My family and I recently visited Antigua June 16 to July 2, 2012 and the following is my recollection and incoherent ramblings of that trip. Keep in mind we are not into the all inclusive types of places. We are the self catering type that likes to make our own way and explore the places we visit. Photos of our visit can be found here: https:/…
We rented a SUV from Tropical Rental for the duration of our visit and I would highly recommend them. Tropical greeted us as expected at the airport, despite our United flight being an hour late. In fact, each of the 4 United flights we took an this trip were a hour our more late. My rating for United on this trip is, they suck. The Suzuki Vitara we rented from Tropical was close to being brand new, in great shape and was a good vehicle choice for getting our family of four around the island. Tropical called ahead to Jolly Harbour, our first place we stayed, to let them know we were on the way from the airport. The roads on Antigua are primitive, so I'd highly recommend a vehicle that has some ground clearance and can handle the rough road surfaces. Driving on the island was an experience in itself. I'm a fairly aggressive driver and I enjoy driving high performance sports cars when I'm back home. The locals drive like maniacs and the best approach you can have is watch your mirrors and make sure you keep an eye out for places you can move over to get the hell out of their way. Driving on Antigua requires 100% awareness of what's occurring around you and what could potentially occur. While the family was enjoy the beautiful views I was occupied with people walking down the road and staggering into the road in front of me, drivers cutting me off, taxis passing you on corners and animals roaming free around every corner. Don't let this scare you, since driving on the island became part of my daily entertainment. We managed the 2 week trip with no dents, dings, altercations with locals or tickets. I call that a success.
"Road signs, we don't need to stinking road signs". For an island that has an economy based on tourism, they sure don't make it easy for visitors to find their way around the island. Perhaps the island taxi owners have lobbied the government and encouraged them to NOT mark any of the roads. My advice is to purchase a good road map from an island gas station, not the crappy little ones provided with the rental car. After a few days on the island you get a sense for what roads go where, but upon arrival make darn sure you have a good idea of how to get from the airport to where you are staying. Scouting your route with Google Earth is a good idea. During our visit the price of gas was $5.50 USD per gallon. The good news is the gas prices are set by the government, so no matter where you fill up the price is the same. All of the gas stations accepted USD at a 1 to 2.6 EC exchange rate.
For the first week we stayed at Jolly Harbor unit 225A. This unit was a good value considering the summer weekly rate was only $1,050. JH in general is a little tired, but not unlike any "rustic" beach vacation spot. Is it a perfect 5 star resort, no, but at the asking price for accommodations you need to be realistic with your expectations. The JH beach is a great place to hang out. If you like to snorkel go somewhere else, since the water is too stirred up here. This time of year JH was a ghost town, but we do not like crowds, so it was just fine with us. We had a rental car, so we would drive to the very north end of the main (south) beach, cross one of the vacant house lots and enjoy a nice private beach all to ourselves. The unit we stayed in had been updated at some point, but had a few things that were annoying. The downstairs toilet would not flush unless you held the handle down for the entire cycle, the sliding door to the lower deck took super human strength to open and close and a few other nit picky things that I don't recall now. Given the inexpensive rate for the unit we overlooked these issues.
Security at JH was ever present and we never felt concerned for our safety. The wife and I took evening walks around the complex and down to the beach, only once did I need to tell a local persistent beach bum to "back off", which he did.
The grocery store at JH was stocked with the basics, but don't expect a huge selection. They have an ATM that distributed cash in EC, so getting local "coin" was not a concern. My advice is set up a "vacation" account and get a debit card that you use for your island transactions. I would get online every couple of days with my bank and transfer funds as needed to my vacation ATM card. Once we returned home I canceled the vacation account, so there was no need to worry about fraud.
During the second week we stayed at a privately owned and managed villa on the east coast Non Such Bay area. Villa Vanora is a very laid back remote house. It's a beachfront home and was a great way to spend the last week of our vacation. See my review here for more info: tripadvisor.com/VacationRentalReview-g147242…
Things to do and places to see:
English Harbor. We all enjoyed this. A very nice area with great history. Take the time and hike the trail out to Fort Berkley. Once inside the fort grounds ask for directions to the trail head.
Fort James. North of St John's. What a sad sight this place was. I realize this is an old place, so I expect the buildings to be run down, after all that's why they call it ruins. But the trash strewn about the place was very disappointing. Also, the beach near Fort James looked like the perfect place to be mugged or murdered. A fine example of the government not caring about the places tourist would visit.
Fort Barrington. West of downtown St John's, above Deep Bay on the south mouth of the main harbour. Great views and worth the hike to the fort at the top of the hill. Incredible 360 degree views of the northwest coast.
Cool Cat Catamaran. We booked a 6 hour lunch cruise directly with Wayne and Laura. This trip was the highlight of our visit to Antigua. We departed JH & sailed to Cades reef. This was the best snorkeling of the trip. We were the only boat there and the water conditions were perfect. The coral is starting to come back in this area and lots of other marine life to check out. Wayne and Laura served a great lunch while we were at Cades. After Cades we stopped at Turner beach for another snorkel around the rocks at the south end of the beach. Then we had a nice downwind sail back to JH. We had considered a "cattlemaran" tour around the island with one of the bigger group boats, but opted for a more leisurely and private cruise on Cool Cat. Although it was a little more expensive than the big group tours it was worth every extra penny having a boat to yourself and being able to relax and talk with Wayne and Laura about their time on Antigua. I can't recommend this tour highly enough.
Betty's Hope. Worth the visit, but not all that it could be. Although there was some displays with useful history of the plantations, much of the facility was is a state of disrepair. Also, a tourist facility with no toilets, whats up with that? Again, Antigua government wake the hell up and take some pride in your historic locations.
Devils Bridge. Great vistas of the Atlantic Ocean and worth the drive to witness the power of the sea.
St John's. If you like being accosted by tacky souvenir merchants and the smell of raw sewage, then this is the place for you. Go there to say you've done it, but don't be too upset if you miss it. The main point of interest for us was the cathedral, however, it was closed for repairs, which I understand have been underway for many years now. There were a couple of interesting shops, but it's too bad the government will not take the initiative to clean up the trash on the ground and in the harbour. Also, take care of the sewage problem and repair the sidewalks, so you don't step into the sewage that is flowing beneath the sidewalks.
Crab Hole Liquor. Yes, it's just a little grocery store in Falmouth Harbour, but you must stop there and buy a tee-shirt. There's nothing more funny than a shirt that reads "Crab Hole Liquor". I bought several for all of my buds back home.
Beaches & snorkeling:
You don't come to Antigua for the snorkeling, but there are many nice beaches that were great for swimming, liming and somewhat okay for snorkeling. Using a snorkeling rating scale of 10 being St John USVI, then Antigua was maybe a 5. We visited many beaches, but these were the ones that we enjoyed the most.
Pearns Bay Beaches. Located north of JH. Bribe the JH north gate guard to let you out of that gate onto the dirt road leading to Hermitage Bay resort or take Valley Road north from JH to the village of Jennings. Find the road to Hermitage Bay in Jennings and head west. Once you reach Hermitage Bay resort take the road left, pass the first public beach you will see on your right and keep driving out and around the point to the three secluded and perfect beaches. The road from Hermitage Bay is pretty rough and I'd recommend you have a vehicle with some ground clearance. The snorkeling here was not too bad. We snorkeled the main rocky point entering on the south side of it, swam north then exited the water on the beach to the north. It was then a short walk back to our starting point. Along the way there are some caves and inlets to explore on this snorkel. The beach was great for laying out and we were the only ones there the times we visited. There are no facilities here, so pack your own food, drink and TP.
Half Moon Bay. This was another great beach, but leave the snorkel gear in the car. When we were there there was a nice surf coming in, so playing in the waves and relaxing on the beach was enjoyed by all. We walked through the remains of the Half Moon Bay resort and marveled at the stupidity of the Antigua government for not working with the resort owners to restore this facility after it was hurricane damaged in the '90s. Google it for more details.
Green Island. Take a tour boat or rent a boat. We had access to a Boston Whaler when staying at Villa Vanora, so we made it out to Green Island a couple of times. Several very nice beaches and good snorkeling from the south beach closest to the east end of the island. Also, good snorkeling in the open water along the reef to the north of the island.
We would typically eat breakfast and lunch at the villa and dinners out. Some days since we were on the go so much we'd skip lunch and opt for an early dinner instead. I'm no "foodie", but unlike many Americans I refuse to eat crap fast food and enjoy a good meal as long as someone else is preparing it. I know enough that Velveeta is not real cheese and you never make a taco with a hard shell from a company called Old El Paso. Here's my critique of the places we ate.
Dennis Restaurant, west coast and south of JH. We planned on eating here, but several locals, said skip it. Apparently it was good at one point in time, but lately has gone down hill. After asking one local if the Sunday BBQ pig roast was any good, they replied "More likely pork chops than a real pig roast", that was enough of a review to skip it.
Acropolis Greek Restaurant, in the castle building just outside of the JH main gate. Wow, wow and wow. The stuffed meatloaf dinner was amazing as well as all of the other dishes ordered by my crew. The family that owns and operates this restaurant was a hoot to talk with and momma cooking in the kitchen was priceless. I'd highly recommend this place.
Gibsons, west coast and south of JH. Great food, great location and interesting talking with the owners.
OJs, west coast and south of JH. We ate here twice, but it was only due to the kids insisting on it. Very cool beach front location, but the menu was limited and the food was just okay.
Cloggy's. Falmouth Harbour. The hamburger one of crew ordered was dry and the Cloggy's deli sandwich I had was pretty good. The beer was on happy hour prices due to the soccer game, whoops I mean "football" being shown in the bar, so that provided the excuse to hang out for awhile. It was entertaining seeing the Frenchman rooting for his team taking heat from all the Brits who were rooting for Spain.
Life on The Corner. Falmouth Harbour, right on the corner. Very good meal and good drinks too.
Hemmingways. Downtown St John's. We had a good lunch here. Nice to sit above the street level and watch the goings on of St John's.
Ocean Cafe. On the north shore along Hodges Bay Main Road. A new restaurant that opened in March '12. This place was worth the visit. Really great view, food and service. They have the best cocktail I've had in a long time, called a marriage wrecker. Despite drinking two of them I'm still happily married.
Shirley Heights Sunday BBQ. Good food at a good price, good music, oh yes, and the view is spectacular.
The Larder. North of St John's on Friars Road. Shopping mall location with beach front prices. The food was good, but a tad expensive for a parking lot view.
Al Porto. Jolly Harbor. The calzone was mostly dough, but all of the other dishes we ordered were very good. Skip the calzone and you'll be okay. Great view of the harbour and great service.
The Crows Nest. Good food and good location overlooking the JH marina. Eating while looking at boats, it just doesn't get any better.
Cool Cat Catamaran. Although not a traditional restaurant, the meal served on this day charter was fantastic and the view from the dining table in the cockpit was incredible. Captain Wayne grilled up some spiced chicken while first mate Laura took care of the rest. The day we spent on Cool Cat was the highlight of the trip. Food just tastes better when your on a sailboat.
This is my personal and not politically correct summary of our visit. Would I return to Antigua for another vacation? Probably not. This is partly due to our family policy of not visiting a place more than once, unless it's somewhere we consider exceptional. The people of Antigua were great. We met some very nice locals who were very helpful and they have nothing but pride for their homeland. The problem is with the government of Antigua. The government really needs to get their act together and realize where the livelihood of their islands comes from. The infrastructure is crap and they treat their natural resources, ocean, marine life, etc, like crap. With this sort of mismanagement the tourist trade will continue to decline.Edited: 11 July 2012, 23:13