Life’s a beach

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Antigua legendarily has 365 beaches – one for every day of the year. So how do you decide which one to try next? Lizzie Williams reveals what’s great where – from beach bars to day-passes, secret sands and the ultimate activity spots.

With its diverse coastline curving into so many pretty coves, it would take an entire year to sample all of Antigua’s 54 miles of shore. It’s not just about the quantity, though: many of the reputed 365 beaches have picture-perfect white sands, lapped by the aquamarine waters of the Caribbean.

If you thought all beaches were created equal, think again. Some are popular spots for dancing-on-the-sand parties or for a leisurely lunch with gorgeous views. Others have serene waters where kids play safely, or out-of-the way slivers of sand ideal for quiet ‘me’ time.

By law, every beach on Antigua is open to the public, regardless of whether or not a full-blown holiday resort sits behind it. The best can be reached easily by car or taxi, and a few buses (vans) travel from St John’s to the east, west and south coasts. Whatever you’re looking for in a beach, and however your mood takes you, Antigua has it covered.

Best for splashing around
Dickenson Bay Beach

A 15-minute drive north of St John’s is one of Antigua’s most popular beaches, where resorts line up and restaurants and beach bars abound. The atmosphere is lively, there’s a mile-long strip of powdery sand, and the shallow turquoise water is ideal for swimming and splashing around in – even for small children. Head to Tony’s Watersports Beach Bar and Grill (www.tonyswatersports.com) for parasailing, banana-boat rides, wakeboarding and jet-skiing. Or simply loll and watch the action. The beach faces west so a sunset float with a cocktail in hand is a must at Dickenson Bay.
Like that, try these…
• Enjoy a day aboard the D-Boat (www.dboatantigua.com), a waterpark and party boat moored by tiny Maiden Island off the north-west coast. Activities include a giant inflatable waterslide and rope swing, a floating trampoline, and boat rides to the island’s beach and reef.
• Departing from the jetty in Mercers Creek at Seatons in the north-east, the excursion with Antigua Paddles (www.antiguapaddles.com) begins with an exciting speedboat ride out to mangrove inlets for some kayaking, then to uninhabited Great Bird Island for snorkelling, hiking and relaxing on the deserted beach.

 

Best for beach bar liming
Fort James Beach

Antiguans come to Fort James at weekends to lime, eat at the beach bars, listen to live bands, and perhaps play volleyball or cricket. BeachLimerZ (www.beachlimerz.com) is a laid-back wooden bar offering great cocktails and Caribbean food such as coconut shrimp and conch fritters; on Saturday look out for specials like goat water and pigtail soup, or feast on lobster, fish, chicken and ribs at at the Sunday barbecue.
The equally atmospheric and casual Millers by the Sea (+1 268 462 9414; faceboom.com/millersbythesea) serves up rum, local cuisine and reggae music. At the southern end of the beach, climb to the ruins of Fort James for a great view of St John’s Harbour.
Like that, try these…
• The brightly painted Nest Beach Bar & Restaurant (+1 268 562 7958), at Valley Church Beach, ticks all the boxes for an authentic Caribbean beach bar: sitting under palm trees with cold beers, frozen cocktails, BBQ ribs, jerk chicken and grilled seafood.
• Also on the west coast, OJ’s Beach Bar & Restaurant (+1 268 460 0184) on Crab Hill Beach is a toes-in-the-sand shack decorated in beachcombed driftwood and shells. The menu features grilled red snapper and lobster salad, the rum cocktails are not for the fainthearted, and there’s live music on Friday and Sunday.

 

Best for windsurfing and kitesurfing
Jabberwock Beach

On the north-eastern coast, Jabberwock has a quarter-mile curve of white sand, cross-onshore breezes and reef-protected shallow waters. It’s perfect for novice wind- and kite-surfers, while there are some ‘bump and jump’ choppy conditions for the more experienced out beyond the reef. Windsurf Antigua (www.windsurfantigua.net) and Kitesurf Antigua (www.kitesurfantigua.com) offer equipment hire and lessons here. Plentiful seaweed means that Jabberwock isn’t the best beach for swimming, and gusts of wind hamper sunbathing and picnics but it’s a good spot for a bracing stroll while watching the colourful sails dart across the bay.
Like that, try these…
• Nonsuch Bay on the east coast has flat water completely enclosed by a barrier reef – ideal for learning and progressing – while breaking whitecap waves farther out beckon the more accomplished. For gear rental and tuition try 40 Knots Kitesurfing & Windsurfing School (www.40knots.net) at Nonsuch Bay Resort.
• Where there is no swell try stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). Many resorts have complimentary boards for guests, or you can rent at SUP Antigua at Dickenson Bay (www.standuppaddleantigua.com) or Salty Dogs Rentals at Jolly Harbour Marina (www.saltydogsrentals.com/sup/).

 

Best for a lazy lunch
Pigeon Beach

Easily accessible from English Harbour and Nelson’s Dockyard on the south-east coast, this lovely stretch of sand has shady sea-grape trees and views of yachts bobbing in Falmouth Harbour. At its southern end, set in an elegant plantation-style house, Catherine’s Café Plage (www.catherinescafe.com) is one of Antigua’s best beachside restaurants. The menu features French bistro-style dishes, tapas and seafood, and the sandy garden has sunbeds and hammocks. At the opposite end, Bumpkins Bar (+1 268 562 2522) is famous for its banana piña coladas, barbecue ribs and jerk chicken. Pigeon Beach hosts Lay Day parties during Antigua Sailing Week (29 April–5 May 2017; www.sailingweek.com).
Like that, try these…
• At Crab Hill Beach on the west coast, Jacqui O’s Beach House (+1 268 562 2218; www.facebook.com/JacquiOsBeachHouseAntigua/) has chic interiors, chilled music and luxurious moon-shaped daybeds on the sand. The menu fuses French cuisine with local seafood – dishes might include mahi-mahi ceviche or fish bouillabaisse.
• In a wooden house at Dutchman’s Bay in the north-east, Cecilia’s High Point Café (www.highpointantigua.com) has tables on the veranda and sun-loungers on the beach. Daily lunch specials are chalked up on a blackboard and always include fresh fish, homemade pasta and delicious desserts.

Best for hiding away
Half Moon Bay Beach

On a remote promontory in the south-east, with crushed-coral pink and white sand and wonderful cooling breezes, this is perhaps Antigua’s most beautiful beach, curving for nearly a mile around the crescent-shaped bay. The surf can be rough but a reef offers some shelter for swimmers and snorkellers. It’s certainly not undiscovered, but there are no resorts – only the sporadically open Beach Bum Bar and Grill (+1 268 464 1974) – and reaching the beach takes a little effort, so it’s often deliciously deserted; pack a picnic and enjoy the peace of the surrounding lush green hills and the views of the odd yacht skimming by on the breeze.
Like that, try these…
• On the north-west coast, the southern extension of busy Dickenson Bay Beach is Runaway Beach, which has equally lovely soft white sand and clear water – but is often empty. It’s great for long, isolated walks; at McKinnons Salt Pond birdwatchers may spot egrets, herons and whistling ducks.
• On the south coast, isolated Rendezvous Beach is accessible only by boat or by hiking around the headland from Falmouth Harbour – but once there, you can call it your own for the entire day. Alternatively, horse rides from Falmouth Harbour can be arranged with the Antigua Equestrian Centre (www.antiguaequestrian.com).

 

Best for snorkelling
Deep Bay Beach

On the northern side of Five Islands, this long arched beach is overlooked by the ruins of 18th-century Fort Barrington that once protected the southern approach into St John’s Harbour (from the beach’s north end, it’s a 10-minute hike up). Great for sunbathing and swimming, it’s also one of Antigua’s best snorkelling spots thanks to a wreck that sits in the bay – the Andes, a merchant ship that caught fire and sank in 1905 and now rests at around 10m deep. Over time, soft and hard corals, gorgonians and sponges have turned it into an artificial reef that attracts a colourful variety of tropical fish. It’s easy to swim from shore and snorkel around one of its masts that peeks above the water’s surface.
Like that, try these…
• Also on the Five Islands peninsula, the four crescent-shaped, palm-fringed Hawksbill beaches – Royal Palm, Sea Grape, Honeymoon Cove and Eden – are good for snorkelling over shallow coral reefs. They also offer good views of the cluster of craggy red rocks protruding off the bay – one looking like a hawk’s bill, hence the name.
• The 2½-mile-long Cades Reef lies about 500m off the south-west of the island and is Antigua’s most popular snorkelling and diving spot by boat; excursions are often combined with a barbecue on one of the west coast beaches. Marine life includes spiny lobster, parrotfish, barracuda, moray and eagle ray, and nurse sharks are sometimes found sheltering under the overhangs.

 

Best for a resort day-pass
Jolly Beach

Set in a bay enclosed by massive headlands, Jolly Beach is about a mile long and one of the widest beaches on Antigua: there’s plenty of space for kids to play in and out of the calm and shallow jade-coloured water. A day-pass at the large, all-inclusive Jolly Beach Resort & Spa (www.jollybeachresort.com) includes meals, drinks, use of the swimming pools, activities such as beach volleyball and non-motorised watersports such as kayaks, Hobie cats and pedalos – a good-value option for active families. Also at Jolly Beach is Castaways (+1 268 562 4446; www.facebook.com/castawaysantigua), a beach bar with chairs and umbrellas, showers, a playground and kids’ menu.
Like that, try these…
• A day-pass at Nonsuch Bay Resort (www.nonsuchbayresort.com) in a secluded part of eastern Antigua includes a boat trip across to Green Island for snorkelling at Horseshoe Reef, use of the three swimming pools, lunch and afternoon tea. There’s an excellent choice of watersports at additional cost.
• On the south coast is Carlisle Bay, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea. A day-pass at Carlisle Bay Antigua (www.carlisle-bay.com) includes lunch, afternoon tea, use of the gym, tennis courts, beach amenities and some watersports; for additional cost you can relax at the Blue Spa.

 

Best for a romantic dinner by the sea
Ffryes Beach

Off Valley Road on the south-west coast of Antigua lie a string of three wonderful beaches – Ffryes, Darkwood and Crab Hill – where the sand is stunningly white, the sunset views superb and, if the day is clear (as it usually is), the volcanic island of Montserrat can be seen to the south-west. Sitting on floodlit rocks overlooking Ffryes Beach with waves splashing gently below, Sheer Rocks (www.sheer-rocks.com) is a stylish and atmospheric spot for a romantic dinner. The setting sun is showcased from its tiered wooden pavilions, clad with billowing white curtains, and there are wine-pairing, seven-course tasting and à la carte menus of Mediterranean and Cajun cuisine. The tapas selection, day beds and plunge pool make it a good lunch venue, too.
Like that, try these…
• At Ocean Point Residence in north coast Hodges Bay, Sottovento on the Beach (www.sottoventoantigua.com) is a boutique beach club that offers gourmet Italian cuisine and seafood, after-dinner gelato, and quality wine and cocktails. Décor is luxurious, there’s live music some evenings, and you can get a massage on the beach.
• In the centre of the strip of resorts at Dickenson Bay, Ana’s on the Beach (www.anas.ag) is chic, beachy and romantic all at the same time, with private day beds and tables with curtains and cushions and elegant all-white décor. The Mediterranean menu features grills, seafood and plates of ‘Anapasti’ to snack on at sunset.

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