Columbus named the island Santa Maria la Antigua as he sailed by in 1493, but it has been in British hands since 1624 due to the strong fortifications that they built to defend it. It was given its independence in 1981 along with Barbuda.
Cruise ships moor right on the doorstep of the city so it was just a short walk along the jetty to the welcoming sound of a Caribbean steel drum band and a throng of cheery taxi drivers and street hawkers all eager to engage you in conversation and hopefully do some business. Whilst touring these islands we have yet to encounter the annoying trait exhibited by those in many Middle Eastern countries whose street traders often follow and pester you for hundreds of metres before they get the message that you don’t want their business.
We had not planned our day well, I hadn’t downloaded a map of the city before leaving the ship and the Tourist Information kiosk on the dock didn’t have any. We wandered the streets around the harbour rather aimlessly enjoying the ambience of the place, we visited the indoor and outdoor market, took a few photos and spent some time studying a rather splendid and colourful statue of a local dignitary. It was here that I discovered that I had left my wallet in the cabin safe, thus scuppering any plans that we might eventually make for the rest of the day. There was no choice but to return to the ship. Sue waited for me in the shade of a tree on the dockside, watching the other (better prepared) passengers stream past. She engaged Ken and Chris in a lengthy conversation as to why I had returned to the ship, which Ken later took great satisfaction in relating this bit of knowledge when I met him at the bottom of the gang plank on my return.
On board I successfully retrieved my wallet, downloaded a map of the island and read our notes as what we had decided to do today (written down months ago). Returning to Sue, we negotiated with a taxi driver to take us to Fort James. The journey took around half an hour and he dropped us outside a small beach bar. I enquired as to where the fort was and he said that the whole area was called Fort James. Had we made a planning error? We agreed that he would pick us up again at 11.30am.
Our driver left us standing next to a pretty, quite secluded powdery soft, white sandy beach, a gorgeous blue sea and a few sunbathers, but we couldn’t see a fort! Finding the shade of bar we sat down and checked the map on my mobile and there it was, around 300m away at one end of the beach. Stripping down to the bare essentials, we tackled the beach, avoiding the hard work of hot and loose, dry sand, we walked along the narrow strip where it is much firmer, the waves flowing rhythmically over bare feet, lovely feeling, cooling and so Robinson Crusoe.
We picked up a friend on the way to the fort, a lovely natured brown dog, eager to have its head patted and ears fondled. To my surprise, Sue also gave him a good patting and gentle scratch (must be the Mia/ Harry effect). He followed us all the way to the Fort then disappeared, probably picking up a fresh pair of walking ear fondlers on their way back to the bar.
Arriving at our destination we investigated what turned out to be a rather dilapidated set of structures in severe need of some TLC. It certainly had a prominent position at the seaward entrance to St. Johns harbour and would have been very impressive in the the past. Decades of neglect had reduced it to a dangerous confusion of buildings, comprising of rotted woodwork, cracked walls and precipices that once had guard rails which were now perilously rusty and rickety. The most intact building (accommodation block?) had some faded signage on one wall indicating that there had at one time been an attempt to use it as a restaurant. The only dishes served there today would be an extensive menu of crumbles.
Confusingly there was a battery of cannon mounted in line on the highest wall, still threatening seaward and in very good condition, they made for a good photo, but why the care over these instruments of battle and not the structure in which they defend? When a couple of pelicans appeared above, exploiting the updraft of sea air to hang motionless over the battery, I fired off a round of photos hoping to capture the scene. As usual in my excitement I had forgotten the camera had previously been set to panoramic mode, so yet another opportunity for a National Geographic entry was missed!!!!!
Leaving the fort to its degradation we dipped our toes again in the sea all the way back to our drop off point. We carried on walking to the opposite end of the beach where it ended in a series of small sandstone cliffs. We couldn’t spend much time here. As promised, our driver was waiting at the agreed time and swiftly took us back to have lunch on the Magellan.
In the afternoon our GPS map took us to the small Antigua Museum, located just a few streets busy streets from the ship. The displays are an eclectic mix of ancient artefacts dug up from recent archaeological digs and more modern sugar cane paraphernalia. There was a large display of the most famous Antiguan cricketer Viv Richards along with the bat that he made the fastest ever test match 100. However, what caught my interest was a large book on sale in the tiny shop, it contained fascinating accounts of the people and incidents during the early days of the sugar plantations. I was nearly tempted to buy, but at $50 it was too steep for a just a days visit, perhaps if I return for a longer stay (and we thought we might) it would make a pleasant read under some shady tree alongside a suitable coral beach.
A few streets away was the city Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a large imposing building easily visible from a distance out to sea. The outside of the building is showing its age and previous lack of maintenance, though encouragingly there were a couple of workers seen busy mixing concrete, probably to fill in the cracked external brickwork. Inside it was a different story; the walls were beautifully clad in a light coloured wood, but other than simple carvings, they were lacking in any coloured decoration. The only visible ‘bling’ in this church was a large chandelier in the central knave which was being carefully and precariously polished by two gentlemen standing on rickety scaffolding, spoiling any attempted photograph taken down the central aisle. I should imagine this place is a very comfortable place to worship, both in seating and in spirit.
Outside, the majority of the graves in the attached cemetery had English names and were from the 1700’s, many inscribed with a brief account of their hopes and history. I would have enjoyed spending longer here to investigate further these intriguing snapshots of life.
We spent the rest of the afternoon, wandering the streets at length, visiting a large number of shops and street stalls and buying nothing! I nearly bought a large painting of three pelicans, but it would have been a poor substitute for the idyllic photo that nearly made it into a popular photography magazine. Sue had considered their eyes to be too spooky looking, and not suitable to grace the walls of Will Bank, she has no soul!
Late that afternoon, all four cruise ships sailed away into the sunset, leaving the inhabitants of St. Johns to a little peace and quiet and I suspect a little bit richer. I like Antigua, it is a friendly, busy little island that has enough beaches to satisfy the most ardent of sun worshippers and plenty of other distractions to accommodate the more active and adventurous.