Tourism is the mainstay of Antigua’s economy and each year there are new things to do for the more adventurous tourist. Whilst many will wish to just lie on a beach or beside a pool sipping cocktails and soaking up the sun, many others like to be more active.
Just a few of the activities available are deep sea fishing, diving on coral reefs, swimming with manta rays, eco tours, round the island boat trips, yacht racing in Falmouth Harbour as well as the zip lining through the rain forest. You can even take a helicopter trip around Montserrat’s smoking volcano.
Antigua’s National Park, in particular, Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour, now with World heritage status, is Antigua’s main tourist attraction well known to most yachting visitors. Around the National Park there are plentiful signs of the occupation by British soldiers in the 18th & 19th Centuries including a variety of buildings in differing states of repair, ancient graveyards, water gathering systems, etc., many of which are accessible by road but some only by the walking trails which are maintained by the Royal Naval Tot Club of Antigua & Barbuda. These trails are well used by tourists and local inhabitants of Antigua including school children researching nature projects and marking different species of plant life which grow on the island. A map of the trails is available from the museum in Nelson’s Dockyard. Anyone interested in flora and fauna will find there is much to see on the trails. Also cleared by the Royal Naval Tot Club were the surrounds to Clarence House exposing it to Nelson’s Dockyard and causing its importance to be recognised. Clarence House has now been restored following the donation of funding by one of Antigua’s regular yachting visitors.
If you like to catch your dinner big game fishing is popular and there are several charter fishing companies on the island and big fish can be caught if you are guided by an expert. Based in Nelson’s Dockyard, probably the best known deep sea fishing vessel is Overdraft with her skipper, Frank Hart, who is a many times winner of Caribbean deep sea fishing competitions.
If you like to feed the marine life rather than feed on it, we cannot emphasise enough how good the visit is to Stingray City where you can swim with these surprisingly gentle and friendly sea creatures and observe other marine wildlife. The pictures don’t lie, you can stroke and feed the stingrays and, almost as enjoyable, watch the reactions of others as the stingrays swim between your legs but be careful not to tread on them. Stingray City makes several trips a day out to the feeding grounds and it is wise to book in advance.
Want to try interacting with the marine life on your own? A swim off many of the beaches and especially around the reefs with just a mask will reveal quite a lot of the underwater life. Occasionally, a turtle may even pop up alongside you. A number of reefs exist quite close to the shore and can be reached by dinghy or a short swim. There are a number of companies which will take you snorkelling or scuba diving and show the best places to study the marine life.
Above the water there are all kinds of different ways to get around from kayak eco tours to high speed RIBs and 70 foot catamarans. There are a number of boat charter companies and it is possible to charter your own yacht or motor boat by the day, some skippered, but others you can drive or sail yourself. Windsurfing and kitesurfing can be found at several spots around the island. In restricted areas, jet skis can be hired but, like their land equivalent, must be treated with respect together with consideration for other users of the water.
On dry land a trip along Fig Tree Drive, Antigua’s rain forest, will give a very different perspective to the island with its large variety of well established trees and smaller plants. One way of seeing the rainforest is from a tree top tour through the forest canopy on zip lines. The forest can be viewed from a completely different perspective whilst enjoying an exciting high level ride. For the more fit there is the assault course and, afterwards, you can relax in the bar, buy a souvenir T-shirt and photos of your ride through the tree tops. Whilst in the rain forest take a moment to stop at one of the roadside stalls not only for a refreshing drink but also to buy loaclly grown fresh fruit.
To those wishing to try a little ‘trailblazing’ but find the thought of climbing hills on two legs a bit daunting, an ATV or 4 x 4 will get you to most places. Take a map but don’t rely on it as none of them is too accurate but GPS, including on mobile ‘phones, is becoming more user friendly so there is no need to get lost but if you do just follow the sun and, on a small island like Antigua, you will soon reach a main road.
Antigua is not without its sports facilities. There are two golf courses open to visitors. Cedar Valley is located in the centre of the island and the other course is in Jolly Harbour. Many of the resorts have tennis courts and pools. Jolly Harbour has a pool open to the public. Temo Sports in Falmouth has squash and tennis courts. Most of these courses, courts and pools are available to visitors for a small fee.
The Caribbean airline LIAT provides a regular air service between islands and day trips to nearby islands are perfectly feasible. Travel agents on the island can sort flights at short notice. Small, airlines now serve Antigua’s sister island, Barbuda together with a fast ferry although it will probably be some time before Barbuda is regenerated as a tourist destination.
Shopping is always a major activity on a romantic island such as Antigua duty free jewellery abounds. As the saying goes, ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ and diamonds, together with many other precious stones are for sale, duty free, in the shops around Heritage and Redcliffe Quays. Antigua has its own special fashion and if you forgot that little cocktail dress then do not despair, you are bound to find something in Redcliffe Quay and, when you get home, you can guarantee that you will never meet the same dress at a party.
Don’t see the design of T-shirt you want? Just ask and one can be printed up while you wait and you could end up with a totally unique memento of your visit to Antigua, . If you see a local gem on a stall you would like to buy, a polite greeting and a smile could do wonders to the final price. If you feel an item is a little more than you wish to pay, don’t be afraid to ask for ‘the best price’ and don’t be afraid to walk away if the price is not to your liking. If you don’t see what you want, just ask. Many items are hidden away in store rooms with only a fraction on display. If you would like a particular design or wording on again just ask.
The historic district of Redcliffe Quay on the edge of St. John’s harbour is a great photo opportunity, was once the slave-trading area for the town. Along the peaceful quayside are the original Georgian buildings interspersed by small courtyards and now restored, renovated and painted in a large variety of dazzling colours. There are around 30 shops selling gifts, pottery, paintings and other locally made gifts, as well as clothes, shoes and accessories. Most goods are priced in U.S dollars, are duty free and aimed squarely at tourists, particularly those from the cruise ships which dock nearby. Always ask if the price is U.S dollars or E.C. dollars as U.S dollars are about three times more.
Situated at historical Redcliffe Quay, towards the waterfront, you will find the five arches of The Goldsmitty, a spacious, air conditioned, jewellery shop. All the jewellery is hand made on the premises and is designed by Hans Smit, world renowned for his expertise.
Hans studied at the Academy of Modern Art in Holland and has been sharing his talent in Antigua since 1965 when he took up residence on the island. He has trained some young, local apprentices the skills and secrets of lost wax casting affording The Goldsmitty an exclusive line of handmade creations.
Black Opal, Imperial Topaz, Tanzanite, Namibian blue green Tourmaline and other rare and exotic gemstones were collected during many visits to gemstone mines around the world and are set in exquisite creations of 14 and 18 karat gold often accentuated by a sprinkle of diamonds. The style of design has often been called 'organic' as coral formations, Caribbean sunsets and underwater vistas are usually a source of inspiration.
In 2011 Hans, always on the lookout for rocks, happened to kick his toes and tripped over a stone which, after close examination, turned out to be a piece of petrified coral. The samples were sent to the University of Iowa which responded by analysing the various species as fossilised coral that 30 million years ago and officially registered as "Antiguanite. A variety of stones is being cut to create pendants, earrings, rings and bracelets in gold or in silver.
This is not just another jewellery store,it is more like an art gallery. It is important to remember that this jewellery is not sold anywhere else and is duty free. All these unique creations are only available at The Goldsmitty, Redcliffe Quay, Antigua.
To purchase duty free goods in either Redcliffe Quay or the adjacent Heritage Quay, take your passport and your ticket showing the date you are leaving the island, shops are quite strict on only selling duty free goods to tourists. Within the courtyards, shaded by awnings and palm trees are several cafés and restaurants. If you see the superstructure and funnels of one or more cruise ships as you approach downtown St. John’s you know it will be busy and you may wish to explore the two quays on another day.
St. John’s is small enough to walk around in less than a day. At the top of the town is the cathedral, erected between 1845 and 1848 following the destruction of the two previous churches in earthquakes and is described as ‘the most imposing of all the Cathedrals of the West Indies.’ It is currently undergoing major restoration works, but is still open to visitors.
The standard two week holiday is nowhere near long enough to see everything Antigua has to offer or take part in every activity. How many tourists come across the Donkey Sanctury? or find the idylic picnic spot of Wallings Dam let alone find all 365 beaches? A quick look on the internet will reveal a multitude of sights and activities. Take a little time to review what’s there and choose what suits you best then come back next year to try something different.