Plentiful beaches, bountiful reefs, eco-tourism adventures and an historical naval dockyard make the twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda special.
In Antigua, the irregular coastline has carved hundreds of coves that draw both yachties and sun worshippers. Dickenson Bay, one of our favorite spots, has soft sands and calm Caribbean waters. To discover more beaches plus snorkel sites, we signed-up for a boat excursion with Adventure Antigua.
Owner Eli Fuller, a local Antiguan and a former Olympian, showed us little-known sands and snorkel sites. On our day-long boat trip, we spotted stingrays off uninhabited Guiana Island and listened to the trill of West Indian whistling ducks, as well as ogled scores of pelicans roosting in the trees on Exchange Island.
Snorkeling off Great Bird Island, we swam through schools of rainbow-colored fish, past huge boulders of brain coral and rows of swaying fan formations. We ended the outing by climbing the rocky formation of Hellís Gate, a natural limestone arch that divides the turquoise Caribbean from the darker blue Atlantic.
Back on land, we explored Nelsonís Dockyard National Park. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the British fleet found safe anchorage here in the deep water English Harbour. Restored, the Dockyard is a pretty place. Flamboyant trees and red and pink oleander brighten the old stone buildings. The Admiralís House, built in 1855, houses a small museum and gift shop and more shops bloom in the restored structures. The sundial built in 1777 still casts accurate shadows.
Barbuda, just an 20-minute flight from Antigua, has only a few major hotels and 1400-people. The island is as close to an unspoiled Caribbean island as youíre likely to find. Palmetto Beach, like several strands on the southwest, is laced with ribbons of tiny pink shells brought by the afternoon tides. We could have lingered here forever.
The big beware: the strong tides that can make the beaches, glorious for strolling, dangerous for swimming. The surf is rougher along the east coast beaches that face the Atlantic. Always ask locals and your hotelier about conditions before swimming.
Barbuda also has the Frigate Bird Sanctuary, home to hundreds of these giants with 8-foot wing spans. We watched them circle their nests before landing in a dense grove of mangrove bushes.
Back in Antigua on Sunday, like many tourists and locals, we enjoyed a barbecue dinner and dancing at Shirley Heights Lookout in the hills above historic Nelsonís Dockyard. Along with Rastas draped in dreadlocks, grandmothers with baseball caps, and svelte twentysomethings as well as smiling toddlers, and other aging baby boomers, we danced to the steel pan and reggae rhythms as the stars shone above and the lights of English Harbour twinkled below.