ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA

THE ISLAND’S HISTORY

If you are a history buff, Antigua is the one must-see destination in the Leeward and Windward island chains. It is also the largest in the Leewards: Antigua (13 by 9 miles) covers a land-mass of 108 square miles; Barbuda (11 by 6 ½ miles) covers 62 square miles. As a basis of comparison, St. Martin and Sint Maarten together total up to only 37 square miles.

It was discovered by Columbus in 1493, who named it Antigua, after a church in Seville, Spain. But the Arawak Indians first settled here about 2000 years ago, followed by the Caribs around 1200 A.D. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Antigua was all but impregnable because of numerous forts and because it was the headquarters for the British fleet. In fact Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson commanded here from 1784 – ‘87. In those days this region was ranked higher in importance to Great Britain than North America, no small thanks to sugar. Like most Caribbean islands of the time, it was populated by African slaves. Because of sugar, Antigua was deforested, consequently today it is covered mainly with scrub brush.

Today, most of its 65,000 population lives on Antigua, only 1200 in Barbuda (mainly a wildlife sanctuary), 30 miles away. Because of its 365 beaches, thirty plus hotels, deep-water port for cruise ships, and modern airport, it has become one of the Caribbean’s major tourist destinations.

Nelson’s Dockyards (lovingly restored), with its yacht-filled English Harbour, is today the world’s sole remaining Georgian shipyards; it is also the site of one of the world’s top five regattas. Antigua is also one of the best places to spot celebrities such as Eric Clapton, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman, each of whom own or have owned homes here.

Antigua and Barbuda are today an independent nation within the political umbrella of the British Commonwealth.

Falmouth Harbor

View from Shirley Heights - Nelson's Fort

REACTIONS

We were the first cruise ship of the day to dock in St. John’s harbor. On this tour, Bob Earp, and Ed Riffle joined me for a tour of the island. For us, the piece de resistance had to be Shirley Heights, with its fortified hilltop buildings that once housed the officers’ quarters. The views from here are breathtaking! It was high enough so that there was less risk of dying from malaria. Even more than in the Nelson Dockyard below, it was easy here to close your eyes to slits and imagine the continuous coming and going of redcoated officers in their horse-drawn carriages—the center of attention Lord Nelson himself, destined for immortality in the later Napoleonic wars.

Tour guide lecturing on Nelson's Dockyards

It was hard to leave this magical spot and descend to English Harbour and Nelson’s Dockyards. A fascinating place to explore. How we wished we’d had more time to take it all in. For being fully restored (unlike Shirley Heights), it makes it seem like just yesterday that it teemed with an average of a thousand men, and in the harbor were great ships of the line, some with their sails being furled and others with seamen racing up the masts to unfurl them so they could put out to sea. By listening to our guide and reading the tablets and placards we discovered that, for the average seaman, it was anything but romantic: life was brutal and short, no small thanks to malarial mosquitos and dissolution through rum, rum stored in leaden-based casks. Not for these semi-slave seamen the life Lord Nelson; Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence (later King William IV), who served here under Nelson, and the privileged officers, were able to live.

Lucy and Jo shopping in St. John

Then it was back to St. John, to purchase post cards, and return to our ship. Always we were conscious of time, for if we were but minutes late, the ship would sail without us—more on that later!

Next is the island of St. Lucia.

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