ANTIGUA - AN OFTEN UNDERRATED GEM
Steve - February 2009
The Virgin Islands are still, and probably always will be, the most popular choice for Caribbean yacht charters. St. Martin has long been in second place, (arguably number one for megayacht charters), but this status is rapidly being challenged by the Grenadines. While this seems logical, as a charter vacation generally must be a compromise between pure sailing and shoreside diversions; what surprises me as I witness this trend is that Antigua is so often overlooked as a great option for a new sailing destination. Perhaps this is because, at a glance on paper, Antigua doesn't have the myriad islands that bring a tangible feel to dreams of island hopping in the Caribbean. But Antigua has so much to offer beyond just its famed 365 beaches.
A rich history firstly comes to mind, as Antigua blends a distinct West Indian flavor with a colonial history that gives it a cultural depth that's always seemed largely absent to me in the Virgin Islands. Nelson's Dockyard, dating back to the early 18th century, is the last working Georgian dockyard in the world. Antigua's location, near the middle of the Eastern Caribbean chain, made it a prime location for the sailing warships of the time to control the vital commercial trade routes of the Caribbean. That sailing history, started by Horatio Nelson, continues to this day.
Spending an afternoon touring Nelson's Dockyard will not only take you back in time, but will also remind you that in many ways, Antigua remains the sailing capital of the Caribbean. Many of the world's most famous and largest sailing yachts base themselves here in the winter, and even more arrive in April for the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta. Even if you're not into racing, just the chance to see grand old ladies like Velsheda, Endeavor, Lion's Whelp, Bolero, Whitehawk and many others under full sail is worth the trip. If you are a racer, Antigua Sailing Week directly follows the Classic Yacht Regatta, and anyone can enter in the bareboat class.
Even if you're not interested in racing, or the inevitable parties that go with Race Week, Antigua is worth consideration as a cruising ground. While you're not endlessly hopping from island to island, there are enough diverse anchorages and great sailing around Antigua to keep things interesting.
I could spend days in Nonsuch Bay alone as it has at least 5 distinct anchorages within it, if you include the small, intimate anchorages of Green Island. Anchoring behind the reef just north of Green Island gives access to some of the best snorkeling in the Caribbean. In the evening, the sensation is amazing as you look out towards The Atlantic. The reef blocks the seas giving you calm water, but the view goes on forever.
Sailing Antigua, while very accessible, isn't the best choice for bareboat beginners or inexperienced sailors. North Sound, for example, is well worth exploring, and contains myriad snorkeling opportunities. However, it also presents a minefield of reefs, and the mainland offers few distinct landmarks, making this area one of the most difficult to navigate in the Caribbean. The entire east coast is also inherently more open to Atlantic swells than the very protected waters of the Sir Francis Drake Channel, but then again, this could be said of nearly anywhere other than the BVI in the Caribbean.
The anchorages on the western side of Antigua are more like a cross between Road Town on Tortola and some of the quieter harbors on St. Martin, and bring some diversions to the quiet of the eastern coast. Places like Jolly Harbour, and Five Island Harbour, have more resort development with shops, pubs, and restaurants to visit.
And then there's Barbuda. This, to me, offers multi-faceted allure to choosing a place like Antigua. While short hops from anchorage to anchorage are great, there are times when I truly want to sail, and the 25 mile or so trip up to Barbuda offers the chance for the sailor to stretch the legs a bit. The payoff is a jewel of a quiet island, encircled by picture-perfect beaches and great patch reefs to snorkel. Barbuda is rather like a very large version of Anegada, albeit with a 'larger' town on it. It also has the largest frigate bird colony in the world in its unique inner lagoon, which is a must see. The added payoff for visiting Barbuda is the sail back to Antigua - a screaming reach that's just perfectly and comfortably off the wind - sure to bring a silly grin to any sailor's face that will linger for days, if not years, to come.
If Antigua and Barbuda aren't enough to keep you and your sailing friends captivated, it's also important to note that Antigua is the starting point of one of the best one-way sailing itineraries in the Caribbean: sailing from Antigua to St. Martin. The beauty of this trip is that both islands share major airline service from the US, so flying into one island and out of the other is quite easy and often doesn't affect the airfare much, if at all. Most importantly, once on the water, you have the opportunity to explore a large chunk of the Caribbean, incorporating West Indian, English, Dutch, and French culture, all into one itinerary that's sailed on a broad reach to a close reach. Aside from atypical winds, you would not have any upwind work.
When you're planning your next sailing vacation, and looking for a new place to sail, I encourage you to give us a call to chat about the possibilities in Antigua. It's a bit off the beaten track in some ways, nicely on it in others, and offers great sailing year round. If you're keen sailors and would like to bareboat, Horizon Yacht Charters has a fleet of yachts in Jolly Harbour, and Sunsail operates from historic Nelson's Dockyard from November through April. If you'd rather someone else was responsible for worrying about how well the anchor's set, there are a huge variety of crewed yachts in all size and price ranges, that can show you all that Antigua has to offer.
Whether you're looking for a bareboat or a crewed yacht, tell us about your vision of a great sailing vacation, and we'll be happy to recommend some suitable boats.
(Photos courtesy of Horizon Yachts and Ed Hamilton)
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