ANTIGUA – I can’t verify that there are 365 beaches on this island, one for every day of the year.
The tourist board says it’s true, and tourist boards never inflate their numbers. Right?
All I know is I took a five-hour drive around the south part of the island the other day and spotted a dozen or so of the spiffiest, most alluring stretches of sand I’ve seen in a long time.
I had plans to see a good half or two-thirds of the island. But a worker at the lovely Sugar Ridge resort I’m staying at convinced me to skip the town of St. John’s on Monday as it was a holiday. Instead, she suggested I turn left outside the gates of the resort and hug the southwest coast for a great view, then come back the same way and see it in reverse. Well, not in REVERSE, which would be tricky, especially when you’re driving on the left hand side of the road. Other drivers might not take kindly to it, either. I recommend, instead, driving one way in drive gear and then coming back the other way in drive, just so we’re clear on the concept.
Anyway, my plan was to see a good chunk of the island. Instead, I spotted a sign for a beach bar called The Nest a mere 30 seconds into my sojourn. So, naturally, I pulled over. The beach, called Valley Church, is maybe 50 metres from the road, and it’s a beauty. There are thickets of trees for shade all along the back of the beach, and the sand is soft and white and the water is the purest shade of aquamarine. The beach is flanked at both ends by small hills dotted with expensive homes of folks who can afford what must be one of the best views on the island.
It was a bit early for the beach bar, even for a travel journalist, so I instead opted for a five-minute swim in water that was surprisingly cool and refreshing.
Okay, one beach down, 364 to go.
I drove on from there and pretty soon came to a beautiful, twisting curve in the road, with a wide open vista of open sea in front of me and the long stretch of Darkwood Bay on my right. It’s another beautiful spot, and on a holiday Monday at 9:30 a.m. there were maybe eight people on the entire 1 km (or so) stretch.
I tried snorkelling but it was a bit murky, possibly owing to the storms here on the weekend. Still, it was pretty to gaze out at the water and to peek at the island of Montserrat off to the southwest.
Somewhat dry, and most definitely barefoot (I love driving in bare feet, although it could be illegal), I carried on past Turner’s Beach and pulled over near the village of Urlings for unbelievable views of the coast. There’s a gorgeous beach stretching out on your right, and sharp cliffs immediately below the road that are lined with bright green bushes with billions of perky, pink flowers. Off to the left there are a couple of rocky peninsulas jutting bravely into the ocean, lined with dark rock and palm trees. It was pretty windy, and huge white waves of foam were crashing against the green and black cliffs under a bright blue sky. Wow.
I don’t know if church was going on, but I passed a small Moravian church and a group of small boys came running out of the parking lot to wave and see who was in the area. I passed pretty pink and blue and yellow and orange houses – sometimes a few colours together – and tiny “superettes” offering water or bread or cell phone top-ups.
I also passed a woman with a large stack of sugar cane and a plump grouping of green bananas on her head. Behind her, with the same amount of material, was a man riding a donkey. I can only hope it was just his turn and that he wasn’t making his wife (perhaps) walk while he rode in comfort, if riding a donkey is comfortable and I have no clue.
Around pretty Carlisle Bay (I think it was beach number five for me but I’d already lost count) you turn inland on Fig Tree Drive and pass humble, small homes in the rainforest. The road twists and turns rather steeply in parts but is mostly just fine.
Near what I think is the top of the hill, several hundred metres above sea level, you’ll find the delightful Fig Tree Gallery. Owner Sallie Harker makes beautiful art work with layers of golf leaf and bright colours, and she also stocks her shop with colourful, bright paintings of pelicans and with calabash shells carved with likenesses of fish, turtles, sharks and other creatures. It’s a thoroughly delightful stop that I highly recommend, if only to admire her small garden and the impossibly pretty ginger lilies with their soft, pale pink spikes.
I’ll talk more about the drive and the charter yacht show in Falmouth and the impossibly beautiful views at Shirley Heights in my next blog.
In the meantime, I should give a shout out to Sugar Ridge for putting me up for three nights. I’m usually more of a beach person but I was told this resort is unusual for Antigua so I decided to check it out.
Instead of being right on the sand, as most resorts are, it was built on a small hill that rises up on the southwest coast, not far from Jolly Harbour. The units are in groups of four, and offer pretty views of a mangrove lagoon, the harbour and a series of hills that punctuate the coast. You get lovely sea views, too, and the sunsets from the restaurant at the top of the hill, Carmichael’s, are awesome.
You can get to the beach in seconds on one of their shuttles, or make the walk in maybe 10 minutes. But with a couple of very pretty pools you may or may not bother. The first pool is a wavy affair behind the main restaurant, the Sugar Club. It’s especially pretty at night with a series of small waterfalls and stunning blue lighting. The other pool is a small infinity pool up the hill next to Carmichael’s, with great views of the coast.
As I mentioned, there are four rooms in each unit. The bottom units have a good-sized verandah and a plunge pool. The upper units, like mine, have HUGE verandahs that are probably 150 square feet, with lovely wood railings you can see through for better views and air circulation.
The rooms are lovely; dark wood and four-poster beds and pretty paintings of sugar cane. The bathrooms are quite large, with great showers, and there’s also a coffee maker and mini-fridge. And air conditioning, which I rarely use.
The food is quite good and most of the servers are excellent. At Carmichael’s I had tasty scallops wrapped in prosciutto and a lovely mahi mahi in tomato broth with lemongrass and chilies. The food at Sugar Club is good, but I wouldn’t call it great. The coconut jerk chicken needs more spice and better presentation, and the breakfast lineup on the three days I was here was rather short on the sort of tropical fruits northerners like to have when in the Caribbean.
The servers are mostly excellent; friendly and chatty and lots of fun. But not all of them. On my first day, I stopped my server at breakfast.
“Sorry, a couple things if I could,” I said.
I then asked for crème for my coffee. That was request number one.
“We don’t have any,” the server said, blankly. No apology. Just, we don’t have any.
He then pointed at some Sweet and Low packets on the table. “You could use this,” he said. And then walked away.
First of all, Sweet and Low is NOT crème. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Secondly, a server should at least say, “Sorry, there’s no crème.” Thirdly, they don’t walk away when you’ve asked for two things and they only got one question.
He finally came back by and I asked for some jam for my toast, which he brought. And I asked for a cappuccino, which was pretty decent. I since discovered the café latte is much more to my liking.
It’s not criminal, but I think folks paying a good amount of money for a hotel room deserve better service. Thankfully, everyone else here is terrific; friendly and helpful and kind and generous and sweet. So I shouldn’t make too much out of one person.
At dinner on my last night, I was busy typing out something on Twitter and my server, a lovely young local woman, walked by. “You better eat your soup before it gets cold,” she said with a laugh, patting me on the back.
Other folks have been just as kind, and the maitre ‘d, David, is a great guy.
I also have to single out the spa, apparently the only Aveda Spa on Antigua. I had one of the best massages of my life, complete with aromatherapy.
The woman at the spa took me to my room, and I found a series of cards on the bed, with words like “wisdom,” “serenity” and “harmony.” I was told to pick three, so I chose wisdom (not because I have it but because I need it) and a couple others that I now forget. She then had me close my eyes and waved three types of jars under my nose so I could pick my aroma for the day.
I wisely chose wisdom, which I was told had frankincense in it. Perfect for Christmas!!
If you don’t mind being set back a bit from the beach, it’s a lovely resort with gorgeous flowers and nice views and mostly excellent staff.
NEXT: The remarkable yachts at the Charter Yacht Show in Falmouth, plus Shirley Heights and more Antigua…