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With a whopping 365 shimmering sandy beaches, a near-perfect climate, and a laid-back attitude to life, it is no surprise that Antigua, together with its smaller sister island Barbuda, is today one of the Caribbean's most popular tourist spots.
Along with the uninhabited Redonda Island, Antigua and Barbuda form a tiny nation with a population descended largely from African slaves and a mix of Europeans. Visitors flock to enjoy the stretches of beach and miles of excellent hikes on Antigua, the exclusive resorts and superb bird sanctuary on Barbuda, and world-class snorkelling and scuba diving among wrecks along the nation's coral reefs.
In 1784, Admiral Horatio Nelson chose Antigua as the base for Great Britain's Caribbean Fleet. The warm winds that Nelson relied on to bring his ships safely into harbour now contribute to one of the world's biggest maritime events known as Sailing Week.
The capital city of St John's is a lively hub for shopping and dining. Most tourist activity is confined to the harbour-front complexes of Heritage Quay, and the more traditional Redcliffe Quay. For those interested in the early history of the island, there is the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, housed in the colonial Court House (circa 1750). Codrington (named after sugar plantation owner Christopher Codrington) is Barbuda's main city and acts as a base for explorations of the many coastal shipwrecks, as well as the island's diverse bird population.
Antigua's highest point is Obama Peak, at 1,319 feet (402m), but the island is mostly flat and covered with sugar cane, tropical fruit trees, palms and exotic flowers. For those tired of lazing on the beach, there is sailing, diving, snorkelling, and other leisurely pursuits on offer in this Caribbean paradise.
Antigua may be small, but the coastline seems to stretch forever. Famous for its 365 beaches, this corner of the Caribbean has many other attractions in store. The first port of call is usually the capital of St John's, where tourists will alight to vibrant local markets, steel drum music, the restored Georgian-era marina of Nelson's Dockyard, and Shirley Heights Restaurant, housed in an old military lookout. The Heights host famous barbecue parties on Sunday evenings, with plenty of rum and live music.
Among the most spectacular beaches are the remote crescent of Half Moon Bay, and the secluded Rendezvous Bay, reached by hiking through the rainforest. Deep Bay is home to a coral-encrusted wreck, and is a great site for snorkelling. Away from the beach, Betty's Hope great house hints at the colonial past of the island, while the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda is a great way to learn about island history.
There is incredible natural scenery to be enjoyed. The Pillars of Hercules, guarding the entrance to English Harbour, are stunning when viewed by boat approaching the island. On the east side of the island, the dramatic limestone arch of Devil's Bridge makes for the perfect picture at sunrise.
Barbuda shows the wild, undeveloped side of the Caribbean, home to Codrington Lagoon National Park with its spectacular colony of Frigate birds. Visitors can also leave from Codrington, the capital, for scuba diving and snorkelling on the reefs surrounding the island.
English Harbour, Antigua's graceful and evocative historic district, is focused on the 15 square miles (39 sq km) of Nelson's Dockyard National Park. Developed as a base for the British Navy in the great age of sail, the harbour served as the headquarters of the fleet of the Leeward Islands during the turbulent years of the late 18th century. Although the dockyard was greatly expanded at that time by Horatio Nelson, it was gradually abandoned in the 19th century and was closed in 1889. Today Nelson's Dockyard has been completely restored, and it is now the only Georgian dockyard in the world.
Almost all of the park's other sites of interest overlook the harbour. The closest of these is Clarence House, a residence built for the future King William IV (1765-1837) when he served under Nelson as captain of the HMS Pegasus. Further above the harbour, at Shirley Heights, are the partially restored fortifications of the harbour's colonial observation post; the view from Shirley Heights extends out over the harbour and far across the Caribbean to Montserrat and Guadeloupe. On Sunday afternoons the vista is enhanced by a barbeque and live music at the bar. Shirley Heights can be reached via Lookout Trail, a nature walk that rises from the harbour through a forest of trees. Buses run between St John's and Nelson's Dockyard.
Antigua boasts 365 beaches, one for each day of the year, the great majority resting inside the calm, protected waters of the island's Caribbean coast. Dickenson Bay and Runaway Bay, located along the island's developed northwestern coast, are the places to go for those who want the fully-loaded resort beach experience, complete with reggae music and busy bars. The beaches most conveniently situated near St John's are Fort James and Deep Bay, both of which offer good swimming and snorkelling. Galley Bay attracts surfers during the winter months and joggers during the evening, and the series of four crescent beaches at Hawksbill, one of which is nudist, are also highly regarded.
The beaches of the hilly southwest corner of Antigua are generally less developed than those around St John's; Rendezvous Bay and Doigs Beach are especially quiet and worth the rough travel necessary to reach them. Pigeon Point, near English Harbour, is a convenient spot after a day's sightseeing at Nelson's Dockyard. On the southeastern corner of the island is Half Moon Bay, now a National Park and a good choice for a family outing. Long Bay, on the easternmost point of the island, is another good choice for families, as it is completely protected by its reef.
The tiny rocky outcrop known as Redonda, 35 miles (55km) south west of Antigua in the Caribbean, lays claim to being the world's smallest island kingdom, although the rightful heir to the title is currently in contention. In fact the little island went up for grabs simply because no-one wanted it back in the mid-19th century, when all it seemed good for was a source of guano deposited by its rich bird population. Along came an ambitious Irishman, Matthew Shiell, who laid claim to the 'lump of rock' and declared his son to be its king. The kingdom was acknowledged by Britain, and King Felipe's reign continued until his death, by which time he had gained a reputation as a novelist. Poet John Gawsworth became the new king, and currently the title is disputed by at least four different people. The kingdom's subjects are all feathered or scaly, and the island is a favourite haunt for keen birdwatchers, renowned for having a small population of the rare Burrowing Owl.
St John's Cathedral has been destroyed and rebuilt time and time again since it was erected in 1683 and has seen its fair share of earthquakes and hurricanes. For years, the cathedral had negative connotations with the black slaves in Antigua, as they viewed it as a giant white strength of the English, who first settled here in 1632. One of the most iconic buildings in St John's, the 70 foot-tall (21 m) white towers of this baroque cathedral overlook the city and port welcoming visitors with their majestic beauty and presence. The current church has remained standing since 1845 and is built out of freestone while the interior is encased in pitch pine, built with the intention of protecting the cathedral from natural disasters.
No drink sums up the spirit and flavour of the Caribbean better than rum, and a must-see while in the capital of St John's is the 75-year-old Antigua Rum Distillery. While Antigua was once overrun with rum distilleries (each sugar plantation had its own), the distillery, located in the Citadel, is now the only one on the island and produces more than 180,000 bottles of the famous spirit each year. Visitors can don hard hats and tour the real behind-the scenes workings of the distillery, a pleasant change from the more tourist-prepared sites around the island. The tour is followed up with a chance to sample the distillery's nine different rums, including the The Cavalier, English Harbour or Rum Punch.
Betty's Hope was one of Antigua's first sugar plantations. Established in the 17th century, the site is now slowly being restored. Visitors can see the restored stone windmill, and the distillery. The machinery has been restored to working order, and visitors can get a great insight into how sugar was produced on the property. They can also get a good idea of life on the plantation, which was home to many slaves over the years. Continuing as labourers after their emancipation in 1834, the Betty's Hope workmen developed a reputation for excellence that lasts to this day.
The Museum of Antigua and Barbuda is housed in the oldest building in St John's. The colonial court house dates back to 1747 and was built on the site of the city's first market. The museum explores the history of Antigua all the way from its geological origins to Independence in 1981. The museum displays remnants of the indigenous Arawak people such as pottery, as well as colonial artefacts. There are also models of sugar plantations, and of course the cricket bat of the legendary Sir Vivian Richards.
Standing sentinel at the entrance to English Harbour in the south is the remarkable natural phenomenon that is the Pillars of Hercules. These columns of rock have been formed over millennia as a result of erosion by wind, rain and waves. The formation is best seen by boat from outside the harbour. For those seeking a closer look, it is possible to hike to the end of Galleon Beach and do a spot of boulder scrambling to get up close.
Once a military guardhouse, Shirley Heights now plays host to a restaurant/bar which has become famous for its Sunday afternoon barbecue parties, complete with live bands. There are crumbling ruins to explore, and some of the best views in the whole of the Caribbean out over the island. On a clear day it is possible to see as far as Montserrat and Guadeloupe. The heights are also a great vantage point from which to watch Sailing Week, the famous annual sailing and yachting regatta in Antigua.
On the eastern corner of the island lies another natural phenomenon; Devil's Bridge. This natural arch is surrounded by rugged terrain, with imposing cliffs, several powerful blowholes which shoot up water when the tide is right, and spectacular spray from the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. The bridge itself is actually quite small, but the views are stunning. Swimming at the bridge itself is not allowed, but there is a popular swimming spot nearby at Long Cove, where an offshore reef shelters the beach making the water calm.
Barbuda has been left in its pristine natural state, renowned for its long empty beaches where it is still possible to leave footprints in virgin sand. The breathtaking pink sand beaches of the south-western shore stretch are lapped by the gentle Caribbean waters, while those on the island's eastern shore are somewhat rougher. Most of the island is surrounded by a coral barrier reef rich in colourful marine life and excellent for snorkelling. Nature lovers will find an abundance of wildlife on the island, particularly in the Codrington Lagoon National Park, home to the world's largest colony of frigate birds.
Antigua's capital city is a bustling cruise ship port, replete with old colonial buildings, colourful markets, museums and restaurants, and a whole load of friendly, welcoming locals. Tourists are greeted by the city's most prominent landmark, St John's cathedral. There are restaurants and bars aplenty, spectacular views from Shirley's Heights, live steel drum music, and fascinating historic sightseeing opportunities such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Nelson's Dockyard. The pace of life here is slow, and most tourists will enjoy simply relaxing in the Caribbean sun, rum cocktail in hand, and soaking up the unique atmosphere.
Antigua and Barbuda have a pleasant year-round climate. The average daily temperature drops a few degrees in winter (December to March) from the usual high of around 81°F (27°C). Antigua and Barbuda are fairly dry throughout most of the year except during the rainy season (mid-September to November) when daily showers can be expected. Hurricane season runs from June to November and visitors are advised to keep an eye on the weather forecast during this period.
The Eastern Caribbean Dollar (XCD) is the main form of currency in Antigua and Barbuda, and it is tied to the US Dollar (USD), with USD 1.00 equal to XCD 2.70 (long-standing, pegged rate). US currency can be used nearly everywhere. Major currencies can be exchanged at the international banks in St John's and at many hotels. Credit and debit cards are widely accepted but there are not many ATMs in the area.
English is the official language, but most locals speak English patois (jargon or dialect).
Electrical current is 220 and 110 volts, 60Hz. Most hotels have both voltages available. American-style two-pin plugs are used.
US nationals: United States nationals require a valid passport. A visa is not required for a period of 180 days, with extension of stay possible.
UK nationals: UK nationals require a valid passport. A visa is not required - the duration of permitted stay will be determined by Immigration on arrival.
CA nationals: Canadians require a valid passport. A visa is not required for nationals of Canada for a maximum of 180 days with the possibility of an extension of stay.
AU nationals: Australians require a valid passport. A visa is not required for nationals of Australia for a period of 180 days with the possibility of an extension of stay.
ZA nationals: South African nationals must hold a valid passport. A visa is not required for nationals of South Africa for a period of 180 days with the possibility of an extension.
IR nationals: Irish nationals require a valid passport. A visa is not necessary for 180 days with the possibility of an extension of stay.
NZ nationals: New Zealand nationals require a valid passport. A visa is not needed for a period of 180 days with the possibility of an extension of stay.
All nationalities must hold confirmed onward or return tickets and sufficient funds to cover their period of intended stay. Technically, Antigua and Barbuda only require that passports be valid on arrival in the country, but as many countries require a valid passport for re-entry, it is strongly advised that passports are valid at least for the duration of travel and preferably for six months after travel. Visas are generally not required for stays less than 180 days. Extensions are possible on visas. As part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travellers travelling between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean region are required to present a passport or other valid travel document to enter or re-enter the United States. If departing from the USA a valid passport will be required by immigration authorities. Proof of yellow fever vaccination is required for those arriving from risk areas.
There are no special health requirements for visitors to Antigua and Barbuda, except for yellow fever immunisation for those over one year of age arriving from an infected country. Hepatitis A vaccination is recommended but not mandatory. The Dengue Fever mosquito is found throughout the islands, and incidents of the disease are on the increase; care should be taken to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. Travellers should be aware that some types of tropical reef fish are poisonous, even when cooked. Health insurance with provision for medical evacuation is strongly recommended, as medical treatment is expensive. There is no hyperbaric chamber; divers requiring treatment for decompression illness must be evacuated from the island. The private hospital, Adelin, requires a substantial credit card deposit before treating visitors, who then have to personally reclaim the cost from insurance on their return home.
Tips of 10-15 percent are common in Antigua and Barbuda, depending on the service. Some restaurants and hotels will automatically add a 10 percent gratuity. Porters and bellhops expect 50 cents per bag, and taxi drivers 10-15 percent of the fare. There is an additional room tax of 8.5 percent.
Most visits to Antigua and Barbuda are trouble-free but visitors should not become complacent. Crime exists on the island and visitors should take normal precautions. Avoid isolated areas, including beaches, after dark, and do not carry large amounts of cash or jewellery. Hurricane season is usually from June to November.
Antiguans and Barbudans are primarily of African origin, descendants of slaves brought to the Island centuries ago to labour in the sugarcane fields. Away from the resorts, the islands have a distinct West Indian flavour - calypso, steel bands and reggae are all popular. But the islanders have also been influenced by the years of British rule and this is particularly apparent in their passion for cricket. It is an offence to wear camouflage clothing, as it is reserved for the military, and beachwear should be confined to the beach.
Antigua's tax advantages have attracted many international companies and offshore financial centres to the island. Business attire is generally more formal than other Caribbean islands; a lightweight suit is appropriate for most meetings, unless in an informal outdoor setting where smart-casual dress is more appropriate. Handshaking is customary for introductions between both men and women; women are considered equals in the business world and should be treated as such. Business cards are exchanged on introduction. Being late for meetings is considered offensive. Business hours are 8am to 12pm and 1pm to 4.30pm Monday to Friday and 8am to 12pm Saturdays.
The international access code for Antigua and Barbuda is +1, in common with the US, Canada and most of the Caribbean, followed by 268. There is free wifi available in most hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars.
Travellers to Antigua over 18 years do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco. 170ml of perfume and 1 litre wine or spirits is also allowed.
Antigua and Barbuda Department of Tourism, St John's, Antigua: +1 268 462 0480 or www.antigua-barbuda.org
Embassy of Antigua and Barbuda, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 362 5122.
High Commission for Antigua and Barbuda, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7258 0070.
High Commission for the Countries of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 236 8952.
United States Consular Agent, St John's, Antigua: +1 268 463 6531.
British High Commission, St John's, Antigua: +1 268 561 5046.
Canadian High Commission, Bridgetown, Barbados (also responsible for Antigua and Barbuda): +1 246 429 3550.
Australian High Commission, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (also responsible for Antigua and Barbuda): +1 868 822 5450.
South African High Commission, Kingston, Jamaica (also responsible for Antigua and Barbuda): +1 876 620 4840.
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