The Muddy Guide to Antigua
I escaped the snow in February for Antigua's sun (haha!). Cue my Insider Guide on where to stay, drink, eat and lay your Caribbean beach towel.
I don’t know much but one thing I can say with certainty – Antigua was a lot more fun than Britain in February! While Mr Muddy Stilettos struggled with a job, three children, Arctic snow and a broken boiler for 11 days, I was getting plastered with my mother by the beach on what has become our annual Caribbean escape. I’m trying to dig up some guilt here… er, nope, sorry, I’m just not feeling it!
One area I’m planning to offer readers more insight into this year is our steer on the best overseas travel – as always from personal experience – so let’s start with a tip for a great place to stay on this beautiful island, shall we?
For serious turquoise waters and beach-age, may I recommend COCOS Hotel on the west of the island (roughly 20 mins from capital St Johns and 40 mins from the airport)? Just check out this view from the restaurant – not sure life gets much better than this!
It takes around 40 minutes to get to the hotel from the airport, on the more sheltered West coast (Caribbean rather than Atlantic seas). Close to Jolly Harbour, it boasts a spectacular location, flanked by two of the prettiest beaches on the island in Jolly Beach and Valley Church Beach (below) – no mean feat when there are 365 to choose from.
There are lovely touches at this resort like the outdoor library – so pretty it’s an instagrammer’s dream (yes I have!)…
… and the reception area that feels deliberately low key, with the small wooden building leading you on to a winding path until paradise opens up behind it.
The dining at COCOS is another big plus. I ate at quite a few places on the island but this was the best by a long shot. It’s a proper foodie haunt – you can see that from the images I took below – and it was here I tried conch for the first time in the most awesome Jerk sauce before moving onto a coconut Caribbean fish ceviche (seriously amazing) …
… and then the local catch of the day.
The resort winds up around a dramatic cliff with the views to match, and with beautifully kept grounds and vibrantly painted cottage rooms.
There are gradations of price, room type and views as you’d expect. If you make it to the top of the resort, you’ll be grabbing a Sunset Cottage with a private plunge pool and large verandah.
Although frankly there’s nothing to moan about with a room with a ‘Standard View’ either – check out the vista below. I’d put up with this for a while, wouldn’t you?
One thing to mention is that COCOS is a couples-only resort so definitely one for those who don’t want children dive-bombing into the pool. But if you do have kids in tow, Carlisle Bay in the South of the Island is a great bet – and I’ve just clocked that there’s 40% off at the mo!!
Alternatively there’s the 17 acre tropical loveliness of Blue Waters overlooking Soldiers Bay (4 pools, 18 hole golf course, and a whopper spa) for families and couples in the North of Antigua, and you’re literally a 20 minute drive from the airport which is handy for little ones.
Whichever resort you choose, accompany it a large rum, and with my brand new Insider Tips below on the best places to try on this gorgeous island.
THE MUDDY INSIDER GUIDE TO ANTIGUA
- THE BEST BEACHES
One of the loveliest things about Antigua is that all 365 beaches are public, so even next to exclusive hotels the locals aren’t locked out of their own coastline – you’ll see Antiguan families rocking up on a weekend or after work to enjoy the sea and sand. To choose one beach over another is like asking which diamond you prefer, but good starting points are Long Bay (the proximity to the reef offers good snorkeling; Ffrye’s Bay, Darkwood Beach and Crab Hill Bay/Johnson’s Point, all in the south west; and Jolly Beach, with a white sweep of beach, safe bathing, and kayak, pedalo and scuba trips available, plus the marina complex next door for a spot of gawping.
2. SPEND A MORNING IN ST JOHN’S
Avoid the port itself with its garish international jewellery stores and cruise ships, and steer off instead to Redcliffe Quay (above) – more attractive, slightly quieter and with a better range of shopping and eating opportunities. The Museum of Antigua and Barbuda is worth a dip into, home to archeological exhibits, artifacts from the country’s colonial period and displays on Antiguan culture and history, but otherwise it’s more of a mooch around kind of place and you’ll be ready for your sun lounger after lunch.
3. EAT OUT
Catherine’s Café Plage on Pigeon Point is excellent if you’re looking for a more formal gastronomic day to end a day at the beach. Robert de Niro is a fan of Papa Zouk Fish ‘N’ Rum, a restaurant/rum bar in an unassuming suburb of St John’s – there are over 250 rums from the Caribbean and the world waiting to give you the hangover of your life. Fish is fresh on the day and the vibe is informal and fun. For fine dining try the largely French menu of Le Bistro north of St John’s (ask for a verandah seat). . Otherwise, check out Dennis’s Cocktail Bar and Restaurant above Little Ffrye’s Bay in the south-west (not far from COCOS)- classic Caribbean food that’s popular with the locals with reggae music and a bar on the beach below.
4. WHAT’S ON?
If you like more to your Caribbean holiday than simply white sands and rum punch, think about tying in your holiday with an island event. Plan your next triathlon (*splutter*) for next Feb/March with the Antigua Tinman Tri (Olympic and spring options), or in late May there’s a half marathon, 10km and 5km races. Antigua Festival is held form late July into August – 10 days of steel band music, street dances, parades and parties – and is always held over the anniversary of the emancipation from slavery and you can actually pay to join a group, wear a costume and twerk like your life depends on it. The Antigua and Barbuda Independence Festival is held on 1 Nov to celebrate the islands’ 1981 independence – its a public event with parades, fetes and music, and free to spectators. If you’re planning for 2019 it’s worth tying in a trip with Antigua Sailing Week (late April) for parties galore and beautiful sights on the seas.
5. HIRE SOME WHEELS
Hotels can get you to the tourist attractions but if you’re like me, you’ll want to zip around doing your own thing a bit too. Public transport links won’t always get you to the more remote beaches and destinations so this is the best way to get your ‘must-see list’ sorted and pootle around at leisure.
6. DON’T FORGET BARBUDA
Hurricane Irma hit Antigua’s sister island Barbuda last September and when I visited Antigua hundreds of Barbudan families were still displaced here. It will take years to properly rebuild, but with the likes of Robert de Niro pledging money (his Nobu hotel out there was destroyed) this undeveloped paradise of 1500 people is worth keeping an eye on. Only 30 miles south of Antigua, you can take a day trip there. tropicalad.com
7. TOURIST HIGHLIGHTS
Nelson’s Dockyard, English Harbour
Remarkably this elegant naval dockyard, at one time Britain’s main naval base in the north-eastern Caribbean and now the only continuously working Georgian dockyard in the world, was once one of the most heavily defended places on the planet. Nelson once served here (famously calling Antigua and ‘infernal hole’ – er Horatio, better rub those eyes), and it was given World Heritage status by UNESCO in 2016. Well worth a visit.
Shirley Heights for a sunset drink
This is a real institution – missing it is kind of like refusing to visit Big Ben or climb the Eiffel Tower. Every Sunday there’s a massive BBQ at the Shirley Heights fortification above English Harbour with steel bands, food and amazing views around the south of the island – it’s been running for 50 years and is a must.
Rainforest canopy tour
If you have kids or are getting a bit stir-crazy on the beach, you might want to visit this zip-wire forest park to the south west of the island. There are suspended walkways, tree houses and a café at the end.
Want to compare Antigua to other possible Caribbean choices?
Hey, I can help you with that too! Check out my Insider’s Caribbean Travel Guide in association with Turquoise Holidays – it gives you all the info you need on the best places for family holidays, honeymoons, awkward teens and a whole range of other variables.