Exploring in Antigua and Barbuda
Nelson's Dockyard in English Harbour
Did you know that in 1889 Nelson’s dockyard was abandoned by the Royal Navy until 1961 when it was restored. Now your will find around ten restored buildings are there, along with ruined forts and historical artifacts which still reflect its naval heritage. You can also visit a conglomeration of old stone warehouses, workshops and quarters filled with hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and a museum. Of course it retains its nautical charm with many private yachts now replacing Naval vessels in the harbour all year round. Thanks to its restoration it is now the only Georgian dockyard in the world and English Harbour is still a favourite port for those making the long Atlantic crossing.
English Harbour, Antigua's graceful and evocative historic district, is based on the fifteen square miles of Nelson's Dockyard National Park. Developed as a base for the British Navy in the great age of sail, English Harbour served as the headquarters of the fleet of the Leeward Islands during the turbulent years of the late 18th century.
Almost all of the park's other sites of interest overlook the harbour. The closest of these is Clarence House, a residence built for the future King William IV (1765-1837) when he served under Nelson as captain of the H.M.S. Pegasus.
Clarence House is located on a low hill overlooking Nelson's Dockyard. Originally built by English stonemasons to act as living quarters for Prince William Henry, later known as Duke of Clarence. The future king stayed at Clarence House when he was in command of the Pegasus in 1787. Today it is the country home of the Governor of Antigua and Barbuda and is open to visitors when his Excellency is not in residence. A caretaker will take you on a guided tour where you can see various pieces of furniture on loan from the National Trust. Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon stayed in this beautiful country home on their honeymoon.
A rambling array of gun emplacements and military buildings, Shirley Heights, best known today for its absolutely breathtaking view, reaching right out over English Harbour.
Normally on Sundays this amazing view will be accompanied by barbecue, rum punch, and free afternoon/evening concerts by reggae or steel bands, popular with locals and visitors alike. The site was named after General Shirley, the Governor of the Leeward Islands when the area was fortified in the late eighteenth century. An obelisk stands in the nearby cemetery, erected in honour of the soldiers of the 54th regiment.
Sea View Farm Village
It is know that Antiguan folk pottery dates back at least to the early 18th century, when slaves fashioned cooking vessels from local clay. Nowadays, folk pottery is fashioned in a number of places around Antigua, but the centre of this cottage industry is in Sea View Farm Village. Clay is collected from pits located nearby, and the wares are fired in an open fire under layers of green grass, in the yards of the potters' houses. It is possible to purchase Folk pottery at outlets in the village as well as at a number of stores around the island. Buyers should be aware that Antiguan folk pottery breaks rather easily in cold environments.
Harmony Hall Art Gallery
Harmony Hall, in Brown's Bay at Nonsuch Bay, is the centre of the Antiguan arts community, with exhibitions changing throughout the year. The Craft Fair and the Antigua Artist’s Exhibition are annual highlights, both of which take place in November. Harmony Hall is built around a sugar mill tower and the tower itself has been converted into a bar providing its patrons with one of the island's best panoramic views, including a fine prospect of Nonsuch Bay.
St. John’s, the capital and largest city of Antigua and Barbuda, is dominated by the magnificently evocative white baroque towers of St. John's Cathedral. The Cathedral, originally built in 1683, has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times over the years. The figures of St John the Baptist and St John the Divine were supposedly taken from one of Napoleon's ships. Built in 1845, the church is now in its third re-generation, as earthquakes in 1683 and in 1745 destroyed the previous structures. Anyone visiting the island of Antigua from the sea (approximately half of the islands visitors), will experience their first sight are the towers of St. John’s Cathedral. St. John’s recently completed cruise ship dock and several hotels has added to what was already a lively hub for shopping and dining.
For anyone interested in finding out about the early history of the island, there is the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, housed in the colonial Court House (1750). The museum displays both Arawak and colonial artefacts recovered on archaeological digs on the islands. It also features a life-size replica of an Arawak house, models of sugar plantations and other exhibits.
Take time out either on Friday or Saturday morning and visit the vibrant farmers market on the southern edge of the city. At these markets be prepared to find folk crafts, colourful tropical fruits, and a buzzing crowd, everything you need to make it a lively and interesting Antiguan morning.
Museum of Antigua and Barbuda
This delightful museum tells the story of Antigua and Barbuda from its geological birth through the present day. A cool oasis in the middle of St. John’s, the museum contains a wide variety of fascinating objects and exhibits, ranging from a life-size replica of an Arawak dwelling to the bat of Viv Richards, one of the greatest cricket players of all time.
Betty’s Hope Sugar Plantation
In 1674 Sir Christopher Codrington was granted this estate by the English Crown. Arriving from Barbados, convinced that sugar would be the most important crop in the future, he named the estate after his daughter Betty, and his "hope" was that he had made the right decision. The success of Betty's Hope, the first large sugar plantation on Antigua, led to the island's rapid development of large-scale sugar production. Although the only surviving structures are two stone sugar mills and the remains of the stillhouse, the site's importance in Antiguan history has prompted the government to begin developing it as an open air museum. You will find about a hundred stone windmill towers dotted all over the Antiguan landscape.
As other large plantations, Betty’s Hope was both an agricultural and industrial enterprise employing a large number of people. It was supervised by a handful of European managers. Hundreds and hundreds of African lived out their lives on plantations such as this, initially as slaves, then as labourers after emancipation in 1834. Steadfastly contending with the hardship of cultivating and processing the sugar, under exhausting conditions, they developed great skills as craftsmen, boilers and distillers. This gave Betty’s hope its reputation for excellence lasting to this very day.
Today Betty’s Hope has been restored. The cane crushing machinery is in working order with new wings and sails reconstructed to the original specifications. A former cotton house storeroom has been converted into a visitor centre/museum. It includes the various aspects of the plantations history showing early estate plans, pictures and maps, artefacts and a model of the central site giving an overview of ‘Betty’s Hope’. Other information such as how sugar and rum were produced long ago can also be found. The cost of admission is $2 US per person.
As you will see when you visit Betty's Hope, the two restored examples, of these towers, provide a dramatic sense of the way these mills must have dominated the island during the hundreds of years when sugar production was the dominant industry.
Surrounded by an area of natural beauty, Potworks Dam holds the largest artificial lake on Antigua. The dam holds about one billion gallons of water and provides protection for Antigua in case of a drought. This expanse of freshwater is reputed to be the largest in the Eastern Caribbean. When full it is a mile long and half a mile wide. The western edge is great for bird-watching.
On the north-eastern point of Antigua there is a remote wild area known as Indian Town Point. As of yet the reason for its name is unknown and to date there have been no Indian archaeological remains found on this peninsula. In 1950 the area was legally constituted as a National Park.
It is surrounded by numerous blowholes spouting surf, an absolutely amazing sight indeed. One local legend is that if you throw two eggs into the hole, the Devil will keep one and throw back the other.
Indian Town is an environmentally protected area that lies at the tip of a deep cove, Indian Town Creek. The park fronts the Atlantic Ocean at Long Bay, just west of Indian Town Creek on the eastern side of Antigua. A large, grassy headland, around Devil’s Bridge, makes a great spot for a picnic.
Over the centuries, Atlantic Ocean breakers have lashed against the rocks and carved a natural bridge known as Devil's Bridge. This name comes from an old myth foretelling of many mass suicides occurring among slaves in despair. At their very end they would go there and toss themselves over. There is an incredible example of sea-water erosion within the park. Geologically, Devil’s Bridge is a natural arch carved by the sea into the soft and hard limestone ledges of the Antigua formation – a geological division of the flat north-eastern part of Antigua. Devil’s Bridge has been created over countless centuries by the action of rough Atlantic Ocean breakers crashing continuously against the limestone shoreline and causing this erosion.
A 104 year old Antiguan patriot, Sammy Smith, had the answer. In a quote from his memoirs ‘To shoot Hard Labour’ he says:
"On the east coast of the island is the famous Devil's Bridge. Devil's Bridge was called so because a lot of slaves from the neighbouring estates use to go there and throw themselves overboard. That was an area of mass suicide, so people use to say the Devil has to be there. The waters around Devil’s Bridge are always rough and anyone fall over the bridge never come out alive".
Devils Bridge is definitely worth a visit. It is surrounded by both the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. In fact you can easily see where they both meet and witness those deep swells and raging waters which crash continuously into Devils Bridge most of the year.
Many people visit this sight and some, those who are more daring, or really rather silly, actually try to walk across the bridge. It is not advisable to do this. Should you fall into the Ocean, it would be near impossible, as you can imagine, escaping the currents without serious injury. There are, of course, various stories of people who have fallen in and never escaped. Although many of these may be fictional, it is better to be safe rather than sorry!
Devils bridge area is mostly rock with some surrounding greenery and a small bay to one side. There is usually quite a strong breeze to keep you cool, but please be aware that this can make the strength of the sun deceiving. If you are patient you will be able to get some stunning photos of the waves splashing up against the bridge. This is definitely nature working its magic to create an incredibly exciting and beautiful landscape.
Fort James was built in the first half of the 18th century. This picturesque bastion was intended to guard St. John's harbour. Today the walls are still in excellent condition, and even a few of the cannons are still intact. However, the main attraction of Fort James today is the incredible views to be seen of the surrounding harbour. Nearby is Heritage Quay,
comprising of a hotel, four duty-free shops, restaurants and a casino, all part of the newest development in downtown St John's.
Dow’s Hill Interpretation Centre
Dow’s Hill Interpretation Centre is located just 2 ½ miles from the Dockyard. This centre is quite unique in the Caribbean. It uses multimedia presentations, covering six periods of the islands history, including the era of Amerindian hunters, the era of the British military, and the struggles connected with slavery. The centre is open daily from 9am to 5pm.
Fig Tree Drive
Fig Tree Drive is one of Antigua's most picturesque drives. The road meanders from the low central plain of the island up into the ancient volcanic hills of the Parish of Saint Mary in the island's southwest quarter. This none-too-smooth road passes through an area of lush vegetation and rainforest and rises to the steep farmlands around Fig Tree Hill (figs are what Antiguans call bananas) before descending to the coastline again. Along the way you will pass banana, mango, and coconut groves, as well as a number of old sugar mills and pleasant little churches.
Green Castle Hill
The 'megaliths' that initially drew curious visitors to Green Castle Hill are almost certainly geologic features, but they are no less impressive and picturesque for being natural features. Apart from these impressive ‘megaliths’ Green Castle Hill also provides an excellent view of the island's interior, including both the south-western volcanic mass (of which it is a part) and the interior plain. (Due south of St. John's, btw. Jennings and Emanuel).
Great Bird Island
Take an excursion to Great Bird Island from Dickenson Bay. Glass-bottomed boats afford leisurely views of the reef, and a restored pirate ship sails around the island and takes passengers for day or evening trips, with food, drink and entertainment included.
Half Moon Bay/Long Bay
Half Moon Bay is a popular national park; it is 1.6km (1 mile) long and renowned as one of Antigua's most beautiful beaches. Nearby Long Bay is protected by a reef, shallow enough to walk to, making it ideal for holidaying families.
For even more solitude and greater eccentricity, stop over at Redonda, an uninhabited rocky islet, about 56km (35 miles) northeast of Antigua. The island is famous for its unusual monarchy and small population of burrowing owls, a bird now extinct on Antigua. The picture on the left shows the north side of this island.
Visit the less-developed Barbuda for its wild beauty, deserted beaches and heavily wooded interior abounding in wildlife. The main village, Codrington, sits on the edge of a lagoon and its inhabitants rely largely on the sea for their existence. The Frigate Bird Sanctuary, home to over 5,000 frigate birds, is also here.