It’s no secret that I’m a Caribbean-holic – I love this region with a passion that is limitless. Its history, its tropical landscapes, its foods and diverse people that remind me of West Africa, where I was raised. But even so, there are those few countries in the region that grab me more than others. I know it when I’m heading to the airport and I’m already hoping I’ll return.
That’s Antigua and Barbuda.
I’m blessed to have been able to see both islands on my trip there this past May. Both took me by complete surprise. I’d expected to find gorgeous harbors and landscapes. But I also thought this destination was a luxury escape catering mostly to honeymooners.
There was so much more beyond beaches and plush resorts.
From steep rainforest hikes to snorkeling off dreamy islets and dancing to steel pan at sunset, I’m now a definite “A and B” fan.
You might have watched my video featuring local Antiguan women sharing their 15 reasons to visit Antigua and Barbuda. This time, I share my recommendations for 13 unique ways to see Antigua and Barbuda, after six days of exploring the island at a leisurely pace.
1. Take in those breathtaking hills – on wheels or on foot
You could stop anywhere on the coastline in Antigua – whether on the Atlantic or the Caribbean side – and enjoy spectacular views. The hills are alive here (ha).
A great way to glimpse it all in one day is to rent a car and drive to your heart’s content. Another option is to hop on a half-day safari with Charles in Charge. Book him through Scenic Tours Antigua. You’ll cross the island from north to south and east, stopping by roadside vendors to taste local fruits and dishes (bring small bills), and taking in the island’s history and topography along the way.
There are additional spectacular views that can only be reached by hiking – see #7 in this post.
2. Shop at St. John’s Market
Visit the fish vendors, shop the fruits section and make a stop at the arts and crafts section in St. John’s market. It’s a great way to immerse quickly and learn about Antigua’s food culture.
Tip: This may seem obvious, but remember to take the time to greet and chat with vendors, have an honest cultural exchange and connect before you even think of asking for photos and taking out your camera. I always let it play out organically – and if it doesn’t work out, that’s fine too because the exchange has more value than an image.
When you enter St. John’s market, visit the first stall on the right hand side. This family run business, also featured in my previous post, will be happy to introduce you to some of Antigua’s popular fruits, herbs and spices. Our group left with Antigua’s sweet Black pineapple and mango, which the ladies kindly sliced and bagged for us, plus bottles of Susie’s hot sauce.
Walk past the produce stalls towards the back of the market, and cross over to the arts and crafts pavilion. Visit the talented Sadie Christian, a Trini-Antiguan transplant who paints and creates beautiful recycled art in her studio.
There are plenty of unique pieces to take a piece of Antigua home. Be sure to carve out at least a day to wander the market, walk St. John’s historic streets and cathedral, visit the Antigua and Barbuda Museum and have lunch at a local spot.
3. Go sailing and harbor hopping
Antigua is a renowned sailing haven, boasting several harbors. One of the most renowned is Nelson’s Dockyard, an 18th-century built and still operating dockyard for yachts and ships, designated a national park. The entire area includes a series of striking colonial buildings, a handful of which have turned into lodging, bars and restaurants.
If I lived in Antigua I’d definitely invest in a small boat to enjoy all of Antigua’s stunning bays, offshore islets and beaches. In the meantime, you can take sailing classes, sign up for full day boat trips and sunset cruises.
4. Lime at Shirley Heights
If you don’t make it to Shirley’s Heights’ weekly outdoor sunset party, no one will believe you’ve been to Antigua. Seriously.
Where else can you party at a former military lookout and gun battery? Thursdays are unofficially known as “tourist night” and Sundays are when the locals show up in big numbers. That’s another reason I need to go back, for the Sunday vibes!
You can’t beat Shirley Heights’ panoramic views over English and Falmouth Harbors, the rum punch (thebest I tasted during my week in Antigua) and the live steel pan band followed by a reggae band.
Get there around 5pm and enjoy all evening long so you can see the incredible changing colors of the sun. Ask about the scenic points scattered around this historic site so you can get a unique shot.
5. Sample ducuna and saltfish (and other local dishes)
One of Antigua’s draws is the availability of roadside, home cooked food — those big silver pots sure reminded me of Jamaica. Whether at stalls on your way home, in St. John’s local restaurants or at one of the Elite Island Resorts, there’s always a local dish to try.
I sampled ducuna at our resort’s lunch buffet. There was a local dish section with rice and beans, and either meats or fish, though the options were limited. The beach buffet dinner we had at Pineapple Beach Club was outstanding, with plenty of local dishes, from plantains to callaloo and stews, and desserts.
“Who makes the best ducuna and saltfish?” was a serious debate between two Antiguans – caught on camera by yours truly while we were hiking at Wallings Nature Reserve.
Unique to Antigua and Barbuda, ducuna is sweet potato mixed with coconut and spices and served with saltfish for a sweet and salty mix in your mouth.
I didn’t get a chance to try the national dish, which is fungee and pepperpot. Another reason to return (see what I’m doing there?).
Last but not least, I dare say the freshest and tastiest of fish I had that week was in Barbuda, at the colorful Art Cafe.
If you love spice, make sure to splash Susie’s Hot Sauce on your dishes. It’s so good I took some home (sorry, Marie Sharp).
6. Honor the past at Devil’s Bridge
It’s a chilling experience to stand on this northeastern edge of Antigua — watching the furious Atlantic waves crashing against limestone and spraying you if you get too close (stand at a safe distance).
Local lore says that this limestone bridge, aptly named after the devil, is where enslaved Africans came to commit suicide, leaping into the Atlantic Ocean, to escape their fate on British-run sugar plantations at the hands of colonialists.
The chilling aura of this site is worth a visit to pay tribute to our brothers and sisters who suffered here and died a cruel death.
Listen to our guide Sean Beazer telling me about the story behind Devil’s Bridge.
Fact: The largest sugar cane plantation on Antigua was Betty’s Hope, where thousands of enslaved Africans worked long hours under harsh conditions. You can tour the grounds, and I was told all that’s left of it are the sugar mill’s ruins.
7. Hike Wallings Nature Reserve
Have you ever hiked a rainforest with a Victorian-era reservoir?
That’s just one of the surprising features at Wallings Nature Reserve, the first-ever community managed nature reserve in Antigua. Officially open less than a year ago, it’s a remarkable story of Antigua’s largest remaining forest tract being saved from neglect and pollution by its people.
Run by staff and volunteers from the community of John Hughes , where the forest is located, it’s a great spot to connect with nature and learn of the island’s flora and fauna.
Trails are of varying difficulty, guided or solo. I highly recommend you take a guide for better information on the flora and fauna around you. If solo, no worries: there are markings at intervals to indicate exactly which trail you’re on and at what level.
The hikes at Wallings all end in amazing rewards: breathtaking summit views with a glimpse of Mount Obama, the highest peak on Antigua renamed in honor of our former US President, or beach time if you brave the two-hour Rendezvous Bay trail.
All entrance and tour fees go to support the site and provides sustainable income for the community.
You can read more about Wallings Nature Reserve in my recent Lonely Planet article or on their website.
8. Kayak the North Sound Marine Park
One of our most fun adventures in Antigua had us kayaking along the protected North Sound Marine Park’s mangroves, learning about the island’s ecosystem and marine life.
You can combine this trip with a snorkel off Great Bird Island, pictured below.
9. Escaping to offshore islets
Within easy reach just off Antigua’s northeastern coastline are a series of small cayes, part of the Northeastern Marine Management Area. Each offers beaches and snorkeling. Great Bird Island is one of the most popular ones. Hike ten minutes to the top of the isle for gorgeous panoramic views, sea birds and blowholes (watch your step).
Get in touch with Antigua Nature Tours for small group boat trips to Great Bird Island, including other ecotours in Antigua.
10. Hit Pigeon Point Beach for Sunday Funday (or any day)
Antigua promises a beach a day for every day of the year, but I’m pretty sure I’d be back on Pigeon Point Beach more than once if I lived there.
It’s the perfect spot for Sunday relaxation, especially if you have kids, with calm Caribbean waters, views of yachts in English Harbor and a distinct local vibe.
If you’ve already sampled plenty of local dishes during your stay, then go park yourself at the fabulous Catherine’s Cafe— a beachfront French bakery and restaurant offering a brunch menu and live music.
After lunch, go relax on one of the cozy beach loungers with a tarte aux pommes or crusty, delicious apple pie made fresh from the bakery (you’ve got to save some belly room for it).
Then step over to the beach in time for a swim.
While at Catherine’s, we ran into an Antigua Tourism Board member enjoying Mother’s Day brunch with her family and friends, and she shared that this was one of her favorite spots.
Check out more Antigua beaches here.
11. Hop to Barbuda
There’s a bit of rivalry between Antigua and Barbuda when it comes to natural landscapes and who’s got the most beautiful beaches. For what it’s worth, both islands are spectacular when it comes to the outdoors.
Antigua is just larger, clearly more developed with numerous resort or hotel options and amenities. Barbuda is more secluded and pristine nature wise because it has fewer tourists, small boutique hotels or guesthouses, and beaches that turn pink in the summertime when coral shells wash over the edges of white sand shores.
Having access to both islands is an incredible advantage.
Hop over for the day or overnight – the Barbuda Express ferry runs almost daily “from A to B” and back, leaving from St. John’s. Tour Barbuda’s Frigate Bird Sanctuary, located inside Codrington Lagoon. It’s one of the world’s largest colonies of frigate birds, estimated at over 4,000, and the largest in the Caribbean region, even bigger than Belize’s.
I’ve never quite seen or felt anything like it, being surrounded by so many of these magnificent, loud creatures. What’s also incredible is the fact that these birds knew exactly where to return home after Hurricane Irma devastated the island two years ago. Just like most of Barbuda’s residents, they’re back on their turf.
Ask for Captain Jeffrey, one of the longest operating Barbudan tour guides to the Sanctuary and its surroundings.
Spend some relaxing hours on Princess Diana Beach, another iconic sight on Barbuda and in the Caribbean, bearing Princess Diana’s name because it used to be her favorite spot for an escape with the kids. This beach is even more stunning than I imagined. It’s completely unshaded so bring your sun protectors.
I’ll have a separate, more complete story on my beautiful day in Barbuda — subscribe to receive an update in your inbox.
12. Meet Antiguans and Barbudans
I loved meeting A and B residents and hearing about their passion for their islands. We talked politics, tourism and they gave me some great tips for my next trip.
There’s a solid Caribbean immigrant community as well.
I met folks who moved to Antigua either recently or decades ago from Guyana, Trinidad, Dominican Republic and Jamaica. They shared their love the tranquil Antigua lifestyle, the relatively crime-free environment and better income.
13. Hop on a Sunset Cruise
What’s an island vacation without a sunset catamaran trip? Mystic Catamaran Cruises know how to host them on their 65-ft cat, departing from Dickinson Bay every Friday afternoon. The rum punch will flow and you can expect delicious hors d’oeuvres along the way, while you watch the sun go down. They also offer private charters.
We were lucky to have a live DJ on our private charter – it was one of the most fun sunset cruises I’ve been on in a while.
I hope I get back here soon so I can discover more amazing things to do.
When to visit
I’d say right now is probably an excellent time to go because of Antigua Carnival – from July 26 to August 6. I was told it’s the best event of the year.
My experience with much of this region is that the summer season is ideal, for the off season deals on hotels and for the culture-packed events that attract local families.
You could also visit when the new adults-only, luxurious Hammock Cove opens. Those plunge pool terrace villas are a dream.
The weather on Antigua and Barbuda is generally dry from December through May (hurrah for low humidity) and there’s a rainy season in the summertime.
Car rentals and taxis are widely available. One taxi driver I had was a wonderful source of information: “Mr. Focus” or Leslie Taxi Service. Contact him at 268/785-3554. The Verandah Resort also uses him for guests who need a ride to the airport or to St. John’s.
My trip to Antigua was sponsored by the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority and Elite Island Resorts in collaboration with Traverse Events. My day trip to Barbuda was at my expense. As always I write about what I’ve experienced and all opinions are my own.