In September 2017, Hurricane Irma ripped through the Caribbean, causing extensive damage to Antigua’s smaller sister island, Barbuda. Around 90 percent of Barbuda’s buildings were destroyed, and almost all residents evacuated to Antigua, which, miraculously, remained largely unscathed.
A frequent stopover for onward flights to other parts of the Eastern Caribbean, Antigua’s white-sand beaches and turquoise waters make it an ideal place to break up a long journey. And one of the best ways to help the region rebuild after Hurricane Irma is to travel there. Antigua needs visitors now more than ever.
Despite being a prime honeymooning destination and wedding hotspot, there’s a whole world to discover outside the all-inclusive couples’ resorts. Just 20km tall and 22km wide, you can explore plenty of the island in a short space of time. Here’s our guide to maximizing 24 hours in this tropical paradise.
Breakfast: feast on the view
Enjoy a scenic breakfast at Coconut Grove, on the beach at Dickenson Bay, in the island’s northwest. You can opt for familiar favourites such as eggs Benedict and fruit-topped pancakes, or choose a traditional local breakfast of salt fish, “chop up” (a mash of okra, aubergine and spinach), boiled eggs and fried plantain.
The views from the restaurant are serene, as you look out past palm trees onto a picture-perfect beach.
Take a hike
Beat the heat and power up for an early morning hike around Shirley Heights, in the English Harbour area on the south coast. Starting at Galleon beach, the Desmond’s and Carpenter’s trail loop takes 1.5–2 hours and offers fantastic views of the craggy cliffs of the wild coastline.
Alternatively, for a hike with a difference, hire a guide to take you up to the megaliths at Green Castle Hill, 20km northwest of English Harbour. There’s no conclusive evidence to show when or how these cone-shaped rocks formed. It’s possible they are man-made and were once used in ancient rituals by indigenous peoples, though it’s more likely the result of volcanic activity.
Wear long trousers and sturdy shoes, as the lemongrass has invaded the area and you’ll need to fight through the sticky leaves (which grow up to 2m tall) to get to the top.
Don’t let that put you off, though – it’s worth the climb; the sweeping views of southwest Antigua are jaw dropping, with green arable land leading to dark hilly mounds and the bright blue of the ocean.
Go for a dip
A trip to Antigua, even a very short one, wouldn’t be complete without some beach time. Cool down with a swim in the Caribbean Sea over at the peaceful Fort James Beach, where you’re unlikely to find cruise-ship crowds.
Take some hard-earned rest on the beach, and grab a drink at BeachLimerZ, where you’ll get a warm welcome and the rum punch is dangerously moreish.
Lunch: get to the grill
If you’re looking for a truly local meal, head to Sibley’s Barbuda Grill, on a grassy patch by Old Parham Road, on the eastern outskirts of the capital, St John’s.
Every day except Mondays, you’ll find this incredibly well organised set-up offering a mind-boggling array of enticing different local dishes. Most people take away, but you can stay and eat at shaded picnic tables.
Dishes include BBQ ribs, BBQ chicken, spicy prawns, goat curry, pork stew, creole fish, “chop up” and more. You can fill up for a very reasonable US$10 (less than most restaurants), and wash it down with a fresh tamarind, watermelon or passion fruit juice for just under US$2.
Stay urban or go wild
For a chilled-out afternoon, spend a few hours exploring compact St John’s. The centre of town is peppered with brightly painted colonial Georgian buildings; ramshackle clothes shops mix with boutique craft stores and the occasional fast-food joint. Wander down to the Disney-esque Redcliffe Quay and Heritage Quay pier, which get extremely busy when the cruise ships pull in.
A less touristy shopping experience can be found at the city’s market, which is open every day, though at its biggest and busiest on Saturdays. It has a huge covered section and various outdoor tributaries – each devoted to different local fresh produce – as well as the aptly nicknamed “bend down” flea market (because you’ll need to bend down to pick up the goods).
If thrills and adrenaline rushes are more your thing, take an afternoon excursion to the Antigua Rainforest Canopy Tour, about half an hour’s drive south of St John’s, where you can explore the lush rainforest via eight zip lines, one vertical descent and two suspension bridges. The zips get longer as the course progresses, and any fears will be put to rest by the entertaining and experienced team. Good fun all round.
Dinner: a seafood supper
Back in St John’s, head for dinner at the nautically themed Papa Zouk (book ahead). Charismatic Austrian owner, Bert, settled here 17 years ago and founded this perennially popular restaurant with a very simple menu: rum and fish.
Charred rum bottles line the walls, a testament to the fire that raged through the restaurant in late 2014, destroying Bert’s vast collection, the largest in the world until that point. He gathered the remnants of the burnt rums, combining them to form his unique blend of “fire rum” – try it at your peril.
The bouillabaisse to start is superbly rich, the huge red snapper main perfectly cooked and full of flavour, and the chocolate-and-butternut-squash cake for dessert is absolutely worth leaving room for. The fabulous “ti’ punch” (rum with lime and cane syrup) is the only acceptable accompaniment.
Follow the beach bar trail
If you’ve got any energy left after all that, hit the Beach Bar Trail. The handy map produced by the tourist board will help you navigate your way from bar to bar, several of which are clustered together within walking distance of each other.
Get your head down
Cheap accommodation is pretty thin on the ground in Antigua. A good mid-range option is Siboney, at Dickenson Bay (doubles from US$160), with its balconied rooms overlooking a kidney-shaped pool in a pretty garden.
For lower priced options, your best bet is Airbnb, where you can get a private room from around US$40 per night and whole apartments for not much more.