Everyone in Antigua knows everyone else. With 80,000 people on the 14-by-11-mile gateway to the Caribbean, it’s easy to see why. Most reside near the capitol of St John in the northeast. The rest are scattered in the candy-coloured villages across the island. The resorts pretty much claim the coast. I learn this from our taxi driver from St James’s Club, who toots every five minutes when he see someone he knows.
Everyone also has a pet name. Ladies usually get theirs from their parents, and it’s something cute like Doll or Button. But if you are a boy you most likely got your nickname at school and it’s embarrassing. The trick is to not make a big deal about it, says our taxi driver, who ran for a seat in Parliament last year (he lost by 100 votes). If you make a big deal about it, it WILL stick. His pet name is Driftwood. After returning from New York with a political science degree from Fordham University, he came back to Antigua and opened a restaurant. A hurricane left lots of driftwood nearby, so the name stuck.
Antigua is part of the twin Island nation called Antigua and Barbuda, though our driver estimates 80% of Antiguans have never visited their sister country! Why would you? With a beach for every day of the year and everything you need imported or grown on Antigua, most locals don’t visit. I’d like to take the 90-minute ferry to the coral-fringed island. Barbuda is flatter than Antigua and boasts the longest pink sand beach in the Caribbean. Plus is only has 2,000 inhabitants and is home to the world’s largest Frigate bird colony.
Christopher Columbus christened the island Antigua (Spanish for old), but locals call it Wadadali (roughly meaning “our own”). British influence is everywhere. There’s Piccadilly, Carlisle and Thames Street. But the Americans won out with currency, US dollars are used and accepted everywhere (Florida is only a 2 hour flight).
Everyone here is also super friendly. They are keen to share their love of the island, and some are even required to! Taxi drivers that serve the hotels need to pass a test on history of the island and basic hospitality.
The local sense of humor takes some getting used to. We asked for just a drop more of wine, and got literally that, and then a giggle and a smile. It’s endearing. The staff at the hotels are proud of their jobs, and it shows.
Girls are long and leggy with hair tightly wrapped on top of their heads (braids and beads usually come into play). Boys are lanky and sweet and if you ask nicely they may let you in the local lingo. Each Caribbean country has its own dialect. Antiguan English shortens and combines syllables, so “What’s going on?” becomes “Wa Guan” (to which you would reply “Mi Kool” or the Rastafarian “Mi Irie). Ya man.
There are long and thin coconut trees everywhere. They’re hard to tell apart from the palm trees and the date trees. My daughters got very excited to see bananas growing in situ, which you usually see in the villages, by someone’s house. I guess it would be like have an apple tree in your back garden.
British tourists are interested in the history and the beaches. Americans the beaches and shopping. French just the beaches. But that’s a generalization. I love all three!
As this was our first visit to the Caribbean, I learned a few things about travelling with families which I share below. It you’ve been to Antigua, please share your thoughts too.
16 important things to know when planning a family visit to Antigua:
- December through February is high season. Everything buzzes in Nelson’s Harbour, and the resorts are full. Off season Nelson’s Harbour is pretty dead, and a perfect time to get a private tour.
- October half term can be a good time to visit. Though it’s rainy season, it’s still hot and sunny and you’d be very unlucky if there was a hurricane (Hurricane season is June – November). Plus, because it is the tail end of off-season, resorts often have special deals.
- It will be hot when you arrive (average temperature is 85F/25C) so bring a change of clothing for the plane or wear layers so you don’t sweat like a piggy like I did (as my middle daughter so kindly pointed out in the immigration line).
- Stock up on high quality sun protection. Our strategy was to use Swiss-made UltraSun 50 for the first couple of days, then switch to 30. Thank you UltraSun for letting us try them out!
- Bring mosquito repellent. It’s a tropical climate. During the day you will be fine, but come sunset the mossi’s come out. Many resorts spray in the evenings. N-diethylmetatoluamide (DEET) based repellents are the most effective. If you forget to bring some, don’t fret resorts will have a supply in the shop.
- Pack the right clothing. It’s HOT. You will probably wear a swim suit most of the time and a cover-up. The lightweight Turkish Hammamas towels/cover-ups are perfect. Most resorts have an evening dress code, so check beforehand.
- Don’t be alarmed if the forecast is rain. Showers are usually heavy, but short-lived. The day we landed in October my weather app forecasted a whole week of rain. It didn’t materialise. We got caught in a heavy shower one afternoon, but to be honest it was so hot we found it refreshing.
- Antigua is the least humid of the Islands, but during rainy season it can reach 95% which makes outdoors feel like a sauna. Make sure your hotel has air con.
- It’s US-focused. Bring US adapters and everything is in US dollars (which is a bit weird given that Antigua is part of the Commonwealth and only became it’s own country 40 years ago). A lot of the food comes from America.
- I was completely unprepared when our whole cabin was sprayed with insect repellent before we landed in Antigua. The flight attendants warn you, and we all covered our noses.
- British passport holders don’t need a visa. There’s a departure tax, but that is included in cost of flights (it didn’t used to be).
- According to the US Center for Disease Control, you should make sure you are up-to-date on routine vaccines before you go. Many travellers also get Hepatitis A and Typhoid. Get current UK advice here.
- Don’t dress in camouflage clothing! It’s a national offence.
- Taxis aren’t metered. There are standard fees and you agree the price upfront. I was very impressed with the taxi association (especially at the hotels).
- Don’t be fooled into thinking there is only the beach. Yes the beaches are Antigua’s biggest asset, but there are also historical sites, water sports, adrenalin activities cultural diversity and more. Check out the tourist board for more info.
- Virgin runs 3 direct flights from Gatwick (nearly 8 hours out, and 7 and a bit back), making Antigua a very assessable destination!
IF YOU GO
Elite Island Resorts Their impressive collection of Caribbean resorts includes St James’s Club and Verandah, both family resorts in Antigua.
Virgin Holidays Three flights a week from Gatwick.
Antigua and Barbuda Tourist Board The beach is just the beginning
We were guests of Elite Islands Resorts, Virgin Holidays and the Antigua and Barbuda tourist board. As always, my opinions, and that of my stroppy preteens and teen, are entirely our own.