Get involved! Send your photos, video, news & views by texting RA NEWS to 80360 or e-mail us
Whispering Antigua's secret
6:00am Saturday 7th September 2013 in Travel
It may be one of the world's top holiday destinations, but there are still secret corners to be uncovered in Antigua, says Lisa Haynes.
The first thing that strikes me about Antigua is colour.
As I travel through bustling capital St. John's, reggae music booms loudly through outdoor speakers. Locals dressed in bright clothing gather outside their equally dazzling houses; a sugary mix of pistachio greens, rose pinks and lemon yellows, set against a sun-drenched blue sky.
Children play cricket using a tree branch as a bat, while a man sells fuzzy coconuts from the back of a truck, expertly axing them open for anyone who flags him down for a cooling drink.
I half wonder if this is the paradise location where they filmed the Lilt advert.
It's a Thursday but every day feels like the weekend in Antigua with its relaxed vibe and happy-go-lucky islanders.
It's no wonder so many A-list celebrities and tourists are attracted to the island. But despite the number of people who come each year - a figure likely to increase when a new $75 million airport terminal opens next year - Antigua still feels authentic, with plenty of raw, untouched beauty to discover within its 108sq miles.
Better still, the option of staying in all-inclusive resorts means that paradise is now within easier and more affordable reach.
Any reservations I might have had about "wristband" holidays quickly evaporate when I check into the adults-only Galley Bay on the west coast, looking out to the Caribbean Sea.
Defying the stereotype of mass market all-inclusive hotels, it's a peaceful, romantic hideaway where breakfast and lunch is served a la carte by waiters who remember my name after day one. By day three, they've even memorised how I like my eggs cooked.
Much to my excitement, the beachfront Galley Bay also shares its three-quarter-mile-long stretch of white sand with designer Giorgio Armani. His Hollywood-style holiday home is perched high on the cliffs, and I'm told he frequents the hotel's fine-dining Ismay's restaurant, located conveniently in tropical gardens at the bottom of his private stairs.
The fact Giorgio manages to holiday relatively incognito in Antigua isn't surprising; if you really want to beat the crowds and get off the beaten track, it's actually very easy.
Undoubtedly, Antigua's hottest selling point is its 365 beaches - one for every day of the year. I set off on a boat journey to the more remote shorelines to visit picturesque cliffs, coastlines and smaller offshore islands, hoping to meet local wildlife on the way.
Magnificent frigate birds aren't difficult to spot in beachside nests on Great Bird Island - the males are easily identifiable by the inflatable red throat pouches that they use to attract females during mating season.
In a remote setting at the extreme eastern point of Antigua, Devil's Bridge national park is a spectacle of spouting surf and dramatic geysers. The wild sea water has carved out a natural limestone arch over the centuries, but I shudder when I hear the myth behind the name - that slaves leapt to their death as if possessed during Antigua's period of slavery. Unsurprisingly, swimming is not permitted here.
I spend my day exploring a number of sleepy, secluded coves, swimming ashore holding a rucksack aloft with one arm to keep it dry!
I see just two sun bathers on the virtually deserted beach of Rendezvous Bay; being a good 30-minute walk off the beaten track, few tourists come here. Looking back to a land of rough, green terrain, this is the closest I've come to feeling shipwrecked.
The crescent-shaped Half Moon Bay has a similar desolate feel, making it an ideal spot for a picnic on the mile-long pink sands. The beach's peacefulness is enhanced by the fact its only hotel was ravaged by Hurricane Luis in 1995.
Although Stingray City isn't a big secret among tourists, the floating docks are about a mile offshore, so when I arrive I feel like I'm standing in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by coral reefs.
The gigantic but graceful and friendly southern rays soar through the crystal clear, shallow water to greet us in their natural habitat. Without distinctive heads, they float like huge underwater spaceships with antenna-like long tails.
On land, I discover the more rugged side of Antigua on an island experience drive with Scenic Tours Antigua.
We barely move a mile before being forced to stop and wait for a herd of ambling cows to cross a main road at their own Caribbean-style pace.
From villages to vegetation, Fig Tree Drive is a world away from the 365 beaches. The picturesque yet twisty track meanders upwards into the ancient volcanic hills, passing through lush rainforest.
At the peak of the climb, I marvel at rows upon rows of different banana varieties hanging from bulging purple pods. (Fig, I later find out, is the Antiguan word for banana.)
I stop at fruit and vegetable street stalls to buy fresh bananas (naturally), mango, guava, papaya, coconut and even black pineapples - said to be the sweetest in the world.
As we descend towards the coastline, we pass old sugar cane mills and quaint village churches.
"I don't understand the logic of a church opposite a liqueur store but welcome to Antigua, where anything goes!" our tour guide Sean Beazer jests.
We stop at the famous Shirley Heights Lookout. It's rammed to the rafters once a week for the lively Sunday sunset party, when tourists and locals drink rum punch, listen to steel bands and dance to reggae music. I'm told it's as much a weekly institution as visiting church on a Sunday!
During the day, however, the former military lookout is a peaceful spot to take in the best views of the island, including the historic English Harbour and ferocious Atlantic Ocean.
The only disturbance comes from the gossiping female stall holders who sell bright beaded jewellery and trinkets to passing sightseers.
I continue to historic Blockhouse for another sheer cliff vantage point. Remains at the former military post date back to the 18th century but visitors appear to be more captivated by the clear views of Eric Clapton's sprawling estate on nearby Jumby Bay than the ancient canons.
It's hardly been strenuous activity, but I still welcome the opportunity to lie back and relax at Galley Bay. Even by Caribbean standards, the pace of life here is slow.
With few tourists around, I smugly settle into my own private beach.
"We do have some more guests here today," one of the hotel porters tells me, much to my disappointment. "One daddy, three mums and 14 babies."
I'm relieved, however, to discover he's referring to a family of red-footed tortoises.
Still, 14 is quite a high number!
"Come on my friend," our porter laughs, "this is the Caribbean." Quite.
Travel facts - Antigua
:: Lisa Haynes was a guest of the Elite Island Resorts at the all-inclusive Galley Bay (www.galleybayresort.com).
:: Seven nights in Antigua with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859/www.virginholidays.co.uk), including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick direct to Antigua, accommodation at 4V+ Galley Bay Resort on an all-inclusive basis with transfers starts from £2,201pp. Price based on two adults travelling.
:: For more information on Antigua, visit www.visitantiguabarbuda.co.uk