Two islands, one winter getaway

By any standards, I’m a wimp when it comes to winter weather. I feel a sense of despair the first time the thermometer dips below zero and, as the season drags on, can barely lift my wool-wrapped face long enough to sneer at the annoyingly positive refrains (“It’s brisk … refreshing … invigorating”) of cold-weather fans.

By March, I’m a grumpy, frozen shell of myself.

In the dead of a brutal, unrelenting Canadian winter, the prospect of a sunny getaway is enough to make me delirious – I can almost taste the salt of the ocean and feel the hot sand under my feet.

For sun and sand, Antigua and Barbuda surpass all my expectations. The dual-island nation lies between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, south and slightly east of Puerto Rico. These tiny, sun-drenched jewels are near the top of the chain that makes up the Leeward Islands (“lee” because they’re away from the wind). The many indentations along Antigua’s coastline make for countless stunning white sand beaches – “one for every day of the year” as the tourist brochures boast. In fact, it’s hard to believe all beaches on the island are public sincee encounter no crowds in the entire March week we’re there.

Occasional tropical storms and, less frequently, hurricanes hit the islands between July and October (Antigua-Barbuda has experienced four hurricanes in the last 50 years). Temperatures hover at 25 to 30 C pretty much year-round. Most of the time, trade winds blow from the northeast, helping to temper the brilliant heat and creating harbours so calm and waters so blue they seem unreal or, at least retouched, in the dozens of photographs we can’t help taking.

Just 45 kilometres to the north of Antigua, sister island Barbuda, a mere total of 161 square kilometres, with its jagged Atlantic coastline and miles and miles of blinding white-pink sand, is picture-perfect. A 15-minute flight from Antigua, the sand on this largely coral land mass is so desirable, its export is a major industry for the tiny island. The “newest” beach could well be Luis Beach, a stretch of impossibly unspoiled sand that is the legacy of Hurricane Luis, which hit the islands in September 1995.

Like so many vacationers who return year after year, Diana, Princess of Wales, was a repeat visitor, staying at Barbuda’s exclusive K Club after reportedly being turned away from Antigua’s ultra-exclusive (how exclusive can you get?!) Jumby Bay Resort.

We learn these juicy bits – and more – from Francis, our guide on Eli’s Ecotour. In fact, every minute of this daylong powerboat excursion is packed with learning – about people, birds, sea creatures and the land itself.

Gorgeous tropical landscape
Beyond the sun and surf, there’s even more to love about the islands’ landscape. The gentle hills of Antigua – Boggy Peak, at 402 metres, is the highest peak – help create a lush rainforest that renders the island brilliant with tropical flora, including the odd, spiny century plant with its single brilliant orange bloom which is the national flower, shockingly chartreuse azaleas and bright red hibiscus. A trip along Fig Tree Drive reveals villages and fields carved out of thick tropical vegetation, and every turn brings scenes of exotic palms, fruit trees –if not laden with, then promising loads of guavas, bananas, mangoes, papayas, breadfruit. Frolicking goats along the very narrow roads are the biggest hazard.

With my city-bred tendency to romanticize farm life, the abandoned sugar mills dotting Antigua’s landscape seem a little sad. Sugar, once the biggest export from the island, hasn’t been processed on Antigua since 1976. Production was brought to a halt by periodic droughts and by world economics that favour sugar beets over sugar cane. Now, agriculture accounts for only four per cent of the nation’s economy.

Tourism, not surprisingly, is by far the biggest employer of Antigua’s roughly 70,000 people and accounts for approximately half of gross domestic product.

Next page: History, and what to know

Tony Johnson is one local resident who’s keenly aware that economic growth depends on selling the island’s natural beauty to visitors. The Australian-born engineer has lived on Antigua for 44 years, deciding to make it his home after delivering a yacht there. In 1981, Johnson built Siboney Beach Club, a lovely 12-room hotel on Dickenson Bay on the island’s northwest shore. At 79, Johnson is a keen windsurfer. More importantly, perhaps, like so many of the island’s residents who make a living from tourism, he’s concerned about the effects of badly planned expansion. He is ambivalent about recent development that includes foreign investment and plans to build massive resorts to expand the tiny playground’s appeal to visitors. “They have to do it right,” he says.

History all around
Thankfully, Antigua’s economic transition to tourism so far seems to embrace the islands’ history. For example, one of the most prominent sugar plantations, Betty’s Hope, has had its twin mills restored to working order and opened in 1995 as a heritage centre. Further development, including an archeological dig to trace the evolution of the estate, is planned.

In fact, tourists are reminded of the island’s past at every turn. Downtown Saint John’s rolls history into the present without even trying. The nation’s capital sees old buildings side by side with new developments. Now home to restaurants and shops, the old parts of the nation’s capital, the stone warehouses of Redcliffe Quay, once served as slave-holding areas.

Meanwhile, on Antigua’s southeast tip, English Harbour and Nelson’s Dockyard reflect a time when Antigua was a crucial and strategic naval base as Britain and France fought for control of the Caribbean. Once long-term quarters for Admiral Horatio Nelson and his men, it’s been restored as a yachting centre to showcase this naval history and is central for annual Antigua Sailing Week.

And high above the harbour is the massive fort and lookout built by the British. The weekly parties at Shirley Heights Lookout, named for Governor Shirley who arrived in 1781 as governor, makes this the place to be for locals and tourists on Sunday night. Starting in the late afternoon, hundreds arrive by foot, by taxi, by bus, by car.

A warm setting sun makes the perfect backdrop to fascinating history. A great barbecue, the rhythmic beat of the steel pan and happy people all around make me think this must be the most wonderful place on earth. If only I didn’t know about the spring ice storm waiting for me back home!

Good to know

  • BWIA flies directly to Antigua from Toronto and other major Canadian cities.
  • Carib Aviation flies twice daily from Antigua’s V.C. Bird International Airport to Barbuda.
  • Antigua and Barbuda gained independence from the U.K. in 1981, but British customs persists: remember to drive on the left side of the road.
  • Currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar, but U.S. dollars are also widely accepted. Since 1976, exchange rate has been fixed at 2.7 EC dollars to one U.S. dollar.