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Rolling in the isles: A spin around Antigua

A drive around Antigua reveals the rich history and culture of an island that has more than just beaches and duty-free shopping to offer. Words and pictures by Mark Footer

 

“Don’t forget your passport and airline ticket,” says a resort staff member as I set out for St John’s, on the West Indian island of Antigua. “For the duty-free shopping,” he answers my quizzical look. “The discounts can be quite substantial.”

Trevor the taxi driver is obviously thinking the same thing. After a short trip in which he barely stops talking to draw breath (he subscribes to the theory that Christopher Columbus, who arrived here in 1493, named the island as he did because it was “anti agua”: without water), he drops me off outside Heritage Quay, a parade of upmarket shops that are targeted mainly at the passengers of the cruise ships that tie up alongside.

I take a peek through the archway entrance and see a Rolex store and a place selling Colombian emeralds, but I have not come here to shop. Nor have I come to lie on a beach, even though, as any Antiguan can – and will, given half a chance – tell you, the island has one for every day of the year.

 

ST JOHN’S IS THE capital of Antigua and Barbuda, a country of 90,000 or so people that consists of the two islands, which are 48 kilometres apart. The English settled Antigua in 1632 and began bringing in slaves to work the sugar plantations that covered it in the 1680s.

Slavery was abolished in 1834 and on November 1, 1981, Antigua and Barbuda gained independence, with Sir Vere Cornwall Bird, the second favourite local hero, becoming prime minister.

It is the middle of a Saturday afternoon and on Redcliffe Street, round the corner from Heritage Quay, sound systems are duelling and some serious booty is being shaken. Young men stand around looking as cool as they can in the waning heat and the traffic backs up while pleasantries and exaggerated hand gestures are exchanged through open car windows. The small town is bustling now, but by 4.30pm, the shops will be shut, the sound systems – many just speakers placed out on the pavement, outside stores – will have been silenced and St John’s will suddenly be as quiet as the graveyard at the top of the town.

Built in 1845 to replace incarnations destroyed in earthquakes, St John’s Cathedral has seen better days. It is being restored, but the cemetery surrounding it tells a few stories. Here lie George Beare, “late collector of Her Majesty’s customs”, who died on July 31, 1837, and would have been more His Majesty’s (William IV) than Hers (Victoria, who ascended to the British throne in June of that year); Elizabeth Bendall and her husband, the “late collecter” (sic) Hopefor, who died in 1724 and 1728, respectively; and some dreadlocked men who appear to have made their homes among the tombs.

To see the rest of the 281 square kilometre island, I climb into the Land Rover of another Trevor, a driver who conducts “safaris” for a company called Tropical Adventures. Antigua’s main industry is tourism, so, like his namesake, this Trevor is a font of information about the island.

“You will definitely see a mongoose or two, running across the road,” he assures me. I’m not entirely sure what a mongoose is - they do not roam Sai Kung Country Park - but Trevor Two tells me they were imported to control rats, failed miserably but bred enthusiastically and now tend to have rabies. Something to look forward to, then.

First things first, though: Trevor takes his time driving around the Sir Vivian Richards cricket stadium, named after the nation’s favourite local hero and built with Chinese money.

That Richards is a legend here is in no doubt – Trevor will later stop for quite some time to gaze up at a mobile-phone billboard bearing the cricketer’s face, and offer to take me to see the St John’s house in which King Viv was born – but the stadium hasn’t fared so well. In 2009, a match here between the West Indies and England had to be abandoned after only 10 balls because too much sand in the outfield made play dangerous. The stadium was thereafter nicknamed “Antigua’s 366th beach”.

Richards wouldn’t have to hit many sixes in a straight line from the stadium to reach Betty’s Hope. There’s not a lot of the sugar plantation, established in 1650, left – the fields of cane have long gone and the great house and the manager’s quarters are little more than rubble – but here you find the only windmill with its blades still in place on the island.

Antigua is dotted with the stone towers of old sugar mills, but all the others have long since lost their sails and the contraptions they drove.

As we inspect the mechanism within the mill, Trevor explains how there would always have been a hatchet man standing next to the machinery, to lop off the hand of any slave whose attention wavered long enough for it to be dragged into the metal sugar-cane crushers.

It is a little uncomfortable to listen to a descendant of a slave (I assume that he is, anyway; that is one question I am not going to ask) go into detail about the abuses meted out by my countrymen several hundred years ago. It is not something Antiguans appear to dwell on, though, and as we continue our tour, we pass through many villages named after long-departed plantation owners, such as Piggotts, Willikies and Glanvilles.

Nelson’s Dockyard is a place an Englishman can, perhaps, be proud of.

Named after Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was stationed here between 1784 and 1787, the compound – a cluster of yacht outfitters, craft stores, restaurants, hotels and a museum – is on the natural English Harbour and surrounded by the Nelson’s Dockyard National Park. By 1704, the harbour was in regular use by British ships and in 1728 the first dockyard was built. Many of the buildings that have been restored and are in use today were constructed between 1785 and 1794.

Now used mainly by yachties – the place is a hive of activity during Antigua Sailing Week (the next of which will take place between April 26 and May 2) – this is the world’s only Georgian-era dockyard still in operation.

The beaches on the southwest of the island offer views of Montserrat. Standing on Turner’s Beach looking at the hulking outline of the neighbouring island, it’s difficult not to wonder what the view from here must have been like between July 1995 and 97, when the Soufriere Hills volcano came alive, destroying Plymouth, Montserrat’s capital, and sending much of the population fleeing, never to return.

There have been further fireworks since.

The view inland is dominated by Mount Obama, Antigua’s highest peak.

The United States president must have been chuffed in 2009 to learn that a landmark he had never visited and that was previously known as Boggy Peak had been renamed in his honour.

The road back to St John’s is one of the island’s better ones – resurfacing begins on others only when an election is looming (as one is now), says Trevor, but is forgotten again once voting has finished – and we are back in the capital in a matter of minutes.

To Trevor’s lasting surprise, we didn’t see a mongoose, but there was still more than enough to Antigua to have warranted a break from the beach and upmarket shops of St John’s.

 

Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, from where American Airlines (www.aa.com) has a daily service to Antigua’s VC Bird International Airport.

 

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