During European colonization of the Antilles in the 1700s, Antigua became the most important Caribbean base for the English crown. Admiral Horatio Nelson stood command over English Harbour, overseeing the protection of tall barkentines loaded with sugar, rum and gold set to sail for Bristol. Meanwhile, the English navy’s swift 30-cannon frigates set off in search of pirates and the Spanish, French and Dutch navies. The port was also a refuge from the elements for all types of ships from nations around the globe. A natural hurricane hole wreathed by protective mountains, English Harbour welcomed hundreds of vessels that put in whenever the seas got dark and stormy. All that naval lore lives on in Nelson’s Dockyard National Park in English Harbour today.
This is easily Antigua’s most visited attraction with an eclectic array of pubs and restaurants, intimate inns, sail-maker and shipwright shops, and charter boat services—all housed in 300-year-old buildings once used as sailor’s barracks. The best time to visit is during April and May when Nelson’s Dockyard is ground central for the hugely popular Antigua Sailing Week and Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta. Literally thousands of sailors from as far away as Australia and Japan meet on the island to sing sea shanties and race among the tropical trade winds in everything from multi-million dollar mega-yachts to tired old wooden scows.
This capital city of Antigua is a quaint waterfront community laid out in easily walkable squares that gently slope up the hillside towards the majestic Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The view from the church is worth the walk up because the front rampart overlooks the entire vista of St. John’s Harbor. In the center of town, the Museum of Antigua & Barbuda revisits the island’s history through an interesting collection of artifacts and original photographs. Throughout the week, visiting artists display and sell their watercolors that capture the natural beauty of Antigua.
Few other inhabited islands in the Caribbean are as far off the tourist map as Antigua’s sister island Barbuda. The number-one attraction on this completely unspoiled tropical milieu is the Frigate Bird Sanctuary that’s accessible only by boat. Birdwatchers can scout out over 170 species of birds, including more than 5,000 frigate birds. Other pastimes include beach combing and exploring historic estates, along with fishing, golfing, tennis, snorkeling and diving. Barbuda can be reached from Antigua by daily 20-minute flights or a 3-hour cruise.