ANTIGUA – I was clearly out of my league.
It was my second day in Antigua, and I was on a driving tour of the south side of the island. I’d heard something about a yacht show in Falmouth harbour, but wasn’t quite prepared for what I found.
I pulled my Toyota SUV into a parking area and walked towards a gate leading to the main harbour, where I was confronted by around 100 gleaming, white, monstrous (mostly) charter yachts.
I had stumbled on the annual Antigua charter yacht show, held here in part because of the incredibly zig-zaggy protected harbours; the same ones that drew British naval hero Horatio Nelson here back in the day.
It was a pretty remarkable sight, so I just kinda walked out on the pier and started chatting with a guy wearing a white polo shirt with the word “Natita” on it and who looked like he belonged.
“There are something like 250 boats here for the show,” he told me. “They’re all available for some kind of charter, and they range from 50 feet to 250.”
I immediately started taking photos. After maybe two minutes, a woman came up and tapped me on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, do you have a pass?”
Maybe it was the casual shorts and sandals and the “ dark blue t-shirt with a picture of a moon on it from a cheap Napa Valley, California taco shop that gave me away. Maybe it was my deodorant. I’ll never know. But, clearly, quick thinking was in order.
I whipped out my travel writer business card.
“The guys at the front said it was okay,” I said, lying through my teeth.
She paused. The moment of (non) truth.
Five seconds later I was standing in front of a gorgeous, three-hull, massive Clipper ship called the Stad Amsterdam, with the carving of a half-naked lady on the bow and beautiful, intricate wood showing off all around.
I explained to the folks on the dock what I was doing, and they quickly escorted me up a ramp and onto the boat, where I met one of the marketing/public relations people.
Sensing some free publicity in Canada, she offered to give me a tour.
It’s a working ship that’s partly owned by the Amsterdam city government, and they do public events and charters and also take folks on sailing voyages where they can literally learn the ropes, as well as man the steering wheel.
There’s room for about 28 to 32 folks in small cabins with folding beds that tuck up into the wall during the day for more space. It’s not terribly roomy, but the dining room is lovely and the food and drink is said to be first-class.
As great as the yachts were to see, it was a trip to Shirley Heights that I was really after. There’s a legendary party held there at sunset every Sunday night. Alas, it was raining on Sunday when I was there and there seemed little point in making the 40-minute trip from my hotel and back. So I saved the trip for Monday, when it was glorious and clear.
If you drive up Falmouth, you pay a small park fee and can watch a video on Lord Nelson and such. I didn’t have time, but I did drive up the hill to where some of the old military buildings were located. It was so windy that my hat blew off, but the views of the rugged coast were amazing; big, black cliffs and foaming white surf.
A couple minutes away is the lookout at Shirley Heights, which took my breath away. It might be the best view in the Caribbean and should rank in the top 10 in the world, as least from what I’ve seen.
You gaze down at a jigsaw-puzzle of an island; all jagged bays and rumpled, green hills flanking ribbons of blue and aquamarine sea, with brilliant white yachts floating in the bays as if in a dream. To top it all off, someone has thoughtfully planted brilliant pink and purple bougainvillea near the lookout, which helps you frame your photos with another ridiculous splash of colour.
When I was there, there was a group of ladies selling jewelry and knick-knacks. As I snapped away with my camera, one lady wandered off into a picnic area and quietly sang “Away in a Manger” in a high-pitched, wobbly voice. She wasn’t a great singer, but the image of this lady singing about baby Jesus as I looked out on this impossibly beautiful scene is something I’ll remember a long time. I hope so, anyway.
I had hoped to check out Half Moon Bay, which I heard was beautiful. But there are almost no road signs in Antigua, at least none you can read. Every once in a while you’ll find a towering green sign with white letters, but more often than not the letters have faded and you can’t read the sign. Which kinda defeats the purpose.
I was too cheap to turn on the GPS on my phone for fear of Rogers roaming costs and my tourist map was the usual bit of ridiculousness with a poor sense of scale and not nearly enough information. Which is a long way of saying that I missed Half Moon Bay.
I did, however, manage to stop at Turner’s Beach Bar on the way back to my hotel and had a decent lunch of conch fritters and crab cakes (about 10 small, football-shaped crab cakes for $11, I think; a pretty good deal).
The next day I managed to get into the town of St. John’s for a couple hours. A Royal Caribbean ship was in dock and I had little interest in checking out the tourist traps on Heritage Quay. Instead, I wandered down the street and admired the green oranges and roasted corn that was for sale, then hit the town’s museum. It’s a cute, small museum that’s in the former courthouse, and they do a good job of explaining local history; with displays on ancient pottery, poison arrows and, of course, pirates. There’s also a statue of local cricket hero Sir Vivian Richards.
The St. John’s Cathedral is undergoing renovations and is closed, but I wandered through the cemetery for a bit and snapped a photo of the cathedral towers before retreating out of the heat.
I’ll write about this place later in Star Travel, but if you’re down around Sugar Ridge you should check out Fish Stop, a fish and chips place on the side of the road across from the resort. It’s run by a fellow from Austria and his Hungarian wife, and they’ve got a bright red, 1959 British double decker bus where you can sit inside and eat your fish and chips and mushy peas. Thousands of folks have scrawled their names and messages on the walls and ceiling, and it’s a fun spot with pretty decent food.
If you’d rather have pizza, Perry’s Pizza is right next door and is popular with families and locals alike. Perry looks like the Antiguan version of Owen Wilson, with blonde-brown, scraggly locks and a big smile. Pretty good pizza and cold beer never hurts on a warm day in the Caribbean, either.
FERRY SERVICE RESUMING BETWEEN NOVA SCOTIA AND MAINE
I got this press release the other day, which is worth passing along for folks planning a trip to Nova Scotia this summer. And you should plan one; it’s a fabulous province with great food, wonderful people and spectacular scenery. Here’s the release:
Travellers between Nova Scotia and New England will be able to relax and enjoy their journey aboard the Nova Star at a starting price of $79 USD when Nova Star Cruises launches daily, round-trip cruise ferry service between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and Portland, Maine in May 2014.
One-way fares for the nine-hour cruise aboard the brand new, 161-metre cruise ferry, Nova Star, will range from $79 to $129 for adults and $39 to $64 for children five to 12 years of age, depending on the date of travel. Children under the age of five will travel free all season long.
“Your vacation begins when you step aboard Nova Star,” said Owen John, vice president, sales & marketing, Nova Star Cruises. “Suddenly, the journey becomes fun. You don’t need to wonder where you’re going to stop for gas or to use the bathroom, get food or find a place to sleep. Nova Star will give passengers more options for entertainment and relaxation than you can get on other forms of transportation, and all at an affordable price.”
With a casino, three restaurants, including fine dining and a sumptuous buffet, a theater and conference center for live entertainment, plus a spa, art gallery, children’s play area and more, Nova Star will provide a wealth of onboard amenities for passengers to enjoy during the voyage.
When it comes time to rest, passengers can relax in the comfort of an assigned recliner seat, from $19 to $39 per chair, or a private cabin that can accommodate up to four travelers, starting at $49 in the saver season and $89 during the summer season between June 12 and September 8.
Passengers can walk onboard the Nova Star, or bring their own transportation, at rates from $129 to $179 for autos, $49 to $89 for motorcycles, and $16 to $22 for bicycles, depending on the season.
There’s lots more information to be found on their website.
NEXT UP: THE UTTERLY INCREDIBLE RESORT AT HERMITAGE BAY IN ANTIGUA