By Nancy Truman
As our catamaran cruises pass the Jumby Bay resort on its circumnavigation of Antigua, the guide names just a few of the famous property’s owners — Ken Follett, Oprah Winfrey, department store magnate Lord Sainsbury and Robin Leach, host of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. We plebs juggle plastic cups of rum punch or the Captain’s Special (coconut rum with pineapple juice), eager to snap photos of a place most of us will never step foot.
Long Island, home to Jumby Bay, is three kilometres off the north coast of Antigua, which together with Barbuda is a country in the Leeward Islands of the Eastern Caribbean. Only guests of the resort or the home owners can board the private ferry to the island. (A recent search turned up a beach-side suite in April, starting at C$3,700 a night on Hotels.com.)
Name-dropping is common in Antigua, but only done when celebrities aren’t present. “Celebrities like to come here because we don’t intrude on their privacy,” Shamoi Richard, a guide with Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, told us, after pointing out where Justin Bieber and Prince Harry stayed and played during recent visits. He also just happened to mention that “the Google yacht is in the harbour,” though he wasn’t sure of the owner’s name.
Legendary guitar player Eric Clapton — who in 1997 co-founded the Crossroads Centre for drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation on the island — in his autobiography refers to Antigua as “one of the only places on earth I’ve found where I can completely discard the pressures of my life and blend into the landscape.” And while regularly in the lens of tourists, his 18-hectare estate was designed to blend into Standfast Point, a rocky outcrop on the south end of the island.
But celebrities aren’t the only ones who come regularly to enjoy Antigua’s 365 beaches and warm steady trade winds. For a few weeks each year, the island attracts another sort of well-heeled visitor — sailors. Antigua’s many harbours, which in the 18th and 19th centuries sheltered the Royal Navy ships from England’s enemies and violent storms, have been at the centre of international sailing events since the 1960s.
This year, the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta (April 19 to 25) celebrates its 30th anniversary and Antigua Sailing Week (April 28 to May 6) hits 50, with the latter reporting nearly double the entries of last year, which means you might have already missed the boat this year. While you won’t get to see the Samara T out of Lunenburg, N.S., sail in the Classic Yacht Regatta or to join in the festivities of sailing week, you might actually get a seat at the best tables in Antigua.
Whether you sign up for a yacht, speedboat or catamaran cruise, you’ll likely end up touring Falmouth and English harbours. In January, well before sailing season the sleek, black Maltese Falcon — the world’s largest private sailboat at 88 metres long — was at her berth at the Antigua Yacht Club. If you’re lucky you’ll get to get to see her in action, as her three carbon-fibre masts, automatically unfurl 2,400 square metres of sails leaving no gaps, and enabling them to work as a single airfoil.
Elena Ambrosiadou, one of Britain’s highest paid female executives who set up one of the world’s most successful hedge funds, bought the ship in 2009 for a reported US$120 million, and actively takes part in super yacht regattas. Though we did get up close to this super yacht and other classic sailing yachts, none were sailing on the high seas.
Puttin’ on the ritz
The Inn at English Harbour is a little piece of heaven in an otherwise busy corner of Antigua. Built by British pilot, Peter Deeth, who spotted the land next to the historic harbour of Nelson’s Dockyard while flying the BWIA route from New York to Antigua, the inn is now owned by Italians Enzo and Susanna Addari, who, purchased it in the 1980s, after falling for its charm while cruising the harbour in their yacht.
Reserving a table at the Reef restaurant for lunch is a good way for travellers on a budget to enjoy some of what the inn has to offer. Executive Chef Roberto DeBenedetto, who fairly recently emigrated from San Vincenzo, Italy, has brought to the its tables a lighter, Mediterranean menu, that incorporates a touch of the Caribbean. Fresh local ingredients include lobster, clams, mahi mahi fish, shrimps and snapper, as well as organic herbs and vegetables grown on site.
On a recent visit, a heavenly puff pastry topped with asparagus and a lightly peppered Parmesan fondue, was a perfect starter to a main course of seared tuna wrapped in black sesame and drizzled with sweet soy sauce, served with steamed vegetables. Choosing between an intense chocolate-chip mousse and a sliver of blueberry-topped cheesecake proved the hardest choice of the day (the mousse won). What better way to spend an afternoon than to sit harbour-side sipping chilled rosé, while watching yachts bob on the sparkling turquoise-hued water.
After lunch, take a quiet stroll around the grounds and beach, mindful of the Inn’s guests — who have paid a lot for their peace and quiet. It will make you want to save to stay a few nights next time round.
Venue with a view
Shirley Height’s, the scattered remains of gun emplacements and military buildings named for Sir Thomas Shirley, governor of the Leeward Islands who fortified Antigua’s defenses in the early 1780s, comprises Dow’s Hill, The Ridge and Artillery Quarters, Blockhouse and The Lookout.
Blockhouse offers an unobstructed view of Montserrat — which sports the only active volcano in the Caribbean (look for the cloud above it) and Guadeloupe. The Lookout, which plays host to sailing week’s big finale, is home to a popular Sunday afternoon barbecue — so popular the hosts added Thursdays — accompanied by a sun set over Nelson’s Dockyard and English Harbour and the mellow sounds of steel band and reggae, and of course, rum punch.
Rocking the dockyard
Christopher Columbus gave Antigua its name in passing, but Admiral Horatio Nelson, whose tenure at the dockyard overlapped the building period, was the inspiration for renaming the UNESCO World Heritage site — the world’s oldest operating Georgian dockyards. Nelson’s Dock Yard, a safe haven for the Royal Navy from the 1740s to 1889, now offers modern yacht facilities as well as two hotels, restaurants and shops.
It’s also home to the island nation’s biggest weekly party — Friday’s Fish Fry — at the Copper & Lumber Store Hotel (take a guess what it was built for back in 1792). Named one of the 10 Best Fish Frys in the Caribbean two years ago by USA Today, the dinner is so popular you’ll need to reserve.
Then, head to the dockyard early and spend the afternoon visiting the museum, art gallery shops, and marketplace, or explore one of the several trails that begin at the dockyard. Self-guided maps are available at the entrance.
Part of the fun of the fish fry is getting to see local chefs at work as you move through the various food stations. An appetizer of six coconut shrimp, though great for sharing, is so delightfully coconutty, with just a hint of chili pepper, you might want to keep them all to yourself. I chose an entrée of grilled lobster with melted cheese that turned out to be big enough to feed two.
Most mains come with a mixed green salad, black eye peas and rice, whipped sweet potatoes, corn and stir fried vegetables. Alas, I was too full to even have a bite of the white chocolate, butter rum cake on the menu. (Three courses without alcohol is C$35 to C$70)
The writer was a guest of Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority.
If you go
The Inn at English Harbour
This inn is all about pampering the guests, making sure they have what they want to make their stay perfect. But expect to pay upwards of US$600 a night for a little piece of this heaven — and that’s the junior suite and not all-inclusive. But the attention to detail and service is well worth the price. The suites all have marble ensuite baths with walk-in green slate showers and double sinks; beautiful dark mahogany floors; white bed linens, and all the amenities of a five-star resort, and they’re just 30 metres from the beach.
Copper & Lumber Store Hotel
Snagging one of this Nelson’s Dock Yard hotel’s 17 self-catered suites will put you at the heart of the party for sailing week. Prices start at US$195 for double occupancy in the high season.
The Admiral’s Inn and Gunpowder Suites
These take up four historic buildings in the Nelson’s Dock Yard. The property includes 23 suites, two restaurants, a spa, lush gardens and a small beach and an art gallery on the ground floor of the main building. Completed in 1788, the main floor was used to store pitch, turpentine and lead, while the upstairs housed offices for the engineers of the dockyard. My guess is it’s booked for sailing week, but management suggests you call if you don’t see availability online. (Rooms from US$175.)
The Verandah Resort & Spa
Located on Nonsuch Bay away from the hustle and bustle of the sailing regattas, this is the perfect place to wind down from the party scene — enjoy a morning at the spa, or relax on one of two white sand beaches, then fall asleep to the sound of the ocean outside your villa. (From US$153 a night per person)
This article appeared in National Post in February 2017