By Brad Balfour.
For someone deprived of the experience of a Caribbean vacation, Antigua offers an ideal starting point. There’s all the expected elements to any seaward scenario — beautiful ocean views, fresh air, lots of sun and sandy beaches, but so much more as well.
Pronounced “An-tee’ga”, this former colony sits in the Caribbean Sea (17 degrees 5’ north and longitude 61 degrees 45’), a 108-square mile limestone and coral island recognized for its many coves, bays, turquoise-colored waters and 365 white beaches — one for each day of the year, as the natives claim. To its south lie Montserrat and Guadeloupe; to the the north and west are Nevis, St. Kitts, St. Barts and St. Martin/Maarten. Barbuda (Bar-byew’ da), its sister island, lies 27 miles northeast with a land area of 62 square miles — and then there’s a scattering of much smaller land masses that are also under its umbrella.
Largest of the Leeward Islands and furtherest out of the Caribbean Island arc, this small country was emancipated from England in 1981. Though a young nation, it has an ample history which laces it with an old-world Brit-colonial charm. And, thankfully, that heritage means it hasn’t yet become overdeveloped so it not only has luxurious resorts but a capital and countryside that remains untrammeled.
So for those only seeking to slink away from the modern urban hustle and bustle, this location offers all those earthly pleasures easily found through a stay in one of the island’s more sumptuous retreats, in this case, Sandals Grande Antigua, one of the 14 resorts run by this Caribbean-based company.
Spread across several acres adjacent to the capital of St. John, a couple could be ensconced there the whole time, engorging on all the dishes coming from an assortment of restaurants, cafes and beachside lounges. That’s not to say you have to be fat and horny to enjoy yourself, there’s time to splash and play as well.
Any Antigua experience should include some daytime outdoor adventures as well as nightly culinary feasts. And for the first night, that’s exactly what was done, stuffing face at Coconut Grove, a nearby outdoor restaurant perfect for adjusting to the transition from NYC cold to a seasonal temperate climate. Seafood is the speciality and seafood it was — coconut shrimp, conch fritters, crab cakes and of course, a huge lobster.
The adventure side of the Island experience meant getting out a New Yorker’s comfort zone. And that too was divided into two experiences — on land and into the sea.
Traveling to the southern coast for a watery experience, Horizon Eco-Fantasies had fun in mind if you are able to tax muscles and swimming skills. You begin by kayaking out through the mangroves to a skiff that takes divers out to waters which float 10 feet or so above the reefs. The company offers a guide for participants to paddle out in these sit-on kayaks to the beach where another guide leads participants to a boat that brings snorkelers to Cades Reef — just offshore of the mangroves. There everyone dons snorkels, masks, and fins while the boat hopped over warm water — a relief from the growing midday sun’s heat. For the inexperienced, jumping in can offer quite a challenge, especially because they didn’t really instruct the inexperienced. Both fun and daunting, South Coast Horizon’s Eco Park offers these half-day excursions which also includes snacks, and drinks.
Of course any strenuous activity, especially in a place like Antigua, requires a healthy amount of consuming. That was fulfilled at Turner’s Beach Bar where all the sea food can be had sitting under a roof on an open deck with full service bar behind it. After a fulfilling meal — and a little souvenir buying — then it was time for more earthly activity.
What better way to close out a day than with a late afternoon equestrian stroll. Well-equipped to manage small group horseback riding sessions, the Sun Fire Riding Academy — headed by the dreadlocked Sun Fire — offers even the most inexperienced rider a fun experience. Thanks to his able crew, this stroll engendered a pleasant exchange between rider and animal, even if only for the short time. With a stable of friendly older horses by Fort James Beach, the experience presented a challenge of managing the reins while connecting with the horse. If you have trepidation mounting a horse, the handlers were pretty experienced in managing tourists of many sizes — and they take it all in stride (so to speak). Followed nose to tail, the horse and lead handler take the gang on a leisurely beachside walk. But when they broke into a stride, the real horse riding experience really confronts you, and your butt.
Van drivers then bring tourists back to the luxury of Sandals, ready to be well satiated by an extended dinner at Mario’s, its flagship restaurant. There you can dig deeply into a menu that offers cuisine ranging from seafood favorites, Italian styled dishes, steaks and more.
Besides water adventures, there’s another chance get into the island experience, jungle style. An expansive rainforest and island countryside offers ample opportunity to test one’s mettle — and the ability to fly. The Antigua Rainforest Zip line Canopy Tour definitely forced a strenuous testing. Antigua’s national park has a 13-stage zip line with eight different obstacle courses at the end, especially challenging when the staff test participants while they try to complete it. The zip line goes through a thick mass of trees and vines with the ground maybe 50 to a 100 feet below. So no wonder you bond with other zippers as you fly — or in some cases, stall — station to station. As you get to end of the run, and obstacles get more challenging, everyone feels even more securely hooked onto the main cable, so no one’s likely plunge to the earth below.
Trying such an effort makes for an excuse to fill the belly again; Beach Limerz Bar & Restaurant provided ample authentic fodder. Afterwards, this nearby beachside bar provided an thorough taste of local foodie favorites. Dishes include dukuna, saltfish, pepper pot and fungi. Made of pickled beef, chicken or pork, potatoes and broth — topped with greens — pepper pot is the most famous. Fungi are corn fritters and dukuna, a local favorite, is made with coconut, sweet potatoes, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Hosts/owners Barry and Gail Edwards welcome visitors to sit at its big communal tables, where one can eat and meet other people there; a giant wrap-around bar completes the experience with an ample view of the beach.
After a relaxing time enjoying the local fare, it was time again to taste classic cuisine, Sandals style. At night, the various on-restaurants offers time to commune with fellow visitors from all over the world. Daytime offers the challenge of trying all the different choices throughout the day.
And one other excursion really gave the best overview of this island sojourn — the catamaran tour sponsored by Sandals itself. For two hours, the boat follows the shoreline stressing just how many beaches Antigua has along with its celebrities — such as designer Giorgio Armani’s — who vacation there as well.
But sadly, just as one begins to settle into this life, the trip is over far too quickly.