Travel March 5th, 2014

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Making friends in Antigua

Two gentle black eyes swivel toward me. A huge sting ray is lying placidly in my arms and looking me right in the eye.

She is docile and looks so sweet I feel impelled to lean down and kiss the top of her head.

Sting rays, we are told by the guide at Sting Ray City, are not aggressive and will flee rather than fight.

Most injuries humans suffer in encounters with sting rays are a painful sting in the foot from stepping on a ray’s sharp-spined tail lazily buried in the sand. So we learn the sting ray shuffle, sliding our feet in the sand rather than stepping downwards.

Sting Ray City is one of the attractions in Antigua, that spectacular little Caribbean island where the sun rarely stops shining and the sea is a mesmerizing, calm blue. For a winter-weary Canadian, the sun is a balm to the soul as well as the body. Indeed, finding oneself buoyant on the salty water and staring at a blue sky and majestic palms, it is hard to recall what it felt like to be in the last winter storm back home.

The whole island is only 14 miles long and 11 miles wide, but it encompasses white sand beaches, small villages and lush rainforest.

The roads wind over hill and dale, so covering any distance can take a while. Antigua’s most picturesque drive meanders from the low central plain up into the ancient volcanic hills of the Parish of Saint Mary in the island’s southwest quarter.

Nelson’s Dockyard, on English Harbour, is a safe port in hurricane season, which is one reason the British fleet made this its base 400 years ago. But it’s said that the great Admiral Nelson found the mosquitoes so pestilential that he retreated back to his ship.

Today, the mosquitoes appear to have left as well, and the picturesque area is a hive of shops, restaurants, a hotel and a small museum dedicated to the history of the island and its people.

As with most Caribbean islands, the people were brought here from Africa to provide labour for the sugar plantations which covered the island at one time. Betty’s Hope, the first and largest of these, is being restored by the government for visitors.

Around the island, a few sugar towers dot the landscape, mute reminders of the past.

The names of some towns also reflect Antigua’s history: Liberta, Freeman and Freetown are villages first settled by newly-freed slaves in the 1830s.

On Sunday afternoon, along with half the island’s population, I head for Shirley Heights, named for General Shirley, governor of the Leeward Islands in the late 18th century. It’s time for a barbecue and the party goes late into the evening. From here, the sunset over the island is truly spectacular. And nothing beats watching it go down with a rum punch (the aptly named drink nearly knocked me out!) in your hand and the music of a steel band or heart-thumping reggae in the background.

Music is very much a part of the island experience. In the capital, St. John’s — a bustling town with large central market — soca spills from every door. There is a vitality to the scene that is unmatched in North American cities.

And I find myself searching for more examples of the evocative names of the shops and restaurants: Reasonable, Delightful, Really Delicious, Bellyful.

When I ask a local for help finding St. John’s Cathedral, she insists on leading me there, and afterwards walks off before I can properly thank her.

First built in the 1600s but later destroyed by earthquakes, this latest incarnation was constructed in 1845 on a hill, so its tall towers soar over the city. It is magnificent, but the oldest church on the island is tiny St. Boniface, constructed in Martin Village in 1634 and still in use today.

What I love best is walking the paths at Jolly Beach Resort and Jolly Harbour. A quick dip in the blue ocean to cool down and off I go again. Everywhere there are little creatures: colourful birds and butterflies, the ubiquitous ferrets and brilliant green lizards. They scamper and play amidst the foliage and profusion of magnificent blooms that line the paths.

Even the palm trees are fascinating. One has grape-like clusters of green nuts, another is patently a coconut palm, a third has dark red fruit. Is any of it edible? I don’t know, but their bright profusion makes this island truly a paradise.

It’s not surprising then, that Antigua’s natural beauty has attracted many of the glitterati. Chic resorts like Jumby Bay play host to megastars like Oprah Winfrey, who raved about their chocolate chip macadamia cookies on her show (they are indeed delicious!). Giorgio Armani and Eric Clapton own homes on the island. Celebrities Eddie Murphy, Brittney Spears and Whitney Huston have visited, some as patients at the Crossroads drug rehabilitation centre built by Clapton.

The locals respect the privacy of the rich and famous, but word inevitably gets out when a star is on ther island.

For me, Antigua is a chance to step away from the hustle and bustle of normal life and to revitalize the body and the soul. It’s hard to stay stressed amid the seductive rhythms of soca and the charming smiles of locals who greet you with, “How you doin’.” It’s a statement, not a question. After all, you’re on Antigua. “You got to be doin’ OK, mon.”

If you go: Check out the island website: www.antigua-barbuda.org