Antigua

 

Published in The Sunday Telegraph in 2011

Prince took a chunk of squid from a sandwich box and impaled it on the hook. Deftly, he cast the line over the back of the boat then offered the rod to me. A few minutes later, I felt a tug and the line tightened. “Lower the rod then give it a little flick upwards and reel in the line,” he said.

Easier said than done. The rod was bent almost in two and I struggled with the reel. Suddenly, the rod straightened, the line popped out of the water, and at the end sparkled a red rock hind. Before we upped anchor, I had caught two more.

Antigua has always been as much about the crystal-clear water that encircles it as the dry land that covers it. Its virtually unbroken necklace of coral reef makes it an excellent spot for diving, snorkelling and deep-sea fishing, while its warm, steady trade winds and sheltered coves make it ideal for sailing (Antigua’s annual Classic Yacht Regatta is one of the best in the world).

It was the same waters, or rather the protected harbours, that made the island so attractive to 18th-century colonialists and traders who used Antigua as a hub for the the Caribbean; as did the Royal Navy under Nelson (who hated Antigua and rarely went ashore).

Unfortunately, in recent years Antigua has also been about crime. Recently two local men were convicted of the murder of a British honeymoon couple in 2008. The Foreign Office confirms that there has been an increase in crime in Antigua in recent years but, as it points out, 97,000 holiday-makers visit every year and the vast majority of those visits are trouble-free.

I’ve been to Antigua many times and never once felt threatened or uncomfortable. I wouldn’t recommend hanging out in the back streets of St John’s, the capital, or wandering too far along a deserted beach at night – but there aren’t many islands in the Caribbean where you can still do that.

One of the best things about Antigua is its accessibility from the UK – it’s an eight-hour flight on the way out, seven with a tailwind on the way back. And once you land, wherever you stay will only take 40 minutes or so to get to (dreadful potholes notwithstanding).

Also in its favour is the fact that its beaches are almost all of the white-sand variety (not always the case in the Caribbean) and there’s plenty to do (again, not always the case in the Caribbean). It’s not particularly smart, in the way of Barbados, say, but it has its share of glamorous hotels and any number of good beach resorts.

One of the prettiest spots in Antigua is English Harbour, the Royal Navy’s former base, now beautifully renovated and filled with glossy yachts. That was where we headed after my fishing triumph, stopping at Catherine’s Café at the harbour mouth. Catherine’s is run by Claudine and Guillaume as if they were still in their native Brittany – you can tuck into moules marinière and tarte tartin as you contemplate Nelson’s Dockyard on the bank opposite.

After lunch Prince took us back to Carlisle Bay, Gordon Campbell Gray’s chic resort on the island’s south coast. The chef had promised to show us how to prepare our catch for dinner. But when he joined us on in the restaurant, it wasn’t my three rock hinds he brought with him, but a magnificent, blush-pink queen snapper which he proceeded to turn into a ceviche (my fish ended up in the staff canteen).

Next day, Junior, a local guide, took me on a rainforest walk. As he strode up a steep mahogany-lined path he demonstrated his bushcraft with instructions on how to make tea out of wild lemon-grass. On we went, past spiky bearded figs and turpentine trees, while birds called and whooped above us.

We emerged into the sun-light again halfway up Signal Hill. At 1,217ft, this is the second-highest peak on the island. The highest, at 1,319ft, is Boggy Peak, a little farther to the east. In 2009 Antigua’s prime minister changed Boggy Peak’s name to Mount Obama – though most steadfastly refer to it by its original name.

How could you not love an island that would rather call its highest peak after its swampy terrain than after the president of the United States? Prince took a chunk of squid from a sandwich box and impaled it on the hook. Deftly, he cast the line over the back of the boat then offered the rod to me. A few minutes later, I felt a tug and the line tightened.

“Lower the rod then give it a little flick upwards and reel in the line,” he said. Easier said than done. The rod was bent almost in two and I struggled to turn the reel. Suddenly, the rod straightened, the line popped out of the water, and there at the end of it sparkled a red rock hind. Before we upped anchor, I had caught two more.

Antigua has always been as much about the crystal-clear water that encircles it as the dry land that covers it. Its virtually unbroken necklace of coral reef makes it an excellent spot for diving, snorkelling and deep-sea fishing, while its warm, steady trade winds and sheltered coves make it ideal for sailing (Antigua’s annual Classic Yacht Ragatta is one of the best in the world).

It was the same waters, or rather the protected harbours, that made the island so attractive to 18th-century colonialists and traders who used Antigua as a hub for the rest of the Caribbean; as did the British Navy under Nelson (who, it turns out, hated Antigua and rarely went ashore).

Unfortunately, in recent years Antigua has also been about crime. Ten days ago two local men were convicted for the murder of a British honeymoon couple in 2008. The Foreign Office confirms that “there has been an overall increase in crime in Antigua in recent years, including gun crime, and five foreign tourists have been killed since July 2008” but as it points out, some 97,000 holidaymakers visit Antigua every year and the vast majority of visits are trouble-free. I’ve visited at least five times in the last decade and never felt threatened (though you’ll be lucky to get a smile out of airport staff). I wouldn’t recommend wandering too far along a deserted beach at night or hanging out in the capital’s backstreets but there aren’t many islands left in the Caribbean where you can still do that with complete confidence.

After my fishing triumph, we headed into English Harbour where dozens of glossy yachts bobbed expensively on their moorings, the breeze plucking idly at their immaculate rigging. At the harbour mouth we stopped at Catherine’s Cafe, run by Claudine and Guillaume as if they were still in their native Brittany. On its waterfront terrace we tucked intomoules marinière as we contemplated Nelson’s Dockyard on the bank opposite.

After lunch we returned to Carlisle Bay resort, where we were staying and where chef was going to show us how to prepare our catch for dinner. But when he joined us on the terrace next to the restaurant, it wasn’t my three rock hinds he brought with him, but a magnificent queen snapper which he proceeded to turn into a delicious ceviche. My catch wasn’t wasted though – it ended up in the staff canteen.

Next day, Junior took me on a rainforest walk, striding up a steep mahogany-lined path, demonstrating his bushcraft, with instructions on how to make tea out of wild lemongrass. On we went, past spiky bearded figs and turpentine trees, while birds called and whooped above us. At last we emerged into the sunlight, half way up Signal Hill. At 1,217ft (365m), this is only the second-highest peak on the island, said Junior. The highest, at 1,319ft, is Boggy Peak, a little farther to the east. In 2009, Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer unofficially changed Boggy Peak’s name to Mount Obama – not that anyone took any notice.

One of the best about Antigua is its accessibility from the UK – it’s an eight-hour flight on the way out, seven with a tailwind on the way back. And once you land, wherever you stay, it will only take 40 minutes or so to get there (potholes notwithstanding). Its beaches are predominantly of the white-sand variety (not always the case in the Caribbean) and there’s plenty to do (again, not always the case in the Caribbean). It’s not a particularly smart island, in the way of Barbados, say, but it has its share of glamorous hotels if that’s what you’re after, including the heavenly Carlisle Bay. In fact, if he could be persuaded to come ashore, I think Lord Nelson would rather approve of Antigua nowadays.