When it comes to Caribbean islands, I have visited Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos, Cuba, Bahamas, Puerto Rico and Playa del Carmen in Mexico. Antigua is a bit less known but can easily match all famous Caribbean destinations. A beautiful and lush nature, stunning beaches, friendly and easy going people, very low crime rate and a diversity of vacation packages for different tastes and wallets, make Antigua a desirable destination for every wanderlust.
The country is officially named Antigua and Barbuda, after two major islands which are also the only ones inhabited (apart from around 50 smaller ones which surround them). The capital St John’s lies in Antigua and the country has an estimated population of around 90.000 inhabitants. Antigua and Barbuda was under the British rule until 1981, that’s why English is the official language, however understanding their local dialect is sometimes quite a challenge.
The official currency is East Caribbean Dollar, but US dollars are accepted almost everywhere. Of course, if you are willing to accept “daily mood” exchange rates 😉 The prices in more prestigious locations are sometimes crazy high but you can find some decent stores and places to eat as well. Imported products are expensive, and so is coffee. We never paid less than $4.5 for a small cappuccino (and by small I mean really small, like Italian espresso).
Perfect climate year round
Antigua lies in the south-east part of Caribbean which makes it attractive to visit all year round. June, July and August are the hottest months, while the temperature in January falls down to an average of 25°C – so still warm enough for those who want to escape from cold continental winters. Winter months are the driest, but at the same time quite windy, which makes them attractive for kiters and surfers. If you want a crystal clear and waveless water, the locals recommend visiting Antigua in the spring, while the autumn months are more wet. And last but not the least, you will be happy to hear that the sea temperature never falls under 26°C 🙂
If you arrive from Europe, the easiest answer to how to get to Antigua lies in finding direct flights from Frankfurt or London (probably those are not the only options, but I am from Slovenia so Frankfurt was the best choice). Don’t be surprised if you land in Dominican republic first, because airlines sometimes make small stopovers to pick up or drop down other passengers. The other option of visiting Antigua is on a cruise, which means you will anchor in St Jonh’s and get a few hours to spend on the island. In my opinion cruise is not a best option for getting to know Antigua – especially since St John’s isn’t much of a sight for sore eyes. If you are offered some trips by the ship staff – take them!
Where to stay
If you want a hassle free vacation, you can chose from quite a few all-inclusive hotels, but none of them are cheap. The closest “mid budget” option is Jolly Beach Resort & Spa – the biggest resort in Antigua, which is located on one of the most popular beaches in the West coast. We decided to rent a car for the whole vacation, so we were considering different options of accommodation, but in the end we chose Jolly Beach because of the convenient location and comfort. If your wallet is deep enough, you have some very fancy “adult only” options, but I advise you to check their locations first – they are not always directly on the beach and sometimes it will take you quite a share of walking to finally get that swim in the ocean.
If you are on a tight budget and don’t care so much for the comfort (after all you probably won’t come to Antigua to lie in a hotel room, right?), you can chose from reasonably priced and quite decent options for around $60 – 80 (price per double bedroom). And if you want to make your own meals, you can visit the supermarket in Jolly Harbour marina – they have a very good offer of fresh and healthy foods, as well as some cosmetics, supplements and medicines. Other stores throughout the island are mostly stocked with cans and snacks – and can be quite pricey, depending on the location.
The best way to see and feel the island is by hiring a car and taking it easy. And I mean really easy, because renting a car in Antigua is anything but a piece of cake. You will find most of the major car rental offices in the Airport, and the prices are not crazy high – although I do recommend you to book your car in advance, especially during peak periods in order to avoid any alst minute surprises.
The hard part comes after you get your car keys. First of all, they drive on the left (British rule, remember?) and if you are not an experienced driver, you should think twice about doing it… The second problem are the roads, which are pretty much all in a very bad shape. Sometimes the halls in them are so big that you can easily get a flat tire, lose your wheel cover… or the wheel itself.
For those who are not so adventurous, the safest and easiest way to explore the island is to book a trip in your hotel or with some local agency. You probably won’t see as much as you would if you were your own boss, nevertheless I strongly advise you to get your butt off that sunbed and experience life beyond your beer-beach routine 😉
The total area of Antigua is about 280 square kilometers, with about 21 km distance from west to east coast, which makes the island perfect to explore within a few days. You will soon discover that Antigua offers so much more than “just” fabulous beaches!
First of all, Antigua is full of small forts and lookouts, which were once used by the British military to defend the island in the event of attacks (though none of them ever really happened). Today these forts are more or less in ruins, however they make great attractions to visit – especially since most of them are free to see. Fort Barrington was my favorite, together with Shirley Heights lookout, which is a must for everyone who wants to see the picture postcard view of Antigua.
If you are into hiking, Antigua offers some nice trails, with the Lookout Trail being one of the most popular ones. It can either be approached from the top of Shirley Heights lookout, or from the bottom – just up the road from Freeman’s Bay, which is a bit more challenging. If you are thinking of visiting the island’s highest point Mount Obama, I suggest you read my post about 5 things you shouldn’t do in Antigua, and decide for yourself if you want to do it or not.
The capital St John’s is not so typical Caribbean town – I don’t know exactly why but I didn’t like it at all. Maybe because we couldn’t find any decent coffee spot (which in my book means Italian cappuccino with a sea view) or perhaps because there simply aren’t many things to see there in terms of architecture or history. St John’s cathedral is a beauty, but that’s about it. If you want to shop some souvenirs or feel the capital’s pulse, take a few hours and enjoy the tranquility, but if you are an experienced traveler, you might as well skip it, as there are many other more interesting spots waiting for you. To see my favorite 5, check this post.
I saved the beach part for last as this is something that deserves its own chapter. Antigua has 365 beaches, one for each day in the year. And don’t worry, not all of them are the same – there is something for every taste. If you are, like me, fond of white sandy beaches and turquoise ocean, you definitely need to visit Valley Church beach and Darkwood beach, which are very close to the already mentioned Jolly beach. Then there is a very popular and thus a bit more crowded (if the word crowd can at all be used in Antigua) Long Bay beach with colorful wooden cottages, used by beach vendors for selling souvenirs and drinks.
If you want more privacy you can escape to Hermitage bay, Hawksbill bay or Galley bay (they are all semi-private, or at least parts of them are for hotel guests only), and if you want to enjoy the long walks along the ocean, go for Halfmoon or Rendezvous bay. Kiters and surfers will find their waves on Jabberwock beach, while yachts and boat lovers will enjoy the views in Galleon and Pigeon beach in English Harbour.
Antigua is indeed a perfect little paradise, with very reasonable prices for travelers who are ready to do some homework, and on the other hand a luxury retreat for those who want to enjoy private Caribbean vacation in exclusive places. If you are still not convinced of its beauty, check my Facebook photo album. For me it was love at first sight. And I just might come back one day!