Top 10 Antigua Experiences
A paid partnership with Kuoni Travel.
What springs to mind when you think of Antigua? I’m willing to bet that it’s a vision of white sand beaches and crystal clear water… and you would be forgiven for this preconception. Antigua is famously home to 365 beaches ‘one for everyday of the year’ but there is more to this little Caribbean island than meets the eye.
We were challenged by our friends at Kuoni Travel to head off the beaten track and uncover a different side to Antigua. We spent a week exploring the island, discovering a more local side, learning about its culture and ultimately going beyond the beaches.
Below are our top 10 Antigua experiences.
1 - Hike to Carpenters Rock
The first real surprise Antigua had in store for us was it’s variety of landscapes. Our assumption was that it was a fairly flat island and one that’s natural beauty would be defined by a stereotypical picture postcard beach scene, however we were pleasantly surprised to learn that we were wrong.
The island is far more rugged, wild and isolated in parts than we ever imagined. In fact some sides are so remote that they are quite tricky to get to but a little perseverance and a sense of adventure will reward you with beautifully untamed Caribbean nature.
There’s no better example of this than the hike to Carpenters Rock. Acting on a tip we headed to the south of the island and drove as far as the roads would let us in the direction of the Rock before parking up and continuing on foot. The hike was about 45 minutes and took us across a deserted beach, paddling through turquoise water before leading us up and over rocky headland where we were surrounded by tropical flowers, towering cacti and dramatic views of the ocean. A short descent and we reached our destination, Carpenters Rock. Carpenters is a vast flat shelf of rock just above sea level. If, like us, you’re into unconventional natural beauty then you will enjoy this spot, we spent a couple of hours clambering across the rocks, cooling off in the rock pools and watching as the ocean crashed dramatically against the coast. This is a totally different side to the island, we highly recommend it as an adventurous way to spend an afternoon.
Note: We have since learnt that our hike was one of two routes via which the rock is accessible, the other being on a 1.5 ramble from Shirley Heights. However due to our awesome afternoon exploring we will have to recommend the route we took!
2 - Shirley Heights - Sunday Sunset session
It has been a long time since we have experienced an atmosphere like we did at Shirley Heights on the Sunday evening. A magical mixture of Antiguan ingredients results in a totally unique atmosphere.
Centuries old, Shirley Heights Lookout is, as its name suggests, a former military lookout. Located at the southernmost point of the island it boasts spectacular views over the surrounding area including the famous English Harbour. Once a week, on a Sunday, tourists and locals alike gather at the top of the heights from 4-10pm for what can only be described as a party... Caribbean style.
Walking into the courtyard you will be incredibly hard pushed to suppress a smile. We were met by quite the scene - a 20 piece steel band set the tempo as people of all ages danced, the smell of jerk chicken wafted through the air calling us towards the BBQ, everyone was smiling, everyone was having a good time and all of this to the backdrop of a dramatic Antiguan sunset.
These Sunday sessions have been officially happening for the last 31 years and it’s safe to say that in that time they have nailed the formula. This is an Antiguan must as locals and tourists come together in a celebration for celebrations sake. A very cool experience.
Note: On a Sunday the party runs from 4-10pm and entry is $10 per adult. More info here.
3 - Road trip Around The Island
In many ways renting a car to explore would be our top tip for a visit to the island. Antigua is surprisingly large and doesn’t really have a tourist friendly public transport system, therefore getting around with ease and freedom is best by car. A word of warning must accompany this tip however as a fair few of the roads are not in the best condition with some of the less travelled routes sporting multiple potholes. This however added to the sense of adventure as we navigated the lesser driven side tracks across the island in search of the more secluded spots.
What's more the pace of the island roads is pretty slow, we found ourselves waiting for horses to cross and for drivers as they pulled to a halt in order to have a catch up chat. But this is all part of the experience and the slowness of things won’t trouble you much, as one thing we found in Antigua is you are rarely in a rush!
With a car we were able to fulfil the cliched desire to ‘get off the beaten track’ as we picked our next turnings impulsively safe in the knowledge that you can never get that lost in Antigua. This led us through the smaller villages, past delicious local road side food vendors and often resulted in us stumbling across stunning remote beaches. We left the island having covered a lot of it and as a result feeling like we had really got to know it.
Here are some links to kick start your research:
4 - Sample The Roadside Fresh Fruit
Driving around Antigua you’ll be hard pushed to miss the fresh fruit stalls that are positioned invitingly on the side of pretty much every road. The stalls vary in appearance from simple tables to beautifully painted huts but all sell fresh and eye-catchingly colourful locally grown fruit.
Eating this deliciously fresh local island produce in the comfort of your hotel is one thing but stopping to eat it at the roadside is a totally different experience. We were welcomed with big smiles and open arms every time we stopped, and the experience became less about fresh fruit refreshment and more about meeting the stall owners and hearing about their take on island life.
A simple way to get to know the island a little better and one that we would highly recommend.
5 - Explore The Coast by Kayak
As we’ve already mentioned there are 365 beaches on Antigua and if you fancy a heart rate raising way of hoping between them then we’d suggest renting a kayak and getting paddling! You’ll be hard pushed to find much clearer water to glide through than that of the Caribbean Sea and looking back at Antigua from the water gives you a fresh perspective on the island and gives you a new appreciation for its beauty.
A word of warning though, this is fairly tough work, paddling for any length of time is a work out and you are very exposed to the sun once you’re on the water. However if like us you are keen on some slightly more adventurous forms of exercise then this could well be for you.
We spent a couple of hours Kayaking across the bays, discovering new beaches and jumping in the water to cool down - a pretty dreamy afternoon.
We rented our kayak from our hotel Carlisle bay, it was part of the all inclusive service they provide and so gave us ease and flexibility.
6 - Enjoy a Seafood Feast at Papa Zouk
I’m going to go straight in with a big shout here... Papa Zouk is one of the best restaurants we’ve ever been lucky to eat at. A small rum shack located in an unassuming neighbourhood of Saint Johns, this family run business specialises in local seafood. More specifically Papa Zouks is famous as a result of its delicious grilled Red Snapper.
As soon as you step foot inside the restaurant you enter the world of Papa Zouk - greeted by beaming smiles, fairy lights, hundreds of different rum bottles and a bombardment of delicious Caribbean smells. This is not a fussy place, in fact the opposite, the way the staff meet you feels like you’re returning home and the beach shack style interior cements the relaxed atmosphere with old fishing memorabilia and family photos.
We were just starting to fall in love with the place and then the food came out... on our waitress’s recommendation we ordered the seafood soup and stuffed crab to start followed by the grilled lobster and famous red snapper for mains. This came without ‘conventional’ sides, just fresh salad and delicious homemade garlic bread to mop up the juices. Normally this lack of sides would be problematic for Charlie (he’s very greedy) however it wasn’t an issue at all as the quantity of fresh seafood that arrived at the table was more than enough, what’s more the quality was right up there with the best we’ve ever had.
All this was washed down with cold beer and of course the local rums. A word on the rums - traditionally we are not big rum drinkers, in fact due to drinking cheap and nasty rum over the years we tend to steer away from it when ordering spirits. However under the experienced guidance of the Papa Zouk’s staff we were treated to some incredibly delicious rum complete with a whirlwind masterclass in all things on the category. We can now safely say we are converted!
A meal at Zouk’s is an island must.
7 - Visit Saint Johns Market
If you would like a slice of real local Antiguan life then we would recommend making your way to the capital Saint Johns for their Saturday market. It is a fresh produce market comprised of stalls selling everything from local chillis and coconuts to seafood and spices. The market is a riot of Caribbean colour and sound, it is hot and hectic so be prepared to get stuck in.
Once we had finished perusing the market stalls we slipped off from the bustle of the main drag and made our way down the side streets to explore. This was arguably our favourite part of the experience as we wandered aimlessly through colourful neighbourhoods taking in the city life.
We got there in our rental car and parked a short walk from the centre. We would recommend doing this rather than using one of the ‘official’ car parks as you will avoid the market congestion and it's free!
The market actually begins at 6am and so if you’re after the absolute best/freshest deals then get there for then. However if, like us, you are just wanting to wander between the stalls and sample local life then the market runs through to around midday.
8 - Indulge in Some Down Time
Now although we of course recommend you spend your time on the island getting out and about exploring we of course also recognise the need to indulge in some hard earned rest! And there is no better place to do that than in Antigua. We were lucky enough to stay at two incredibly beautiful hotels each with their own beach, pool, restaurants and where we were able to take chilling out to the next level!
We stayed at:
Located on the Island’s south coast this hotel ticked every box for us. We were lucky enough to stay in one of their beach side rooms which is pretty much an apartment with a huge bedroom, living area, enormous bath and balcony overlooking the hotel's private beach. Dreamy stuff. When it came to indulging in some down time it offered the perfect combination of gorgeous beach, palm tree shaded sun loungers, huge swimming pool and 4 restaurants serving the most mouth wateringly delicious food. All of this topped off by a team of extremely friendly and helpful staff.
A gorgeously designed wooden hotel again on the island’s southern coast, Keyonna Beach has a wonderfully slow pace to it. Our beautiful room, complete with outdoor shower, overlooked the private beach and offered perfect views of the Caribbean sunset.
9 - Take a Local Cooking Class
If, like us, you enjoy jerk cooking, spicy flavours and all things Caribbean cuisine then we highly recommend doing a local cooking class.
We headed to the house of local chef Nicole Dennis to take part in her ‘All About Jerk Cooking’ Class. This 3 hour hands on class will teach you everything you need to know about regional flavours, foods and the island’s culinary history as Nicole walks you through the making of a Jerk Chicken feast.
We were genuinely astonished by just how easy it was to create such a delicious set of flavours and since being back have already made the recipe and all the trimmings for 2 BBQs.
See website for more info.
10 - Discover Rendezvous Bay
Finding Rendezvous Bay was not easy, however we had heard that the effort was worth it. After a fairly long drive (in island terms), a sweaty hike, a few cactus prickles and some rock clambering later we made it to the bay and it’s safe to say it was indeed more than worth the effort.
We had woken up early and were on the road by 6:30, we’re early risers so this was relatively natural, however we also wanted to tackle the mission before the heat built up. We had heard about this stunning southern tip of the island and were intrigued to see it for ourselves. After getting lost a few times we found the correct track, it was old and eroded and so we ended up parking our car half way down and continuing by foot. We navigated some beautifully wild coast line before ending up face to face with the vast Rendezvous Bay. It was easily the most dramatic beach we experienced in Antigua and what’s more, our early rise ensured we had it all to ourselves.
If you are looking for an off the beaten track coastal hike then we would recommend this route, however if you fancy seeing the bay without the effort then we are told that it is possible to access by boat.
On the surface Antigua is a picture perfect beach lovers dream, however dig a little deeper and you will find an island packed with adventure, Caribbean culture and rugged natural beauty. This is an island full of surprises that rewards a sense of adventure with an array of hidden gems.