Playa, Playa, Playa, (beach, beach, beach) might well have been the name for Antigua, had Christopher Columbus known it had 365 crescent-shaped, white sand beaches...one for each day of the year. Instead, Antigua (pronounced An-TEE-gah), one of Columbus' favorite discoveries (during his second voyage of 1493) got its name from Santa Maria la Antiqua, his favorite church in Seville.
WELCOME TO ANTIGUA
In 1632, English planters, from the neighboring island of St. Kitts, colonized Antigua. Twelve months later, King Charles II of England formally granted the island to Lord Willoughby. For one year, the French occupied the island but it was ceded to England in 1667. It remained English until November 1, 1981 when (with its sister island of Barbuda) it obtained its independence from Great Britain.
During the 18th century, the south coast's English Harbor teemed with pirates and privateers and was the site of innumerable sea battles. From Nelson's Dockyard (which served to accommodate Admiral George Rodney and Admiral Samuel Hood during their wars with the French, Spanish and Dutch, young Lord Nelson began his 1784 voyage that became naval history.
Nelson's Dockyard, which commemorates British seamanship, is its most historical monument. The renowned Nelson's Dockyard at English Harbour has been restored, recreating the 18th century charm and character as it stood when Admiral Horatio Nelson commanded the British Fleet. The officer's quarters, the sawpit shed, the cooper, lumber, and clothing stores, among others, have all been converted into shops, apartments and a museum.
The Admiral's Inn, a small attractive inn at English Harbour, is steeped in centuries of nautical tradition. The Inn's brick originally came to the West Indies as ships' ballast. The ballast used on the return trips to England was mostly rum. That same Antiguan rum is used in their drinks today. The wrought iron chandeliers have cast a glow on many a sea tale. Old dockyard timber, carved with the names of sailors and their ships was used for the hand-hewn beams in the bar. If only those walls could talk!
The Inn's old rooms, on the upper two stories of the original main building, vary in size and character according to their location in the old brick building. Some walls are painted white bricks, while others are stone. There are louvered windows, beamed ceilings, lazy ceiling fans and hand-made straw mats. The building, just across the pillared courtyard, houses 20th century rooms.
Nourished by a nutmeg-flaked Cavalier Rum Punch, you must laze on the patio at Admiral's Inn and contemplate the nature of the sea and the men who tamed it. Or, sip a Sundowner and drink in the lifestyle of the 21st century yachting set.
ENJOY A RUM PUNCH AT ADMIRAL'S INN
Before your very eyes, you will be confronted with the tiny beautiful land-locked harbor across which Nelson's salty sailors hooked a chain each night. Clarence House, on a promontory opposite and across the Dockyard inlet, was built in 1787 for Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence, who later became King William IV of England. On May 6, 1960, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden honeymooned at Clarence House, which is surrounded by some of the most exquisite scenery in Antigua.
Thrill seeking passengers can opt for an exciting helicopter journey over the volcanic island of Montserrat; a half-day jeep safari through the lush rainforest, past vibrant Antiguan villages, and along scenic coastal roads; or a unique eco-experience of kayaking around "Mangrove Alley" and snorkeling on a live reef. Beach bums can fine-tune their suntans on one of the 365 beautiful beaches.
Planning to visit Antigua for an extended stay? You might try Carlisle Bay Antigua, an exciting resort on the unspoiled south coast of Antigua. Opened in December 2003, this chic contemporary luxury hotel is set on a ravishing beach.
CARLISLE BAY HOTEL LOBBY
The hotel offers cool calm interiors, 80 spacious ocean-facing suites, two outstanding restaurants, and three great bars. The 17,000 square foot Blue Spa at Carlisle Bay is set against a beautiful backdrop of rolling hills and lush rainforest. Carlisle Bay is a Twenty minute drive from Nelson's Dockyard and English Harbour, and a thirty minute drive from the airport and the tiny bustling capital of St Johns.
The magnificently evocative white baroque towers of St. John's Cathedral dominate the skyline of St. John's, the largest city of Antigua and Barbuda. Built in 1845, the church is now in its third incarnation, as earthquakes in 1683 and in 1745 destroyed the previous structures. St. John's is a lively hub for shopping and dining.
For those interested in the early history of the island, there is the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, housed in the colonial Court House (1750). The museum displays both Arawak and colonial artifacts recovered on archaeological digs on the islands. It also features a thought-provoking, life-size replica of an Arawak house, models of sugar plantations, etc.
On Friday and Saturday mornings, you can visit the vibrant farmers' market on the southern edge of the city. Folk crafts, colorful tropical fruits, and a buzzing crowd make for a lively morning.
FOLK CRAFTS AT THE VIBRANT MARKET
At night, Antigua comes alive with West Indian music, produced on steel "pans" (drums) of varying length. Steel bands, musical groups playing on empty oil drums that have been heated and pounded into concave shapes, are acquiring the status of orthodox orchestras. The steel band sound, born in Trinidad, has spread throughout the Caribbean.
THE LOCAL PINACOLADA BAR
Grandparent alert! If you want your grandkids to love you, and their parents to hate you, buy them a small steel drum from Antigua. However, as with any purchase, caveat emptor. Before buying, check for tone. Some are great, but others are terrible.
With a beach for every day of the year, you can take your pick in Antigua. On these paradisiacal crescents of pure white sand, clear blue water, and swaying coconut palms, you might catch the scent of mouthwatering seafood being char-b-qued on grills, or spot the locals challenging one another to a hot game of warri, the national game of Antigua.
A BEACH FOR EVERY DAY IN ANTIGUA
The game of warri came to the West Indies with the slaves from the Gold Coast of Africa. In a great many African dialects, warri means house. The word warri, or house, refers to the hollows of the board. The counters are knickers, a small nut belonging to the Cuillandria bush. Detailed instructions accompany the games that you can purchase in souvenir shops. If you find the game of warri impossible to understand, or too frustrating to conquer, the warri board will make a great serving tray from which to pop peanuts at parties.
JANET STEINBERG is an award-winning Travel Writer and a Travel Consultant with THE TRAVEL AUTHORITY.