In many ways a throwback in time, yet geared to cater to the savvy traveler, our capital city invites the explorer to visit its labyrinth of crisscrossed streets and alleyways. Absorb local color, shop for duty-free goods at Heritage Quay , browse the boutiques at Redcliffe Quay for clothing made from sea cotton. Then, try your luck at King's Casino or sample a West Indian meal from Hemingway's veranda on lower St. Mary's Street overlooking the harbor. Then, jump in a cab, a car, a boat, hop on a bus (hold on!) or rent a bike and head for a day at the beach. Any beach will do! According to local lore 'An-TEE-gah' boasts 365 pristine beaches, all minutes from our bustling capital and offshore financial center of St. John's.
For the most part, St. John's looks like what you'd expect from an island city of commerce. Colorful sun-bleached wooden shops and businesses line the litter-free, narrow streets. Some of the buildings are refurbished and well-kept but most faded and old. Down-at-the-heels businesses are interspersed with newer construction, which is built predominantly with hurricane-strength cement and designed with more an eye for function than aesthetics. With few exceptions, no building is taller than the Royal Palm trees.
If you're arriving by boat, step right onto the foot of town where no red tape will delay you. Cruise ships enter the port daily, with several ships scheduled every Thursday and Friday when the town simply overflows. What's a tropical city without vendors? You can't avoid the bazaar of friendly low-key merchants who are (for the most part) non-aggressive. Parking is almost non-existent since Prime Minister Lester Bird offered a duty-free concession of one car per Antiguan. But taxis proliferate and the drivers hustle. Don't worry about finding them, they'll find you. And, as far as capital cities go, you can walk the entire town, from the waterfront south to the National Cricket Stadium just outside the city, in about ten minutes. When you're downtown, you're only about 15 minutes from V. C. Bird International Airport .
Unlike some upscale neighboring islands like St. Barth's, there is little about Antigua that is terribly sophisticated. Yet, the island possesses an intangible magic, forever luring visitors back for more.
Beyond St. John's, a different tropical world reveals itself on this 108 square mile sparkle in the Caribbean's eye—namely, the areas of Falmouth Harbour and English Harbour . To get there, you must head diagonally from St. John's southeast toward the coast for about forty minutes. There's never much traffic, but the roads are narrow and covered with potholes. You'll likely pass road construction crews comprised of men and women, toiling side-by-side. Don't be distraught if you're detoured, just do your best to spy a posted sign advertising a restaurant in the harbor area. These signs will be your guide as few roads are named or marked in Antigua. Along your drive, you'll encounter countless livestock roaming freely, including cattle, herds of goats, chickens and an occasional donkey or horse. Remember to drive on the left!
You'll know you're nearing your destination when the roads improve and you begin angling up a moderately steep hill. Once it flattens you'll gasp at the beautiful vista below. Your destination are the harbors dotted with dozens of boats at anchor. Falmouth and English Harbours are home to some of the world's most famous sailing vessels and motor yachts. After all, you're witnessing the staging grounds of one of the world's most prestigious and raucous yachting events, Antigua Sailing Week . Activities annually get under way during the end of May. It's impossible to lose your way here, as the two areas have only one primary street between them.
Take a stop in Falmouth and walk the docks to admire the mega yachts, check out the Antigua Yacht Club or pause and grab a bite for lunch. Past Falmouth the road ends abruptly at historic Nelson's Dockyard, which fringes English Harbour. This piece of living history is the world's only fully preserved Georgian Naval dockyard, dating back to the 18th century. Many buildings here are open to the public (self or guided tours) including two small inns, a museum, the Galley Bar and the Galley Boutique , restaurants, a tiny bakery (behind the museum), post office and more. Stop by the sail loft (A and F Sails) to peek at Franklin and his team of sailmakers at work. Nearby is the Antigua base for Sun Yacht Charters . You'll also happen upon more yacht related businesses catering to the boating community. Many yachts call these harbors home, but most are just passing through.
Ask anyone for directions to Shirley Heights , rising above the harbor area to the left (east). Here, you'll be treated to one of the most panoramic views available. Look for the ruins of a British fortress, and be sure to spot Montserrat and the Soufriere volcano, 30 miles south. You can savor the view over lunch or a refreshing beverage in the small restaurant there. If you're lucky enough to be visiting at sunset on a Thursday or Sunday evening, stay for the party! It's an Antiguan tradition to celebrate sunset with a jammin' reggae and rum barbeque. While these biweekly parties are comprised of 90 percent tourists, it's still not to be missed! Watch out, those rum punches turn what begins as a low key crowd into maniacs on the dance floor!
Another significant area you won't want to miss is the Dickenson Bay stretch just north of town. The seas here are glassy and framed by powdery white beaches. It provides an idyllic setting for several sprawling resorts including Sandals . Residents of Antigua generally avoid this area, as it has become a tourist Mecca. But, in all fairness, the beaches there are fabulous and can tire you out with all the available water sports. A romantic little open-air restaurant, Coconut Grove, rests on the beach here. You'll want to stop here, even if it's only for a tropical sip, or four.
You'll have the sense that time stands still when in Antigua. What you will take home with you is a sense of appreciation for a simpler life, splashed with beauty. This is a place where there's always time to smell the roses.
In Antigua, party time is all the time, so there are many places to go for dining and drinking. There are a wide variety of spots at the dozens of hotels on the island. And with 365 beaches, there are many beach bars. If you're planning a beach day, go to Pigeon Beach in English Harbour. There, you'll have an opportunity to treat yourself to a tropical and casual lunch and drink at Bumpkins, a colorful beachy looking open-air spot. The owner, Carol, opens this eatery according to her whim, but a good bet is to arrive between 1p-5p daily.
Depending on your tastes, food types are plentiful, though dishes with Caribbean/West Indian flair are the most common. Fresh seafood, particularly deep-sea fish, can be found on most every menu.
You won't have trouble finding a place to dine in downtown St. Johns, the island's lively capital. Some are in the historic Redcliffe Quay area, housed in old warehouses that have been restored as shops and restaurants. The brick and stone Redcliffe Tavern, with old water pumping equipment used as decor, offers wonderful continental fare and a great place to hang out and have a drink. Next-door is the Big Banana. They serve pizza and food in the little shopping area where you can dine in or out. For some reason, Big Banana holds the prize for the best CD collection on the island.
For people watching, you can't beat Hemingway's , a downtown eatery in a wonderful old West Indian building covered with gingerbread. You can sit on the balcony for a drink or meal and watch the world go by. Do try the curry dishes.
There are many restaurants in town to keep a visitor busy for many nights. One of these, called Home , is located in a West Indian house and is popular for its fish, lobster and duck, however, it cab be a bit costly. Harbour Lights, an elegant restaurant on the water, offers special meals for vegetarians and diabetics. Two others in the historic area include the Commissioner Grill, offering West Indian dishes and seafood, and the Archway Cafe, open for lunch only serving pasta and other casual fare. O'Grady's Pub (sounds like it should be in Philadelphia), a favorite hangout for locals, serves pub grub and green beer in March.
Arguably one of the best restaurants on the island is Julian's, also downtown. This restaurant is elegant with food to match and a good wine list, with many sold by the glass. Dining is available in an outdoor garden or in air-conditioned comfort.
Though most of the island's restaurants are connected with hotels, a few of them are freestanding. Miller's by the Sea is one of them. It's very popular with local people because of its large and affordable West Indian buffet and nightly entertainment. For some genuine West Indian cuisine,this is not to be missed. The Coconut Grove restaurant is outstanding. Look for it on the beach at Dickenson Bay. You can't get much more romantic than this as the pristine calm waters practically lap at your toes and the stars glitter above.
Another "essential" during a visit to Antigua is the Sunset-Into-The-Night Party at Shirley Heights (an 18th century fort not far from Nelson's Dockyard area). With its stunning views and magnificent old buildings, this spot has all the elements. There's a pub-style restaurant open daily, and on Sunday and Thursday nights there's a huge barbecue that is attended by literally hundreds of local people, tourists and the yacht-set. For great food and a big party with live music into the night, this is the place.
Chez Pascal is one of the French restaurants on the island with an ocean view and live music.
Most hotels have restaurants, but an true standout is the Bay House Restaurant at the Tradewinds Hotel in Dickenson Bay. Coco's , also on the west "sunset" coast, has great food and views for diners. For one of the finest wine selections anywhere (certainly in the Caribbean) try Curtain Bluffs , a lovely resort built on a bluff and run by wine connoisseur Howard Hulford. Reservations and jackets are required for dinner in this elegant restaurant.
In English Harbour, there's a good Italian restaurant, Abracadabra , with live music and even livelier food. The Admiral's Inn open-air restaurant serves tantalizing dishes, especially fresh seafood. Or, just stop in for a drink at the nautical bar inside the hotel. In the same area is Catherine's Cafe with plenty of personality, good food and great espresso. More French fare can be found at LeBistro at Hodge's Bay. It is consistently ranked one of the finest restaurants in all of the Caribbean.