Exploring Antigua on foot and by water

Our shore excursion from the Emerald Princess cruise ship wasn’t until noon, so in the morning we walked down the short pier to the historic Heritage Quay shopping district in St. John, capital of Antigua.  More than 40 shops with jewelry, perfumes, and clothing line streets at the dock’s end, and tourists predictably swarm around this area.

St. John's Cathedral in Antigua

St. John's Cathedral

We walked past the shops on side streets to St John’s Cathedral, recognizable for its twin turrets.  Built in 1662, hit by earthquakes twice (last in 1973), it was under renovation, so we weren’t able to go in, but we were close enough to take pictures.

snorkeling in Antigua

Snorkeling in Antigua

The undulating shores of its 365 beaches make Antigua a favorite of avid beachgoers. Clear water perfect for sailing, scuba diving, and snorkeling is probably why Antigua was nicknamed “gateway to the Caribbean.” The climate is sunny and dry with pleasant trade winds keeping temperatures at 75-85 degrees year round.

A bit of history: Antigua was discovered by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493. The British mispronounced the name as “An-tee-ga,” and it stuck. The first major sugar estate was established in 1674, and for more than a century the island’s sugar economy was dependent on slave labor and tariffs that maintained high prices in England.  The end of slavery and establishment of a free trade market in mid-1800s caused many estates to collapse, although sugar remained an important industry until the mid-1900s.  Antigua achieved full political sovereignty from England in 1981.

After our morning stroll, we met guides for the Kayak and Bird Island Exploration tour. We rode on a bus to Bird Island National Park on the scenic Northeast side of the island. This environmental area covers six small islands in North Sound, including Great Bird Island, so named by sailors for the large number of birds nesting there (it’s also the only place on earth to see the Antigua racer–a snake we thankfully avoided).  We boarded a speed boat and zipped through the sea at 40 plus mph to a floating platform near mangroves wetlands. Two-person sea kayaks were ready, and we paddled around the mangroves and calm inlets.

Our guide explained that mangroves provide protected breeding grounds for many varieties of fish, protect the ocean from contamination by absorbing agents like fertilizer before these reach open water, and provide a barrier from natural disasters like hurricanes. At one point, the guide dipped into the water and brought out a cucumber fish and upside down jellyfish (they swim with tentacles on top).

After returning to the floating dock, we went by speed boat to a protected area between two of the islands where many reefs could be found underwater.  We donned snorkel gear and floated face-down on the water’s surface observing fish, coral, and other creatures of the deep.

Bird Island, Antigua

View from high point on Bird Island near Antigua

Back in the boat, it was time for rum punch, the ever-present Caribbean drink. After motoring to Bird Island (only 20 acres), our guide led the group on a short hike up a rocky path to a long, narrow coral ridge  offering gorgeous panoramic views. It overlooks the area where the Caribbean Sea (calm, turquoise water) and Atlantic Ocean (rougher with white caps) come together. The ridge drops down to a grassy area with scattered plants and trees and flat sandy beaches–the main attraction for visitors.

After more rum drinks and splashing in the cool water, it was time to head back to the ship.  We had spent a fun afternoon exploring Antigua–kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Read about our excursion on St. Lucia at Going on Adventures