Clear Caribbean waters, pink and white sandy beaches, a hot tropical climate, refreshing breezes, and friendly people draw tourists to the island of Antigua. Located in the Eastern Caribbean roughly 17 degrees north of the equator and ringed with coral reefs, Antigua is the largest of the English-speaking Leeward Islands.
Known as the “gateway to the Caribbean,” Antigua was a strategic port in the 18th century. English Harbour on the southern tip of the island was once an important naval base and is now a flourishing boating center. It is a vibrant community in the winter, with visitors from around the world and a great base for your stay in Antigua.
1. Lively Boating Center
You’ll feel the nautical vibe as soon as you start walking through English Harbour Town. The yachting crowd, their crews, sun-seeking tourists, and locals fill the small but lively boating center.
A natural deep harbor with several protected bays and two of the best marinas in the Caribbean attract pleasure sailors from around the world. It’s also known as a “hurricane hole,” a place for boats to anchor to get safely out of the way of a Caribbean hurricane. Additional moorage can be found in adjacent Falmouth Harbour, also a natural deep harbor, within walking distance from English Harbour.
Marveling at the luxury yachts in the marinas and watching the comings and goings of both small and large craft from a waterside café, bar, or restaurant are lovely ways to while away a few hours.
English Harbour hosts several world-class yachting events each year. Antigua Sailing Week, a week-long yacht regatta held in the waters off English Harbour at the end of April and beginning of May, is one of the top regattas in the world. It attracts participants and spectators from around the world. When sailing week first began in the 1960s most of the yachts were classic yachts. Over time, the classic yachts became outnumbered by faster, sleeker racing yachts. The Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta was formed in the late 1980s to showcase only classic yachts. It takes place in late March/early April.
The Superyacht Challenge, held in March, features yachts in excess of 80 feet participating in a competitive but friendly race. The Antigua Charter Yacht Show, held in early December, is an industry-only event connecting luxury yachts available for charter with brokers.
2. Nelson’s Dockyard
English Harbour got its name because the British Royal Navy used the harbour as its base of operations in the area during the 18th century. A naval dockyard in the harbour was an important base for ship repairs. The base became less important after the sugar industry waned in the mid-19th century. The dockyard closed in 1889 and became known as “The Old Dockyard.”
When the dockyard, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was restored in the 1950s, it was renamed Nelson’s Dockyard after Admiral Horatio Nelson, the British hero of Trafalgar who was based in Antigua from 1784 through 1787.
Today the dockyard is a charming British village transplanted into a scenic Caribbean landscape. Restored colonial buildings house tourist shops, restaurants, and bars. The Dockyard Museum, located in the former Admiral’s House, contains exhibits about the dockyard’s history and current archaeological research on the island. The stone columns, which once supported the sail loft roof, are still standing but are now capped to prevent further disintegration.
Nelson’s Dockyard Marina is the only continuously working Georgian-era dockyard in the world. Today luxury yachts, not naval ships, dock there.
3. View From Shirley Heights
Shirley Heights is a restored military lookout and gun battery. It was first used as a lookout during the War of American Independence. It was developed to contain barracks for soldiers, water cisterns, and gun platforms to keep the dockyard below safe. The military complex was named after Thomas Shirley, Governor of the Leeward Islands, who strengthened Antigua’s defenses in 1781.
The high point of Shirley Heights offers a superb view of English and Falmouth harbours that is particularly spectacular at sunset. On Sunday evenings, the lookout becomes a party spot. The Come Party, which runs from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., features a barbecue and local bands. Enjoy some food and listen to Caribbean-flavored reggae music while taking in the view and the sunset. Expect crowds. Pay attention to your footing. There are some uneven cobblestones and slight slopes.
You can walk the half-mile Lookout Trail from Galleon Beach to Shirley Heights. The lower part of the trail is quite steep and can be challenging for some, but offers stunning views and a chance to see native flora. Wear sensible shoes. I chose to take a taxi. The ride to Shirley Heights from Nelson’s Dockyard takes about 15 minutes.
Antigua’s beautiful beaches are the main draw for many visitors. The island boasts 365 beaches, one for every day of the year.
Pigeon Point Beach, about a 10-minute walk from town, is popular with tourists and locals. Warm, calm, shallow water makes this a good beach for children and novice swimmers.
Galleon Beach is one of the quieter beaches on the island. It can only be accessed by car from English Harbour or via water taxi from Nelson’s Dockyard. I took the water taxi and enjoyed the 5-minute ride.
You can easily explore other beaches on the island by taking a taxi, using local bus service, or renting a car. Turners Beach at Johnsons Point on the southwest coast is calm and quiet with a great beach bar and restaurant. Nearby Darkwood Beach features a long stretch of sandy beach. On the northwestern side of the island, Dickenson Bay is the most developed beach with hotels, restaurants, and water sports facilities.
If you choose to explore Antigua’s beaches via rental car, you will need to purchase an Antigua driving license. Your car rental company can arrange this. Note that driving is on the left-hand side of the road.
5. Clarence House
Clarence House, overlooking Nelson’s Dockyard, is one of the finest examples of 19th-century living in the region. The house was built in 1804 for the navy commissioner. Later the house was turned over to the governor of the Leeward Islands as his country residence. The building was severely damaged in a series of hurricanes in the 1990s and turned over to national parks in 2004 for restoration. Restoration work, funded by the winner of the 2011 Antigua Sailing Week, commenced in 2012. Today, Clarence House is a museum and events space.
6. Dining For All Tastes And Budgets
There is no shortage of dining options in English Harbour. Restaurants serving a variety of cuisines line Dockyard Drive, the “strip” between Nelson’s Dockyard and Falmouth Harbour. We simply walked the strip in the evening and selected a restaurant that appealed to our tastes that evening. Local seafood features prominently on all menus.
Outdoor patios and windows in eateries along Falmouth Harbour offer views of the superyachts moored in the marina. You can find beachside dining at restaurants within walking distance of Pigeon Point Beach.
The Galley Bar in Nelson’s Dockyard offers casual open-air dining with harbor views. The Admiral’s Inn in Nelson’s Dockyard has two restaurants with views of the dockyard and the harbor. Seafood Friday at Copper and Lumber Store Historic Inn, also in Nelson’s Dockyard is a popular tradition.
7. Great Places To Stay
You don’t need a yacht to stay in English Harbour. The variety of accommodation options in English Harbour and surrounding area include villas and apartments, beachfront cottages, upscale resorts, boutique hotels, guesthouses, and bed and breakfasts.
The Inn At English Harbour offers elegant luxury on a hilltop overlooking English Harbour. An all-inclusive option is available. The Admiral’s Inn and Gunpowder Suites in Nelson’s Dockyard offers historic charm and casual elegance in an 18th-century building. Copper and Lumber Store Historic Inn, also in Nelson’s Dockyard, is a beautiful intimate boutique hotel.
My husband and I have stayed at a more modest local hotel. The 12-room Ocean Inn is located amid a beautiful garden on a hillside with views of the dockyard and the Caribbean. Our room was small, but the views from the pool and patio area were stunning. One of the coolest features of this hotel was its outdoor Honesty Bar, where you helped yourself to a drink and wrote it down to be added to your bill upon checkout. The Inn is just a 5-minute walk from Dockyard Drive, but it is uphill.
- Use bug spray at dusk when the small no-see-ums are active.
- Although there is plenty to do within the area of English Harbour, you can easily explore the rest of the island if you wish. Hire a taxi guide for a day or two. Ask the staff at your hotel for recommendations.
- English Harbour is a friendly place. Don’t hesitate to meet and talk to people. You’ll discover people from around the world with interesting stories. On our second dinner with an American couple, we discovered they knew one of my husband’s cousins. We also met a young Swiss woman taking 2 weeks vacation after spending several months working as a steward on a luxury yacht, and a man from Florida who’d flown down to do renovations on a yacht.
Antigua and other Caribbean islands are magical places to vacation: