365 beaches… one cocktail at a time

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What’s the best way to explore Antigua’s amazing sands? Hitting its delicious Beach Bar Trail, says Sasha Wood

When I asked Lance if he could make me a house cocktail, his response was tantalising: “Let me surprise you.”

True to his word, when I returned from a dip in the iridescent sea, a zesty rum Sensation, garnished with fresh mint, had appeared beside my cabana at Jacqui O’sbeach bar. Sipping the cool concoction with my toes sunk into the silken sand seemed suitably glamorous for a spot allegedly once frequented by America’s most iconic first lady. And although Jacqui O’s has a distinct high-life allure, this kind of personal service was something I was becoming used to along Antigua’s Beach Bar Trail, a mapped route that invites visitors to explore a string of the island’s fabled 365 beaches – one cocktail at a time.

Salt, rum and lime
In a region renowned for its spectacular beaches, Antigua not only lays claim to some of the world’s best, but it has some of the Caribbean’s coolest beach bars, too – real, authentic places to taste Antiguan life. And there’s none more authentic than Dennis Beach Bar and Restaurant, perched atop stilts beside the wide arc of Ffryes Beach. According to my taxi driver, Dennis serves up the best curried goat on the island, so it seemed the perfect venue to fill up on good food before spending a blissful Sunday afternoon hitting the south-west section of Antigua’s Beach Bar Trail.

As I arrived for lunch, there was a bubbling atmosphere, with live calypso music and a warm welcome from chef and owner Dennis Thomas, who insists he learned everything he knows about cooking from his mother. Deliciously smooth pumpkin soup was served on the wooden veranda, followed by tender and delicately spiced curried goat. Most importantly, my totally tropical-looking Blue Lagoon cocktail – a mix of coconut, rum, super-sweet black pineapple and vivid blue Curaçao – perfectly matched the scene.

Even for non-swimmers, the clear, warm water along Antigua’s southern shores is as tempting as a siren call on a hot and humid day. After lunch I cooled off with the friendly ladies from the local swimming club who were treading water and chatting in the surf. Then I dropped into Sheer Rocks bar, cut into the cliffside and decked out like a chic smuggler’s den, to sample a refreshingly fruity Caribbean Breeze, mixed up with grenadine and Cavalier rum. From here I had views of the platinum-dusted coast right the way round to Jolly Harbour, a great vantage point from which to plot my next stop…

Cocktail tales
Working my way back south-east along Valley Road, the Shakerley Mountains provided a verdant backdrop to the white sands of Darkwood, Crab Hill and Turners beaches. It was in the high afternoon that I reached Lance and his boutique-style bar, palm-tufted Jacqui O’s. The origin of the bar’s name is a little enigmatic. Although the previous owner was a local called Jackie O, the current proprietors have played on the famous name to come up with a bar that reflects the US style icon who is said to have spent the summer of 1964 painting here.

The stretch of sand itself has assumed a more romantic name over time: rather than Crab Hill, it’s now known as Love Beach. This is a common practice in Antigua, where the former Boggy Peak and Mosquito Bay are now known as Mount Obama and Jolly Harbour. When I arrived at Jacqui O’s, chef Miguel was grappling with live lobster, while Lance was showing himself to be something of a mixologist behind both the bar and the decks, simultaneously spinning chill-out tunes and creating a new house cocktail. The bar has no set menu, so customers just tell the waiter what they fancy. The gourmet chef uses local ingredients to rustle up some truly inventive five-star dishes, from mahi mahi ceviche to lobster on a bed of hummus.

A little way south along the beach, it was impossible to miss the red double-decker Rum Bus shining like a beacon in the sun. Possibly one of the most unusual beach bars in the Caribbean, the owners have refashioned a vintage London bus into the focal point of a bar that has become one of the island’s hippest hangouts. Food and drinks are served up through a bus window, and visitors are encouraged to graffiti the surrounding panel in black marker. There are also red-cushioned loungers, lazy hammocks and wooden row boats that have been turned into hot tubs. It was the liveliest place I visited.

Nearby, my penultimate stop on the trail was local favourite Turners, planted above steep mounds of soft golden sand on a beach of the same name. Owner Rose Turner was busy behind the rustic bar preparing her ‘top secret’ spiced rum punch, while a little black-and-yellow bananaquit cheekily hung upside down on a bar optic sipping banana liqueur.

With even the island wildlife welcome to drop in for a drink, a reassuringly relaxed atmosphere pervaded the bar as I perched on a bar stool trying to guess which spices had gone into my aromatic punch. Whether cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom or cloves, it definitely contained a large measure of rum and I was feeling more like an Antiguan with every sip. Perhaps the most serene spot on southern Antigua’s Beach Bar Trail, the bar is surrounded by a white picket fence and, aside from a few customers dotted under wooden umbrellas or soaking in the late afternoon sun, the sand was completely deserted.

Good vibrations
Though not technically on the Beach Bar Trail, there’s only one place to go on a late Sunday afternoon in Antigua, and that’s Shirley Heights Lookout. From Turners it’s a short jaunt east through Antigua’s fruit basket around Fig Tree Drive to the high hill overlooking historic English Harbour. Running for 35 years, the weekly party at Shirley Heights has become an Antigua institution, where local families and groups of friends mingle with tourists for a mammoth open-air barbecue, live music and sundowners from the 18th-century Lookout bar that was once part of British military fortifications on the island.

I made it to the crest of the hill just before sunset to see the green tendrils of land and silvery inlets of English Harbour below take on a rosy glow. Great coils of barbecue smoke rose into the salty air along with good vibrations from the Halcyon steel pan orchestra, providing a classic calypso and reggae soundtrack.

A sweet way to cap off the cocktail crawl, I opted for a freshly whizzed-up strawberry daiquiri as the sky darkened from pink and mauve to black. But the jump-up was just getting started, and it wasn’t long before the hastening soca rhythms took hold of the rum-soaked crowd.

To my left, three Antiguan ladies were schooling the rest of us on how to dance, while on my right the stage’s huge sound-system was sending shockwaves through the ground beneath my feet.
Intoxicated with island bliss, and surrounded by friendly faces, I found it impossible to tear myself away.

In less than a day, I had mapped out one of the Caribbean’s most beautiful shorelines, liming with locals, sampling fresh island flavours and some of the best cocktails I have ever tasted. I can’t think of a more pleasurable way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

5 great places to eat in Antigua

1 Papa Zouk
The ideal ending to any day other than Sunday on Antigua’s Beach Bar Trail, Papa Zouk is not only a gourmet rum shop that stocks more than 200 rums from around the world, but has also built a reputation for its mouth-watering house bouillabaisse, its Robert De Niro-endorsed red snapper and the citrusy Ti Punch, named for its powerful kick.
• Dickenson Bay Street, St John’s; +1 268 464 6044; www.facebook.com/PapaZouk

2 Road House
A casual diner overlooking Newfield, the Road House is a classic liming spot that offers a more local alternative to Sundays at Shirley Heights. Chef Lorna turns out home-style comfort food – chicken doused in Susie’s Hot Sauce and spinach rice, for instance – while owner and guitarist Zukai often treats guests to live sets from the Hardcore Reggae Band, who have won the island-wide calypso competition three times.
• Lyon Hill, Newfield; +1 268 764 8090

3 Buba’s Hideout
A close-knit family-run restaurant in its own hillside enclave, Buba’s is a magical little place with a homely atmosphere, authentic Antiguan cooking and sometimes even live reggae. Dishes sourced from the sea and fresh from Buba’s own back garden include delicious cream of lentil soup and spinach-stuffed chicken, best followed with the house Happy Grass cocktail, fashioned from rum and homegrown lemongrass.
• Buckley’s Village; +1 268 732 1213; www.facebook.com/Bubas-Hideout

4 Sottovento
Sottovento’s Sardinian owners say Antigua reminds them of home, and at their waterside restaurant at Ocean Point they have successfully married the two places to create locally influenced dishes with unmistakable Italian flair. Order delights such as conch fritters or freshly caught red snapper with sweet potato, and wash it all down with a glass of Italian red wine.
• Ocean Point, Hodges Bay; +1 268 562 8378; www.sottoventoantigua.com

5 Pillars restaurant
People come to Pillars Restaurant at Admiral’s Inn as much to have a meal in a UNESCO-listed Georgian dockyard as for the fine seafood. Beyond the heritage-rich building’s low timber beams and thick stone walls, tables are arranged on the waterside terrace beside the rotund pillars of the former 18th-century boathouse that gives the restaurant its name.
• Nelson’s Dockyard, English Harbour; +1 268 460 1027; www.admiralsinnantigua.com

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