From the plane window Antigua looks like a majestic model island. From this elevated perspective the island looks mostly flat, only a few inches from the blue waves that lap at its shore, with several green mounds for hills along one side. Its amorphous shape resembles the remnants of a bug on the space shuttle windscreen but this has gifted it with hundreds of tiny bays and beaches.
The landing strip is Tonka Toy like and our huge BA plane looked very much out of place alongside the much smaller private Cessnas and dinky LIAT turboprops. There was a nice moment when the captain came on the intercom, apologising, because he was “having trouble parking”. Some three-pointers later his embarrassment ended (his words). Exiting the aircraft and walking along the tarmac to collect our first stamp of the trip, the heat and humidity of the early afternoon hit us like a wall. Our arranged taxi to the accommodation was waiting for us and Edgar was a very pleasant, older Antiguan who was keen to welcome us and fill us in with some local knowledge as he navigated the pot-holed Antiguan roads. The airport and Antigua’s only town and capital, St
Hot, humid after eight hours of BA airconditioning!
John’s, is in the north, along with the majority of resorts. Therefore, we had deliberately chosen accommodation in the south, close to Antigua’s only main southern must-see; Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour. The journey from the top to the bottom of the island took about 45minutes. Along the way we learnt that some of the outlying roads will soon be returning to the jungle, such is their state of disrepair; the horn is multi-functional, used for warm greetings, business greetings, polite greetings, in fact all kinds of salutations depending on the number, frequency and hand gestures that accompany it. As well, it serves to ask questions, answer questions, express annoyance, pleasure, indifference and to busy the hands when between villages but seemingly never to announce one’s presence to other road users. The only other point about Antiguan roads in this section is to tell that speed bumps are serious and are there, religiously, in front of churches and schools. Otherwise, there appears to be no speed limit and it is entirely down to the skill, courage and emotional state of the driver and occasionally the general capabilities of the vehicle you’re travelling in that might offer some guidelines in this regard.
Our accommodation, The Anchorage Rooms, was simple and clean. As far as a budget option, it was a good choice. Marilyn, the owner, was an absolute star and a brilliant source of knowledge about the island. A teacher in the past in England, there does seem to be a lot of ex-teachers out there, she has been living in Antigua for five years with her sailor and boat restorer husband Ray, after crossing the Atlantic in a sail boat with their (then) small children. A proper adventure. Marilyn was infinitely interesting to talk to about all manner of subjects and both her and Ray were very kind to us during our stay. We will keep fond memories of our passionate conversations and her life advice.
Furnishing us with a map of the island, in which all the traffic lights in Antigua were marked, there are three, Marilyn recommended Pigeon Beach only a short walk away, over the cove. Well, Pigeon Beach was a little marvel. Palm and coconut trees grew to a few metres of the water, the sand was burnt ivory and the water was warm glass in which shoals of fish languished.
For dinner we went to a local restaurant called Caribbean Taste, which served some of the best food we ate while on the island, sadly. It was the one and only time we enjoyed fresh fish, which when you consider we were on an island in the Caribbean, is a poor state of affairs but one that seems to be repeated.
We spent our week in Antigua sampling some of its reputed 365 different beaches. We spent time on four, two in the south and one each in the east and west. We journeyed on local buses, which were cheap, convenient and an experience in itself. Each bus, which are mostly beat up old mini-vans, are privately owned by the driver but the fares are set by the state. So, a journey from English Harbour to St John’s on the number 17 bus route, is 3.75EC (Eastern Caribbean Dollars) or about 90p, regardless of which bus you take or what time. Similarly, a bus from St John’s to Johnston Point on the far west coast is the same. The only difference would be if you go somewhere really far where the bus doesn’t ordinarily run, then you might have to pay a little extra, which we had to do to get to Long Bay on the east coast but then it was only 5.50 EC.
So, it is in the driver’s interest to get as many passengers on board as possible. As they’re old minibuses and you really wouldn’t want to stand anyway, the seats in the isle have additional fold down seats attached to the side of them. When all the regular seats are taken up a new passenger just unfold the seat, depending on the bus you may have five or so of these extra seats. It does mean that there is no longer an isle, so if the bus is called to a halt, which you do by shouting “Bus Stop!” everyone in the ‘extra’ row needs to get up, fold their seat away, get off, let the person out and then climb back in again. This is all done with a light heartedness and generosity of spirit that was refreshing. Many times we saw people being helped off by the people they had just unseated and shopping bags and affects being transferred down the bus or through windows. Also, it is customary to wish everyone on the bus a good morning, day or afternoon, a “Hi” is OK but not normally responded to with the same degree of enthusiasm.
I need to move on because the owner of the laptop I’m borrowing will be returning soon. Anyway, we enjoyed our time in Antigua but a week was long enough. Hurricane Igor had passed by 600 miles to the east at the start of the week and saturated the island with humidity, meaning that sweating was a full-time activity and although we had a ceiling fan in our room, it sapped our energy somewhat and made it difficult to sleep. Added to this, Antigua was very much in its ‘off-season’, which we had quite liked the sound of when we booked; less tourists, less boats, lower prices, but in reality it made life a little difficult. Finding a supermarket that was open and had food you wanted to buy or could cook (Marilyn gave us a hot plate and saucepan halfway through the week), was a real mission, we only found one thanks to Marilyn’s instructions in St Johns. The local supermarkets had nothing. Coupled with this, many local restaurants were shut so we were very limited some nights with our options. However, we didn’t starve and the sun shone. The lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, Antigua doesn’t grow any in large amounts, and the time of the year, were our main regrets. We found Antiguans almost universally friendly, helpful, polite people who, despite being inundated with fat American tourists and wealthy Upper Class British sailors in the summer, were only too pleased to see us. It is a poor island that relies exclusively on milking tourists for its income: A departure tax of 28USD each attested to this! Pop Culture reference: The Simpsons; the good natured film studios come to Springfield, get shafted everywhere they go and have only $50 left until Quimby charges them with a $50 Leaving Town Tax. They have no agriculture to speak of and almost everyone is employed on a serving basis. There are limited opportunities for academia with many young people going to the USA for further education and employment opportunities. A lack of entrepreneurs was also remarked upon, which was blamed on the heat, which I can now understand to a degree. Ray made a nice point about the people, whom he liked, which I’d like to paraphrase: “Antiguans love to laugh, all they’re waiting for is an excuse. Give them that excuse and they’ll do anything for you.”
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