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Updated: 11th July 2019
‘Sundays are family days on the island, so most things will be closed’, shouted Bernadette, trying to be heard over the Caribbean beats pumping from our open-sided vehicle.
As we slowly navigated around some half-asleep cows on the road, the ever so friendly Bernadette from Rendezvous Tours explained more about the island of Antigua and let slip her favourite beaches – ‘don’t go telling everyone’ – along the calmer Caribbean Sea stretch of the island.
She wasn’t lying about the island seeming closed; you could almost feel the lazy Sunday vibes in the humid air. After the cows had shuffled on, I assume also struck by the weekend chill pill; we pulled up alongside a candy-pink church, somewhat of an icon on the island.
Across the road, an equally colourfully clad lady was dishing out frozen peanut punch, an organic Rastafarian speciality, while effortlessly multitasking between preparing tempting pineapple slices and engaging in chatter with her handful of customers. Her heartfelt laugh was as delicious as her fresh offerings.
Chowing down on the local black pineapple, the sweetest I’ve ever tasted, the block of nutty goodness started to drip and melt in the heat. The pineapple reassuringly isn’t actually black, but regardless of the confusing name, the locals were right about it being the most delicious I’d ever taste. The sweet nectar is a perfect refreshment for our pit-stop.
For most of the week, I’d been holed away in my all-inclusive resort, blissfully enjoying unlimited kayaking and even more unlimited rum. I’ll openly admit I’m not often a resort kind of guy, but with the pristine beach, an array of restaurants, and mini-golf and SUP minutes from my Verandah, I surprised myself by how quickly the items on my Antigua to-do list had become a ‘tomorrow, let’s do that tomorrow’.
The pink church and pineapple combo was a mid-way stop on an open-sided safari of the island, but rather than wildlife, we were being treated to breezy winds, azure waters, and history lessons.
With a population of around 100,000, a surprising array of religions and cultures fill the island, with only Voodoo not allowed to be practised. Shawarma restaurants served by second-generation Syrians and vegetarian Rastafarian treats sit side by side, and the cultural mix is evident in the larger towns and villages.
I was glad to get out of the resort and learn more about the island’s past, although, as with most nations my ancestors had touched, the past comes with its own share of harrowing history.
The last few remaining sugar mills are a not-so-gentle reminder of the slavery that was forced upon the island by the British, and the aggressive waves at Devil’s Bridge provide a poignant moment to reflect. It was here that slaves would run to and take their own lives to escape the miserable conditions that were pushed upon them.
We take a moment to pause, remember, and then celebrate the country’s independence, which came on November 1st, 1981. English is the primary language here, and the (much younger-looking) Queen still adorns the East Carribean Dollar, the currency used here and on some of the neighbouring islands.
As with anywhere in Antigua, we didn’t have to wait long until our feet were back in the sand, with a bottle of Susie’s Hot Sauce in hand, as we devoured a delicious fresh fish dish.
With more than 365 beaches, one for each day of the year, as the locals regularly say without prompt, it’s no surprise that for many visitors, tearing themselves away from the lightly lapping waves is a mission they aren’t willing to accept. But for those looking to explore and understand more of this best island to visit, these informative tours provide an easy-to -manage break from the beach.
As we wind through the nature park that is The Fig Tree Drive, not because of an abundance of figs but because of the banana, which locals call figs here, Bernadette points out the national tree, the Centenary. In the distance, a zip wire whizzes people through the lush plantation, and we trundle along to the booming bass, back to our all-inclusive Verandah Resort before heading out to the famed local hot spot of Shirley Heights.
Steel drums echoed through the air as the last beams of the day illuminated the old fortress, complete with prime views over English Harbour and, I dare say it, the best landscape photo opportunities in the country. This abandoned building hosts famous parties every Sunday, so popular that it was now starting to open on a Thursday too.
It was one of the first mid-week nights, and the crowds were thin, but the BBQ was cooking, the rum punches were flowing, and as the sun went from pink to orange and finally purple, the band kept the atmosphere alive as we danced, laughed and soaked up the warm evening air.
‘The taxi is about 60 dollars, ’ the receptionist repeated the next morning, clearly confused by our question. Set on continuing our made-it-out-of-bed streak, Emily and I decided to venture to the island’s capital city. Judging by the response, I think it’s fair to say not many visitors at this Elite Resort enquired about public transport.
A short but sweaty stroll past wild goats later, we hopped onto one of the many sixteen-seater minibuses that ply the main roads, picking up passengers heading to the city. Later, I was told the goats were sheep who had adapted to the weather and self-shedded their hair, a fact I wasn’t quite ready to take as gospel.
Just a couple of dollars and under an hour later, we had travelled to the other side of the island, where the colourful wooden houses of St John’s welcomed us. We potted around the small city, visiting the main attractions such as the cathedral and markets, and snacked on patties and local specialities: Fungee and Pepper Pot, a mix of cornmeal pudding and okra as its main vegetable.
Fancy shops and well-manicured storefronts started to greet us, marking the cruise ship port where primed staff stood tall by the doorways, awaiting day trippers ready to buy their souvenirs and expensive jewellery.
Keen to discover the city and surrounding area better, we joined a Triflex excursion, offering us a chance not just to see the city with locals but burn off some of the buffet calories we were consuming.
Recently opened by two brothers, Mark and Giles, these four-hour tours are ideal for both cruise visitors and those here on vacation. Our tour started with a bike ride through the city, touching on the main sights and a little history.
The second part of the tour took us through Mangroves, jellyfish and birds as we kayaked just outside St John’s. It was bizarre to find such a tranquil setting so close to the cruise terminal, though the crystal clear waters you would expect from the Caribbean were missing here.
We quickly rectified that following another short bike ride, where white sands and lapping waves awaited. At a local beach shack restaurant, Candy Lean Beach Bar, the owner, Yvonne, a former Miss Antigua, hands us cold beers and shares stories from years gone in the shade of one of Antigua’s oldest food establishments.
Our tour concludes in the old fort of St John’s, built by the British but now in disrepair. For years, it was a nightclub after its original purpose, but now Mother Nature has started to reclaim it, only the cannons fully remaining to disclose its history.
While Antigua might not be an island packed with must-see sights or countless activities, there are still plenty of ways to connect with nature. From water sports such as SUP and scuba diving to hiking and zip lines. For those wanting to master its signature sport, though, a lesson might be in order.
Antigua is famed for its sailing, especially during the sailing week, and there are plenty of chances to learn. Opting for a short lesson with the Antigua National Sailing Academy, where the qualified teachers provide subsidised lessons for local children, I headed out with our guide and picked up some new skills.
Two hours later, I wasn’t quite ready to compete in the sailing week races, but I felt quietly pleased that I had managed to get at least the wind to obey my sail commands and head in a semi-straight direction.
My final days on the island returned to the ‘tomorrow, we’ll do it tomorrow’ attitude, well aware that tomorrow would bring the same sentence. To be fair, Antigua didn’t seem to boast the volume of activities such as Aruba, nor did it excite me as the epic landscapes of Dominica did, but that was okay. Sometimes, you just need a holiday, and heading to a beach destination where you can lounge guilt-free, knowing you aren’t missing countless things to do, makes that a lot easier.
We hopped between the resorts at the end of our island: Verandah, the family-friendly option, where we slept, and Pineapple Resort, which is exclusively for adults across the street. On Saturday, we strayed to Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour for their Seafood Fridays, a BBQ fish night, although the drive time and dinner quality wouldn’t make it something I’d recommend going overly out of your way for.
The history of English Harbour and Nelsons Dockyard, a UNESCO world heritage site and cultural centre, may be reason enough to visit for those looking to see another side of the island though.
With a heavy heart, our final night had arrived, and we boarded a sunset Catamaran Cruise with Mystic. I felt a slight pang of dread at saying goodbye to the island vibes I had become accustomed too. Tomorrow was going to come, and it would be taking me far away from the all-inclusive lifestyle.
We danced to reggae, sipped on rum punch, and watched the sun slip away behind the ocean, all while sailing alongside the powder-white sands of this beach paradise, a postcard-perfect wedding in the distance.
It was a bittersweet ending, as I’d not made it to Barbuda, the second half of this nation, or the few unpopulated islands that complete the country. I wish it had been easier to access as a day trip on our limited schedule.
A devastating hurricane, Irma, ripped through Barbuda in 2017, and repairs are still ongoing. From what I’ve heard, the beaches are even more untouched and the island far less developed, so for those seeking a retreat from a retreat, a short flight or longer boat ride will take you there.
Sadly, tomorrow did come, and so did a golf cart to collect my luggage. For the first time in a long time, I was going to leave a trip relaxed and refreshed, making me grateful that Antigua hadn’t hammered me with things to do but blissfully let me recharge.
The Caribbean is truly one of the most relaxing holiday vibes I’ve ever experienced, and as our flight climbed above the island at sunset, I closed my eyes, hoping I’d wake up to just one more tomorrow of doing nothing.
My eyes opened, and London Gatwick said hello; the Antiguan dream was sadly over, except for the rum waiting in my checked luggage.
About the resort: The all-inclusive Verandah Resort
Elite has many resorts in Antigua and across the Caribbean, and we were also able to access the Pineapple adult-only resort just across the road.
The best part of the resort for me was the space, a vast lush area where golf-carts can be used to get around for those wanting to give up on walking totally. The wooden-built suite-style accommodation is in semi-detached bungalows, many with uninterrupted views out to the turquoise waters. Additional bonuses onsite included two beaches, five restaurants and cafes, three bars, two pools (one is adults only) and a mini-golf course.
The all-inclusive offering included most of the dining, focusing around the main buffet restaurant and an ala carte option, while an additional charge was levied on the fancier restaurant, which I didn’t dine at, but my friends reported was fantastic. Additionally, all non-powered water sports, such as Kayaking and SUP, were unlimited and included, and nightly entertainment and daytime events were well programmed.
While it certainly isn’t the fanciest resort on the island, and the prices reflect that, for me, it was a perfect balance between a beautiful resort and one you were comfortable relaxing in. The food was good, if not outstanding, and the drinks included well-known labelled spirits, not just cheap house options, until the bars shuttered around midnight. The service was at times a little slow, but having visited a few Caribbean islands, I feel this is just a different pace to be expected.
Overall, given the competitive price point compared to other all-inclusive resorts in Antigua, I’d happily recommend Verandah. my uncle, aunt and their kids have followed my lead and booked their summer vacation here. Just keep in mind the secluded location means drives to the city, and some attractions will be around 45 minutes one way, something that won’t matter for those who are happy to embrace doing not much at all. You can check the latest prices here.
Flying to Antigua with Virgin Atlantic
I flew to Antigua with Virgin Atlantic, who operate direct flights from London Gatwick, a journey time of around 8 hours. The inbound plane was during the day, and the return overnight. I’ve also flown the same route on BA, which offers slightly more legroom.
Service on Virgin was excellent, as to be expected, as was the food, but the legroom felt quite cramped with the older seat design and 30 inches. The bonus of flying with Virgin is you can book a complete holiday, including the all-inclusive Verandah resort, which may bring the overall costs down to booking separately.
The cabin crew were happy to refill my bottle rather than serve water in plastic cups, and USB power (not sockets) was provided. The other thing I like about Virgin is they have scrapped makeup and heel rules for there cabin crew, which is great to see in an industry that seems obsessed with prescribing how their staff should look.
The planes weren’t the newest in the fleet, which is to be expected on a leisure destination route from Gatwick. For those coming from the USA, there are direct flights from key hubs, and other connecting options, mainly through Florida.
Need to know: Antigua.
Costs in Antigua: Needless to say, Antigua isn’t a cheap destination, but if you opt for an all-inclusive Resort, the bulk will be covered. A week in the Verandah off-season was around £1000pp based on twin share. Activities and tour prices can be accessed on the links above. Local buses and restaurants, of course, provide lower-cost alternatives.
Currency: Eastern Caribbean Dollar, though many touristy prices are listed in USD
Best time to visit: I’d suggest visiting in the off-season and braving the short rain showers as the prices will be significantly lower between May to October, though this is hurricane season.
Where to next: Jump on a 30-minute flight to Dominica, the nature island, to experience the opposite side of the Caribbean with lush rainforest, waterfalls, canyons and black sand beaches. Or check out these reasons to visit Aruba instead.