Beaches, adventure, food, and fun await you on this lush island paradise.
The twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda is one of those rare destinations that truly offer something for everyone. While Barbuda was leveled by a direct hit from category 5 Hurricane Irma, some 40 miles to the south, Antigua escaped relatively unharmed, and is currently open for business. With a perfect blend of 365 beautiful beaches, hundreds of recreational opportunities, a rich culture and history (including a newly awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site), a lively and diverse food scene, and of course, the friendly locals, Antigua and Barbuda is the perfect destination for travelers from all walks of life, especially those with kids.
In the months leading up to our trip, we had planned fairly extensive and detailed list of everything we wanted to do. We prefer a fairly even mix of adventure, relaxation, culture, interspersed with quality beach time and good food.
It was going to be incredible, and we were going to check everything off our list and return home 7 days later with wonderful memories of every single thing we wanted to experience…
Then we got here and realized… This island is huge. Not Jamaica huge or Puerto Rico huge, but much larger than what we’re used to (Tortola, St. John, Virgin Gorda, St. Martin). We quickly realized that experiencing everything on our list was simply not possible, and determined Antigua is one of those “we’ll have to save something for our next visit” type of islands, much to the delight of our kids!
What we did manage to fit in on our weeklong adventure, though, was nothing short of epic, and it led me to put together a quick overview of what we enjoyed most about our 7 days in Antigua and Barbuda.
1. The Stunning Beaches.
Without too much of a shock, the beaches were one of our favorite aspects of the island. There are just so many of them (365!!). Driving along the coast, you’re really able to just pull off the road and end up at a random beach. Some have resorts and water sports, others just a simple restaurant or beach bar, still others are completely deserted, allowing you to play castaway for the day. Some have pure white powder sand, some have a more yellow sand, and some were even covered in shells and coral.
And that water—blue as blue can be. Nearly every shade is represented somewhere around the island.
A few descriptions of the various shades of blue water we encountered, courtesy of our girls: mouthwash, blue Gatorade, dark blue Gatorade, light blue Gatorade, Gatorade Frost, toothpaste, and milk after eating a bowl of Lucky Charms. Surprisingly, these are all accurate descriptions. One common theme throughout the island, though… You’re never far from an incredible beach.
A few of our favorites include Valley Church (when there are no cruise ships in port), Darkwood, Ffryes, Jolly, Turner’s, Coco, Dickinson Bay, and Pigeon Point. We went to several more, but still, I think we fell way short of our goal. Our problem was, once we arrived at any of the beaches, we had a really hard time leaving.
2. The Recreational (or Relaxation) Opportunities.
In hindsight, we clearly miscalculated how much we could actually see and do with our week on the island. The reality of it is, you could spend an entire month in Antigua and never do the same activity twice.
We had a couple of clear favorites. The winner in the eyes of our kids was D’Boat Antigua—a refurbished oil tanker turned entertainment complex, anchored in the North Sound. Complete with multiple rope swings, diving platforms, giant water slides, trampolines, and airbag jumps, you could easily spend an entire day here. It also has a fully-stocked bar and restaurant, lounges, and tables on multiple decks, They even provide snorkeling gear, perfect for exploring the waters (and hull), where you can find a wide array of fish, coral, starfish, and other marine life. You can even venture over to the beaches at neighboring Maiden Island, where you can play King of the Island for the day.
Another favorite was Antigua Rainforest Zipline Tours. It was everything we expected, and more. From its location on Old Road, deep in the heart of the island, you can zip through the tree canopy on over a dozen ziplines and suspension bridges. The staff was all super friendly, and they had the process down to a science, moving everyone through efficiently, but without feeling rushed. They even have a fully stocked gift shop and snack bar, where you can also find observation decks, perfect for those who prefer to watch their friends and family soar between the trees.
We also went jet skiing, which we had done before, but NOT in a setting as pristine as Valley Church Bay. The weekly sunset party at Shirley Heights with the Digicel Halcyon Steel Orchestra is not to be missed. Local craftspeople, great food and drinks, and dancing, all converge to provide a festive evening that draws locals and tourists from all over the island. The hiking, swimming, snorkeling, exploring, and beachcombing were all enjoyable, as well (and free!), and the drive through Antigua’s rainforest along Fig Tree Drive and Old Road was beautiful!
Another thing we really enjoy stumbling upon are restaurants that have pools. It really is a genius move—and a win-win for everyone involved. Two of our favorites were Sheer Rocks, at Cocobay Resort (stunning cliffside views of Valley Church Bay, a small plunge pool, trendy atmosphere) and Boom, at Admiral’s Inn (beautiful views of English Harbour and Nelson’s Dockyard, huge vanishing-edge pool, relaxed atmosphere).
We experienced only a fraction of what we here hoping, and left having felt like we just scratched the surface of everything this island has to offer. That’s OK, though. All the more reason to go back.
3. The Food. And Drinks.
I don’t pretend to be a foodie, which is why you’ll only see one photo with our meal in it (hope you like photos of beautiful views, tropical fruits, and random beer bottles). However, I certainly know good food when I see it. While French St. Martin lays claim to some of the best cuisine in the Caribbean (we’ve been, it’s true. We hear Trinidad is up there, as well), we felt that Antigua more than held it’s own. In talking with a few of the chefs, there seems to be a sort of renaissance going on here. Many of the trendy, high-end resorts are attracting the clientele to match, and some of the more talented chefs in the world are heading to Antigua to stake their claim.
One of our favorite restaurants we visited was Sheer Rocks—a splendid mix of delicious food and stunning vistas, perched on a cliff overlooking Valley Church Bay. Sure, dinner is pricey, but we went for the tapas lunch and sampled some of the mouthwatering creations from Head Chef Simon Christey-French, including truffle mac ‘n cheese, crispy duck salad, chicken croquettes, calamari, and chocolate soufflé. The portions were quite large and the pricing was quite reasonable, but what set this place over the top were the day beds and plunge pool—a perfect way to spend a long and lazy afternoon.
Boom was another favorite. Simple, yet extremely flavorful food served up poolside within a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Yes please. We opted for some steak and arugula sandwiches, truffle fries, calamari, and lots of drinks. We also decided it would be cool to arrive by boat, so we took the free water shuttle from Nelson’s Dockyard. If you’re boring, I guess you could drive here.
But like other Caribbean islands, you don’t need to spend a lot to get good food. We had great barbeque from one of the many roadside street grills, delicious roti from a local joint that was off the beaten path, and freshly picked fruit from Clemie’s roadside stand on Old Road. In fact, the only food we had that we felt was underwhelming was from an Italian place we stumbled upon, and that was our dumb fault for ordering Italian food in the Caribbean (I mean, that’s like ordering seafood in North Dakota). Even then, the food was still pretty good, but the other food was so incredible, that it just sort of paled in comparison.
4. The People.
While this can be said of nearly every island we’ve visited, the people of Antigua are truly some of the friendliest and most genuine we’ve met. From the friendly customs agents and the talkative Drive-a-Matic lady, this trip got started with a positive vibe that continued through our entire trip. While island life may be difficult at times, the locals seem to recognize that their little corner of the world is special. Everyone went out of their way to be friendly… Living just outside of Washington, DC, we’re just not used to that.
The restaurant owner, whose establishment we wandered into, not knowing it was closed—we chatted about random things, but upon learning of our dog passing just a few days prior to our trip, he let us hang out with his dog for a half-hour while his staff prepped for dinner, allowing our girls some quality time with his four-legged fur ball.
The owner of our villa did the same thing, letting his dog stay with us for much of our vacation. Our girls had never been without the love and support of a dog, so this meant the world to them. They looked forward to returning home every night and snuggling with their new friend.
Jose and Joel from D’Boat—we spent hours with these guys. Our girls thought they were the coolest guys this side of Leo Messi. They served up stiff drinks and smiles, keeping everyone safe as we jumped, flipped, and swung off their boat. Joel even invited us to his beachside camping trip next Easter, where we are going to feast on fresh lobster and ride jet skis all day!
I could literally go on forever. The bartender at Boom, who opened up a bit early on a rainy day so we could grab a drink and some food while our girls went swimming in the rain, regaling us with stories of his life on the island. The entire staff at Rainforest Canopy Zipline Tours. The friendly ladies at Clemie’s Fruit Stand. The lovely lady who braided our younger daughter’s hair (which stayed braided for a month after we got home). Chefs, strangers, and random people we bumped into while hiking. Tourists, locals, expats, everyone was friendly… Except that umbrella vendor who was upset at us for not renting an umbrella from him, even though it was 4:30 p.m. and a bit cloudy. But I get it, he’s just trying to make a living…
Who knows, maybe we just avoided the areas where the grumpy people congregate, but I get the feeling that being kind and friendly to one another is just the norm down here. It’s a way of life–treating others like you want to be treated–that seems to be missing in some parts of the world. One day, perhaps…
Friendly people. Unbelievable beaches. LOTS of incredibly fun things to do. Delicious food. Funky beach bars. Culture and history. Did I mention unbelievable beaches? Antigua truly has something for everyone… but it had EVERYTHING for our family.
Getting here & additional information
Many of the adults-only resorts, as well as many of the island’s most popular beaches, are located on the western coast. There are a handful of reasonably priced family resorts here, as well. The east coast is more remote, and can take more than an hour to reach from the airport. The east coast has many of the larger family-oriented all-inclusive resorts, remote beaches, and offshore islands and reefs. The southern portion of the island are home to boutique resorts and hotels, clustered along the beaches and English Harbour, which is also the center of the yachting and sailing scene and home to Nelson’s Dockyard, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are also villas and condos sprinkled throughout the island for those wanting to live like a local.
The most important thing to remember when considering where to stay is location. Since the island is large, if you plan on doing any exploring, make sure you base yourself near what interests you–it can take an hour and a half to go from the east coast to the west coast, so there’s the potential to spend a LOT of time in the car. We chose to stay at English Harbour, which is pretty much 45 minutes from both the east and west coasts and an hour from the far north.