Antigua is the perfect place to escape the shops, the crowds and spend Christmas on the beach...
An eight-hour flight towards the sun is just enough time to shake off the stresses of an English Christmas and leave them behind, especially if you still wanted to celebrate, but not quite so early and not quite so much.
We love our Christmas Caribbean-style. Chilling out and slowing down is a requirement in the Caribbean, not least because the heat makes it impossible to function at the more frantic pace of English life. As soon as the plane doors are opened a blast of hot air takes your breath away so that even a few metres of case-dragging and standing in line at customs will need to be compensated immediately with an ice-cold Wadadli - the local beer, from the Big Banana, the airport restaurant. As we wait in the queue to clear customs in Antigua there is only one Santa hat among the red cap porters who carry bags to the car for a few dollars. Use their services even if your case isn’t very heavy – it contributes to their funds direct and if for any reason you need more help later, it may have got you your first Antiguan friend.
There is car hire at the airport and often no need to book – especially as getting hold of people in advance is often difficult – but plenty of taxis wait outside when big flights arrive and can take us the twenty minute drive into the capital St Johns where we will get our car tomorrow, delivered to our hotel as soon as it is available. While you are waiting change some of your money into EC (Eastern Caribbean) dollars at the airport bank and use local currency to cut costs - although the US dollar is popular with local people and has a fixed exchange rate, EC seems to go further – just make sure you don’t bring any back. Don’t worry – be happy!
The Caribbean Inn has wide views over the harbour, dominated by a huge cruise ship that sounds its horn for people to return from the shops in Heritage Quay. Shopping here is the same as any other duty free paradise – gold, diamonds and perfume at better prices if you were looking but not very exciting if you weren’t. Buy sunglasses though, these are the real thing and you’ll need them.
We unpack and still have the late afternoon buying last minute presents for each other away from the tourist shops. A Santa with a cricket bat is my best find so far and I buy nutmegs and cinnamon sold loose from an old lady sitting on the pavement and a small bottle of Cavalier, the local rum. St Johns is bustling with families buying last minute presents to the sound of loud calypso carols outside every variety store. We stop for a Pina Colada at Hemingway’s, a traditional green and white wooden bar and restaurant with a cool veranda overlooking the street at Redcliffe Quay. The food here is more Florida than Caribbean but there are plenty of Antiguan flavours – pumpkin soup, saltfish, conch fritters... the best Caribbean food is still on the street though so don’t be afraid to try things you see.
The car arrives by 10am and we are soon on our way around Antigua, easily done in a couple of days at a leisurely pace. The whole island seems to be getting ready for the holiday as holes in the road are filled, twinkling lights are put up and a Christmas ‘bush’ is draped with ribbons in the village of Freetown as we pass through on the way to Harmony Hall. This renowned art gallery and restaurant is a long drive to the east coast but worth the visit. Situated in Brown’s Bay historical plantation sugar mill it has six bedroom suites and soon to expand; they are stylish with high ceilings; king sized beds and private patios. Over the spectacular views of Nonsuch Bay local artists and visitors mix like rum punch as the season of goodwill brings out the best in everyone. Antiguans like nothing better than liming – talking, drinking, fishing, cooking…and what better time than now? Although there is a small beach here and a boat to take visitors to an even better one, Antigua’s other 364 beaches beckon and our Christmas day will definitely be spent on that soft white sand.
We head south to Curtain Bluff Hotel, our next hotel, voted one of the best hotels in the Caribbean it is also one of the longest serving, established here nearly fifty years ago. People return year after year to this 72-room luxury resort that discourages television and costly air conditioning in favour of beach activities and tropical breezes. Their input into the community is outstanding as a long supported hotel guest fund provides local young people with educational opportunities overseas. After our evening cocktails we take a walk into Old Road village - and hear about their Christmases past over a beer, $7ec in a local bar. They say the huge hotel ovens were once used to cook the turkey and roast pig for the village Christmas dinner. As we leave the local bar someone is fanning a row of coal pots in the distance, forcing the fire through the coals and sending sparks up into the night. We buy real Antiguan food here - ducana, goat water, fried fish, peas and rice, crab and fungi and a glass of sorrel punch for $25ec, less than $10US, made from a deep red plant that flowers in December. We end the evening with a church carol service that takes us into the early hours of Christmas Day, and a beach barbecue, complete with a steel band playing just what we are feeling - Joy to the World.