Antigua: A beach for every day

Chicago Tribune

Picture perfect. In some places in the world, that phrase isn't a cliche. It's an accurate description.

The beaches of Antigua, for example, are picture perfect.

Located in the heart of the Lesser Antilles' Leeward Islands, Antigua boasts 365 beaches ("one for every day of the year," as the saying goes) — a sandy parallel to lush Dominica, 100 miles south, which claims 365 rivers.

But while Dominica's waters act as if they're charting their own courses, twisting, turning and entwining themselves — sometimes violently — within dense jungle paths, Antigua's beaches, especially on the southern and western shores, lie still and serene.

Antigua's sand is the stuff of hourglasses: perfectly smooth, almost sparkly in appearance. Where the Caribbean Sea reaches ashore to lap it up, it begins to look even brighter under that perfectly clear, clean, bluish-green water, whose pallid color appears increasingly intense as your eyes follow it out to the horizon. But as soon as you drive south of the airport into the island's interior, away from the multimillion-dollar resorts whose property lines divide and define the beaches, a very different landscape unfolds. Paradise and poverty become neighbors. At least that's what I discovered on my second day here, in search of Hermitage Bay.

The stretch of gravel that leads to the all-inclusive Hermitage Bay resort is unmarked and easy to miss, thanks to dozens of indiscernible, pothole-laden roads veering off from Valley Road on the island's west side. About 4 miles southwest of the capital of St. John's, Hermitage Bay lies due west of the village of Jennings.

Guests are received via explicit directions from town, recited over the telephone by the resort's front-desk clerk. They go something like this: "Down the road from St. John's near Jennings, there's a restaurant called Hometown, and you'll want to turn left down that road. Once you get to the very top of that street, it's only a right or a left turn. Take the left to the dirt road, which is a very long and winding road that's a bit bumpy, and we would be the very last stop."

After 15 or 20 minutes of blind navigation and several false turns, there it was: an oasis in the form of a neatly landscaped roundabout guarded by a single attendant and, behind him, a simple, elegant, open-air lobby through which shone a stretch of white sand and horizontal stripe of turquoise sea.

After parking my economy-size Toyota and allowing the attendant to open my squeaky door, I straightened my sundress and approached the sleek, low-slung monolith that is the Hermitage Bay resort.

Once in the lobby, I approached the concierge desk and asked if I might have a word with the co-owner, Andy Thesen, whose name had been passed along by a host at my lodging a few days before. I was in the market to swap hotels and wondered what the rates were for this oasis in the dust.

A few minutes later, when Thesen emerged from his property's wings, he appeared just as one might expect an owner of a multimillion-dollar luxury Caribbean resort to appear: of indeterminate age, evenly tanned, casually yet elegantly dressed down to his leather flip-flops, and talking with a thick British accent. He was pleasant enough in answering my questions and, after consulting briefly with a member of his staff, humored me with a quote for a slightly discounted two nights' stay: $1,200. Per night. In U.S. dollars. It was about $150 less than the average nightly price of the least expensive of the resort's 25 private suites — each of which, it should be noted, is outfitted with private plunge pools and top-of-the-line amenities.

Trying not to look horrified, I thanked Thesen and politely declined his offer, excused myself, strolled as casually as I could back to my economy Toyota that the parking attendant was so carefully watching over and returned down the dusty road from which I'd come.

The 10-mile drive over the island's hilly southwestern sprawl back to my own hotel — the modest Copper & Lumber Store Hotel in English Harbour on Antigua's sleepy southern coast — took so long over the curvy, unmarked roads that I found myself navigating the last half-hour in pitch-black night. All the while, I was lost in thought about what it meant to stay in a resort like Hermitage Bay in a tiny country like Antigua.

The contrast of economy is startling.

Along the western and southern coasts, wealthy Americans, Britons and French sip bottomless mojitos surrounded by isolated, man-made beauty, graciously waited on by local staff who likely live in or near the shacks that line those secluded dirt roads. Oprah has a home here, as does Robin Leach.

The island is fueled by tourism and populated in spurts radiating from St. John's, which, like many Caribbean capitals, is built around a cathedral, a market and a handful of luxury malls. There are a few very good restaurants, dozens of gleaming resorts, two universities and a half-dozen intimate inns.

But there isn't really a middle class.

This sharp contrast between the privileged and the impoverished is hardly unique to Antigua. It's apparent throughout most of the Caribbean; tourists only see the side of paradise that has been carefully groomed in anticipation of their arrival. But unlike eco-conscious resorts more popular on adventure-tourism islands such as Dominica and even some remote stretches of the Bahamas, Antigua's hotels tend to be too big to hide their enormous carbon footprints or too small to have the means to do anything about it.

Most months, Antigua's hundreds of beaches are dotted with international vacationers soaking in 80-degree temperatures, lazing about under the shade of the mangrove hugging its patches of sand. There are about 69,500 residents on this 108-square-mile island, but more than anything, this is a magnet for tourists and tourism, and it's outfitted accordingly. It's apparent from the moment one lands at the airport, whose grounds are as plushly landscaped as some of the westside resorts. Which begs the question: What did this place look like before the tourism industry had its way?

Small pockets provide the answer, striking an inviting balance between natural beauty, indigenous culture and warm hospitality.

English Harbour, for one, is wonderful. It and Nelson's Dockyard is a mellow tourist destination to which small groups of international travelers flock for fish and chips, rum and conversation on those picture-perfect beaches.

It was in English Harbour that I found an Antigua I might want to return to someday. A cluster of French restaurants line the streets near Nelson's Dockyard, and the best of them, Catherine's Cafe, is a water-taxi ride away across the jetty. The pace of life is more casual here in the south than at the stuffy resorts along the west coast. Restaurant and hotel staff are friendly but not stiff. The creme brulee is amazing; the reggae is ripe.

Just west of Nelson's Dockyard over a quaint hill is Pigeon Beach, whose sand is not quite as bright as some of the others on this island and thus appropriately less populated. To the east, the main road curves south to hug picturesque Willoughby Bay. Just beyond it, if you make the right number of tiny turns off the main road, you'll stumble upon gorgeous Half Moon Bay, where there are no resorts — at least that I could see — to spoil the intimate serenity of the waters.

While arguably as beautiful, Half Moon Bay is just about as far as one can get from Hermitage Bay, geographically speaking. And, perhaps, metaphorically.

On the day I visited, a small cluster of tourists quietly waded in the waters, taking in their perfect surroundings.

There weren't any waiters with trays to offer cold drinks in the shade; there weren't any bungalows with plunge pools tucked into the foothills.

Still, at that moment, Antigua couldn't be blamed for resting on the laurels of its beaches — all 365 of them.

If you go: Antigua Getting there: Antigua lies in the middle of the Lesser Antilles in the West Indies, on the northeastern edge of the Caribbean archipelago. Antigua and the much smaller island of Barbuda form a dual-island nation. V.C. Bird International Airport, the island's only airport, is about 5 miles northeast of the capital, St. John's. American Airlines flies non-stop between Miami and Antigua, for about $540 round-trip.

Staying there: Luxury resorts such as Hermitage Bay (268-562-5500; can cost upward of $1,000 per night and, for that price, are usually all-inclusive of meals, drinks, activities or some combination thereof. There's also a Sandals here (888-726-3257;

For tourists on a more modest budget, the English Harbour area: The Admiral's Inn (268-460-1027; and the Catamaran Hotel (268-460-1036; Copper and Lumber Store Hotel (268-460-1160; resembles a Georgian inn and is friendly and well located.

Dining: Antiguan food is heavily influenced by the French. English Harbour's popular Catherine's Cafe (268-460-5050) has bistro-style dining right on the jetty. Also recommended in English Harbour: Trappas (268-562-3534), with an eclectic mix of seafood and pub fare; and HQ (268-562-2563), a French-owned pub with live music on Sundays.

Information: Official Antigua tourism information: 646-215-6035;

Copyright © 2018, CT Now