‘When the butterflies come, it is Christmas’
Antigua and Barbuda, known for its stunning beaches, sailing yachts and celebrity snowbirds such as Giorgio Armani and Eric Clapton, is not normally on the radar for budget-minded travellers.
The availability of cheap flights from Canada and some moderately priced Airbnbs changed our perception of this Caribbean island nation as being only for the well-off tourist.
We flew from Halifax, Nova Scotia, in late November, just slightly before high season, paying a little under $500 each for return airfare with WestJet. Air Canada is also operating similar flights. Costs vary widely according to the time of booking and days of travel.
We landed in St. John’s, the capitol of Antigua and its smaller, less-populated sister island Barbuda. Barbuda, famous for its 17-mile pink sand beach, was severely damaged by hurricane Irma in 2017 and continues to rebuild.
Our arrival was heralded by butterflies, or so it seemed. Swarms of white, yellow, orange and black butterflies darted in an out of trees and bushes along the narrow lanes that wind through the mountains and valleys here.
There is a saying in Antigua: “When the butterflies come, it is Christmas.” It is a country that takes Christmas seriously. Holiday music could be heard wafting into the streets of St. John’s, while tinsel and other decorations fluttered in the warm Caribbean tradewinds, adorning shop windows and storefronts.
Local buses great sightseeing option
English is the official language and driving is on the left-hand side of the road. That and the winding country lanes and pitted roads in much of the island made for white-knuckled driving.
Driving was also challenging in the close confines of St. John’s, with its ribbon-thin sidewalks crammed with pedestrians. We wound up preferring to walk or take local buses. The area is well served by small buses and a quick internet search produced several sites with good guides and directions for bus riders.
Many of the routes follow the island’s magnificent coastline, dotted by rolling hills and always, a pretty swath of sand and turquoise water.
Good value, we thought.
From the first days of our visit, dignified friendly people guided us and were painstakingly patient to the point of giving us lifts to our destinations in case we couldn’t navigate the route ourselves.
And what destinations! We gorged on beaches, picking a different one each day…looking for good snorkelling and enjoying swimming in the surf on some days as well.
Mercifully for us the island of Antigua is only about 108 square kilometres so we did not feel it was essential to have a vehicle for our entire visit. We were mostly satisfied with riding the bus, walking or taking a taxi. The kindness of passing motorists also saved us from having to trudge too many long distances.
Barbuda is about 40 kilometres north of the Antigua, about a 90-minute boat ride. We didn’t make the trip on this visit but I plan to do a day trip upon our return.
Easy to find good snorkelling
The coastline of Antigua is a mixture of rocky outcrops and powdery sand beaches. Shoals and reefs, some not too far offshore, make for great snorkelling, when the surf conditions are right. And chances are, if one beach is too wavy and the visibility is poor, there is likely another bay close by where snorkellers can try their luck. We saw dozens of different species of fish during our two-and-a-half week stay.
We looked forward to exploring a sunken schooner in Deep Bay, located southwest of St. John’s, however, estimated the distance was a little too far for us to comfortably swim. The problem was solved by paying a man to give us a ride back and forth to the site, on one of the jet skiis he was renting to tourists on the beach.
Deep Bay was one of closest beaches to our Airbnb in Five Islands Village, a quiet, semi-rural area, with charming meadows and surrounded by rolling hills.
In Antigua, land that is not fenced off is considered to be common grazing ground. Therefore, it was not unusual to be accompanied by livestock such as cows, goats, donkeys and horses on our strolls. None seem particularly curious about humans in their midst, so we passed each other peacefully on various roads around the districts, or parishes. They are: Saint John’s, Saint Mary’s, Saint George’s, Saint Peter’s, Saint Paul’s, and Saint Philips for a total of six parishes plus the dependency of Barbuda.
Occasionally, we would see a glimpse of an animal that resembled a large, reddish-brown squirrel or mink, with a long tail. We were soon to discover it was a mongoose, brought from India by plantation owners, to rid the sugar cane fields of poisonous snakes which were attacking workers.
All beaches in Antigua are open for public use. Resorts are not permitted to prevent non-guests from accessing the beaches they front upon. Often non-guests use access roads the hotels install for allowing workers and equipment on the sites.
One notable exception is the Royalton which fronts on Deep Bay. When we approached the property, we were stopped and told we could not use the access road which runs behind the hotel. Instead, we were forced to walk another 2.5 kilometres, involving climbing a small foot bridge and looping back to the beach.
Sleeping, eating and driving
We stayed at a guest house in Five Islands Village, a semi-rural part of the island. The small studio cottage, booked through Airbnb, was the best choice for budget-minded travellers like us. Resorts can be pricey, upwards of $300 per night, especially during high season.
We also found a long-stay apartment in Marina Bay, north of St. John’s, between two of the popular beaches of Dickenson Bay and Runaway Bay. Also a cheaper alternative to resorts and hotels.
We did some cooking in our suite so shopped at local supermarkets. Food prices are generally slightly more expensive than those in Nova Scotia, especially non-essential junk food. Eating at mom-and-pop roadside cafes is another inexpensive option and the food, mainly barbecue with side dishes, is excellent. So is the local roti, a type of hot sandwich in a chickpea flour wrap. So yummy … and filling. High-end restaurants are also available at the expected prices.
My best lunch was a fish sandwich served at Dickenson Beach, a moist filet (crispy on the outside) with a tasty dressing drizzled on top, served with salad and fries. Definitely not your “Filet O’ Fish.”
You will need an Antiguan driver’s licence if you decide to rent a vehicle. The cost is $50 EC, roughly $25 CDN, and involves a trip to either the police station closest to the airport or the main office of the Transportation Department. It is good for three months.