It’s not long after 6am when we arrive at the Breakfast Fete. Our driver, Jason, tries to get us as close to the entrance as possible, but he’s not enjoying much luck in negotiating the couple hundred cars packed into the muddied field.
We’re tired. It’s raining. And we’re now jumping over puddles and tip-toeing through the dirt in a bid to keep the runners clean. It doesn’t matter, really. It’s already abundantly clear that we’ve underdressed for the Breakfast Fete. Whatever that is. We still haven’t an iota as to what lies on the other side of the fence. All we can see are numerous white tents. What’s going on inside them is anyone’s guess.
We follow the hordes of locals – young and not so young – through the gate. Most are dressed as if they’re heading out for the night. Or morning, as is the case here.
Inside, the music blares and the drink flows. Remember now, it’s still only 6.30am. The touring party – including two of the friendliest Italians you could meet, one English, one French and yours truly – meander through the large crowd gathered in front of the main stage and up to the food stalls. Tickets for the event came in at $150 Eastern Caribbean dollars, entitling you to an unlimited supply of drink. They’re fairly generous with the food vouchers too.
The breakfast serving affords us our first proper taste of the local cuisine. There’s salt-fish (salt-cured, dried white fish, mixed with onion and peppers), boiled egg, plantain and chop up – a soft vegetal mash containing spinach, pumpkin and eggplant. Different, certainly. Once that’s been tucked away, it’s back to the main tent. Local tradition is to begin with a shot of tequila. Or so we’re told. Thereafter, we’re not long in joining the party. For this is a party. It’s the last day of July and the Antiguan Carnival celebrations are in full flow.Carnival, held annually from the end of July into the first week of August, is a celebration of the emancipation of slavery in the country. It’s a ten-day festival of outrageously colourful costumes, talent shows, beauty pageants, marching steel bands and particularly good music (YouTube Tian Winter’s ‘In De Middle’ and you’ll get what I’m talking about).
Think St Patrick’s Day, except there’s a similarly extravagant, over-the-top parade every day for a week and a half. On the penultimate day of Carnival, a massive street party, otherwise known as J’Ouvert, engulfs the capital, St John’s. The dancing, quite literally, goes on all night and stops mid-morning. It’s here that we catch our first glimpse of the various Mas troupes that make this festival what it is. People, dressed in multi-coloured feathers, headpieces that even Philip Treacy would be proud of and no amount of body paint, begin arriving from 3am, find their favourite steel band and jam the night away.
We were part of the Myst troupe, to join whom cost between $1,000 to $1,500 Easter Carribean dollars. Pricey, yes, but included in that package are costumes, food and drink for two days. With regard to the latter, you’re handed a drinking container at the outset and there’s no limit to the amount of times you can visit the bar-on-wheels which strolls at the back of each troupe.
Parade days are best enjoyed from a sheltered spot from where you can look down upon the various groups. Or, if you’re so inclined, throw on a pair of comfortable shoes and join in. Carnival culminates with the parade of the bands where the outstanding troupe is selected. Other events worth checking out during the 10-day festivities include the Caribbean Queen show, Iron Band Jam, Flow party monarch competition and Teen Splash. The majority are free of charge and for those that do come with a price tag, the most you’re likely to pay is $40. The 2017 Carnival runs from Friday, July 28 to Tuesday, August 8. To get a proper insight into Antiguan culture, there is no question but that this is the time to visit. The 25-degree plus temperatures also add to the attractiveness of landing onto the twin-island country during the summer. In stark contrast to the colour and pageantry of the Carnival celebrations are the deserted beaches and breathtaking views from atop the many conquerable hills that fleck the coastline of this tiny island – Antigua measures 14 miles long and 11 miles wides.
Our hotel for the week, the Hawksbill Resort, no more than a 20-minute drive west of the capital, was home to four of these pristine beaches. And outside of the early-morning starts for the Breakfast Fete and J’Ouvert, there’s nothing quite like waking to the pale light of dawn creeping in through the wooden shutters and the steady roll of the sea. The hotel chalets are located no more than 10 metres from the waterfront and so breakfast, invariably, was delayed to allow for a quick dart across the sole-burning sand and an 8am swim. Even on the sole afternoon when it rained, the water was perfectly tolerable.
Paradise? As close as you’ll get.
And it is precisely this which draws thousands and thousands of visitors to Antigua year after year – the all-inclusive resorts have so excellently cashed in on their surroundings that many guests never want to roll off their sun lounger, let alone wonder beyond the hotel gate. Which is a shame, because this little Caribbean island has so much to offer. Shirley Heights being a case in point. Having once functioned as a signal station, this military complex site at the most southerly tip of the island offers the most spectacular panorama of English Harbour. Sunday night is the time to visit. There’ll you find a reggae band in overdrive and a barbeque throwing out the finest portions of meat.
The summit of Convert Hill commands similarly exhilarating – and comprehensive – views of Falmouth Harbour. Pack a decent pair of walking shoes as this is quite the hike. If you don’t fancy roughing it, the jeep safari provided by tour operator Tropical Adventures will get you to the top in jig time. Part of their package is lunch at the ruins of an old sugar plantation known as Betty’s Hope. Established in 1650, shortly after the island had become an English colony, Betty’s Hope is a reminder of the several centuries of slavery endured by the natives.
From there, we’re back in the 4x4 and en-route to Stingray City. Interacting and feeding the southern Stingray is unique, but well down the list in terms of what’s offered up around Seaton’s Village on the east coast. A speedboat takes us out to the kayak dock for a paddle among the lush mangrove inlets of North Sound Marine Park. With the paddles tucked away, the speedboat heads for beautiful reef of Bird Island. I’m handed a diving mask and a pair of flippers. One by one we slip off the side of the boat. There’s Brian coral and shoals of blue tang. We’re left to our own devices and similar to the unhurried lifestyle back on shore, it’s as if the world slows down as I plunge to the bottom of the ocean. We dock on Bird Island. There’s a local already waiting for us. He’s serving both rum and fruit punch. It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I’m thinking to myself, ‘can life get any better’. There’s a couple honeymooning from London and we all sit in the shallow water, basking in the peace and tranquillity of this uninhabited island. We stay for an hour. It feels longer.
Before departing, we meander inland. Coconut trees and white sand trails drift in every direction. We hike to the top of the island. The views, again, are other-worldly. Other options for active visitors include climbing Antigua’s highest point, Mount Obama (402m), stand-up paddle boarding, kite-surfing and zip-lining. History buffs will marvel at Nelson’s Dockyard and English Harbour. Several of the buildings here date back to the 1800’s, including the only existing Georgian Naval Yard in the world. Much of the accommodation on the island is expensive. Our base for the week, Hawksbill Resort, was no different. For a one-night stay in a beachfront club bungalow situated between Honeymoon Cove and Seagrapes beach, you’re looking at a minimum €230 price tag. The nearby Galley Bay Resort will set you back a similar amount. If all you’re interested in, however, is relaxing on the long strips of white sand, then the all-inclusive nature of these establishments won’t leave you wanting for anything. Red snapper was a regular on the lunch menu, while jerk pork chop was a particular dinner favourite. Rum and raisin ice-cream is the staple desert dish. And don’t dare get back on the plane without a bottle of local rum.
For relaxed fine dining, try La Bussola located in the exquisite Runaway Bay. A four-course meal, if you can manage it – I just about got through my third dish, which was a lobster serving that would easily have fed three, but sadly there was no room for desert thereafter – can be got for $50. Overlooking Ffyres beach is Dennis’ Cocktail Restaurant and Beach bar. Perched atop stilts on a hillside off Buckley’s Avenue in the centre of the island is Buba’s Hideout restaurant. Bubs runs the kitchen, while other family members take orders and chat with guests. The home-grown approach also extends to the food as most of the vegetables and fruits are grown in the rolling gardens that circle the establishment. There’s no set menu and on the evening we visit, the majority opt for the spicy barbeque ribs. Not before we’re each served a ‘happy grass’, a stiff cocktail made with rum and lemongrass. Buba initially refuses to tell us the ingredients to his favourite concoction and wants our pallets to do the work. If you’re looking to escape the high-end eateries for something more simple, but equally tasteful, find this hideout.
On the Friday morning of our departure, we arrive at the airport in plenty of time and so sit outside, desperate to soak up every last ray of sunlight. If you want the island less travelled, then plan a trip to Antigua. They have a beach for every day of the year, but don’t allow yourself to get too comfortable on the sun lounger. Get out and see the whole of Antigua. You won’t be left disappointed.
We landed onto the runway of VC Bird International airport via London Gatwick, with the flight from London to Antigua taking approximately eight hours. To visit during the 2017 Carnival celebrations, flights from Dublin, with at least one stopover, begin at €960. Outside of peak season, flights in early April, for example, would set you back €690, while getting away during the October mid-term break is slightly more expensive at €720.
June is the hottest month with an average temperature of 28 degrees. January is the coldest at 25 degrees. October is worst for rainfall, while if the plan is to spend your entire visit in the water then August is the time to travel as the average sea temperature is 29 degrees. In sum, resplendent weather is guaranteed 365 days a year.
Thirty miles north of Antigua, Barbuda is the smaller of the twinisland states, with a population of just 2,000. Getting there from Antigua takes 15 minutes by plane or an hour and a half by express ferry.