Happy New Year! Looking back on 2021, which was not much better than 2020 – a “variant” of bad per humorist Dave Barry – it did start out very well for me with family in Antigua and Barbuda, a twin-island nation in the Eastern Caribbean archipelago. My cousin invited me to join his family in Antigua for New Year’s Eve. I was already going to the United States for Christmas, so it was an easy and welcome flight south. Plus, it was an opportunity to get to know my cousin’s son and daughter-in-law, whom I met for the first time!
Antigua and Barbuda is known for spectacular white and pink sand beaches (365 for every day of the year locals boast), clear turquoise waters, coral reefs, rich sea life, a rainforest and frigate bird sanctuaries. (Barbuda is one of a few Caribbean islands with pink sand beaches, including a 17-mile-long stretch.) My cousins and I took it all in near Half Moon Bay, Antigua, the larger and much more populated island 28 miles south of Barbuda. Connected 10,000 years ago, these islands now have the Caribbean Sea/Atlantic Ocean between them.
To protect this natural beauty, Antigua and Barbuda is leading the Caribbean in coral reef, seagrass and mangrove conservation. It has a Green Tourism Initiative, including a Green Fins UNEP certification program for diving and snorkelling best practices – the only country in the Western Hemisphere to adopt it. The country has also banned plastic and Styrofoam. No wonder Antigua and Barbuda was recognized as Emerging Sustainable Destination for 2021 by Lonely Planet.
Last year, a family friend named Martha, an Antiguan citizen, expert scuba diver and conservationist, got into the green act via the blue economy by planting baby coral to repopulate Antiguan reefs. A member of the elite Explorer’s Club for documenting dive sites in the Caribbean, sea life is her life and she is a “sugar pie” as this U.S. southern native would say. (Incidentally, sugar pies are made in Antigua and Barbuda because it once had a sugarcane industry).
The twin-island nation has a lot to protect with the most extensive coral reefs east of Hispaniola due to unique geological and climatological conditions. Coral reefs protect beaches and cliffs from erosion as well as provide homes and food for a wide variety of sea life, which benefits fisheries and tourism. In fact, Antigua and Barbuda has among the highest per capita fish consumption in the world.
As well, this little hot spot is a little-known foodie hot spot with outstanding European restaurants and creole cuisine. The latter, inherited from early Arawak and Carib settlers, is well-maintained in spite of British occupation for nearly 400 years. The islands feature fresh seafood and unique produce, such as sugar apple, sea moss and sorrel.
Arawaks were the first documented Antiguans who arrived from Venezuela around 200 BC. They introduced agriculture to the island, including a small, “black” pineapple – supposedly the sweetest in the world and only grown on Antigua – as well as other fruits and vegetables that remain part of creole cuisine. (Every March or April, Antigua hosts the PiAngo Fest in honor of black pineapple and mango, which is only upstaged by a 10-day carnival in July-August). The national dish is fungi (baked cornmeal) and pepperpot, a thick beef stew made with a medley of local vegetables and warm spices.
My cousins and I ate our way through Antigua in between beachcombing, paddleboarding, yacht watching, sundowning, singing “Sweet Home, Alabama” – my cousins live there and sing and play it well on the guitar and drums – and nightly games of charades. (I discovered that not only are my cousins musical, they are good actors and clever punsters. I’ve never seen charades played better … no charade!)
Back to history, around the year 1100, Arawaks were replaced by Caribs from the Amazon, after which the Caribbean is named. In 1493, Christopher Columbus declared Antigua for the British Empire – from afar, not afoot – and English settlers followed. (In fact, he named Antigua after Santa Maria de la Antigua, a saint in Seville.) France briefly took over Antigua and Barbuda in 1666, then England reclaimed it. In 1674, Englishman Christopher Codrington set up a huge sugar estate on Barbuda and sugarcane became the nation’s primary agricultural product and economic driver.
When the Panama Canal was built in 1914, Americans started making their way to Antigua and Barbuda, too. Recently, its tallest mountain was named Obama in honor of our former U.S. president. (Ironically, when we were in Antigua, rioters stormed the U.S. capital, which dwarfed this mountain so to speak.)
The sugar industry died by the 1970s in Antigua and Barbuda due to sugar beet in Europe replacing sugar cane and the abolishment of slavery. Only rum production remains from that time. Sugar mills, including long-running Betty’s Hope, have been turned into architectural artifacts. Clearing the land of a practical monoculture meant other crops could grow like mangoes, breadfruit and bananas – called “figs” by locals – of different sizes and levels of sweetness.
Antigua and Barbuda is also known for aphrodisiac drinks made from mauby, soursop and hibiscus and aphrodisiac foods like tamarind, oysters, lobster, conch and Goat Water. (The latter is a stew, not a drink, thanks to a sizeable livestock industry in Antigua and Barbuda.) No wonder it’s a hot spot for weddings and honeymooners!
Non-domesticated animals include mongoose (introduced in the 19th century to control poisonous snakes) and Hawksbill turtles, which nest from July to Sept. Giant bamboo and rubber trees, red mangrove, agave, orchids and flamboyant trees – which produce fruit used as rattles – also thrive on Antigua and Barbuda. Many of these plants can be seen on Fig Tree Drive or a nearby zipline in Antigua’s rainforest.
Antigua also has an UNESCO World Heritage Site: Nelson’s Dockyard, a natural hurricane shelter used by the British Royal Navy to maintain its fleet, in English Harbour. Nearby are Shirley Heights Lookout with some of the island’s best views and two forts as relics of colonialism. Barbuda is surrounded by natural relics: 300 shipwrecks, plus stalactites in Darby Cave.
Unfortunately, we did not make it to Barbuda as we were plenty busy in Antigua. But this ecotourism island is a good excuse to go back. Meanwhile, in honor of the Dansby clan, I am playing charades in Brussels, acting out things like “sunshine,” “beach” and “palm tree,” to offset nonstop rain and early darkness this time of year.