Antigua – Cricket, Sailing, Beaches and a Fascinating Heritage

Fiona Maclean goes to this beautiful Caribbean island and discovers a lot more than just rum and sandy beaches

TCV - Antigua Sailing Week

Antigua Sailing Week

TCV - Antigua Sailing Regatta

Antigua Sailing Regatta

TCV - Nelson's Dockyard - Boathouse and Sail Loft

Nelson's Dockyard - Boathouse and Sail Loft

TCV Cannon at Nelson's Dockyard

Cannon at Nelson's Dockyard

TCV Nelson's Dockyard Copper and Lumber Hotel

Nelson's Dockyard Copper and Lumber Hotel

TCV - Betty's Hope

Betty's Hope

TCV - Antigua Devil's Bridge

Antigua Devil's Bridge

TCV - Roadside corn seller

Roadside corn seller

TCV - Roadside Seller

Roadside Seller

TCV - St James's Club Resort

St James's Club Resort

TCV - Antigua - St James's Club evening

Antigua - St James's Club evening

What do you think of when someone mentions the island of Antigua in the Caribbean? Rum cocktails? Sandy beaches? Sunshine and smiles? Of course this island has all that – the locals claim there are 365 beaches in all, one for each day of the year. But there’s a lot more to explore and discover on Antigua.

It’s an island with a focus on sport. Home to famous cricketer Sir Viv Richards, fans make their way to the new stadium, the floodlit Sir Vivian Richard Stadium. If your focus is cricket there are special tours which include training sessions with local Antiguan clubs, coaching and net practise and even resorts where you can stay that have their own on-site cricket pitch and practice facilities. And, it is a perfect place for sailing, whether you are a beginner or an expert. Head there for the last week in April each year and you’ll find yourself in the middle of Sailing Week – a major international regatta with competitors from over 20 countries around the world sailing yachts from 24ft to over 100ft.

The perfect sailing conditions give a clue to Antigua’s heritage. Of all the Caribbean islands Antigua has particularly clement conditions for sailors. Sheltered from the worst of the hurricanes, when Columbus first visited Antigua in 1493, the island was populated by Ciboney, Arawak and Carib Indians from mainland America, seafaring tribes who had made their way to the islands of the Caribbean in search of new territories. Like much of the Caribbean, Columbus renamed it. Antigua was names in honour of the Virgin of the Old Cathedral, an Icon from Seville Cathedral. The Spanish were the first to colonise the Islands, taking any friendly Indians as slaves and gradually driving out those who tried to resist. European settlers also brought diseases unknown in the Caribbean before, smallpox, measles and flu, to which the Indians had no immunity. The results were devastating and by the time the British colonists settled on Antigua in 1632 few were left.

For the British, Antigua quickly became the ‘Gateway to the Caribbean’ located on all the major sailing routes. And, the English harbour proved an effective haven from Caribbean storms. Nelson’s Dockyard (originally ‘his Majesty’s Antigua Naval Yard)is the last remaining Georgian boatyard in the world, started in 1725 the dockyard was intended as a base for the British Navy, to protect their territories both from pirates and the warships of other Empires. Many of the original buildings remain, although a rare earthquake in 1871 destroyed much of the 1797 sail loft that would have been used to repair and maintain the sailing boats of the time. Cement domes replaced the original workshop into which the sails of the boats would have been hauled for repair once they had docked below.

You can stay in the Copper and Lumber House, now converted into a hotel and restaurant of the same name or you can just spend some time exploring the buildings and museum in the old Naval Officers House.

Wandering around the pretty buildings of Nelson’s Dockyard it’s easy to forget that at the time the island was dominated by the Slave Trade. A visit the heritage site of Betty’s Hope provides an insight into life on Antigua at the time. The first large scale sugar plantation in Antigua was developed by Sir Christopher Codrington who helped to reclaim the island from a short period of French occupation and who was given the lands that form the Betty’s Hope estate in 1674.

Sugar was used to make rum and at the estate you can still see the twin windmills, the cistern complex, the Great House, the boiling house for the production of crystalline sugar from cane juice and the still house for the manufacture of rum. The introduction of African slave labour and the development of new technologies made Betty’s hope the flagship estate on Antigua. The Codrington family eventually owned a total of 150 sugar mills on Antigua and continued to operate the plantations and mills even after the emancipation of the slaves in 1834.

Now, the only sugar cane produced on the island is for local consumption although rum is still distilled on the Island at English Harbour

Perhaps the most poignant reminder of the impact of the slave trade can be seen at Devil’s Bridge, a rocky outcrop on the coast. On a clear day it’s possible to see land across the sea. Escaping slaves would jump into the sea hoping to swim to what they believed to be India. Sadly, treacherous currents and needle-sharp rocks meant that they were leaping to certain death.

Whether you go to Antigua for the sailing, the cricket, the beaches or the sunshine do take some time out to explore the fascinating heritage of the Island. There’s plenty more to see from a wealth of Churches and the Cathedral of St John the Divine through to Fort James on the outskirts of the capital St John’s. And, of course sampling a rum cocktail is essential.

Fiona was a guest of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, travelled with Virgin Atlantic and stayed in the Royal Suites at the St James’s Club Antigua. Fiona would also like to thank Elite Island Resorts for their hospitality

Sailing Week next year is from 26th April to 2nd May.