It’s 1 November and I’m sitting in the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium at 8am. I’m not usually one for frequenting sports venues this early, but I’m not the only person here. This cricket ground is packed by excited locals about to witness their 35th celebration of independence. It’s clear they’re keen on having a good time.
Antigua and Barbuda gained sovereignty from the United Kingdom after 349 years of British rule. Like many islands in the Caribbean, the separation was an entirely peaceful and welcomed affair and the people still hold Blighty close to their hearts. Since then the country has flourished under its own rule and the 91,000-strong population are keen to celebrate that.
What’s immediately striking, despite being thousands of miles away from Scotland, is that many women and children are wearing tartan. It’s not quite a kilt, but the national dress of Antigua bears some resemblance to our national garment. The pattern is a mixture of green, red and orange and there are scores of people bedecked in these colours.
The actual ceremony reminds me a little of Edinburgh’s Military Tattoo. All sorts of different services are represented in a march across the pitch, with the army, fire brigade, nurses and boy scouts given the biggest cheer. The governor-general and the prime minister are in attendance, dishing out honours to worthy citizens. At the end, the forces partake in one of the most elaborate gun salutes I’ve ever seen, a noisy yet spectacular affair. Then the amassed hordes spill out of the stadium, dancing to steel-drum music and descending on the market stalls set up outside which brim with all sorts of incredible culinary options.
Bear in mind that it’s only 10.30am at this point. I’m told this is just the beginning of the party. Goodness knows how it will be when the sun goes down and rum starts to flow. After all, Antigua and Barbuda have plenty to be proud of.
None the less it would be fair to say that the islands are overshadowed by their more illustrious Caribbean neighbours – in fact, when Christopher Columbus sighted them way back in 1493 he only named them rather than set foot here – yet I’d argue they should be more prominent in the tourism marketplace.
Let’s start with the beaches, because that’s often the main reason why one would come to this part of the world. Antigua, the much bigger of the two islands, certainly doesn’t fail here. The sand is stunning, glistening with warm waters lapping against it. If you enjoy a beach holiday and a spot of saltwater swimming, you’re not going to be disappointed. The island’s outline is quite jagged, so there are a number of secluded coves where you can hide away and enjoy the natural surroundings.
My home for this trip, Ocean Point Hotel and Spa, has not one but two pretty spectacular beaches. It’s located on the northern coast of the island in a popular area called Hodges Bay. Not far from the airport or the capital city, St John’s, it has a distinctly Italian feel, which at first thought would seem a little out of kilter with Antiguan lifestyle, but in an odd sort of way it works. The hotel is very laid-back and tranquil, and the rooms are generous in terms of size and comfort. If you want good value for money, this is the place for you.
One of the greatest advantages of Ocean Point Hotel is its proximity to a little rocky outpost. Prickly Pear Island doesn’t sound like the most alluring of places, but it’s well worth a boat trip. It’s tiny, but there’s a remote, gorgeous beach and a look-out point at the top, once you’ve navigated the cacti. If you had plans to propose while on Antigua, this would be the place to do it.
The easygoing luxury makes it all too easy to stay at the hotel, but that would be a bad choice. Antigua has lots to offer apart from topping up your tan.
Let’s start with St John’s. It has a population of about 22,000 with colourful buildings, friendly, intriguing markets and a museum that gives a fine insight into the island. There are some pretty tasty restaurants as well. The one I’d put on the must-visit list is Sugar Bee’s. We had lunch there and it was as authentic as you could wish for. I had bull foot soup, which was a broth-like serving with dumplings and lots of local vegetables. It tasted fantastic. The menu is full of local dishes and changes daily. Not heavily advertised, it’s a real jewel in the capital’s crown.
Departing from St John’s is the day-long Tropical Adventures boat cruise round the island. It’s the best way to explore Antigua’s beautiful coastline. The drink flows, the on-board BBQ is tasty and there’s a 90-minute snorkelling excursion on which you can see plenty of rays and the odd pufferfish. The tour even stops off at some of Antigua’s best-known residences, such as the Silvio Berlusconi estate and Eric Clapton’s hideaway up in the hills.
For those that don’t have sea legs, there’s plenty to see on land. Antigua is actually quite rugged and hilly. Right in the centre is an abandoned sugar plantation that harks back to the country’s past. Although Antigua wasn’t one of the main sugarcane producers in the region, the industry still thrived here and Betty’s Hope is testament to that. Two enormous windmills tower above the area, with ruins of the rum distillery also on site. It has an eerie feel to it, but not nearly as spooky as the Devil’s Bridge on the Atlantic coastline. This is the place where escaped slaves came to end their misery. The waves crash against knife-like rocks beneath a ridge and it’s hard not to feel haunted about the island’s past.
Thankfully, Antigua has moved on from those days, and I end my holiday here with a great time at Shirley Heights, the only place to go for a night out. It’s the highest point of the island and has some of the most remarkable views I’ve seen on my travels. The lookout area bears down on the rest of the island – and in some ways the landscape has a Scottish feel to it. Across the water you can see Montserrat with its towering volcano and the French territory of Guadeloupe. As the sun sets, a steel-drum band strikes up and a monstrous grill begins. Suitably fed and watered, hundreds of revellers dance to local music before a local DJ takes over and fires up the crowd further.
You can see why Antiguans cherish their independence so much. They have plenty to sing about when it comes to their small yet unspoiled and heavenly island.
Rooms at Ocean Point start from US$139 a day for a Garden View Room including breakfast. The hotel likes to think of itself as a “Home away from Home” with professional staff and good service at an affordable price. Ocean Point Resort & Spa is the perfect spot to start exploring the island of Antigua.
Direct flights to Antigua are available with www.virgin-atlantic.com/gb/en.html.
For more information on the island, visit www.visitantiguabarbuda.com/.