Antigua (CNN) — 365 beaches, one for every day of the year. It’s a motto that’s used repeatedly, like a badge of honor.
Winding along Antigua’s roads, you’ll see that it’s not an inflated claim to fame. The Eastern Caribbean island’s carved coastline seems never-ending, with buried coves and pockets of pearly sand that unfold at every corner.
There are private nooks for sunbathers and the quintessential leaning palm trees on stretches of white sand that make for picture-perfect Caribbean postcards.
Even in the capital of St. John, with its open-air food market, live drummers and colossal cruise ships docked nearby, there is the turquoise water again, a sparkling reminder that this island of only 108 square miles is indebted to its idyllic shores.
Famous property owners like Eric Clapton, Oprah and Giorgio Armani have been lured by Antigua’s coastline and prime real estate over the years, but it’s the locals who make it come alive.
Roadside vendors sell the island’s famed black pineapple, a weekly fish fry sizzles with the sound of steelpan drums, and staff members work around the clock to make more than 30 hotels feel like home for tourists from all over the world.
History and heart
Antigua is one of two islands that make up the nation state of Antigua and Barbuda. Its sister island, Barbuda, lies 27 miles northeast of Antigua, with a land area of 62 square miles and a population of approximately 1,600.
“Our language, Antigua Creole, is rhythmic, has economy of words. For example, we would exclaim ‘Murder! Lawd!’ to express surprise,” says award-winning Antiguan poet and writer Joy Lawrence.
Lawrence proudly shares that the island has the longest-serving steel band in history, Hells Gate Steel Orchestra, and has produced one of the greatest cricketers in the world, Viv Richards.
Antigua has approximately 85,000 residents, the majority of which are of African descent, and the remainder of British, Lebanese, Syrian, Chinese and Portuguese origin. “Ah Ya Mi Born” is a saying shared amongst locals, meaning “we are all one in Antigua.”
No greater testament to that pride of country and people could be seen than when four Antiguan women, affectionately dubbed the “Island Girls,” arrived to the island’s historic Nelson Dockyard on January 28, 2019.
Elvira Bell, Christal Clashing, Samara Emanuel and Captain Kevinia Francis were at sea for 50 days and crossed 3,000 miles with over 1.5 million oar strokes to become the first black women in history to row across the Atlantic Ocean.
They departed from La Gomera in the Canary Islands, and came in 13th place alongside 27 other teams from around the world to compete in the annual Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge.
Elvira Bell, Christal Clashing, Samara Emanuel and Captain Kevinia Francis were the first black women in history to row across the Atlantic Ocean.
Courtesy Gemma Hazelwood
The afternoon they arrived to their native shore, they were met by the whole island. The Antiguan flag waved high above the heads of children who were given the day off from school to witness the historical event.
Scenic coastlines and easy trade winds are just a few reasons that Antigua is often called the “Sailing Capital of the Caribbean.” Liberta, one of the first free black villages on the island, is known for its strong fishing and sailboats. Antigua Sailing Week is an annual seven-day extravaganza in April full of rum and racing.
Antigua’s diverse population lends itself to flavors that reflect the world, including roti, curries, conch fritters, shawarma, kebab and the beloved national dish: fungee (pronounced foon-ji) and pepperpot.
Fungee, often served for lunch or dinner, includes cornmeal with okra. Pepperpot is a hearty meat stew with pumpkin, eggplant, green pawpaw and squash.
Then there’s ducana, a boiled sweet potato dumpling that can be served with saltfish for a heartier meal.
“Gotta make sure the ducana is sweet to taste right with the spices,” says Antiguan native Ocia Spencer.
Roadside stalls, named after the cooks standing behind them, sell lunch specials that include ducana all over the island.
An unassuming local favorite is Cavell’s Cookshop, which sits on the southwestern coast in what appears to be a makeshift storage shed. Here, you can get an incredibly fresh and flavorful fried red snapper that’s bigger than the container holding it. From the line of cars that builds around lunchtime, you won’t be the only one stopping in.
At St. John’s market, open every day, vendors sell okra, papaya, fresh catches of the day and the notable Antigua Black pineapple. The fruit grows in the southern parish Old Road Village at Cades Bay Pineapple Farm and other small southern farms, where rich volcanic soil gives it its name.
Antigua Black is the island’s own variety of pineapple.
Jonathan Cole/Courtesy Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority
Antigua Black pineapple
Old Road is called “the fruit basket of Antigua” because of moderate rainfall and rich soil that produces an abundance of fruit trees and the Black pineapple’s crisply sweet, low acidic taste.
Copper and Lumber Hotel offers a Friday night fish fry and buffet located at UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nelson’s Dockyard. Menu items include crispy conch fritters, grilled lobster and of course, rum.
Any souvenir shop will also reveal another local favorite: Susie’s Hot Sauce. The peppery concoction of scotch bonnet and habanero has received numerous awards, including first place in USA Today’s Best International Hot Sauce competition.
The sauce is the brainchild of the late and well-loved Susannah Tonge. Her daughter, Rosemarie McMaster now runs the business, producing an impressive 100 gallons of hot sauce per day from a 10 gallon pot in her mother’s boarding house in St. John’s.
Antigua has a variable climate, with flat plains and mountainous areas that make for plenty of scenery along its 14-mile length.
The island can thank Mother Nature for this natural beauty, but local officials are helping to conserve it by striving to make Antigua and Barbuda a green energy leader in the Caribbean.
For example, it’s the first nation in the region to ban the use of plastic bags, giving residents free cloth bags to use instead.
Driving around Antigua’s six parishes, it’s impossible to ignore the hidden pockets and wide stretches of sand and sea. All beaches on the island are open to the public and offer their own kind of charming retreat. Beach lovers will never run out of options.
To the north of St. John’s sits Dickenson Bay, one of the more popular choices on the island due to its powder white sand and plethora of water sport activities.
Antigua’s 365 beaches are the island’s claim to fame, but there’s more to it than that.
Yensa Werth/Courtesy Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority
Eden Beach, a nude beach within the vicinity of Hawksbill Hotel, is ideal for sunbathing. To get lost on a shore without much company, Pinching Bay, Seaforth, Bush Bay, Hermitage Bay and Pearns Point are all incredible, untouched options.
Half Moon Bay on the southeastern coast offers seclusion and pink crystal sand– and is set to be the home of a new Rosewood property in 2021. Long Bay, Ffryes and Jolly Beach draw local crowds for a mellow grilling session and shared beers with friends and family.
Sunday nights on the eastern end of the island at Shirley Heights Lookout is the longest-running, most popular party on the island.
Here, the sunsets and panoramic views of the ocean are even more mesmerizing with a local Wadadli beer or rum punch in hand. On a clear day, you can see the islands of Guadeloupe and Montserrat in the distance.
For a more local experience, Road House Sundays in Newfield Village with local DJs, cheap drinks and laid-back vibes, are not to be missed.
A hotel with heart
Sixteen cruises per week dock into St. John’s’ port during the peak season of January through April. But for those staying overnight, there is no shortage of options.
You reach the boutique property — made up of just 30 free-standing suites — by traversing a bumpy gravel road. The design ethos makes local flora and fauna and the stunning surroundings the star of the show. Hillside suites offer enviable bay views best enjoyed from a private plunge pool.
The resort’s manager, Rachel Browne, has been working at the all-inclusive resort for 11 years. She’s most proud that the resort has recruited a completely local staff.
“We do not believe in importing talent from other places when we have some of the best in the world right there in Antigua,” she says.
The draw of the warm local welcome is abundantly clear, with visitors who have returned year after year to sit at the bar with one of Mervyn Lee’s delicious (and dangerous) rum punches or to catch up with Stoney Jackson, a supervisor well-known for his attention to detail on every corner of the property.
Hermitage Bay is a boutique property, with just 30 free-standing suites.
Alexis Andrews/Courtesy Hermitage Bay
When Hurricane Irma nearly destroyed Barbuda in 2017, Hermitage Bay hired Barbudans and donated $50 per booking to One Caribbean Family Fund for Hurricane Relief.
This sense of community is what Brent Christopher, who runs a dedicated taxi service and tours across the island, embodies as a proud Antiguan.
“You never know where you’re gonna end up. You gotta help a brother up and work together to build back your country,” he says.
His fondest memory of growing up on the island is sharing with his neighbors and going to pick mangoes, oranges and coconut with friends.
“Just laying back having fun, you know? Antigua is paradise.”
If you go
JetBlue offers nonstop flights from John F. Kennedy Airport to Antigua’s V.C. Bird International Airport. The flight takes approximately 3.5 hours.
For island tours and ground transportation: Brent’s Taxi Service. 268-728-6729
Kristin Braswell is a Los Angeles based journalist and creator of CrushGlobal Travel. She’s contributed to Vogue, Robb Report, ABC News, NPR and Essence, among others, and won the Caribbean Tourism Organization award for her coverage of Havana, Cuba.