An escape to a sun-soaked Caribbean paradise is something that we all dream of, particularly if it feels like our own winter is never-ending. Antigua, a wonderfully accessible island from Europe and the US, was our first ever experience of the Caribbean together - and it gave us everything we hoped to have from rum and reggae to great seafood, amazing beaches and an indulgent few days of relaxation.
From our week on the island, we learned a few invaluable lessons which we feel are essential for future visitors looking to make the most of their own Antiguan experience. From where to find the best beaches to why you should rent a car, knowing the best time of year to visit and picking the right balance between all-inclusive and independent adventure, we’ve got you covered.
Say it Right
It’s pronounced Anti-ga (Antee-gah), not Anti-gwa (Anti-guah).
Yep, one of us has been saying it wrong for quite a while.
At 108 square miles in size, and just 13 miles across, Antigua can be driven around more than a few times in a single day. However, this is part of the attraction for people looking for quite a stress-free island experience - you are only ever really 45 minutes away at most from wherever else you need to be. That it is so small also means you can cover most of what the island has to offer during your one week or two week visit without ever feeling rushed.
There’s One Airport
V.C Bird International Airport is where everyone will arrive and exit Antigua (unless you’re on a cruise). There are direct flights from London Gatwick with Virgin (8-9 hours), and multiple flights to Miami, Atlanta. To check the best route and cost for you, check out Skyscanner.
If you're not hiring a car from the airport, the easiest way to get to your hotel is by private or shared transfer. This can be done as a round-trip package, or, alternatively, bought separately for arrival and departure journeys. For a full list of options, see this link.
Yes, Its Beaches are Incredible…
One of the most mentioned facts about Antigua is that it has 365 beaches. At Along Dusty Roads, we’re all about quality over quantity, so just trust us when we say the 10-15 beaches that you’ll actually visit during your holiday in Antigua will all be, without a doubt, some of the best you’ve ever encountered. Powder white sand, sapphire clear blue water and palm tress rustling in the light breeze - you won’t want to go home!
Want to know our favourite beaches in Antigua? Read this post!
…but some are difficult to visit
That is official government policy, but although the theory says that all Antiguan beaches are public, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are easy for the public to access.
A number of exquisite beaches are encircled by private hotels or resorts who control the main or most obvious access points, and then treat the beach as somewhere exclusive for their guests. Understandably, this has caused controversy with local residents refused access to beaches.
On our trip around the island in search of Antigua's best beaches (we found ‘em!), we first experienced this awkwardness when trying to visit the four wonderful little bays at Hawksbill. The first beach is easily accessible and has parking, but there is a security post for the hotel blocking any obvious pathway to the next beaches, whilst to walk to them you have to go through the private hotel lands. All facilities on the beach are then clearly set up for the all-inclusive guests (although day-passes are available).
We charmed our way in, but it’s really not ideal and meant that we felt a little like intruders onto what is actually a public beach. Once we realised this access restriction was quite common, we decided to find the best beaches in Antigua that any visitor could easily and (un)awkwardly access on foot or with their own vehicle. Check out our very favourite 10 beaches in Antigua here.
There are two types of dollar
Every first time visitor in Antigua has likely got confused about the currency situation when reading prices; so let's clear it up for you.
The US dollar is a widely used and circulated currency on the island, but you shouldn’t always assume that prices quoted to you in dollars are actually referring to greenbacks or Benjamin Franklin. Instead, the Eastern Caribbean dollar - the currency of all seven full members and one associate member of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States - is the more common currency throughout Antigua and what we were quoted in at petrol stations, local supermarkets and restaurants outside our hotel. The problem arises in that both use the same dollar symbol ($) but prices won’t necessarily be listed with the necessary USD or XCD.
So, it is always worth checking the current exchange rate (usually about $1USD to $2.6 XCD) and confirming before paying.
For this reason, we also recommend that you bring USD into Antigua to spend, but also withdraw East Caribbean dollars whilst you’re there for day-to-day spending money in local businesses. To emphasise, you will have no problem at all spending USD anywhere on Antigua, but change may not always come in USD.
Note that the two ATMs we withdrew from only offered East Caribbean dollars, and again just used the $ rather than specifically noting it was XCD. So you may take out either a lot more or a lot less than you anticipate!
Tip | For a reliable ATM, go to the supermarket in St John’s.
Everyone Speaks English
Due to colonisation by the British, English is the official language on Antigua. This makes it extremely easy to do your own thing on the island. You’ll notice however that some locals converse together at a much quicker, almost indecipherable pace and in a difficult to follow accent beyond the odd word here and there - this is Antiguan Creole English.
All Inclusive is King
Without a doubt, most visitors to Antigua come to indulge in one of the island's fantastic all inclusive resorts. This means putting on about a stone in extra weight, drinking yourself silly on unlimited cocktails, and generally just being decadent.
We were fortunate enough to stay at the excellent Verandah Resort on the eastern side of the island, which served up wonderful food, had staff that could make a mean cocktails, and gave us majestic sea views from our whitewash villa.
Our advice to anyone looking for an all inclusive is to make sure that yours is on or next to a really nice spot of beach - it’s likely that you’ll be basing yourself there for a few days at least, so you want some nice sand and sea to laze by.
Don’t Forget Barbuda
Little Barbuda is the sister island to Antigua, and together they from the nation of Antigua & Barbuda.
Most visitors spend their time exclusively on Antigua, but it is very easy to take a day trip or spend a couple of nights over in Barbuda for an even more intimate Caribbean island experience. The island was badly affected by the 2017 Hurricane Irma, much more so than Antigua, and so its regeneration does depend on increased tourism. Twitchers will be happy to know that it’s one of the world’s best spots for frigates.
Boats leave six days a week (Wednesday is available to charter only) from the ferry dock in St John's harbour, and cost $45 USD one way, or $85 USD for a return journey. More information can be found on this website.
Viv Richards is a National Hero
If you don’t like cricket, then you need to find out who Sir Viv Richards is before you visit - you never know, you may end up having a cocktail next to the legend without even realising it! Sugar Breeze is his favourite restaurant.
Cricket is a big deal in Antigua, with the island regularly playing host to international tournaments and matches.
Sunday Nights at Shirley Heights…
…are a local institution and so should NOT be missed. If you want to know our other favourite things to do in Antigua, read this post (it's coming soon, we promise!)
You Should Absolutely Rent a Car
Two of our favourite days in Antigua involved us renting our own wheels and driving all over the island in search of its best beaches, best landscapes, and local life and rhythms.
After all, what goes on in a resort is not representative of day-to-day life in Antigua.
If you’re staying for one week, then we would highly recommend that you rent a car for the DURATION of your stay (or at least 50% of it if you’re here for two weeks).
Having your own vehicle readily accessible throughout your stay, rather than just for a couple of days, means that you can spend your time on your own terms. It is easy to be sucked into the resort way of life and never ever leave, but with your own car you can choose to laze at the beach all morning, and then go explore somewhere else on the island in the afternoon.
There are cheap locals buses operating all over the island, but despite often being big fans of bus travel when we’re in a new country, we’d definitely recommend that you rent your own car.
Plastic Bags are Banned
As of July 2016, plastic bags are now no longer available on Antigua & Barbuda - something we applaud! We always travel with a canvas tote bag (one of the ways we use less plastic when we travel), so maybe bring on along with you too. After all, you'll need somewhere to put all those souvenirs.
Please Don’t Swim with Stingrays
When looking into things to do in Antigua prior to our visit, beyond visiting beautiful beaches, another activity was very much front and centre: swimming with stingrays.
As you'll hopefully be aware, Along Dusty Roads sits firmly on the side of the fence that animal-based tourism should generally be avoided, or at least thoroughly researched prior to arrival.
Unfortunately, after much research, it became clear that swimming with stingrays in Antigua was not something we could endorse. And, after hearing some of the experiences of members of our group that did engage in it (tourists picking up stingray out of the water and posing for photos for example), our concerns were reinforced.
Instead, contribute to the Antiguan economy by going out snorkelling or diving to see Stingrays acting naturally.
Sailing is a big deal
Our stay in Antigua happened to coincide with one of the biggest weeks for tourism on the island - Sailing Week. In fact, this annual seven day extravaganza is one of the most famous regattas in the world, known for its spectacular racing and, naturally in a country of rum, its serious partying.
Should you plan to visit in one the other 52 weeks of the year however, do not fear - there's still plenty of opportunity to feel the wind in your hair and salt-spray on your face. What not get a group together and charter a sailing boat for the day (they also run half-day excursions).
Mount Obama is named after…
President Barack Obama.
The highest point in Antigua, it was formerly known as Bogey Peak, but renamed in 2009 to salute "a symbol of black achievement”.
The Best Time to Visit Antigua
Traditionally, the most popular time to visit is December to April; the dry season, when you should expect nothing but bright blue skies and endless sun (although it is worth noting that this period also coincides with busy beaches and significantly higher prices). We visited in May, and the weather was pleasantly hot each day with only a handful of showers and the odd cloudy day.
It is generally advised to avoid travel between August and October when there is a high risk of hurricanes. Anyone who is aware of what happened in the Caribbean late 2017 will be aware that hurricanes in this part of the world are not to be taken lightly.
They make a mean hot sauce
Long-time readers of Along Dusty Roads will know that Emily is a hot sauce addict; Antigua was therefore her happy place. Susie’s Hot Sauce, the most ubiquitous, is excellent, whilst the homemade stuff at the popular restaurant Dennis’ is also a contender.
The Visa Situation
British passport holders don’t need a visa to visit Antigua & Barbuda, and you will simply be given a stamp for a specified period of stay.
For US citizens, a visa is not required if you have an onward or return ticket, confirmation of accommodation, and can produce evidence of your ability to maintain yourself (which won’t always be asked for).
As ever, whatever your nationality, check the latest entry / visa requirements before you travel.