Antigua: Life with the locals

Catamaran Boat
Photo of Catamaran at Dickenson Bay by Alexa Zizzi

Thinking back to my trip planning last year, I did not expect to find myself treading through calm Caribbean waters — but there I was, in the heat of summer, unexpectedly thriving on a tropical island.

In the middle of a slow July workday at home in Baltimore, my friend Rebecca offered me the trip of a lifetime. She casually asked, “Do you want to come with me to Antigua... with a free place to stay?” With no hesitation, I replied, “Absolutely!”

In just a few weeks, we ventured to the tiny island in the Lesser Antilles along the eastern Caribbean, where we would stay with her aunt, a native Antiguan, and get the true local experience. Spending a week embracing authentic island neighborhoods, lifestyle, history and culture from a native tour guide made this trip unmatched to any other. Aunt Elaine — aka Iola (her island name) — welcomed us to stay in her charming home in Saint John’s that she’s owned for more than 25 years.

The first night was especially memorable as Aunt Elaine hosted a party with family and friends. We mingled with locals, played card games with the kids and feasted on seasoned rice, a traditional Antiguan dish simmering with delicious rice, beans and juicy pork on the bone.

Little Ffryes Beach | Alexa Zizzi

I quickly learned what it means to be on “island time” as cell phones are rarely used, everyone is running a little late and locals show up at their friend’s houses to check in on them. The people are extremely warm and welcoming. It was nice to see such a tight-knit community, as Aunt Elaine’s friends and family would often stop by her house in the morning just to say hi. Her front porch offered peaceful mornings, as we would sip coffee, chat with the neighbors and bird-watch unique colorful species.

Throughout the trip, our group spent most of the time at Dickenson Bay located just a few miles from the house. Along the endless strip of beachfront, we found water activities, souvenir stands, bars, restaurants and the luxurious Sandals Grande Resort. We swam in the clear, calm waters, jet-skied the Bay and even treated ourselves to beach massages.

We sipped piña coladas and ate fresh calamari at Salt Plage at Siboney Beach Club, where guests take a dinghy out to an isolated tiki barge or enjoy a short swim across the water. Just a few steps before the Sandals resort, we indulged in a lovely dinner at Ana’s on the Beach restaurant. To properly tour more of the island, we rented a car and felt like locals driving around, beach hopping, sightseeing and jamming to Caribbean tunes. Before Antigua became an independent nation in 1981, it was once a British colony, so the rules of the road are to drive on the left side like in Europe. Let’s just say adjusting to that was ... an adventure.

With 365 beaches across the island, we were fortunate to explore a few. We ventured to Half Moon Bay, where the waves were stunning but the water was a bit too rough to swim; Long Bay, where we relaxed at Pineapple Beach Club; and Little Ffryes Beach, where I enjoyed a refreshing swim in lightly drizzling rain.


A few days were dedicated to an historic sightseeing quest, when we visited Nelson’s Dockyard along the English Harbour, reminiscent of a Pirates of the Caribbean scene. We then ventured over to Falmouth Harbour for a steak and sushi dinner at The Club House restaurant at Antigua Yacht Club.

Author Alexa Zizzi at Shirley Heights during sunset

Another evening we caught a sunset over Devil’s Bridge, a gorgeous natural limestone formation yet a place with a sad history of the country’s oppression, as slaves would escape their plantations and come here to jump off the cliff rather than returning to slavery. This spot was stunning but left me with an unsettling feeling.

My favorite moment was catching the sunset at Shirley Heights, the highest lookout point on the island’s southern tip. As I stood there embracing the breathtaking view above the open water of the English Harbour, it felt like I was on top of the world. What was once an important military lookout and gun battery is now an historic site and venue that transforms into the town’s hottest party scene on select nights.

Perched almost 500 feet above sea level, stone walls line what is now a dance floor and outdoor dining area, and the former guardhouse is now home to Shirley Heights Lookout Restaurant & Bar. We stayed for the Sunday night reggae party where I feasted on the most delicious jerk chicken, then bought a pair of maracas for $5 and danced the night away.

The best adventure was the following day on the circumnavigation tour aboard the Wadadli Cats catamaran. The crew served island BBQ and rum punches from the open bar as we cruised alongside millionaire mansions and saw hillside- homes of stars such as Cameron Diaz and Eric Clapton. We were even lucky enough to witness the crew catch a huge Spanish mackerel while everyone onboard cheered and celebrated as they reeled it in.

The boat anchored at sandy beaches for quick swims in a few secluded coves. This included an amazing stop where we snorkeled the protected coral reef and swam alongside sea turtles. The sweet snorkel guide, Alex, passed me a live conch shell while underwater, gracing me with a true mermaid moment.

Among all of my Antigua adventures, from exploring the historical sites to snorkeling in the deep blue sea, I must say that kicking it with Aunt Elaine, meeting new people and learning from the locals was by far my favorite part of the trip.


Antigua Island
Antigua Island by Alexa Zizzi

On our route south from Saint John’s to English Harbour, we took a detour and drove through the rainforest. We traveled on steep roads through villages lined with colorful homes as we cautiously dodged street-side goats, donkeys and various wild animals. We had so much fun exploring, but the trip took a turn for the worst when Aunt Elaine was appalled by what she saw. And I’m not talking about the donkeys.

“I remember taking school trips through here when the trees were so lush and full of life, and now you can see completely through them,” she says. “Soon, there will be no rainforest left at all!” She was truly heartbroken by the deforestation and how different the rainforest looked since she had last visited the southern side of the island many years ago.

The rainforest survived British invasion when they razed most of the tropical forests to plant sugarcane in the 1600s, and it has been a thriving ecosystem for the country ever since. Now, portions of the fields lay fallow along the rugged roads due to deforestation negatively impacting the farms over time.

The island also faced extreme agriculture devastation from Hurricane Irma in 2017 when crops, livestock, bees and machinery were destroyed and 1,407 people were displaced. This damage poses huge threats to the region’s wildlife, as it is home to more than 200 animal species and 1,100 species of vascular plants.

Thanks to local restoration efforts, local nonprofits such as Wallings Nature Reserve provides the region with a community-managed national park and conservation organization. Their mission is to practice sustainable development and engage the local community in the fight against climate change.

“Aside from the danger posed by the annual hurricane season, Antigua and Barbuda face unique environmental challenges due to its modest size and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. Growing weather pattern variability, rising sea levels, erosion of coastal lands and the encroachment of saline water into freshwater aquifers threaten the country’s ecosystems and biodiversity,” according to Learning for Nature, a United Nations program.

Wallings Nature Reserve spearheads numerous initiatives to restore and protect the local habitat, such as the Caribbean Tree Planting Initiative, in partnership with the Sandals Foundation who worked to replenish 10,000 native trees last summer.

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