NOTE: I wrote this post months and months ago and posted it before the storm season was really underway. The end of August and September have brought a very active storm season to the Caribbean and parts of the US. Hurricane Irma hit both Antigua and Barbuda in September 2017. Antigua is fine. Barbuda is devastated. Like literally wiped out. It’s simply terrible. As some news articles highlight, it’s empty of humans for the first time in 300 years. If you’re inclined to help please consider donating through Unicef and Red Cross…or wherever else you trust. After Irma, Hurricane Maria did major damage to nearby Dominica. The group we’ve sailed with, OnDeck, has coordinated bringing supplies to Dominica. They also accept donations and will ensure it goes towards relief and support efforts.
To say I love Antigua is like saying I somewhat like bacon. I would eat bacon at most meals if it was a reasonable-ish thing to do. So let’s just say I really, really, really, really like Antigua. Which is why in the past 2 years I have spent over one month on and around that beautiful island.
In this post, I’m sharing a bit about what we did and learned during our first 10 day trip to the island with a few 2016 updates. If you’re planning a trip to the Caribbean, I would love to hear from you! I have worked and travelled quite a bit throughout the islands and I just love getting to talk about them. Antigua, though, has found a special place in my heart and if you’re planning a trip there definitely let me know! In a separate post, I’ll share about the more recent trip we took that lasted 3 weeks and included one week of amazing sailing time!
In early 2014 Adam and I decided that a trip to a winter warm destination was in order. And since he had never been to the Caribbean, and I have lived on a ship in the Caribbean, I was voting for the islands big time. It’s a pretty easy sell.
Distance was part of the selling feature of trip down to the Caribbean. There are lots of island destinations within a 5 hour or less direct flight from Toronto or Buffalo, the two closest airports to us. We were also looking for a special all-inclusive experience so we could really get away from it all. This would have been our first foray into all-inclusive land. And I say would have been because, as you’ll read below, it didn’t quite turn out that way.
Antigua – The First Time
We first ventured together to the twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda in December 2014. The plan was to stay at an all-inclusive resort on an island that was a direct flight from Toronto and one I didn’t know really well. The flight was direct and I didn’t know the island very well, but in the end, we didn’t do the all-inclusive route.
There are a number of incredible resorts on Antigua. And by incredible, I mean world class. The island has 365 beaches and Barbuda, it’s neighbour island, is basically one big beach with some mangroves on one end. There were a few resorts in the running, but when we stacked up what we would pay for the level of privacy and quiet we were looking for, we weren’t sure we could justify the costs. And then the one place where we thought it was worth it got booked out for a wedding taking over the entire resort.
This was a gift. Because the whole resort thing was something we thought we SHOULD do, yet it kinda grates against our usual travel nature. We’re both used to being travellers, not vacationers. While a weekend at a resort sounds fun, a week or more sounds limiting to me. For others it works and is the perfect vacation solution. And maybe it will be for us one day. But that day was not happening in December 2014.
Knowing our preferred location was booked, I delighted in the fact that I already had a plan b up my sleeve! I had found a private little cottage to rent that had shared pool access with the property owners and one other couple renting the second cottage on the very large site. The distance to town was a 7 minute drive, the cottage itself entirely private, and the views of the famous Falmouth Harbour spectacular. It took a little convincing to get Adam away from the idea of needing to be on the water. Trust me when I say the view is what you need. And on an island with 365 beaches, one is never far away from the water. Being up high with a view gives you something gorgeous to look at, and provides for more privacy then down low on the beach.
We booked the cottage, got a 4×4 mini-SUV rental (required for the roads on the island) and headed off to Antigua for 10 days in December 2014.
Its So Easy to Fall in Love
It did not take Adam and I very long to fall in love with this incredible island. I had visited the island before, but only from the water and was limited to being within a specific harbour. Also, I was working so didn’t really get to enjoy it the same way I could now. For Adam, it was his first experience with the Caribbean and the slower pace of life and general easy going nature of folks. Antiguans are friendly, the landscape is pretty spectacular, and we started making friends pretty early on. Our host, Janie, invited us to join her beach boot camp workout. For some, not the way they want to spend their vacation. For us, its permission to drink beer at 9am. We had great workouts on the beach followed by stretches in the bath warm water of the harbour. Delightful. If all workouts ended like those did I think more people would work out.
This workout group was a mish-mash of folks who live on Antigua year-round and some only during the winter. Most of them were connected to the sailing industry on the island. They welcomed us into the group and were so kind. They connected us to opportunities to sail, and places to go and see while we were on the island. Having lived and worked in the Caribbean, I settled in very quickly. But for Adam this was all new and while he did get comfortable pretty quickly, I think this group of workout buddies helped ease the transition a bit.
We were only there for 10 days. Our last day was December 24th and at our final bootcamp workout the group was so sad for us that we weren’t staying for the Christmas Day party in the Dockyards. We didn’t know about the buckets of champagne…if only! So we decided then and there we would return…..okay – let’s be honest, we had decided on day 2 we would need to return but knowing we were missing the champagne party really sealed the deal.
Our Favorite Places
Here’s a list of our favorite places and must do’s on Antigua from our first trip there in December 2014. These are still some favorite places…we’ve just expanded on them in our December 2016 trip.
This is my phone screen saver and has been since January 2015. I love this beach. I love that we hike there – driving is not recommended unless you’re in a full size 4×4 with substantial clearance. Our hike from our cottage was 45 minutes with the first 12 being uphill and the last 15 being a mix. Translate that to walking home and you realize its a bit of a workout. Our cottage is near the last part where people would park on the side of the ‘road’ before starting their own hike.
The views on the hike are spectacular. The views in the bay itself are sublime. If you arrive before 9am the only people you’ll encounter are the couple that walk their three dogs there every morning and maybe a group of guys fishing. All of them are gone by 9:30 and the next round of people, if any show up at all, won’t likely arrive until 11:30. By then, we were always ready to hike back and take a dip in the pool.
There are no services – water, toilets, showers. So lug in what you need for your stay. There is some shade at the entrance to the beach, but walking down the length gives you even more privacy in the event that someone else shows up. The water is fairly shallow and if you get out past the bit of break that’s there you’ll be touching the ground for awhile. It’s a difficult anchorage which means boats are less likely to come in and hang out and spoil your private beach moment. So yes, it is essentially paradise.
A stunning beach – with services! Dennis’ Cocktail Bar and Restaurant is at one end, plus there are showers, washrooms, and a fresh water tap. Parking is easy and convenient. The beach is set away from the main road so you’re not contending with traffic noises. The views are breathtaking and on many clear days you see Montserrat, and sometimes St. Kitts and Nevis. Gorgeous!
This stretch of coastline is popular with boaters so it’s not uncommon to see a variety of sail and motorboats going by. It just adds to the spectacular scenery. Some boats may even come in and anchor. The water is very clear here in that beautiful shade of blue that makes you think of the Caribbean. It’s an easy walk-in and the surf is usually pretty calm. If you’re looking for shells, this is the beach to comb through. Not much natural shade on the beach itself, but there is a large grassy picnic area that is treed and the area down by Dennis’ has some trees as well.
Ffryes is not far from the popular Jolly Harbour resort area and is also popular with cruise ship passengers – making it busy. On weekends, the picnic area can be full of families out for the day. If you’re looking for a quiet beach experience, either get there early to enjoy the solitude or go to another beach. Once the day gets underway the place fills up but is still a good time. Vendors renting jet skis and such will usually come through starting after 10am. It’s a fun family beach and the area down by the Beach Bar is good for little ones that need a less open water feel.
2016 update: Ffryes is still beautiful and amazing, but a little more crowded than before. The large inflatable beach toys (think slides, trampolines and the like) that used to be at Darkwood Beach have been moved to Ffryes. With this brings even more people, particularly from the cruise ships. Also, the Tamarind Hills development is happening at one end of the beach so there will be some construction happening for a little while. That development will have stairs heading down to the beach for its residents to use.
This family beach near Falmouth Harbour is a delight! It’s also the site of our morning workouts. A small beach with two lovely restaurants on it, pay for use shower facilities, parking, shade, playground equipment, and a view of the harbour and the moored boats. The water here is so warm, still, and calm because of its location. A common spot for boaters coming to shore, the swimming area is roped off for safety.
Despite spending three mornings a week here for post-workout swims, we returned to enjoy the beach itself because it has such a good vibe. You don’t expect solitude here so there’s a joy in being all together at Pigeon for the day. It’s a mix of local and vacationing families, folks from boats, young people who may be working on a boat and having an afternoon off, couples, singles, everyone!
There are a few hikes that originate near the beach so if you’re up for climbing the trails and seeing some really spectacular views bring sturdy shoes. And be willing to encounter some goats. And by some, I mean dozens.
If you want to eat at Catherine’s Cafe Plage make a reservation or be prepared to wait. If you can afford the small mortgage payment for a full meal, it’s worth it:) The cocktails are incredible and if you’re fortunate enough to score a lounger or a hammock you’re in for a special day indeed.
Since we stayed in the Falmouth Harbour area, any eating out we did was in that area too. There are tons of restaurants and on our 2016 trip we definitely visited more of them. But here are two favourites.
The Mad Mongoose
It doesn’t matter if you work on the yacht or own the yacht, eating at the Mad Mongoose was something everyone seemed to do. The food was delicious and reasonably priced, the rum punch was yummy and strong, and the beer was cheap. The vibe was casual-casual so if you’re jumping off a boat after a day of snorkeling or diving wearing a sarong and flip flops you fit right in. But wedge sandals and a dress will also do. I loved eating there. And that’s saying something because I really, really love eating (another reason I workout on vacation).
Now why the past tense about my beloved Mad Mongoose? Because it closed in the summer of 2016 after the owner/chef retired. I couldn’t help but share about it since it was a big part of our trip there the first time. Such a shame and loss to the community because it was just so good. I was so looking forward to eating there my first night back on the island this past December and our host that night understood my sadness that I wouldn’t be able to get another meal stamped on my Mad Mongoose card 😦
Another Falmouth Harbour favorite. All of the starters are one price, all mains another, and desserts share a same-price policy too. Somehow it makes for easier choice making. Which is good, because it’s a diverse menu and anything I’ve had has been delicious! The restaurant is much bigger than it at first appears but I would recommend making a reservation and ensuring a table either on the patio or near the front of the restaurant – the back can get a bit dark and stuffy.
Shopping & Galleries
Tucked away on Fig Tree Drive in a beautiful garden is this gem of a gallery. Featuring works by artists not only from Antigua but around the Caribbean there are so many beautiful things to see in such a small space. Sallie Harker is one of the artists featured and her work is stunning. She is joy to chat with and knows so much about the island and the various artists it inspires. Whether you’re wanting to purchase a large original painting or a pair of handmade earrings, this gallery is worth the stop.
Right in the heart of Falmouth, Nancy Morrison’s gallery is filled not only with her own incredible blue pottery made of local clay, but also the works of artists and artisans from around the island including cards, paintings, photography, jewelry and more. There is range of pricing and something for almost anyone. A great place to buy a special souvenir for yourself or someone else.
Near the cruise ship terminal is this perfect spot for souvenir buying featuring locally made high quality products. Michelle is a Canadian-Antiguan so it’s no wonder we hit it off! The textiles and soaps in the store make great (and light) gifts. If you’ve got some room, the glass jars of pineapple preserves, guava jams, and jerk sauces are delicious.
If a product isn’t from Antigua then Michelle sources it from the home island of that product. Think jerk sauce from Jamaica, lace from Saba, and nutmeg syrup from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. There are books and images for sale too. Honestly, I couldn’t wait to return in 2016 to see Michelle and buy more stuff! In an area near a cruise ship terminal where it’s easy to find cheap and plastic trinkets, Island Gourmet is a special place indeed. (It’s also a good place for recommendations on where to eat nearby – like!)
Places & Activities
This incredible natural wonder is at the end of a long and bumpy road and overlooks both the Atlantic and a nearby bay with resorts ringing the edge. You could spend hours wandering around and marvelling at what the waves of the Atlantic can do to a spit of rocks over time.
Don’t get too close to the edge of the rocks or walk where it’s wet! If it got wet once it can again and the waves are powerful enough to scoop you into the water. This isn’t just me being safety conscious. There are deaths and injuries each year because visitors fail to head the warning signs. It’s advised not to actually cross ‘the bridge’ that the water has carved into the rock since it’s both wet and close to the edge.
There are usually a few vendors at this site selling bracelets and earrings and the like. There is parking but no other no facilities here. On in the inside of the bay is some half decent snorkeling:)
Nelson’s Dockyards at English Harbour
This historic Georgian dockyard is a fascinating place. The sailing loft is still the sailing loft and the very old bakery is still churning out bread and delicious chicken patties. This is where some very beautiful boats come to dock and walking around it’s hard not to stare.
In the middle of it all is an old bar with some pretty potent and delicious rum punch. There are a couple of restaurants around too, and a small grocer called Crab Hole Liquor – and yes, they deliver to your boat. There are also two inns, some shops, a boat charter office, and of course, a museum.
Nelson’s is technically within a national park and you’re supposed to pay to enter. But I’ll admit we just walk in and go about our business. There’s a branch of the Eastern Caribbean Bank inside as well. But don’t go on Fridays unless you have 2+ hours to hang out in line. That’s the day a lot of people get paid and the bank isn’t open on the weekends. The bank machine can be a bit finicky as well and its the only one in the area.
There may be no better place to watch the sun set over Montserrat, overlooking the twin harbours English and Falmouth. Doing it with a delicious dark and stormy in hand makes it that much better. Shirley Heights is worth the visit every time. This view of the harbours is like a postcard. It’s an image that is iconic to Antigua and honestly, it really looks like this.
You can drive up to the top and take in the views. There are lots of trails around to enjoy that give you different glimpses of the area and really, are simply stunning. You can even hike up to the top from Galleon beach (seen in the image above, to the right).
Fig Tree Drive
If you’re not staying in a place that requires driving down Fig Tree, then take some time to make the 20 minute drive. An entirely different part of the island is on view as you snake your way up and down, left and right, through the rainforest. Open your windows and take in the damp, cool air.
We booked online and for an early start – the first of the day – so we wouldn’t be stuck behind loads of tourists from cruise ships. That plan worked really well for us. The two of us had a blast zipping through the forest. When we were done, we enjoyed some fresh juice and pet the random kittens that dot the landscape at the Rainforest Canopy Tour location.
This tourism provider has won a number of awards. And it’s easy to see why. It was professional, fun and more than delivered what it promised.
Things We Wouldn’t Do Again
And here’s the list of things we did in 2014, but knew better than to do again.
Unless you need to go shopping for emeralds or duty free watches, I would not return to Red Cliff Quay Duty Free shopping area. The only exception to this would be the Water Sports store or if I needed to go to a Canadian bank – since most of them have branches in St.John’s. It’s a busy place with the cruise ships coming into port and dumping thousands of shoppers into a few streets. Parking is a bit of a pain. One way roads are not always clearly marked. If you’re looking for souvenirs beyond the usual t-shirt, try the Island Gourmet mentioned above or one of the galleries.
Other than that, we would do everything again. And when I post about our 2016 trip, you’ll get to see what it was we got up. Spoiler alert, Rendezvous was visit many times!