Background

Antigua packs a mighty punch for a small island. This former British colony may have a strong Caribbean feel with its reggae-infused, laidback atmosphere, but remnants of the Empire echo in a widespread love of cricket and afternoon tea. It’s a stunningly beautiful island, whose 365 beaches will keep any sand-loving sybarite happy while the inland mountain scenery, the cotton mills, the wandering livestock and roadside shacks selling fresh fruit will draw you away from the beach and into the real Antigua – you’ll get so much more from your holiday if you venture to places like English Harbour, Devil’s Bridge and St John’s, the capital. And if natural beauty is not enough to entice you, then sport may be. Cricket has long flowed through the arteries of Caribbean life, and no more so than in Antigua, home of the great Sir Vivian Richards, while the island’s annual regatta has solidified its position as one of the prime yachting spots in the region. With sand, sun, sailing and cricket, Antigua is the quintessential Caribbean island. Take your pick from some wonderfully individual hotels and expect genuine, if not always the quickest, service. It’s all part of the character of this lovely island.

Where to Stay

Refreshingly, none of the major hotel groups has yet made it into Antigua, but below are our favourite hotels. There are, of course, other contenders, but they can be a little too old-fashioned and tired. These are the top runners. Don’t be put off by the term ‘all-inclusive’ – the concept of all meals being included in the price has become smart with the rise of destinations like the Maldives where you don’t really leave your hotel for meals – and it certainly means less signing, always a joy. But even if you do opt for an all-inclusive, we recommend that you don’t miss out on the local restaurants.

For families

When Gordon Campbell Gray (the hotelier behind One Aldwych in London) opened Carlisle Bay he caused a real stir and was credited with having injected, at last, a dose of style into a rather tired Caribbean hotel scene. However, while Carlisle Bay’s crescent-shaped private beach is a beautiful setting, many feel that the 82-suite hotel lacks some of the charm of other Antiguan gems. Saying that, the modern, clean-lined look does work and there are plenty of activities to keep the whole family busy – tennis courts, pool, library, private cinema, yoga pavilion and pilates instructor, not to mention a charming and very impressive spa, the best on the island. The Cool Kids Club caters for children from six months to 12 years old with a jungle gym, sandpit, paddling pool and four mini tennis courts. And the chef is a whizz at pureeing food when needed. The grown-up food is pretty good too.

For couples

The all-inclusive Hermitage Bay is the best choice for a quiet romantic break. Set at the end of a very bumpy road on the western coast of the island, 30 minutes from St John’s, there are 25 cottage suites all with iPod docking stations, outdoor showers and plunge pools. Choose your room carefully as privacy can be a bit of an issue in some rooms, with the shower and plunge pool visible from certain angles. Another all-inclusive resort is Galley Bay, which has a Tahiti-meets-the-Caribbean feel and a lovely lagoon setting. With 98 rooms, two restaurants (including Gauguin where couples can dine in private candle-lit cabanas) and a new spa, this is a popular choice for couples and older travellers (children over 16 are only allowed over Christmas).

Having remained in the same family for 45 years, Curtain Bluff has a loyal fan base of guests who return year after year. Good for families and couples alike, this relaxed all-inclusive hotel has 72 spacious rooms, two beaches, swimming-pool and spa, and particular appeal for sports fans with its fitness centre, yoga, putting green and half basketball court. Tennis lovers are especially well looked after: there are four floodlit courts and three resident pros, and every May the hotel hosts Antigua’s annual tennis week.

For privacy

Jumby Bay, is a stylish resort on a 300-acre private island a 10-minute speedboat ride from the airport; it is the most exclusive in the area, with 40 suites and 11 villas. Families who want to be together but don’t want to mingle with other guests love it; there are nannies on hand for smaller children. Mosquitoes can be a problem, but if you want to get away from it all this is as good as it gets. Sugar Ridge, is tucked into the coastal hillside and has the island’s first Aveda spa.

For beach swimming

If you want to be based in the south of the island near English Harbour, the 28-room Inn at English Harbour is a great choice.  Ask for the cavernous rooms at beach level, rather than the ones on the hill. The pretty beach is probably the only place on the island where you can guarantee calm waters. There’s a fun restaurant (on the beach too) and other good facilities if you feel the need to be active. The Hodges Bay Club, a contemporary low-rise retreat on the north coast of the island from the team behind Chiva Som. It offers a range of accommodation – suites, houses and penthouses – as well as a kids club, spa and three restaurants.

Cheap chic

Ocean Inn is a long-established Antiguan-owned b&b with 12 rooms on a hillside overlooking Ordinance Bay. Nelson’s Dockyard, beaches, restaurants and the marina are all within easy reach.

Best Villas

Worldwide Dream Villas has a selection of fantastic villas. Owned by a famous Italian designer, Villa Serena and Villa Flowers (from $29,820 to $69,580 a week per villa), above the coastline at Galley Bay, are two of the most luxurious villas in the Caribbean. Each has six bedrooms, private pool, gym and Jacuzzi, plus two maids and full concierge service. You can take the villas individually or rent both for a larger group.

Nicobar ($10,500-$21,000) is a stylish five-bedroom villa in the northwest of the island near Galley Bay. There’s an open-plan sitting/dining room, infinity pool, Jacuzzi and high-tech amenities including first-class security: the property is fenced off and has electric gates. Overlooking Freeman’s Bay with views of English Harbour and Montserrat in the distance, Man O War (from $9,800) sleeps seven people in simple but elegant surroundings. There’s an infinity pool and deck, and you’re only a short walk from the beach. Staying here allows you to use the facilities and amenities of the Inn at English Harbour.

The Villa Book is another company with several villas on the island. Villa Tradewinds, near Long Bay and Willikies village, is extremely private with beautiful Balinese furniture and decor. There’s a games room, a gazebo and a path that leads straight to the cliff path and beach below.

Where to Eat

Best Lunch Spots

Calabash manages the admirable feat of offering a relaxed atmosphere and superb service. It overlooks Galleon Beach (next to English Harbour) and the menu offers a mix of Caribbean seafood and international dishes. Also try Catherine’s Café right on the water – an airy café in a tranquil setting, perfect for watching the world go by.

Best Supper Spots

If you want to drink and dine in a relaxed atmosphere close to the sea, Coconut Grove is the find of the island; coconut shrimp is the signature dish, and once you try it you’ll be hooked. Unlike most of the main hotels and restaurants, Harmony Hall is on the east coast of Antigua, on an old sugar plantation. The views are incredible and whether you’re outside on the cobble stones or under the arches, it’s a dining experience you won’t forget. Le Bistro, Antigua’s most exclusive French restaurant has been going strong for 25 years. The Cove, one of the smartest restaurants on the island, has a grand entrance lined by flaming torches. The food is certainly good and the setting and view beautiful, but you might leave feeling you could have been anywhere in the world.

Best of the rest

Best way to get around

Driving in Antigua is great fun, although if you’d rather not drive there are taxis aplenty. If you do drive, watch out for huge potholes and the occasional goat crossing the road. The island is not big, but it can take an hour to get from Dickenson Bay in the northwest to English Harbour in the south. Signposts are an amusing rarity, so you’ll need a good sense of direction and a better sense of humour. Navigating your way through St John’s is an experience, with one-way streets, market stalls, lethargic Antiguans and a myriad streets to negotiate. But after a couple of attempts it becomes easier and you’ll remember some key landmarks, like the colossal painted statue of former prime minister VC Bird. When hiring a car, ask for a 4×4 – there are times when you’ll need it. All the big-name car hire firms share an office at the airport, but they charge far more than their local competition. As well as your own licence you will need to buy a local driving licence, usually from the car hire company.

Best Sights

The wild and rugged easterly point of the island offers a wild alternative to the traditional Caribbean white sandy beaches. At Devil’s Bridge, eroded by years of Atlantic pounding, you’ll see the Atlantic Ocean at its most powerful as the sea rushes in to be spewed out through the blowhole; you can walk over the bridge if you’re brave enough.

If you want to see where Admiral Nelson docked his ships, pay a visit to the Dockyard Museum in English Harbour. Then experience the 21st-century sailing industry by taking a walk around the harbour to marvel at today’s yachts. There are some really attractive restaurants and bars in the harbour as well, so it’s worth a visit. And if you want to find out more about the history of Antigua, the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda is an interesting place (open Friday and Saturday mornings).

It may be very much part of the tourist trail, but a visit to Shirley Heights, a historic fort overlooking English Harbour, is a must. On Thursdays and Sundays starting at 4pm you can listen to live music, sip cocktails and enjoy what are undisputedly the best views on the island while waiting for the spectacular sunset. On Fridays from 6pm you can enjoy dishes of Antigua in the restaurant, again with live music.

Best with Children

Stingray City is a little touristy, but if you or your offspring are interested in these fantastic creatures it’s a good place to come to hold one in your hands and feel its slimy underbelly. The speedboat ride across the lagoon is worth the entry fee alone (around £23 per person).

Best Beaches

Antigua is famed for its long stretches of super-soft sand: Long Bay on the east coast, Half Moon Bay on the southeast coast and Hawksbill on the west coast are among the best.

Best Events

Antigua is a small sailing paradise, with a Classic Yacht Regatta in April and spectacular boat shows most years.  If you are more the player type than a spectator, there are two golf courses and plans to upgrade one of them to championship status. Even as they are, the wind can create plenty of challenge – they’re not called the Windward & Leeward Islands for nothing.

Best Helicopter Tour

See the island from the air with Caribbean Helicopters. As well as tours of Antigua, they offer trips to the Montserrat volcano, where you can see the incredible destruction from the eruption in 1997.

Best Reads

Antigua and Barbuda: Island Guide by Christopher Beale and Rough Guide Directions: Antigua and Barbuda.

Best Avoided

Hurricane season, which falls between June and November every year.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to send us your comments.