Explor­ing Antigua and Barbuda

ADid 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 (17651837) 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.

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, 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.

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.

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 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 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.

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).

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 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.

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.

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.