Antigua is one of the smaller Leeward Islands and it was here that we berthed alongside three other large cruise ships in its capital St. Johns, just as we sat down for breakfast.
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 were 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 is 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 Middle East countries who 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 rather aimlessly the streets around the harbour enjoying the ambience of the place, visiting the indoor and outdoor markets, taking a few photos and spending 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, scuppering any plans for the rest of the day that we might eventually make. There was no choice but to return to the ship. Sue waited for me in the shade of a tree on the dockside.
On board I retrieved my wallet, downloaded a map of the island and read our notes on what we had decided to do today from 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 off outside a small beach bar. We enquired as to where the fort was and he said 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.
We were next to a pretty, quite secluded powdery soft beach, gorgeous blue sea, a few sunbathers but couldn’t see a fort! Sitting in the shade of the bar I checked our map and there it was, around 300m away at one end of the beach. Stripping down to bare essentials we walked on the more firmer sand where the waves flowed rhythmically over our feet, lovely feeling, cooling and so Robinson Crusoe.
We picked up a friend on the way, a lovely natured brown coloured dog, eager to have its head patted and ears fondled, surprisingly Sue gave him a good patting and gentle scratch too. He followed us all the way to the Fort then disappeared, probably picking up a fresh pair of walking ear fondlers on his way back to the bar.
We investigated what turned out to be a rather dilapidated set of structures in severe need of some TLC. It had a prominent position on the entrance to St. Johns harbour and would have been very impressive in the the past. Decades of neglect had reduced it to a dangerous jumble of buildings, rotted woodwork, cracked walls and precipices that once had guard rails but were now rusty and rickety. The most intact building 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. 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 I had previously set the camera to panoramic mode, so yet another opportunity for a National Geographic entry had been missed.
We dipped our toes in the sea all the way back to our drop off point and then carried on to the opposite end of the beach where it ended in small sandstone cliffs. As promised, our driver was there at the agreed time and took us back for 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 can paraphernalia. There was a large display of the 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, which contained fascinating accounts of the people and incidents in 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 tree alongside a coral beach.
A few streets away was the city Cathedral, 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 there was a couple of workers mixing concrete, probably to fill in some of the cracked brickwork. Inside was a different story, beautifully clad in light coloured wood, but other wise lacking in coloured decoration. There was a large chandelier in the central knave which was being carefully and precariously polished by two gentlemen standing on rickety scaffolding, spoiling any photograph taken down the central aisle. I should imagine it would be a very comfortable place to worship, both in seating and in spirit. Most of the graves in the attached cemetery had English names and were from the 1700’s, often inscribed with a brief account of their hopes and history.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at length, wandering the streets, shops and stalls of the city and buying nothing. 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.
All four cruise ships sailed away into the sunset late in the afternoon, leaving the inhabitants of St. Johns to a little peace and quiet.