Tony Perrottet
Writer, Editor, Historian
Tony Perrottet photo
Cuba Libre cover

The Aristocrats of Antigua

The hub of the English Caribbean is regaining its former glory.


On my first morning in Antigua, I dreamt that I was somewhere in the ranks of Master and Commander, back in eighteenth century Royal Navy. This made perfect sense: I was staying in the Admiral's Inn, a former residence for British naval officers, sleeping in an antique four-poster bed, and feeling the after-effects of too much rum that I'd imbibed with crusty sailors the night before. Now the brilliant Caribbean dawn was blasting beneath my doorway, so I pried open the creaking shutters, in order to take in one of the world's most atmospheric port areas—Nelson's Dockyard in English Harbor.

This spectacular inlet in southern Antigua has been a crucial maritime shelter since before the Napoleonic Wars: Now, the lovingly-restored Georgian warehouses were drowsing beneath the palm trees, their heavy masonry burnished to a golden glow in the early morning light; artfully placed were ship's anchors, iron cauldrons and the imposing stone columns of a former sail loft. Today, it is still a working marina: In the mangrove-fringed waters where the King's finest war vessels once had barnacles stripped from their wooden hulls, dozens of sleek modern yachts were now moored. As pelicans were dive-bombing the waters, the gentle sounds of maintenance carried on the cool breeze.

In such a bastion of maritime tradition, it seemed only right that I should start my day with a tour of inspection. Nelson's Dockyard is actually the centerpiece of a national park that stretches around English Harbor which, as the major British stronghold in the Caribbean, was protected in the 1700s like Fort Knox. Today, a series of walking trails follow the original hilltop battlements. So, after tugging my forelock beneath a wooden bust of Horatio Nelson which presides like a shrine over the museum, I followed the water's edge to the strategic promontory of Fort Berkeley, where rusted cannons still threatened the shimmering blue horizon as if it still might hide Napoleon's navies.

From this dreamy vantage, it was hard to remember that a naval posting to Antigua was once considered a consignment to hell. Some two thousand sailors would be cooped up in English Harbor for months every summer, swilling grog, brawling and chasing the base's "negro girls." The ships' garbage was dumped in the water, creating a rank and fetid atmosphere: Sailors fell like flies from tropical diseases, recorded simply as "putrid distempers," "furious deliriums" or even "black vomit." Those who tried to go AWOL were lashed with the cat'o'nine tails. ("They may flog me and be buggered," screamed one reprobate in disgust, "for I don't care.") Once-civilized British officers, fortified by claret and rum, argued over trifles and challenged one another to duels.

Even the stalwart Nelson was no fan of the outpost that now bears his name. He landed on the island in 1784 early in his career as an unknown, twenty-six year old captain of the Mermaid-class frigate HMS Boreas and was based here for three years—but his letters home are not the sort of thing the Antiguan Tourist Board might quote on their website. Wracked by illness, he proclaimed English Harbor to be a "vile place," and denounced it British inhabitants, the nouveau riche owners of sugar plantations, as uncouth and, worse, unpatriotic. But Nelson seemed envious of the white Antiguans' lives of luxury, raised aloft in their breezy plantation houses, while he spent his nights in cramped quarters, "woefully pinched by mosquitoes." In fact, Horatio wrote bitterly, if it wasn't for the genteel company of a young woman named Mary Moutray—the wife of the local Commissioner—"I should almost hang myself in this infernal hole."

Times have changed in English Harbor: I was anticipating an elegant brunch of tea and scones in the shady waterfront lounge of the Admiral's Inn. But as I strolled back from Fort Berkeley, I noticed a sign marking a new hiking trail, promising it was only one mile to "Middle Harbor," where I'd heard there was a wall covered with original sailor's graffiti from the eighteenth century. It looked steep and I'd forgotten to bring any drinking water, but the day was young. In gentle Antigua, how hard could it be?

Fifteen minutes later, I was still lurching upwards on a rocky sun-scorched path, scratched by cactus spines and babbling to myself deliriously; a few goats looked at me with pity, then scampered away. I kept arriving at old forts, each with more dramatic views than the last, but I was now too hot to appreciate them. As I staggered on, I realized that at least I was gaining a modest historical insight: the reason English Harbor was so strategically important was its complete lack of wind—being the best "hurricane hole" in the Caribbean could also make it, as one historian said, "a broiling sun-trap."

By the time I stumbled back down to sea level, I was imagining forced marches on Devil's Island. But suddenly, like a vision before me, the trail opened out at Pigeon Beach—one of 365 idyllic coves on Antigua—and I plunged into the crystal waters without pausing for breath. Strolling back to the Admiral's Inn, the rigors of the trail had already become just a vague memory. In the shade of the bougainvillea, a dignified waiter was serving Twinings tea and marmalade toast on the patio.

"You have to feel sorry for Nelson," he laughed. "Stuck here with a bunch of sweaty sailors. The poor man was lonely. He'd like it better today."

* * *

That afternoon, bathed and anointed, I felt more like one of Nelson's envied aristocrats. I'd transferred to Curtain Bluff Resort, the oldest luxury hotel on the island, where cool sea air wafted through my suite. At the appointed hour, I strolled up to the brilliant white 'Bluff House,' with its balcony poised high above the Caribbean like a ship's prow, for an elegant cocktail party with a mix of Wall Street types, British tycoons and local swells. Nursing a glass of champagne, mesmerized by the rippling sea, I realized this was a reasonable base for investigating modern Antigua, which much to the surprise of many inhabitants, has recently become the new hot spot of the tropics.

"Yeah, Antigua is fashionable again," laughed Rob Sherman, the expansive, American-born manager, who has lived on the island for the last twenty years. "It's a combination of things. People have discovered that Antigua is undeveloped, it's friendly, there's no real tension between black and white. It's close enough to paradise."

The next morning, I went with Rob on a short drive around Antigua's mountainous green south, which has certainly kept its rural character unchanged. "You see that guy?" he pointed to a man working in the fields. "You know how many people want to buy his land to set up a golf course? Well, he's not selling. It's his family's land." We paused at a crossroads to watch two kids shoot by on the back of a donkey, and passed a truck entirely overgrown with vines before driving up a steep dirt lane to Sherman's house, a restored 1650 plantation mansion called Body Pond Estate.

"I like having an eighteenth century door buzzer," he said, ringing a hefty iron bell set into his stone gate. We paused on the porch for sweeping views of the coast: Inside, amongst the Caribbean antiques were casual photos of Eric Clapton, Antigua's quiet aristocrat, who is also godfather to Sherman's daughter, and a shot of Keith Richards relaxing at a local barbecue and looking only 120 years old.

Maybe it's because Antiguans have seen their fortunes rise and fall so often that they remain unimpressed by their recent fame. The sugar trade once made the island fabulously wealthy, but by the end of the nineteenth century Antigua had become a backwater of the Empire. In 1949, when a British sailor named Vernon Nicholson sailed a yacht to Antigua, he found the famous English Harbor an overgrown ruin, even though the island's trade winds were blowing as steadily as ever. The Nicholson family soon set up a pioneering charter company in Antigua, started Sailing Week, the Caribbean's premiere yachting event, and helped form a swank Society of Friends to restore Nelson's Dockyard—luring Lady Churchill, Princess Margaret and author C.S. Forester, who penned the Hornblower naval novels, to lend their support.

At the same time, American bluebloods led by an MIT architect named Robertson "Happy" Ward were starting the exclusive Mill Reef Club on the west coast of the island; by 1952, courtesy of Pan Am's director Juan Trippe (played by Alec Baldwin in The Aviator), the first seaplanes to Antigua began bringing down a stream of movie stars, industrialists, CEOs, governors and the occasional artist such as the US poet Laureate Archibald MacLeish. ("The moon is a presence in the West Indies," MacLeish raved of his exposure to the tropics. "It's really an event, a tremendous event. You can't avoid it.") Almost all of them were avid sailors, lured from their WASPy clubs in Rhode Island and San Diego by Antigua's perfect winds and the legacy of Nelson. With the advent of upscale resorts like Curtain Bluff and Blue Waters in the early 1960, once-forgotten Antigua was firmly on the map as the Caribbean's premier yachting destination.

Of course, the grand boom went awry in the 1990s, as Antiguan tourism went down-market, and the government was roiled in corruption scandals. "In retrospect, it was a blessing in disguise," Rob Sherman said, of that time. "The corruption meant there was no development in Antigua; the big hotel chains were scared away! That's a great advantage now. The island is largely unspoiled."

The twenty-first century has been kind to Antigua. About five years ago, Antigua quietly became the cool place to be, and celebrities started arriving, especially from the UK—choosing Antigua not for the isolation, which they once found on private islands like Mustique, but for the relative anonymity in a friendly crowd. Eric Clapton has long maintained a house here, and now Sailing Week, held every April, regularly brings mega-yachts carrying tycoons like Bill Gates and bevies of movie stars. Posh and Becks recently holidayed here. Georgio Armani just bought a villa. "St Barts is for poseurs," Sherman assured me. "In Antigua, you might see Eric shooting pool in a bar, or John Travolta or Oprah just hanging out in a restaurant. The thing is, they can be themselves here. Nobody in Antigua gives a shit who you are!"

The down-to-earth nature of the sailing culture also ensures that Antigua will never get adopt any St. Barts-like airs. This became apparent the next afternoon, when I became the lucky passenger on a sixty foot renovated wooden motor cruiser from the 1960s, which had worked the Italian Riviera. It looked like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly should be on board, but when I met Captain John, a fiftyish American who had tossed over his life as a corporate businessman, the conversation was more unvarnished.

"I traded a Porsche 911 for a rubber dinghy," he guffawed, fondly remembering the happy day he sailed his first yacht out of New York Harbor in 1987. "We went down the Hudson River to Wall Street right at 9 am, just as everyone was going to work. Then we pulled down our pants and hung our butts over the side, yelling 'Kiss My Ass!'"

After pondering this lesser known nautical rite, we weighed anchor on a wild stretch of coast, and I went snorkeling on the reef, chasing a sea turtle through the emerald water.

* * *

By now, I was realizing that this blend of high chic and pristine nature is Antigua's trademark. The island is surprisingly rugged: In fact, a map of Antigua looks like a round lace doily, its edges gnawed with tiny bays, inlets and coves. There may be one beach for every day of the year, but many of those 365 sand stretches still cannot be reached by road. On the northern side of the island, at Blue Waters—a long-established resort with terraced gardens and pergolas that reminds of southern Italy—I took out a kayak one afternoon and rounded the headland. Expecting more resorts, I found instead one empty cove after another, backed by verdant foliage. I beached the kayak in one cove with waters as glassy as a swimming pool; although on the way back, just to keep me on my toes, the wind had picked up, and I battled tough waves for an hour.

But the most extreme contrast of luxury and elemental nature came at the spanking new resort of Carlisle Bay: Like a slice of posh London transported intact to the tropics, it is a cocoon of high concept design, where tanned young guests recline on pale linen lounges, nibbling designer sushi from tables graced by single orchids. Every item seems culled from the pages of Wallpaper* magazine, including the striped Italian espresso-ware and the three fresh fruits left in your room each day. But beyond its gated facilities, Antigua was always beckoning—so one morning I set to hike the coastal trail around the south coast to Rendezvous Bay, the most isolated beach on the island.

At the southern end of the resort, a Creole woman selling jewelry pointed out a path that disappeared into the mangroves. I waded across a stream, then set off around one empty rocky bay after another, keeping cool thanks to the light tropical showers that drifted across the sun. At last, after about an hour, I arrived at a particularly idyllic arc of white sand, and I settled back under to relax under a tree, admiring my private paradise.

"Antigua is too beautiful," wrote local girl Jamaica Kincaid in her book A Small Place. Although the book is a vitriolic attack on Antiguan tourism and underhanded government officials ("a prolonged visit to the bile duct," she admits), Kincaid's love of the island's nature shines through: "Sometimes the beauty of (Antigua) seems as if it were stage sets of a play, for no real sunset could look like that; no real seawater could strike that many shades of blue at once..."

My reverie was broken as I felt a cool drip of water on my neck. Suddenly remembering Antigua's sole natural danger, the oozing sap of the manicheel tree, I froze in terror. How could I have been so foolish? According to my guidebook, the manicheel "must not be used as a shelter from the rain as the sap from the apple-like fruits is poisonous and could cause painful blisters." I leapt up, sure that I had been marked by the acid-like fluid that could evidently strip paint from cars, and that the Arawaks had used as a poison. I jumped into the sea, splashing myself like a demented monkey.

Back in Carlisle Bay, the gardeners were bemused by my life-threatening experience. They instead showed me a real manicheel tree—its rare, heart-shaped leaves were rather different from those I'd been sitting under—and they even discounted the rumor that rain would cause blisters. (You would have to crack open the branches to get the evil white sap flowing, they said, giving me a demonstration). What's more, I hadn't made it all the way to Rendezvous Bay, apparently; it was one cove farther.

Maybe I should relax a little, I thought, slinking back to the bar where a Wadadli beer was waiting in a chilled flute glass. Sometimes a paradise is just a paradise.

* * *

Ultra-modern havens it may have, but Antigua is still not a place to hurry. At 108 square miles, it's the largest of the British Leeward islands, and its endearingly bad roads make it feel like a small continent. ("I'm a Ph.D.!" giggled Marvin, my first taxi driver in St John, swerving back and forth across the road. "Expert Pot-Hole Dodger!") There are virtually no road signs, and every map of Antigua is different, so to get to the island's best French restaurant called Chez Pascale, a hotelier gave me a computer print-out with directions that extended over a page. Thankfully, I had plenty of time to explore.

For the next week, I made forays into the hinterland, weaving slowly over roads covered with squashed mangoes, dodging herds of goats and darting mongooses. On the western, Caribbean side of the island, I stopped at lonely beach shacks for conch curry. I took uncertain detours: At one stage, I followed a route through the empty center of the island, which became so narrow with trees pressed in on either side that I was worried the rental car would be wedged stuck; luckily, I met a man digging up yams, who pointed out the road that would lead back to civilization. Another time, at one of the wonderful fruit stands that dot the back roads, a woman named Elaine gave me all the island remedies for my son's bronchial ailments. Over on the eastern, Atlantic side of the island, whole swathes of coast lay vacant, the only signs of human habitation the occasional ruin of a windmill. There are over one hundred of these circular stone cylinders on Antigua, rising from the foliage like defiant medieval towers—and providing reminders of the slave-owning past that create mixed emotions amongst the islanders.

"Antigua used to be very into wind technology," said Reg Murphy, curator for the national park service, "back in the plantations days." Born in Antigua and educated in Canada, Murphy is the driving force behind many of the island's historical projects: A decade ago, he and his son restored to working order a sugar mill called Betty's Hope using rusting cogs they had gathered from ruins all over the island. Standing in an open field today, it evokes the infamous cruelty of the slave system in the 1700s, which was marked by uprisings and reprisals. One brutal British plantation owner "was killed by his slaves as he had not given Christmas holidays"—the working year's sole break. The ringleaders of another failed rebellion were burned alive in a town market.

Murphy is a towering figure with an endless stream of Antiguan jokes, and he wanted to show me his latest project. We drove in his battered 4WD along a harrowing road to an archaeological site, where a sunburned team of Canadian students was excavating an Arawak village. As we strolled through the forest, Murphy broke open some tamarind seeds to let me suck the bitter jelly like a candy. "Watch it, we Antiguans say you eat too many of those, you will lose interest in your wife," he noted. "It cuts your nature." I put the tamarind seeds down.

The sweating Canadian students were poised around a neat incision in the earth, which I could see was encrusted with shards and bones. Murphy picked up a piece of once-elegant pottery, which dated back to 200 AD, when ancient Rome was at its height. The island was covered with such remains, Murphy noted proudly: Even Nelson's Dockyard was the site of four pre-Columbian villages: "We excavated the oldest European building there, and we found an Arawak garbage dump right in the middle!"

And everywhere I went, those expats were waiting, ready to convince me Antigua was indeed paradise. At the Siboney Beach House on Dickenson Bay, I met local phenomenon Tony Johnson, who arrived on the island from Australia in 1962, and is now in his refined years. Tall, dapper, a born raconteur, Tony is notorious amongst expats of the island for still windsurfing every day, and having twenty year old girlfriends.

"How old did they tell you I was?" Tony asked.

"I heard you just celebrated your eightieth birthday."

"That's a lie! I'm eighty-one." Tony pondered this for a while. "Don't know if you should put that in the story. It puts some girls off." We sat for a while at the bar, as a security guard lolled nearby, smoking and sipping a glass of rum.

I asked what his secret was. "Oh, a bit of everything," he laughed. "Healthy diet. Lots of exercise. Fresh air. Always doing what I wanted. Plus—" he waved out at those unreal blue waters of Antigua—"all this."

* * *

No matter where I went in Antigua, I kept running into references to that first celebrity—Horatio Nelson. To be honest, the up-and-coming British hero seemed a bit of a prat (to use the English term for pompous ass). Sanctimonious and inflexible, he took offence over trivia and spent his time enforcing futile laws. But even Nelson was clearly not immune to the romantic side of Antigua. By 1787, his third year on the island, he started to loosen up, riding on horseback every day the twelve miles from English Harbor to the capital, St John's. There, in the heart of plantation society, he attended lavish balls, social dinners and cockfights with his drunken royal friend, Prince William Henry.

The atmosphere of St John's, at least, has hardly changed since 1787, unless the cruise ships are in port. The same narrow streets that were once wandered by British ladies protecting their complexions with masks are now strolled by pretty Antiguan girls hiding under umbrellas. Small rum shops are full of locals hanging out, or "liming," playing dominoes and cat-whistling the ladies like sailors on furlough. (The Antiguan word "liming" actually comes from the British sailors, who ate limes to ward of scurvy, as does the American word "limey.") A heavy stone cathedral looms above the streets: In its darkened interior, geckos crawl across marble plaques recording colonial tragedies. One memorial, dating from the year of Waterloo, was placed by a young husband who lost his 24-year-old wife in a riding accident. ("No warning given! Unceremonious fate!") A more startling plaque was for a young son, "Killed in Action at Iraq"—but the date was 1920, during the British attempt to control Mesopotamia.

Of course, when it comes to sacred artifacts, the most valued item of all resides at the tiny city museum: it's the cricket bat of Sir Vivian Richards, one of the world's all-time great players and Antigua's hero, which is kept in a glass case for all to worship.

* * *

On the last night of my trip, all the elements of Antigua converged. It was a Saturday night, and the sailing fraternity was holding a charity auction in English Harbor to support a local children's home. Luxury yachts were lined up at the dock, their masts garlanded with fairy lights like Christmas trees; sailors arrived by dinghy, often with their dogs perched on the bow. At the waterfront bar, a guitarist was putting his heart into Bob Marley classics, the barbecue was issuing excellent jerk ribs, and everyone was drinking as kids and pets dashed around their knees. Captain John was there, of course, in expansive mood. "You see, this is why I love this island. Nowhere else has this family feeling. You bring, the baby, the dog, the cat..."

Strolling back in the moonlight through the dark Georgian buildings, listening to the hum of crickets and lapping of the sea, I thought of Horatio Nelson, young and fever-wracked, who in 1789 finally escaped from his "infernal hole" of Antigua—sailing with a sixty gallon case of rum, which he'd brought not for partying but to store his corpse in case he didn't survive the journey. All the rough cavorting hadn't eased his loneliness: In his last months in the Caribbean, Nelson had fallen for a rosy-cheeked young expat, Fanny Nesbit, marrying her on the island of Nevis. Although history knows that he would eventually go on to immortal glory—not to mention scandal by dumping Fanny for the beautiful widow Emma Hamilton—he spent several hard years after his stint in Antigua, living in oblivion in a chilly English mansion with few or no prospects.

You had to wonder if Nelson ever had second thoughts.