If you’re like a lot of people in the U.S. and around the world, you may not have any idea where Antigua is, let alone how to pronounce its name. The tiny island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, a two-island state, is part of the Leeward Islands nestled in the West Indies. The former British colony gained its independence in 1981, which seems impossible when you see how smoothly things are going there. Speaking to my tour guide, I asked her if she remembered the revolution. “It wasn’t much of a revolution,” she said. “Oh, so it wasn’t dramatic or anything? No bloodshed?” I asked. She threw her head back, shaking with laughter. “Oh, dear,” she said. “Nothing is dramatic in Antigua.”
That’s pronounced “an-tee-guh,” by the way, not “an-tee-gwa,” as you probably find yourself saying. With 85,000 people nestled on the island and about 1,500 residents on neighboring Barbuda, Antigua is the hub of this island nation. And indeed, nothing is dramatic here. Well, except its history, of course, and its beauty. And the emotion in its music and the extreme friendliness of the people and stingrays alike, but we’ll get there in a moment.
I arrived in Antigua on Friday, May 27 as a guest of the Run in Paradise Half Marathon and 5k and the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority. Having visited several islands in the Caribbean so far, I know enough now to know that they’re all quite different and have their own personalities. I couldn’t wait to find out what Antigua’s personality is!
I was greeted at the airport by the race director himself, a jovial, passionate man who is an Antiguan native. Stanley welcomed me with a warm smile, and as I stood there feeling rather self-important – I mean the race director himself had just greeted me at the airport – I learned something that made me truly amazed. Stanley greets every single international runner at the airport and welcomes them with that same warmth and enthusiasm, thanking them for coming to his race! Everyone is a VIP at the Run in Paradise.
Before we even made it to the hotel, we stopped at a roadside stand to grab some grilled corn! Grilled corn is a big deal on the island, and there are tons of stands along the roads selling everything from fresh fruit to sandwiches and corn. My tour guide, Cleo, knew the best one, of course!
As I arrived at the Antigua Yacht Club and Marina Resort, I was wowed by the spacious room, lux touches, and spectacular view. My room (number 42 – ask for it!) was the highest on the hill and had an unbelievable view of the English Harbour. The spacious balcony caught the breeze and, beautiful though the room was, I knew I wouldn’t want to spend much time in it once I saw what the island itself looked like.
The first order of business was to head to lunch. Renee and her friends, Paula and Ted, joined Cleo, and I at South Point Restaurant. I have to say that eating is one of the most stressful parts of traveling for me because of how violently my body reacts to gluten – exposure to it in even the smallest form can ruin several days. The Tourism Authority had let South Point know that I adhere to a very strict gluten-free diet, though, and they were happy to help – even purchasing gluten-free bread just for me!
I had a couple of hours before dinner, so I made my way down to the nearby beach with Renee, the race director’s daughter! She lives in Miami and had brought two of her friends to the race as well. We went to Pigeon’s Point Beach, which was just a short walk from our hotel and absolutely stunning!
After a short trip to the beach and some work back in my room, it was time to head to Fish Friday at Nelson’s Dockyard. Each week, locals and tourists alike gather at Dockyard to enjoy fresh grilled and fried seafood and barbecue. Because I visited during the offseason, the majority of the people at the event were locals out to enjoy the ocean breeze, live music, and the stars. My grilled shrimp was excellent, and I received more side dishes than I hypothetically knew what to do with; of course, I ate them all. I had a busy day the next day and needed to rest up!
I woke up bright and early the next morning to head to breakfast at South Point before leaving for Stingray City at 8 am. I had the privilege of having two guides for the day: Cleo and Francine, from the Tourism Authority! Francine had been responsible for planning my itinerary, and the three of us got along famously. We chatted about everything under the sun and I learned so much about Antiguan culture from them. I was so excited when I saw Stingray City on my itinerary, and I immediately told AJ I’d be swimming with the stingrays. “EXCUSE ME?” he said. “Um, hello? Have you ever heard of Steve Irwin? STINGRAYS KILLED STEVE IRWIN. What is wrong with you?”
Well, luckily for me, AJ, and the thousands of tourists that swim with the stingrays in Antigua each year, these aren’t those kind of stingrays. They’re Southern Stingrays and, like everyone else in Antigua, these stingrays are warm, friendly, and welcoming. A quick boat ride off the shore and you find yourself in a shallow oasis of crystal clear blue water, staring straight down at your toes in the sand. Those stingrays know what’s up – as soon as the boat heads their way, it’s feeding time! They swim over faster than you can shake a stick and are happy to be held, petted, and caressed – and fed, of course!
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to have these massive animals swimming around you, and based on what we hear about stingrays, I understand why it could be scary to some people. But there’s no reason to worry! In the 15 years Stingray City Antigua has been in operation, no one has ever been hurt by the animals. One of the guides explained that in order to actually get “stung,” you’d have to step on or collide directly with the barb of the ray. Contrary to popular belief, these are not at the end of the stingray’s tails (for Southern Rays, at least), but actually more towards where the tail meets the body of the animal. Suffice to say, there’s no reason to worry, and I had a blast letting the gentle rays suck the squid right out of my hands, float past me, and rest in my arms! After setting off from Stingray City (with a cup of very potent complimentary rum punch, I might add) I was off to Devil’s Bridge and Betty’s Hope Plantation to learn some of the history of the island.
When they say there’s nothing dramatic about Antigua, they’re not talking about the history. Originally inhabited by Arawak Indians, Antigua was colonized by the British and became a major part of the slave trade. The island served as a hub for slaves being transported from Africa, and more than 170 plantations once covered its 108 square miles. Sugar was the major export on the island for hundreds of years, and the British profited tremendously from slave labor. At one point, more than 85% of the island’s population was enslaved Africans! It’s no surprise, then, that many of the island’s historic sites tie in both British colonial history and the somber story of slavery.
The natural wonder, Devil’s Bridge, is found on the northeastern part of the island on the Atlantic side. The waves, current, and waters are extremely rough on this part of the island and crash into the stone cliffs relentlessly, which has formed a natural stone bridge. As beautiful and stark as the site is, though, it has a dark history. Here, Africans who had escaped slavery committed suicide by leaping into the swirling waters below; after finally gaining freedom, they realized they were trapped on an island and had nowhere else to go and no hope. That’s where the bridge got its name. I took a moment to take in the somber atmosphere and appreciate the beauty and the history, and then it was time to head to Betty’s Hope Plantation.
Betty’s Hope is one of the best-preserved sugar plantations on Antigua. At its peak, more than 400 slaves worked the fields, the two sugar mills, and in the homes on the property. Antigua is home to more windmill sugar mills than any other Caribbean island, and the two at Betty’s Hope are one of the hallmarks of the island. A small museum on the grounds offers a glimpse into the history of the plantation and a glimpse into the daily lives of the slaves, and visitors can actually enter the sugar mill to get a feel for the massive scope of the labor effort. Preservation and restoration efforts at the site are ongoing, so future visitors to Antigua can expect to gain an even better glimpse of life on a colonial plantation.
After lunch and visiting the plantation, it was time for packet pickup! Packet pickup was in the main town of St. John’s at the Antigua Recreation Center, and it was a small, informal affair. Each bag had been specifically prepared for each runner and pre-stuffed with their shirts and small favors, like jam and hot sauce, that is local to the island! It was definitely a unique touch that I really appreciated. The committee is certainly dedicated to helping visitors get to know the island!
On a tip from one of the other foreign runners, I headed to Cloggy’s at the end of the day for a pre-dinner drink. “Make whatever you want, as long as its gluten-free and strong,” I told the bartender. They delivered! This bar overlooking the English Harbour has a cozy atmosphere that feels like a cross between a British Pub and a Caribbean café, and the drinks are fantastic. I’m told the food is even better, but I didn’t have a chance to check that out for myself because I was about to head to dinner at Trappas! If it seems like half of what I did on this trip is eat and drink, then you’d be correct.
This renowned restaurant near the English Harbour has a rotating, fixed-price menu. All of the appetizers at Trappas are the same price, as are all of the entrees – just pick from the list! Choices range from traditional Caribbean fare to housemade hummus and pitas and burgers and wings. I got the West Indian Chicken Curry, which set my taste buds alight – they don’t play when it comes to spices in the Caribbean! The restaurants is small, so reservations are recommended during the season (October – mid May).
As the night wound to a close, I said goodbye to Cleo and Francine after a fabulous day. I only had 6 hours until I had to be up for the race! Oops!