Antigua is unquestionably one of the world's great beach destinations, but there are plenty of options beyond sun, sand and a succession of cocktails. From steel bands and stingrays to trying your hand at sailing, it's possible to plot out an alternative Antiguan adventure.
Travel writer David Whitley has written for the Sunday Times, Sydney Morning Herald and the Boston Globe. He's also explored a lot of Antigua and Barbuda. Below, he takes us beyond the beach...
Fondle a stingray
Stingrays have had a bit of a bad press since the untimely demise of Steve Irwin, but the chaps at Stingray City are determined to prove that the flattened sea monsters are cute and loveable. In their two hour trip from the village of Seatons in the east of the island, the boat heads out to a reef-lined natural pool that is brimming with rays. Visitors get to jump in with snorkelling gear on, give them a cuddle and pose for a photo. There’s also the chance to feed them, and the handlers are careful to ensure that the barbed spines are well out of harm’s way.
Visit Nelson’s Dockyard
It’s hardly off the beaten track, but Nelson’s Dockyard is Antigua's most revered attraction for a reason. As the name suggests, it dates back to the 18th century and was once under the command of British naval legend Horatio Nelson. Most of the buildings are intact, or have been restored, and they have been turned into hotel rooms, bars and restaurants.
The history is what brings people here, but the setting – it’s surrounded by hills and water – is the reason they make a day of it. It's advisable to skip the tour, which is usually led by someone with the enthusiasm of a man who is about to tuck into boiled rice for the thousandth consecutive evening. The signposting covers much of the ground anyway, while the museum is excellent.
Antigua is a big yachtie destination, and the main event on the calendar is the annual Sailing Week. Some of the trophies on offer at the regatta are amongst the sport's most prestigious, although some people just show up because it's the place to be seen. For those of us who don't have our own yacht and crew to hand, it is possible to learn the ropes with Ondeck. They help total novices to get to grips with the basics and – should they so desire – try out the yacht race experience with a fully trained crew doing the shouting.
Go see the little sister
The 'and Barbuda' part gets left off Antigua and Barbuda most of the time. But the smaller island is worth the trip on a high speed catamaran, if only for the spectacular lagoon that much of Barbuda is formed around. Many come here to ogle birds – it's a major breeding ground and there is a Frigate Bird Sanctuary towards the north of the lagoon. Alternatively, a tour with Barbuda Express includes cave-exploring, plenty of beach time and a lunch of grilled lobster which was caught in the lagoon.
Join the Sunday Session
Forget all that nonsense about it being a day of rest, Sunday on Antigua is all about going up to Shirley Heights, arming yourself with cold drinks from the bar and watching the sun go down. The Sunday evening party has become something of an institution, and the sunset views of English Harbour are unparalleled. It all starts off very touristy with a steel band and barbecue, but gets a more local feel – and becomes more of a party – later on when the reggae groups take the stage and the tour buses start ferrying people home.
Virgin Atlantic operates flights to Antigua from London Gatwick.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.