ST. JOHNS, ANTIGUA - “It’s going to be chaos today” Sean remarked as he picked us for our full day tour. “With three cruise ships in port it’s going to be real busy.”
Not exactly what one wants to hear as we embarked for a private, six hour tour of the beautiful island of Antigua. With the average cruise ship holding over 2,000 guests, we were looking at an unlikely but potential 6,000 people wanting to see the key sights of Antigua on the same day. All I could think of was cattle banging up against each other in pens; I hoped I wasn’t to rue this day.
However, Sean assured us that we had no worries, and he would use his experience and island wisdom to ensure we were navigating the sights with the specific goal of avoiding the “cattle buses” as they’re known. We were still not confident this would be the case, but off we went regardless.
As we left the bustling capital of St. Johns we were immediately taken by the openness and candor of Sean. “My life is an open book” he states. “Ask me anything about myself or the island.”
So throughout the day we do just that, and Sean artfully mixes in island facts and history with touches of his own tales and experiences, and answers our personal questions just as easily as he does island ones. A good looking native Antiguan, Sean is decked out in a fuchsia Antigua VIP Tours shirt and looking most professional, getting smiles and nods from local men and women alike.
We start by heading to the local hospital which is situated high above St. Johns. This gives us perspective overlooking town itself as Sean shows us the direction we’ll be heading and explains our itinerary to see the most famous and popular sights on the island.
Back in the car again, amongst the facts we learn is that Sean is dyslexic. Yet here he is running his successful tour firm. As a child he understandably had issues at school, before he was diagnosed correctly. Later in life he did a stint in the Antiguan military, and tells us with an impish grin and a sparkle in his eyes how he passed the entrance exams by telling the examiner that he forgot his glasses and couldn’t read the exam — so she took pity on this poor boy and read him the questions, leading him to ace the entrance exam. He learned a lot of tough lessons in his past and is clever enough to know that being successful at his business today depends on him keeping his customers happy and delivering superlative service. To that end, he has both standard tours and custom tours . . . you can see exactly what you want. As Sean says, his role is to “Be of Service”, and he is exactly that.
Left: Sean the guide has his own story to tell. Right: The small pineapple is an Antigua staple.
Betty’s Hope is our next stop, and rightly so as it best illustrates the islands history. En route, Sean tells us that Antigua was a commercial centre for sugarcane, and he hints at the parts of the island history that they are not so proud about: the slave trade that flourished to supply workers for the massive and numerous sugarcane plantations. We arrive to two beautifully restored windmills which centre the museum buildings and associated ruins that were the footprint and foundation of the plantation. To our delight, we are one of only a few cars there. So far, so good.
Inside this must-see for history buffs, we learn that for 250 years Betty’s Hope was a major and prosperous sugar plantation, supplying sugarcane, molasses and rum to Europe. We see the beauty of the site, and at the same time learn tons about island history, culture, sugarcane production, and are educated on the darker side of this industry as well.
Owing to this sweet legacy, Antigua has more windmills per square kilometre than any other Caribbean island, and on our days journey we witness this firsthand, these thimble-like windmills — both restored and in ruins — dot the lush landscape as if dropped by the hand of God.
We visit popular Devils Bridge on the east coast, where the water has eroded the limestone rock away to form a natural bridge and blow-hole that shoots water up in liquid projectile jets as the giant waves crash in. Spectacular, a site in and of itself, the real sideshow is watching the odd tourist like this middle aged man who ventures a little too close for that Kodak moment and gets drenched when the blowhole lets go. Mother Nature seems to know just when to act, and so did his wife who caught it all on camera. Treacherously slippery, we take a pass on crossing and spend our time watching the sea and spray show.
Again, few tourists - Sean tells us he takes his own route so we avoid the masses in the crowded buses.
Off the beaten path, and a site we specifically asked to see, the Pillars of Hercules are ruggedly beautiful and almost otherworldly in appearance. Typically seen from kayaks or canoes oceanside, we tackle the difficult land access route by foot through brush and trees, 30 minutes later coming to the end of land where Sean tells me we now have duck down and go under part of the cliff, where the water has eroded away the land over time, to get to the other side; but to do that we have to time it “between the waves” to try and stay dry (so much for playing it safe at Devils Bridge, I lament).
Sean counts the waves, slowly, to time the lull best. Once. Twice. Three times; and then determines that we go after the seventh wave. Carrying 12 kg of camera gear, I place my trust in Sean.
Above: The lovely views one gets when you scale the tallest peaks is beautiful.
Successful in crossing (unsuccessful is staying completely dry) we then make our way further jumping from one to another giant ‘stepping stones’ in order to get around a rocky outcrop and, finally, see the Pillars from that position. Oddly enough, this was the ‘land access’ to The Pillars, but we’re not ‘on land’ any more as we stand on a mere two-metre wide lily-pad of a boulder 10 metres out in the ocean. Sean uses his body as a splash guard to protect my camera setup as I take my ‘money shot.’
Other than one dive boat nearby, we were completely alone and in awe of the majesty of this prehistoric landscape.
Surviving that experience; Shirley’s Heights, at 492 feet above sea level, was a nice, more relaxing, respite. Offering spectacular views of the island from one of the highest vistas we see the confetti of sailing ships all around the island, their pure whiteness effervescent in the tropical glow of blue ocean, under a reflective canopy of deep blue sky with white, cotton ball clouds.
These postcard vistas include Monserrat and the island Guadeloupe, seen behind the lower harbour dotted with an endless array of sailboats lazily awaiting their next adventure. The Shirley Heights Lookout Bar & Restaurant is the perfect place to enjoy a cooling drink and soak in the sun and sights.
From here Sean also points out Eric Clapton’s house which could easily be a 5- Star resort, and he schools us on Clapton’s island efforts with a drug rehab centre that he built and funded, which we later see.
On our way around the island, we get up close and personal with local vendors and get to try the islands infamous Black Pineapples (a not-really-black, smaller, lusciously sweet cousin of the fruit you buy at your local grocery store) and bagged sugar cane.
Sean has made reservations at a local restaurant, the CarIbbean Taste, “an exotic native restaurant” where we are the only diners for an authentic home cooked island meal of salted cod and a goat curry. Both excellent.
Next we see Nelson’s Dockyard, where visiting well-to-do’s dock their yachts and come to wine, dine, shop and play. Keeping the character of the original installation and buildings, this is a beautifully restored destination that has a little of everything for everyone, from history to culture to arts, crafts and Cafés overlooking the marina, and is not to be missed. Home and headquarters from 1784 to 1787 for Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, this site houses several Nelsonian artifacts such as his personal telescope in the Dockyard Museum.
Before heading back to our boat, as our last stop to complete our tour, we visit one of Antigua’s 365 beautiful beaches, Pigeon Point.
“This is one of the only beaches you’ll find where locals, tourists and yacht owners all come together” points out Sean. “It’s part of a protected national park and offers outstanding views of the mountains”.
As our day in paradise was coming to an end, we couldn’t have agreed more, chillin’ in the warm silky water.