It would be a full year before we managed to get back to the islands (after our Eleuthera trip of March 1990). Not that we were twiddling our thumbs. I graduated from law school, took (and passed) the bar exam, bought a house, and started a new job. Whew! With all of that going on, an escape was more necessary than ever.
We chose Antigua without doing too much research. The one person I knew who had gone there raved about it - she had honeymooned there – and I had no reason to question her opinion. Beyond that, it seemed like a glamorous locale frequented mostly by Europeans.
We booked ourselves into a small resort on Runaway Bay called the Runaway Beach Club. It featured a number of small yellow cottages strewn across a beachfront, with a restaurant, the Lobster Pot, located on the premises. The accommodations were bare bones: a large bedroom/sitting room with white tile floors, white-washed paneled walls and a high white-beamed ceiling with ceiling fan; a walk-in closet; and a white bathroom with a separate beach entrance. All in all, a very cool and clean feeling spot. The only complaint was that the sliding glass door had curtains that only lent any privacy when we safety-pinned them together.
With the exception of the Fig Tree Road, at this time of year the island of Antigua was hilly, scrubby and dry; we were told that this was the dry season and that the hills greened up with the rains later in the year. But visitors didn’t come to Antigua for the interior scenery. They come for the 365 claimed beaches: one for every day of the year. And indeed, the beaches are lovely here, including our own Runaway Bay. Our cottage was right on the water, and we could walk past a small grassy area right onto the white sand into crystal blue waters and a gently sloping bottom. No surf, stones, corals or other distractions to keep us from enjoying an uninterrupted beach experience. We would “sploosh” in these gentle seas several times a day.
Even better, Runaway Bay lent itself to walking, and was adjacent to Dickinson Bay, separated only by a small outcropping of rocks. Runaway Bay had a collection of small resorts and restaurants, but the big-time glamorous tourism amenities were on Dickinson Bay. In the evenings, I loved being able to walk, without shoes, to the restaurant of our choosing. We had some great meals, as well as some disappointing ones, on the beach. Great fresh kingfish and wahoo at Sand Haven; awesome bean soup at the Satay Hut; horrible, rubbery conch at Coconut Grove.
Despite the claim of those 365 beaches, we didn’t visit many of them, even though we had a rental car. It was a Nissan March or somesuch poor excuse for transportation, coming with a ridiculously high weekly rental rate. However, it did have right hand drive, which made driving on the left less disconcerting. We used the car for general island exploration, returning to our on-site beach at the end of our day of wandering. However, our beach time was not perfect; instead it was often marred by the intrusion of beach hawkers who thought nothing of waking us from our snoozes to try to sell their wares.
Beyond the beaches, one of Antigua’s most notable sights is the Shirley Heights/English Harbour area. From Shirley Heights, we had a commanding view of one of the most storied and secure anchorages in the Caribbean, English Harbour. English Harbour was the headquarters of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s adventuring in the Caribbean on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. At ground level, the Antiguan government has preserved the buildings, stockades, garrisons, forts and other structures comprising the “Nelson’s Dockyard” complex, allowing visitors to take a walk through history.
The capital of Antigua, St. John’s, also offers many sights of interest to history buffs. St. John’s cathedral, one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, provides a glimpse of the island’s history and its survival of tempests and turmoil. The town also offers dining and shopping options at Heritage Quay and Redcliffe Quay, but we were more than content to spend part of our in-town time on a balcony at Hemingway’s, drinking refreshing lime squashes and watching the goings-on below. Unfortunately, the goings-on including cruise ship crowds and lots of traffic, not inspiring us to linger.
We were more happy to visit the natural attractions of the island, such as Devil’s Bridge. Devil’s Bridge is located on the east (Atlantic) coast of the island, on a desolate looking stretch of sharp, pocked ironshore. Here is found a natural arch framing the churning waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Adding to the atmospherics, the shore is riddled with undermined holes and voids, creating an eerie soundscape whenever a wave crashes against the shore. Under certain circumstances, the spume kicked up by a wave will make its way through the holes in the ironshore, creating a geyser-like blowhole, accompanied by sounds which are a cross between a tortured moan and the sound made when one blows across the top of a bottle.
More conventional tropical sights may be found by riding along the Fig Tree Road. “Fig tree” is the Antiguan term for a banana tree, which has a palm-like appearance. The Fig Tree Road runs through an area which is, effectively, Antigua’s rain forest, all the more noticeable because the rest of the island was so dry and brown. Here, the road is shaded by abundant greenery, including the eponymous fig trees. An oasis on an otherwise sere island.
One day during our trip was devoted to a less-than-ideal (at least for me) daysail on the Paradise, a 45 foot Beneteau sloop. Things started badly for me when I, then a novice sailor, got seasick. Various remedies were attempted, including Coke, putting me at the helm, and finally Dramamine. The Dramamine knocked me out, as it always does. The sail included a stop at an offshore island, including a snorkeling lesson. Unfortunately, the snorkeling spot chosen was one where the water was too shallow for us to safely traverse the corals, so part of my misadventure included a few coral gashes on my knees. Lunch was a highlight, but I was put back into my misery when we sailed back to Dickinson Bay, where again I faced the choice between Dramamine-induced sleep or seasickness; I chose sleep.
As with many other islands in the Caribbean, hitchhiking was considered acceptable, even encouraged. We participated in this custom with our rented car, and met a few interesting islanders in so doing. One day, it proved to be especially helpful: we picked up a hitchhiker minutes before encountering a huge traffic jam caused by an accident in town. Our passenger was able to direct us through an alternate (though unpaved) route to our destination, saving us time and annoyance. We were grateful.
Nevertheless, despite the friendly hitchhikers we encoutered, most of our interactions with Antiguans were decidedly chilly. We’d learned, by then, of the famous reserve of the residents of many islands. Our approach has always been respectful, not overly familiar, and friendly. Despite our overtures, we often experienced downright coldness or just plain disinterest. Perhaps the attitude is a result of the island being overrun with cruise ship daytrippers, or the arrogant behavior of some of the visitors, such as the woman we observed at the airport on our way out of the country, demanding (in a twangy whine) to go to the front of the line because she was flying FIRST CLASS (notwithstanding the fact that American Eagle lacks such a designation).
Thus, while we found much in Antigua to enjoy, overall, we didn’t feel a need to return anytime soon.