Escape to the Serene, White-Beached Beauty of Antigua and Barbuda

St. John's Antigua (Source: iStock / SeanPavonePhoto)

In the sea of Caribbean treasures, few notice the unassuming islands of Antigua and Barbados. But that’s precisely their charm: an under-the-radar destination with beaches whiter than neighboring Puerto Rico, Martinique, or the Virgin Islands, and culture as vibrant as any landlubbing destination to the north or west.

The history of Antigua and Barbuda is largely dominated by imperial imposition. Columbus discovered the islands in the 15th century and they were later colonized by Britain in the 17th century. While the Queen remains heads of state in the 21st century, the country is a beautiful tapestry of both African and British cultural traditions. What’s more, it harbors breathtaking natural features and unique fusion cuisine.

Getting there

Of the two islands — Antigua and Barbuda — Antigua is by far the more populous and serves as home to the country’s capital, St. John’s. It’s likely you’ll fly to St. John’s, as the local V.C. Bird International Airport services major airlines like American, United, and Delta. You may have to hop to a major U.S. hub before heading down, though; most airlines only fly to Antigua from major East and West Coast cities.

Getting around

Once you’re safely on the ground, you can easily catch a taxi outside the airport that will take you to wherever you’re staying. As the airport is outside of St. John’s proper, you’ll have to pay about $7 to get into the city. Longer drives can be upwards of $35 one-way but don’t go much higher than that.

Alternatively, you could rent a car. There’s a small catch, though: You have to get an Antiguan driver’s license, which costs $12. Most rental companies can get you one, so it’s not a big hassle.

The last option is to snag a bus. This is not recommended, however, as service is erratic and undependable.

Aerial view of Jolly Harbour Beach, Antigua (Source: iStock)

Day 1

After landing at St. John’s, check in to a hotel and get settled. Many of the top hotels are on the water, so you shouldn’t have to look hard for waterfront views. Popular spots include Jumby Bay Island, Hermitage Bay, and Curtain Bluff, though you could also double your fun with an AirBnB; surprisingly, there are more than 800 options to choose from.

Once you’ve dropped off your luggage, take a barefoot stroll along one of the impossibly pristine beaches. Near St. John’s, you’ll find Runaway Beach and Fort James Beach to be prime spots to let the warm tide soak your toes. When you get hungry, dive into a seafood feast at famed Papa Zouk’s — a beloved dining tradition known for their strung-light interior and fresh-from-the-sea comfort food. Close out your perfect first day with a nightcap at the Pelican Bar at the Blue Waters Resort; we recommend the rum-rich Tropical Remembrance.

Fort James, St. John’s Harbour, Antigua (Source: iStock)

Day 2

After enjoying the trappings of St. John’s culinary standouts on Day 1, take a day to experience the history of Antigua. First stop: Nelson’s Dockyard, which served as the headquarters of celebrated Admiral Horatio Nelson during the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, the country has turned the docks — and its lush surroundings — into a national park, so you can go from exploring the dockyard houses (now shops and businesses) to hiking the tree-lined coast.

After building up an appetite, head to the Copper & Lumber Store Historic Inn’s Mainbrace Restaurant. Once a warehouse for wood and copper used to repair ships docked in nearby bays, the hotel now serves guests from all over the world looking for luxe accommodations. If you’re just dropping by for lunch, try to get a seat dockside and order the grilled mahi mahi.

Fueled and ready for your next adventure, head to any one of the main harbors on Antigua for a guided circumnavigation of the island. Companies like Adventure Antigua offer speedy explorations from the water for under $200. You’ll get front-seat views of awe-inspiring reefs, marinas, bays, mountainscapes, and ruins. If you’re in the mood for extra zip, most boat captains can kick up the speed to add a little extra thrill.

Exhilarated from your boat ride, head to St. Mary’s for a luscious waterside dinner at Sheer Rocks. Wood-warn planks couple with wind-blown vegetation and fresh sea air for an idyllic mealtime setting. When it comes time to order, favor the tapas; you’ll get a bounty of good eats, including classic Antiguan Goat Curry, Green Papaya Salad, and King Scallop Ceviche.

Fried plantain dish (Source: iStock)

Day 3

Lest you neglect the northern brother to Antigua, take Day 3 to explore Barbuda. You can easily grab the Barbuda Express in the morning (departure is 7am, so grab breakfast at the hotel); tickets are $55 for adults. The trek takes 90 minutes, so be sure to plan ahead and leave an entire day for Barbuda exploration.

Once on Barbuda, set your sights on a day in nature. To ease into the day, make your way to Princess Diana Beach — the perfect, postcard-prime example of white beach paradise. Be sure to grab a snapshot of you and your loved one and savor the sand between your toes.

When you’ve had your fill of the azure expanse, slide on your shoes and trek over to the Frigate Bird Sanctuary — home to more than 170 varieties of birds. Taxi tours are $70 (if you’d rather relax and gaze from a distance) or you can enter the sanctuary by foot for a mere $2. (Pro tip: Keep an eye out for male-female mating rituals, including chest puffing and fancy flying.)

For a bit on land before you charter a boat back to Antigua, drop by Uncle Roddy’s Beach Bar & Grill — a beachside culinary oasis with guests clamoring for a taste of the institution’s famous grilled lobster. You can also get the catch of the day, which devotees rave about regardless of what lands on the plate.

Once sated, ready your sea legs and board the Barbuda Express back to St. John’s. Enjoy the rest of your stay at the hotel, or make preparations to head to the airport as soon as you make landfall.

Grab a souvenir

If you’re keen on securing memorabilia from your time in Antigua & Barbuda, drop by Gilly Gobinet Art. Small, locally produced paintings capture the tranquil, other-worldly personality of the islands in a way no airport trinket could. If you forget to grab a Gobinet watercolor — or simply don’t have time — check out her work online and send an email with an order request.