Antigua! When I booked a cruise to the eastern Caribbean, I had no idea what to expect from the island with the exotic name. But my day on the island of Antigua was a friendly and intriguing introduction to this warm, tropical corner of the world.
I awoke to the sight of green hills and brightly painted wooden houses out my window. What to do with the day? There were many possibilities. The island of Antigua has 365 beaches, one for every day in the year. It also has azure waters for snorkelling, green forests for zip lining and nature walks, and fishing villages to explore. But I chose a tour to Antigua’s most famous site, a place called Nelson’s Dockyard.
Before long I was riding through green countryside where cattle, sheep and goats grazed side by side. In fact, our guide advised, it’s hard to tell the sheep from the goats on the island of Antigua. Because of the heat, the local sheep don’t grow thick coats of wool, so the only way to distinguish them is by their tails: goats’ tails go up, while the sheep’s tails go down.
We passed small, modest houses and large, prosperous-looking ones, painted in a rainbow of colours. But there was no sign of the grinding poverty you might expect on some Caribbean islands. And strikingly, no real sign of damage from this year’s catastrophic hurricanes. In fact, while Antigua’s sister island, Barbuda, was devastated — not a building was left intact, our guide reported — Antigua only suffered strong winds. Power was back up with a few hours, and life went on.
As it has for centuries on this island. In fact, Antigua was once a hub of the Caribbean, and a place that was highly sought after by the powers that fought to control the region back in the Pirates of the Caribbean days. So the British, who controlled the island, built 17 forts to protect it from attack. That means Antigua is a treasure trove of history, with ancient military sites everywhere you look.
I always find these places fascinating, but on Antigua, they can also be spectacular. Many of them were built on the heights to give the soldiers a lookout for approaching ships. Which means that even if the site doesn’t impress, the view is sure to.
Our first stop, a place called the Blockhouse, is a case in point. This was where the British soldiers and sailors lived back in the 1700s, on a high, rocky point overlooking the sea. Not much is left but ruined buildings and gun placements, with a few cannons added for effect. But the view is wonderful, with the blue sea stretching to the horizon and lush, green hills in the distance. On a very clear day, our guide said, you can see the islands of Montserrat and Guadeloupe, as well as the neighbouring Barbuda.
But just as interesting was a building on a point of land that stuck out into the ocean in front of us. This was Eric Clapton’s Antiguan home away from home, and a nearby complex of buildings was the Crossroads Centre he founded to help recovering drug addicts.
A few minutes away was our second stop, a place called Shirley Heights. This was a lookout point for the watchful Brits, and one look over the rugged cliff showed why: it offers one of the most amazing sea views I’ve seen in a long time (that’s the photo at the top of this post). Below, the blue waters of English Bay were dotted with sailboats and yachts from the legion of lucky boaters who gather here each winter, some spending the whole season.
But on to our destination, Nelson’s Dockyard. Built in 1725, this was the hub for the British Navy in the Caribbean, a sheltered harbour where ships could come for repairs after a hard season at sea. The large complex had buildings where ships’ hulls and masts could be repaired, and their sails patched and sewn. Some of the buildings are gone, leaving only traces, like this row of columns from what was once a drydock facility.
But there are also several buildings still intact, including one that was purported to be Lord Nelson’s own residence in the New World. Unfortunately for the story tellers, it was built decades after he died. Today it houses a museum documenting the history of the site, including archeological finds from indigenous and British-era graves.
And there were more than a few graves from Nelson’s days. Many of those who worked in the dockyard were black slaves or British men who’d been kidnapped by press gangs and forced into service. Sadly, their fate was often an early death.
Life was better for the officers, who had an inn to stay in while their ships were being repaired. Today, the building is a hotel for visitors and boaters who use the harbour, and it’s an atmospheric place to stop for a drink or a meal.
There were a few boats in the harbour the day I visited, including this rare look at two eras of sailing, sitting side by side.
On the way back to my ship, the Norwegian Gem, there was a few minutes left to see a little of city life in Antigua. We were anchored in St. John’s, the island’s main city, and it was much as I’d expected. The streets were filled with quaint-looking buildings in various statees of repair, and the busy hum of local people doing their shopping and socializing on a Saturday afternoon.
The Caribbean can be expensive, but as usual, the prices come down drastically if you shop where the locals shop. I had lunch in a workaday little restaurant at a price that will likely be the bargain of the cruise: about $3 U.S. for some bone-in chicken stew, rice and beans, and a drink.
Then, back to cruisers’ row, the touristy main street that leads to St. John’s cruise dock, filled with rum shops, pricey jewellery stores and other places for cruisers to leave their money. I took a stroll through the casino, and ended the day with beer in a bar called Cheers.
And back to the ship, for a comfy dinner in the dining room and a show in the theatre. And to bed a bit early, in order to be fresh for the next port. In eight hours’ time we’d be docking in Barbados — stay tuned.