua from Heathrow and Gatwick with prices starting from £378 return. Visit britishairways.com
For further information, see visitantiguabarbuda.com