I first came to Antigua maybe 25 or 30 years ago, when it was completely undiscovered. It was the trade winds that brought me: this really is one of the world’s great destinations for competitive sailing. The Classic Yacht Regatta was on my radar even then – I hadn’t taken part in it, but I knew about it. However, I really began to explore the island in 2006, when Panerai became a Platinum Sponsor of the Regatta.
The second half of April and early May is the time to come if you’re into yachts, as the Classic Yacht Regatta is followed by Antigua Sailing Week. It’s one big party, fascinating from the sailing point of view, but also for its human side. Some great characters turn up.
I’ve discovered that Antigua is not quite like any of the other Caribbean islands; it has a different soul, and it’s definitely less touristy than many of its neighbours. For example, apart from the capital, St John’s, on the northwest coast, much of island life takes place in the interior. You could say that Antigua preserves something of the salty spirit of the years when Horatio Nelson was stationed here, and there are still a few top-class boat-building artisans on the island. Antiguan varnishers are the best in the world, and they make excellent awnings, too.
Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour is a must: it’s the best-preserved 18th-century naval dockyard anywhere in the world. Nelson was still a young captain when he came here in 1784, and he fought hard to conquer the island, just to get his hands on the natural, deep?water port.
The dockyard is divided into two areas. There’s the inner sanctum, right on the sea, which was once an off-limits military zone. Then there’s the other more external part, built in the same style, where all the services were located – the careening bays, the sail-makers, the artisans responsible for the upkeep of the English warships. And this is where one of the best places to eat in Antigua is located: the restaurant of the Admiral’s Inn, which is housed in a restored Georgian brick building that was originally used as a storeroom and an office for naval engineers. The menu is classic Euro-Caribbean with the accent on seafood. And the bar serves the best piña colada on the island. They say that many of the bricks used to build this and other buildings in Nelson’s Dockyard were originally brought over as ballast in English ships. As the Admiral’s Inn faced directly on to the careening bay, it’s a perfectly credible story.
Not far away is The Inn at English Harbour, a hotel that I would call totally relaxing. It’s a stunning place, with 28 rooms set in a huge 19-acre garden, which slopes down to a beautiful beach in a tranquil bay sheltered from the waves. The reception area and Terrace restaurant are right up at the top of the slope – so you can have dinner with a view across the bay. And the food is excellent.
For families, I’d recommend Curtain Bluff, an impeccably run 72-room cliffside resort. It has not one but two private beaches, and every room has a sea view. It’s one of those places that’s difficult to leave. Another great place to stay is Carlisle Bay, which was opened in 2003 by Gordon Campbell Gray. The design is contemporary but also very welcoming, and the location is spectacular: 88 suites strung out around the curve of a white-sand beach on the south coast. This one is for people who want natural beauty and seclusion. There’s a jetty above the waves where sometimes they’ll serve dinner for just one couple. Of the three restaurants, my favourite is East. With its Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and Indian menu it offers something a little different on an island that’s dominated by Italian cuisine.
One of the best of these Italian places is Harmony Hall. It’s also a hotel, but for me it comes into its own as a lunch venue, with great pasta and seafood dishes. It’s on a secluded bay on the east coast, and the view is breathtaking.
The eastern island is full of deserted beaches, because this is the sopravento, or windward, side of the island. One of them, Half Moon Bay, did have a resort development, but it was destroyed by Hurricane Luis in 1995, and today the whole bay is a nature reserve. Continuing south and west along the coast from here brings you to Standfast Point, where Eric Clapton has a villa. Tucked underneath it is a little beach where you can see turtles arriving at night – a marvellous sight, but you have to take your sleeping bag and spend the night there to see them.
Clapton is the only Antigua celebrity resident you see much of. Others – Giorgio Armani, Ken Follett, Silvio Berlusconi – tend to go straight from the airport to their villas. But Clapton practically lives here. With his beard, his sweater, his shorts, he blends in with the boat crews. He’ll have a beer and go home – all very modest and discreet.
But in this respect, Antigua is the polar opposite of St Barts, which has a real vita mondana. Antigua doesn’t have that same fashionista scene. All you really need to pack is a pair of flip-flops and plenty of sunscreen. What it does have, during the sailing season, is spontaneous entertainment created by the “boat people”, the crews of the big boats who meet up in the bars on English Harbour – one bar one night, another the next. Places such as Abracadabra, another of my regular haunts. It’s run by Italians who have been here for 20 years or more. Until midnight it’s a restaurant, where they do good raw-fish antipasti, classic risottos and pasta dishes, but when the crews arrive the ambience changes completely, the volume of the music goes up and it turns into a club. At weekends the parties go on into the small hours.
Shopping here is not the biggest draw, but there are some good destinations if you seek them out. Heritage Quay in St John’s is a big duty-free shopping mall aimed at the cruise-ship market, but if you ferret around the shops – there are 50 or so – some gems emerge, such as those at Colombian Emeralds. At Redcliffe Quay, a more villagey dockside development, a good bet is A Thousand Flowers, which sells summer clothes – in linen, cotton and silk – alongside locally made accessories for women. But most ladies would want to go to the boutique at Carlisle Bay; there are chic kaftans and swimwear, and quite beautiful ethnic-looking jewellery.
For a window on the island’s colonial history, you should visit Betty’s Hope Sugar Plantation. This was the island’s first large-scale plantation, built in the mid-1600s; one of the windmills is restored and beautifully kept, fitted with sugar-cane-crushing machinery it would have had 300 years ago.
Another taste of local life, one the gourmets love, can be had on Saturday mornings at the market in St John’s. People come in from all over the island to sell the most extraordinary produce – exotic fruits to jams – but also flowers, crafts, even birds. To have the real flavour of it, go early, at around 7.30am.
However, the very first thing you will want to do when you get here is adjust to Antigua Time. It pains me to say it as Panerai CEO, but this is a place where you really need to take your watch off and follow nature’s prompts. When you’re hungry, you eat; when you need convivial company, you go to a bar and meet up with your friends. In the morning, you get up late. You hit the beach around four in the afternoon, because before that it’s too hot. Then in the evening, you go to a good restaurant. Basta. It’s an unhurried life; very Caribbean.