Antigua and Barbuda Trip Report

Nov 27th, 2007, 12:48 PM
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Antigua and Barbuda Trip Report

Just got back from Thanksgiving week in Antigua ... here's my story.

From its storied history as a naval stronghold, to the classic sailing of Race Week, to its place as the origin of the yacht chartering industry, one might expect Antigua to be oriented to bareboat sailing. But it isn’t, which is – strangely enough – a tremendous advantage to the intrepid sailor who wishes to get away from it all.

We were one of 3 couples chartering a Bahia 46 catamaran from Horizon Yacht Charters during Thanksgiving week (November 19-26, 2007). We had a fantastic week of brisk sailing, perfect weather, and mostly-secluded anchorages which made us forget that Antigua is a mass-tourism destination. Though getting there was a painful reminder…

The Agony and the Ecstasy

The agony of travel to the Caribbean is usually associated with airplanes and airports, and our case was no different. We left BWI the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and the first leg to San Juan was a remarkably efficient experience. But what we didn’t expect was that the Antiguans filling our flight from SJU to ANU would be using this U.S. holiday week as an opportunity to bring all their earthly belongings with them to Antigua, preferably as carry-on luggage. Not only were the overhead bins stuffed full, but my husband’s seatmates were carrying boxes (multiple!) on their laps for the entire flight, without a word from the flight attendants, and then pushed and shoved their way off the plane.

It only got worse on arrival, as our American Airlines 757 was followed immediately by the arrival of Air Canada and British Airways 747s. Those collecting bags at the carousel were loading teetering piles of luggage on carts and making a “line” (let’s use that term loosely) for customs that wrapped around the arrivals hall. We got a first row seat to observe the chaos, because we didn’t get to leave the area until we were quite sure that Rick’s duffel had not arrived. Rick made a claim at the lost luggage desk, but they had NO COMPUTERS, and so could not give him any prognosis. But we had plenty of time, as we stood in the customs line, to call American Airlines baggage service on my Blackberry, to find out that the bag had been bumped from our flight (not surprising, given how much stuff people had with them) and would probably arrive on the 7:50 p.m. Eagle.

Over 2 hours after arrival, we gratefully collapsed in a taxi and made our way to English Harbour, where I’d booked us a room at the Inn at English Harbour. Here, we found an oasis as far from the airport insanity and package tour inanity as one could imagine. We were greeted by a welcoming and understanding staff, not to mention breathtaking views from a hilltop overlooking the entrance to fabled English Harbour. Moments later, a shuttle whisked us to our spacious room at sea level, all done in crisp whites and spare West Indian style, with multiple jalousied windows and french doors giving way to a private patio. We located two of our crew (Skip and Harriet) who were also staying at The Inn (the other two, Bob and Phyllis, were at Jumby Bay), and tried to figure out the best way to get to the famous jump-up at Shirley Heights, which was the next hilltop over from us.

Believing we could walk up to Shirley Heights, we went in search of a path. Finally, as dark fell, we asked a security guard for directions, who pointed us to a steep, dusty track that a goat would have trouble navigating with a floodlight. Not liking our chances, we found a taxi (who would pick us up afterwards), and by 6:30 we were at Shirley Heights, listening to a calypso band and marveling at how many European (largely British – the bandleader asked for a show of hands) 20-somethings were crammed up here. The somewhat pasty tourist crowd got considerably more interesting as the evening passed, more drinks and good barbecue were consumed, and more Antiguans arrived; the reggae band that started at 8:00 also helped matters. Alas, our travels had left us exhausted, and we left before the party ended. We ended the evening with a round of cocktails at The Inn’s clubby, varnished bar.

Leaving the Shoreline Behind

On Monday morning, the Horizon base at Jolly Harbour gave us a good look of what land-based Antigua was becoming. The Jolly Harbour complex looks like a town in South Florida: all concrete, exorbitantly expensive condos and residences, cutesy boutiques, and lots of yachts in the marina. More is promised by developers. Ack.

Of course, the redeeming quality of this was a good store for provisioning (15 kinds of pate, but true to island fashion, a very limited supply of fresh fruit and vegetables). But the surly staff at the store were by far the most imposing hazard we encountered all week. We also found convenient showers, a pharmacy (do your budget a favor and bring your own sunscreen; the price is bad enough in USD, but 2.67 times worse when you see it denominated in EC), and a quick lunch before shoving off.

The Horizon staff at Antigua are delightful, attentive, and efficient. Our boat had just arrived from St. Maarten, yet we were fully briefed, checked-out, provisioned and pushed off the dock on a reasonably clean and ready vessel by 2 p.m. Horizon supplied us with the Imray charts of the region, the Doyle cruising guide to the Leeward Islands, and a suggested itinerary.

Our boat is a Fountaine Pajot Bahia 46 catamaran named Drooy. She sports 4 full cabins and en suite heads, as well as 2 pilot berths and 2 single berths in the fronts of the hulls. The boat has a capacious cockpit (where we essentially lived), and a galley and salon on the same level. With 200 gallons of water tankage, and a crew that took real pleasure in bathing off the swim platform, we returned to port with 50 gallons left – a good thing as there are only 2 places to refill water in Antigua, either of which would have required a major detour for us. Drooy is 5 years old, and while showing her wear, performed reasonably well. The only real areas of complaint that we had were a less-than-efficient refrigerator which nevertheless managed to preserve our food for the full week, but only with vigilant running of the engine and ultimately shifting key items (like beer and wine) to the freezer; an imperfectly engineered reefing system for the mainsail, which resulted in bat cars popping out of the mast track on our next to last day (and consequent inability to reef); and a dubiously designed holding tank system which, combined with tired joker valves, gave us unpleasant surprises in the heads.

With the better part of our first day behind us, our first day’s sail is brief, taking us away from civilization and staging us for the long sail to Barbuda the next day. The winds are steady at 15-20 knots and we make Deep Bay within 90 minutes, sticking the anchor on the first try (as we would do all week). The bay is one south of the entrance to St. John’s harbour, Antigua’s main port, and separated from it by a thin strip of land. It’s home to the Grand Royal Antiguan hotel, a curiously orange-painted high-rise which makes one think of Howard Johnson’s, hidden back behind the tropical greenery. Once anchored, we slip easily into what will become our routine: beach time, free time, swim platform showers, happy hour(s), dinner, more happy hour(s), then bedtime. The absence of activity at the resort makes us feel like Robinson Crusoe, but in the morning, looming cruise ships sliding past the strip of land separating us from St. John’s remind us we’re not that far away.

Barbudahhhhhh!

Over the years, I’ve read about Barbuda. It is to Antigua what Anegada is to the BVI, and the Out Islands to Nassau and Freeport. Simply put, a pure beachy indulgent escape that is a magnet to me. It’s a long sail to Barbuda – 30 miles of open ocean – so we leave early. Once we leave Antigua’s orbit, we won’t spot flat Barbuda until we’re less than 5 miles out, and we’ll be bumping and hobby-horsing upwind for most of our 5.5 hour sail. The last hour, we motorsailed since the crew were getting hungry and we wanted to arrive with full sun overhead so as to be able to thread through patch reefs to find a good spot to anchor.

Our chosen anchorage is near Coco Point, the southeast tip of the island and the beginning of a 5-mile long pinky-white sand beach. The only immediately visible sign of habitation looks to be a turquoise colored outhouse with a windsock; this later turns out to be a guard house marking the beginning of the grass runway of Coco Point Lodge, a small and exclusive resort. The K Club resort is also on this beach, but it’s shuttered for now. After a quick lunch of tuna salad on crackers, we take off for the beach – snorkeling (not-so-good this day, as the winds and seas have churned up the sandy bottom), swimming, walking. It’s spectacularly pretty here, the stuff of a beach lover’s fantasies: powdery sand, crystal water, gentle waves, and no one around but our friends. When we wander towards Coco Point, a security guard tells us – politely – that while he can’t keep us off the beach in front of the lodge, he’d request that we didn’t linger; also, our money is no good there. Their loss, as we’d be willing to spend at a place that welcomed us; moreover, there’s plenty of beach for all of us. In the evening, the moon is so bright that Rick and I go ashore with no need for auxiliary lighting to guide our way.

Overnight, the wind picks up and the gentle waves crash more insistently ashore. I wake up to the sound of donkeys braying. We’re just not prepared to leave Barbuda, so we decide to pull up the anchor and move to another beach for the day. 5 miles of perfection just isn’t enough, so we round southernmost Palmetto Point and anchor off the small strip land that divides the 11-mile beach from the Codrington Lagoon. This beach is similarly pretty, and even more deserted, but it slopes quickly into the sea. Indeed, a few steps off the beach and you’re neck deep in water (but you can see your toes). The beach is interesting for walking, and across the lagoon we can see the small settlement of Codrington, though we have no interest in going there. After lunch aboard, we return to Coco Point while the light is still good, and anchor a bit closer to shore for yet another gorgeous afternoon and night alone in this anchorage.

A James Bond Thanksgiving

As enthralled as we are with Barbuda, and as willing as we were to forsake Thanksgiving at home, our essentially American hearts can’t give up some marking of the holiday altogether. Our plan is to head for Dickenson Bay, a popular and populated (but pretty) bay on the northwest coast of Antigua where we figure we’ll have plentiful choices for a makeshift Thanksgiving dinner. Our plans are for naught, though, as it’s clear once we are in Antigua’s lee that a heavy northwesterly swell would make Dickenson Bay uncomfortable, if not untenable. Plan B is to return to Deep Bay, which we manage by early afternoon. We have turkey sandwiches for lunch, so as to be able to say we had turkey on Thanksgiving.

We head ashore to see about dinner plans, as well as to explore the beach and hike to Fort Barrington, which crowns the headland to our north. And so begins a day of dinghy mishaps, caused largely by the swell but also by conflicting “expert” advice. With Rick as dinghy captain, Bob is ready to jump ashore and pull the dinghy up the beach. With a breaking wave behind us and a sharply sloped bottom, timing is crucial for that jump. Alas, Bob’s timing was not quite right (the risk of taking the advice of the majority over the advice of the dinghy captain), and he takes an action-hero-style rolling tumble onto the beach. Luckily, no harm came to him and we all had a good laugh.

As we walked down to the beach to Andes restaurant (named for the shipwreck in the bay), the rough-and-tumble beach shack look of the place conjured up visions of a real down-island meal like curried goat or fish creole. Unfortunately, the mostly-empty Royal Antiguan hotel was only serving dinner in one place, its “fine dining” restaurant Barrington’s. While I was arranging for us to have dinner there, and we were settling into drinks at the bar, Rick thankfully noticed that the swell had come further up the beach than anticipated, and had taken with it our dink. He and Bob ran to get it, grateful that a beach walker thought to grab the painter.

Thinking better of leaving the dinghy unattended (which I might mention was a brand new 12-foot RIB with a brand new outboard), Rick and I sacrificed ourselves to stay on the beach while the rest of the crew hiked up to Fort Barrington. They reported beautiful views, piles of goat dung, and the overpowering stench of goat dung. I’m happy I’ll be able to enjoy the views by looking at their photos…

We readied ourselves for Thanksgiving dinner, glad to have learned that casual dress was more than acceptable (as long as we weren’t sloppy). Luckily, we timed our dinghy landing well enough to avoid splashing our relative finery, and walked to the resort’s main building. There were no guests about at all, only staff. The building looked like my 1960s era college dorm, with about as much style. And the dining room was completely empty except for staff. The parquet floors, potted palms, and floor-to-ceiling drapes made the room look like it was awaiting the entrance of Sean Connery and Jill St. John in “Diamonds Are Forever.” Once everyone had decided to order the Barbudan lobster (that we’d been unable to procure in Barbuda, as the famed George of “Garden of Eden” was off island), the waitress informed us it was not available. So, we settled for food was reminiscent of our mothers’ marginally successful attempts in the early 1970s to make “continental” cuisine like duck a l’orange or salmon mousse – and six Barbudan lobsters sighed in relief that they were spared that fate.

Over the course of our subdued meal, only one other table was ever occupied. Either there truly were no other guests at the hotel, or everyone knew well enough to escape. And so we, too, eventually made our escape, getting massive cases of dinghy butt as we got swamped by a wave.

Lifestyles of the Hip and Fabulous … and Their Babies

It seems that in this day and age, every island has an “It” resort of the moment. And so, the “It” resort on Antigua of, perhaps, a year or two ago was Carlisle Bay. For those of us willing to spend $800 a night for a charter boat (for 6 of us), we can visit an exclusive resort where the room tariff is at least that much for two.

And so we sailed for the south coast of Antigua, under the watchful crater of Montserrat’s smoke-belching Soufriere Hills volcano some miles to the southwest, to achingly lovely Carlisle Bay. With a backdrop of lush green hills with almost no development, the horseshoe-shaped bay has at its head a palm-lined beach which is bordered with low-rise two-story buildings housing the self-consciously chic rooms of the resort. Unlike the Royal Antiguan, the beach here is occupied by many hotel guests, most of whom appear to be young couples toting very, very, very lucky babies and toddlers. Unlike Coco Point, the resort doesn’t actively discourage us from visiting; indeed, there is actually a DINGHY DOCK here.

We decide we’ll have lunch here, and have our planned boat lunch for dinner aboard. Lunch is served beachfront at Indigo on the Beach, an open-air pavilion. Most of us splurged on that long-wished-for Barbudan lobster (either in a salad, or tempura), while Skip and I decided to see what a $24 burger was like. I’m happy to report that it was one of the most sublime burger experiences of my life, well worth the price of admission. Each element was a cut or two above the norm – the beef was Kobe and cooked to perfection; the onions were caramelized onion marmalade; the bacon was a crisp round of Canadian bacon … well, you get my drift. I’m always willing to pay the price for value, and in this case, felt like I got it.

Before returning to Drooy, we strolled to the end of the beach to do some commerce with the beach vendors in their shacks. I don’t guess they did too much business with the well-heeled guests of the resort, but we happily plunked down cash to get matching (but different-colored) Wadadli Beer shirts. Later that evening, Bob and Phyllis were tempted to return to Indigo for dinner, but the lure of the cockpit proved too strong, and soon Bob was leading the team effort to make tuna melts for dinner.

A Different Sense of Personal Space

Wanting to have some more time away from civilization, Saturday’s destination would be Nonsuch Bay on Antigua’s east coast. On the land side, this area of the island is developing and congested; arriving by sea is another world. After a quick stop in Falmouth Harbour, where we left the boat running at the Royal Antigua Yacht Club dock while some of the crew picked up essential provisions (wine, Ting), we made several long tacks, in heavy seas, towards Nonsuch Bay. We passed along the way a dozen or more gorgeous beaches, each one prettier than the last, and I just couldn’t wait to be done with the pounding and get somewhere protected. Just soon enough, we were winding our way through the shoals and reefs of Nonsuch.

While buzzed by some jetskis which belonged to a megayacht anchored within the lee of the protecting reef and Green Island, we correctly predicted that they would leave by midafternoon. And so, virtually alone in the anchorage, the dinghy dropped me off on Green Island while the others went to snorkel the reef. Green Island is a small, craggy, hilly island encircled by tiny white beaches. I happily while away an hour before the others joined me, but we soon got chilled as the wind piped up.

As we were returning to the boat, we saw an ominous sight … first one mast, then another, then even more. Horrors! It was a Sunsail flotilla of 12(!!) boats bearing German sailors, all of whom had the evident goal to anchor as close to us as possible. One catamaran anchored maybe 20 feet off our bow, and then let out enough chain to be well behind us. Another one chose the same spot as the first dropped anchor, and started backing down straight on us until our yelling induced them to choose another spot (but only a marginal improvement, as they were 30 feet abeam of us). We were no longer alone. But the ultimate indignity was the fact that the majority of them chose to give us the Full Monty as they took completely nekkid stern showers in broad daylight. Now, I like to think of myself as having fairly liberated views on such things, but in a country such as Antigua with a British heritage – where nudity is frowned upon – a little respect for the sensibilities of the host nation would have been called for where there is an audience that includes someone other than your own private group. (Taking our own retaliatory nekkid showers downstream of a dozen boats with questionable (if any) holding tank practices was out of the question.)

In any event, though we pondered moving, sand gravity got the best of us and we settled in for Rum Tings (rum and Ting cocktails) and a dinner of chicken in ginger wine sauce. Though we were keeping fairly early hours, the Sunsail flotilla only got revved up after dinner, buzzing back and forth in dinghies across the anchorage and gathering on the beach. They were still at it, with a big happy singalong in someone’s cockpit, at midnight when I rose to take a look at the wind meter and to make sure no one had dragged. The wind was honking at a steady 20 knots, with bigger gusts, all night, and I was getting a little worried about the seas outside the reef.

Surrounded by History

In order to set ourselves up for Monday’s return to the charter base, we made for English Harbour Sunday morning. As I’d expected, the seas were rough and heavy – 4-6 foot whitecaps with the occasional 8 footer. Though we were reaching, the seas were on our aft port quarter, so the motion was confused and had a few of us wishing for the heavier monohulls we own. When we tried to reef the main, the cars popped out of the mast track, so we were left under jib alone (but still made 7-8 knots). Making quick progress, we were med-mooring on the Nelson’s Dockyard bulkhead by 11.

Let me tell you, being docked at Nelson’s Dockyard, right in front of the Copper and Lumber Company, near the ramparts to Fort Berkeley, was way cool. It’s a scene I’ve observed as a land-based visitor, and in just about every photo collection I’ve seen of Antigua: the beautiful, antique stone buildings with blue shutters, the nearly landlocked harbour, and the green hills. And it’s a relative bargain as well, with base dockage costing only $.60/foot, when I’m used to as much as $4.00 in the Chesapeake, even when my boat is half as wide.

We started walking in search of lunch, and stopped when we reached The Last Lemming in Falmouth Harbour. They were only serving brunch, so that reduced us to each ordering the only non-brunchy items on the menu: burgers. And they were GREAT – not the $24 jobs like at Carlisle Bay, but certainly burgers worthy of paradise. It was a great waterfront location to while away part of the afternoon, with a convivial crowd of families, yachties and island denizens popping in and out. Sundays are truly days of rest in Antigua, and had we known in advance what our evening would entail, we would know that rest was a good thing.

After a bit of shopping and hanging out, as well as hike up to Fort Berkeley for those who hadn’t already done it, we had standing-up all-the-water-you-want $2 showers at the marina. We had only cold water, but it felt so good to get a good rinsing before putting on our Sunday best (relative, of course) for dinner at the Admiral’s Inn in the Dockyard. The setting is one of the most familiar scenes in Antigua: the striking colonnade next to the sail loft, amid palm trees and overlooking the Harbour. In this setting, redolent of history, everyone but me had one more go at Barbudan lobster, while I had red snapper.

Following our leisurely dinner, we decided a pub crawl was in order. With the music from Shirley Heights ringing through the air, we weren’t ready to call it a night. We stepped into HQ, a restaurant on the waterfront with a porch overlooking our moored boat. There didn’t seem to be much action, but the French owner Tony, and the French bartender, were welcoming and willing hosts, so we went along. After the first round of drinks, Skip and Bob started eyeing the small stage, where a drum set and guitars were calling their names. After a few words with Tony (a drummer), an impromptu jam session began with Tony, Skip and Bob, who are both guitarists in bands when they are not working their day jobs. We settled into the comfy sofas and barstools and went along for the ride. In our frequent weekend gatherings on the Chesapeake, we are used to Bob or Skip entertaining us with their guitars, but this was amplified, professional-sounding stuff. Pretty cool. After our guys tired of the stage, Tony cranked up the French reggae. Our last full day ended with a flourish.

Rainy Endings

We’d managed a full week aboard without a single Hatch Drill until Monday morning at 5 a.m. I was hardly asleep anyway, since our only night in a marina meant our only warm night with hungry mosquitoes making a buffet of me. I resorted to covering up (sweaty) and cranking up the fan in order to fight off the marauders, and the rain at least gave me an excuse to close the ports.

We made our way back to Jolly Harbour in slightly gentler seas and intermittent squalls that provided the reward of rainbows. But right outside Jolly Harbour, we got a downpour; with no sign of it letting up, with carefully made our way from marker to market until we reach the fuel dock, at which time we turned over the helm to Horizon. Within a few hours after that, we finished up with the boat, packed, checked out, had lunch, and made our way to the airport.

Still rocking and rolling from a week aboard a boat, I’ve still got the fresh buzz of a great vacation. As I’ve said before, Horizon was fantastic and I would use them again. My impressions of Antigua, as a land destination, are pretty indifferent due to willy-nilly development and congestion and catering to the lowest common demoninator. There are, however, pockets where the amenities, the natural environment, and the staff (such as The Inn at English Harbour) would make me want to return – though it’s not normally my nature to sequester myself in a single location…. unless perhaps its Barbuda. As a sailing destination, Antigua is not set up with many amenities for the casual sailor. Moreover, the sometimes challenging sea conditions are not for the untried. But if you’re willing to make your own way, you’ll be hugely rewarded with largely empty anchorages, historical sites, and endless beautiful beaches.
Callaloo is offline  
Nov 27th, 2007, 02:19 PM
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Callaloo, I felt like I was there...Great trip report!! Barbuda is a place I've dreamed of seeing and hope to very soon.

and we’ll be bumping and hobby-horsing upwind for most of our 5.5 hour sail.
Glad to be reading that and not experiencing it!! amp;

Your reports and web page are full of interest and good information. Thanks.
BeachGirl247 is offline  
Nov 27th, 2007, 04:56 PM
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Wonderful trip report. I enjoyed reading it so much. Gives me a different perspective of a vacation in Antigua (sailing-based instead of land-based).

You didn't miss much passing up Dickenson Bay. It's gotten a lot crowded and Sandals has built a new monstrosity of a building that is quite an eyesore.

I'm surprised that AA let folks have boxes on their laps during the flight. That is crazy!

I'm looking forward to seeing your photos.
mymoosie is offline  
Nov 27th, 2007, 05:10 PM
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What a wonderful trip report! Really one of the best I've seen here.

Although I'm not a sailor, your evocative descriptions made me want to become one.
mah1980 is offline  
Nov 28th, 2007, 06:31 AM
  #5  
 
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There's just something about your trip report that brought me back to Antigua again. Mmm. Loved it.
Knowing is offline  
Nov 28th, 2007, 09:09 AM
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great report, as usual!

ejcrowe is offline  

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