Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua
Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - Hit the Beach at Dickenson Bay
With its powdery white sand and calm, turquoise waters, Dickenson Bay is often ranked as one of the best beaches in Antigua. Located on the northwest coast, it's just a 15-minute drive from the capital city of St. John's, making it an easy and popular choice for both cruise ship passengers and resort guests alike.
The half-mile crescent bay is anchored by Rex Halcyon Cove Resort on one end and the Hawksbill by Rex Resort on the other. Yet there's still plenty of open sand for sunbathing even during peak times. The beach slopes gently into the water, making it ideal for swimming and snorkeling. There's a small reef about 100 yards from shore where you can spot parrotfish, angelfish, and maybe even a sea turtle if you're lucky.
While the sheltered bay keeps the surf mellow, trade winds can kick up in the afternoons. Locals often take advantage and go windsurfing or kitesurfing. Or rent a sailboat, kayak or paddleboard along the beach for a few hours. Several beach bars like Coconut Grove and Ana's on the Beach provide front-row seats to take in all the action on the water while sipping a rum punch.
Speaking of rum, don't leave without sampling Antigua's famous dark and spicy rums. Stop by the beach shack called Castaways for their signature killer cocktails. Or grab lunch at the beachfront restaurant called Bonnie's. Their grilled lobster is fantastic. And make sure to try their classic rum punch with nutmeg and cloves.
While the vibe at Dickenson Bay is lively, it's not crowded or overly touristy like some other Caribbean hot spots. You'll find a nice mix of locals, cruise shippers and international travelers. Vendors stroll by occasionally selling souvenirs, cold drinks or fresh coconuts. But there's no high pressure sales tactics. Just friendly island hospitality.
Travelers say this is a beach where you can truly relax and unwind. Grab a beach chair, soak up the sun and tune out the world for a while. The quieter northern section by Hawksbill resort is more secluded. While the central area by Rex Halcyon is most active with restaurants and water sports rentals nearby.
What else is in this post?
- Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - Hit the Beach at Dickenson Bay
- Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - Hike Through Historic Nelson's Dockyard
- Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - Snorkel or Dive at Stingray City
- Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - Zip Line Through the Rainforest Canopy
- Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - Savor Local Cuisine at a Rum Shack
- Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - See the Sunset from Shirley Heights Lookout
- Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - Shop for Souvenirs at English Harbour
- Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - Tour Antigua Distillery for a Rum Tasting
Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - Hike Through Historic Nelson's Dockyard
Traversing the cobblestone streets and restored 18th-century buildings of Nelson's Dockyard delivers an immersive journey into Antigua's history. This former British naval base, named for Admiral Horatio Nelson, offers a hike through the past. Visitors can explore on their own or take a guided walking tour to unlock tales of battles, hurricanes, and heritage.
Meandering down Dockyard Drive reveals a peek inside the officers' quarters, workshops, and storerooms crucial to maintaining a fleet. Interpretive signs detail how skilled tradesmen like sailmakers, boat builders, and blacksmiths plied their trades. Inside the Admiral's Inn, the Officer's Mess has been transformed into a restaurant where you can enjoy an ale in the very spot officers once dined centuries ago.
Continuing past the National Parks office, the trail opens up to the docks with striking views of the harbor. Traces of hurricane damage are still visible on some buildings, remnants of storms that have battered these structures over the decades. Yet Nelson's Dockyard has been carefully restored since its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Dockyard is also still an active marina today. Spot gleaming yachts and sailing vessels moored alongside historic ships like the 1937-built wooden schooner Excellence. Some are available for day sails, private charters, or hands-on seamanship courses. Watching the yachts glide through the turquoise harbor waters evokes an earlier era of trade and travel.
Venturing uphill leads to Shirley Heights, a restored military lookout with panoramic vistas from its clifftop fort. Especially lively for the weekly Sunday barbecue bash, visitors flock for steel pan music, dancing, food and rum punch. Even on quieter days, it's an ideal spot for a picnic lunch and some plane-spotting, as aircraft approach low over the hill on their way to land at nearby V.C. Bird International Airport.
Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - Snorkel or Dive at Stingray City
With over 60 tropical isles in the Caribbean Sea, what sets Antigua apart is the abundance of stingrays that call its waters home. Off the coast of the uninhabited Little Island, visitors can interact with these gentle giants up-close at a site fittingly called Stingray City. As one of the top attractions in Antigua, it's an experience that creates lifelong memories for many.
After boarding one of the catamarans or mini speedboats that make the short jaunt from the Dickenson Bay marina, you'll know you've arrived when dark shadows begin circling beneath the hull. Before you have time to second-guess, you'll be suited up with mask and snorkel, easing yourself off the boat into waist-deep water swarming with stingrays.
Despite the intimidating name, these rays are entirely docile. Each one glides right up to sniff out any tidbits you might be holding, providing the chance to gently touch their velvety wings. Though stingrays do possess venomous barbed tails, injuries are extremely rare here as the animals have grown accustomed to human contact.
What's most fascinating is the way these wild rays have learned to associate the sound of boat engines with an easy free meal. Native to Antigua's reefs and seagrass beds, small groups began gathering near fishermen's boats in the 1980s. As word spread, tour operators started provisioning the site so snorkelers could reliably experience these gentle rays.
Nowadays, more than two dozen southern stingrays make Stingray City their permanent home. The largest reach up to 5 feet wide, including the famous Gina who is easy to identify by her missing tail tip. Patients and parents take note - the shallow sandbar means Stingray City is suitable even for non-swimmers and little ones.
The excitement continues underwater as well. Many tours offer SCUBA diving at Stingray City for more freedom to explore the sloping reefs nearby. Moray eels, parrotfish, and even nurse sharks might make an appearance beneath the waves.
While some worry that feeding wildlife could be detrimental, research indicates responsible practices at Stingray City have not negatively impacted the rays' health or behavior patterns. But experts do recommend limiting your interaction to 30 minutes so the animals can spend the rest of their day foraging naturally.
Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - Zip Line Through the Rainforest Canopy
Gliding silently high above Antigua's lush rainforest canopy offers a unique perspective of the island's wild interior. Zip lining provides an exhilarating way to take in the sights and immerse yourself in nature, far away from the beach resorts.
Antigua Rainforest Zip Line Tours pioneered jungle adventures here back in 1993. Their premier course in Wallings Nature Reserve delivers an unforgettable experience across skysurf cables, suspension bridges and towering observation platforms. Friendly, experienced guides outfit you in harnesses, helmets and gloves before reviewing important safety procedures. No prior experience is necessary to join the eco-friendly fun.
The longest zip line stretches an incredible 1300 feet over fig and palm trees 120 feet below. Feel the wind in your face as you gain speed, spotting tropical birds or a glimpse of Wallings Reservoir glistening through the foliage. The stunning views make you forget any initial hesitations about stepping off the first platform. Before you know it, you'll be zooming from tree to tree like a pro.
Some zip lines intersect, allowing you to race family or friends to the next stop. Don't be surprised if the guides challenge you to see who can go faster! The course navigates varying elevations across valleys and ridges, adding another element of excitement. At each transition, the guides share interesting facts about the flora and fauna in this tropical dry forest. Looking out over the island from the towering 14-story observation deck is the perfect place to snap pictures and savor the panoramas.
Safety remains the top priority throughout the 3-hour backcountry experience. Each section features meticulously maintained equipment and double sets of lines with built-in braking systems. Your guide always stays within shouting distance in case of questions. Convenient ground transportation, snacks, water and equipment like gloves and binoculars are all included.
While zip lining does require some stamina and courage, people of most ages and fitness levels can participate. Recent travelers said their six-year-old did great and was grinning from ear to ear. Visitors in their 70s enjoyed themselves just as much as the 20-somethings. Doubters claim they conquer their fears and are glad they pushed their personal limits.
Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - Savor Local Cuisine at a Rum Shack
Far from the manicured resorts, Antigua's rum shacks offer a more authentic taste of island life and local cuisine. These off-the-beaten-path rum bars are informal open-air establishments often near the beach or tucked down backstreets. Pop in around lunchtime and you'll find many serve up classic, wallet-friendly dishes like barbecue chicken, jerk pork, or fish fried to order.
Meat lovers rave about the fall-off-the-bone ribs at Boonie's. Set in a cheery tropical garden, their house-made sauces deliver flavor to match the ocean views. Cedar Valley Golf Club's hilltop perch means literally tee-ing up a plate of their curried goat and dumplings. Cooled by tradewinds, the breezy Dickenson Bay shack called Ana's knocks out brunch classics from johnnycakes to callaloo omelettes.
Seafood reigns supreme at beachfront joints like Turner's, where the conch fritters merit repeat orders. Shirlene's cooks up pumpkin-infused rundown stew brimming with fresh lobster and shellfish pulled right from the harbor. Especially heavenly after a day of sailing or snorkeling.
Wash it all down with a rum punch, of course. The national drink crafted from local rums, tropical juices, nutmeg and Angostura bitters is ubiquitous thanks to Antigua's long distilling history. Eaton's on Valley Road stirs up 48 flavors, so pace yourself sampling the grapefruit, guava and passionfruit versions.
Rum connoisseurs make a beeline for Café Bacchus, hidden on Dow's Hill above English Harbour. Shelves stagger under the weight of over 600 rums to sample by the tot or mixed into cocktails. Chat up the knowledgeable bartenders about standouts from Antigua Distillery or the indie bottler Cabby Rum. Locals and yachties pack the place on live music nights.
Certain shacks like Papa Zouk's occupy prime real estate to take in scarlet sunsets. Hitting The Beach Bar when it's jumping on a Friday night is an experience, with reggae and soca beats filling the air. Lobster Night at Boomie's Yellow Brick Road draws big crowds cracking into seafood buckets. Yo-ho-ho indeed.
Rum shops tend to be family affairs handed down for generations, like Papa's By The Sea on Seatons Beach. Sunday afternoons the commanding views over Montserrat compete with the fried fish and festival dished up by the genial owner Papa George himself. Don't expect fancy frills at these laidback spots. But do embrace the chance to chat with locals and feel the heartbeat of Antigua.
As an island that produced sugar and molasses since the 18th century, rum production runs deep in Antigua's veins. Stroll Heritage Quay's shops like Cavalier for bottles of artisanal expressions infused with native ingredients from passionfruit to Bois Bande bark. Then compare sipping aged reserves during a distillery tour at English Harbour Rum Co or Copper & Lumber Store Hotel's own on-site stills.
Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - See the Sunset from Shirley Heights Lookout
Perched on a bluff overlooking English Harbour, Shirley Heights Lookout offers panoramic views and rollicking Sunday barbecues. As one of the island's best vantage points, it's an ideal spot to soak up sensational sunsets with soca beats setting the soundtrack.
During the 18th century, Shirley Heights served as a strategic military lookout for the British navy. The elevated headland allowed unobstructed sightlines to spot approaching ships or monitor fleet movements below in English Harbour. Vestiges of the fortifications are still visible, though today's visitors are armed with cameras, not cannons.
On Sunday afternoons, locals and tourists alike flock to the former officers' mess to revel in the views and vibrant party atmosphere. The weekly shindig originated in the 1950s when a band would play for the sailors and their friends on shore leave. Yachties anchored in the harbor would sail over to join the fun, a tradition that continues today.
As the sun dips toward the horizon, the beans and barbecue begin sizzling. Vendors set up makeshift bars and food stalls to fuel the festivities. Families spread out picnic blankets while revelers dance to the rhythms of steel pan bands. Laughter and conversation mingle with the reggae beats pulsing through the crowd, often several hundred strong.
A buzz of anticipation builds as the sinking sun transforms the sky into a canvas of pinks, oranges, and purples. Crimson clouds streak the sea below as catamarans sail back to harbor trailing pennants. Finally the emerald forests and surrounding hillsides fade to silhouette, framing the vivid dusk colors and heralding the evening spectacle.
Watching aircraft approach the nearby airport also adds to the drama. Massive jets glide in low right over Shirley Heights, close enough to read the logos, before touching down on the runway. If you time it right, you can witness a plane appear directly out of the setting sun. Cameras click feverishly to capture these iconic Antiguan moments.
Unlike more touristy or resort-dominated spots, Shirley Heights exudes an authentic island vibe. Rub shoulders with locals, sailors, and expats all drawn to the lookout's laidback charms. Soak up their stories over a cool Wadadli beer or rum punch while reggae classics like Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" get everyone swaying.
As darkness descends, lights twinkle around the harbor below. Festivities carry on late into the night fueled by dancing and more drinks from the open-air bars. Be prepared to make friends and maybe even join an impromptu limbo line.
Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - Shop for Souvenirs at English Harbour
Beyond its history as a former British naval base, English Harbour today is a hub for shopping local artisan wares. Strolling the restored 18th century buildings along the waterfront delivers ample opportunities to take an authentic piece of Antigua home.
Inside Heritage Quay near the marina, Cavalier Antigua specializes in rums, coffees, and Guava jellies pressed right onsite. Their shelves brim with over 300 Caribbean rums to sample by the nip. Pick up an aged bottle of the Antigua Distillery’s premium rum said to have notes of spice, oak and raisin. Or for the coffee lover, select beans grown at the Antiguan hillside plantation that now supplies Buckingham Palace.
Next door, indulge chocolate cravings with truffles infused with indigenous ingredients at The Antiguan Chocolate Company. Candied pineapple in milk chocolate makes a uniquely tropical treat. They also craft rum balls, coconut clusters and chocolate-dipped fruits using single-origin dark chocolate from Peru and Venezuela. Don’t miss their signature Benye’s Pepper Sauce either, handcrafted onsite to take home the taste of Antigua.
One niche find is the handcrafted Antiguan black pineapple fibers at the boutique Zemi Art House Gallery. A traditional cottage industry revived in recent years, fibers are extracted from the prickly pineapple leaves and woven into striking baskets, caps and jewelry. Pick up a one-of-a-kind piece like a handbag with leather accents while also supporting local artisans.
Custom creations of batik, hand-dyed fabrics and silkscreened textiles abound next door at Harmony Hall. Their onsite workshop produces vibrant sarongs, scarves and resort wear in tropical hues. Visitors rave about the friendly artists who enjoy explaining the traditional techniques that transform each piece into wearable art.
Nearby shops like Sunnyside offer island-made soaps and scrubs infused with coconut, lime and lemongrass. Stock up on Sargassum seaweed scrubs said to remedy skin irritated by long days snorkeling. Those craving spicy scents can find perfumes like sandalwood or vetiver blended right in Antigua.
Don’t overlook the street vendors along the docks selling hand-beaded bracelets, painted woodcarvings, stitchery and macramé. Pick up a CD of local musicians or calypso legends like Byron Lee. Vintage navy prints or maps of Nelson’s Dockyard make unique reminders of English Harbour’s sailing heritage. And kids will get a kick out of musical steel pans crafted into everything from wall art to wastebaskets fashioned by local steel bands.
Sun, Sand, and Sights: Top 10 Activities for Exploring Picturesque Antigua - Tour Antigua Distillery for a Rum Tasting
As the Caribbean island where rum production originated in 1655, no trip to Antigua is complete without a pilgrimage to the Antigua Distillery. Their historical estate guided tour and sampling immerses you in the island’s 300-year rum heritage from field to glass.
The distillery lies nestled amidst old stone warehouses dating from the 1700s in the Five Islands village. Visitors are welcomed with a complimentary cocktail mixed with their artisanal rums to sip while admiring the gleaming copper stills and weathered brick chimney. Friendly and knowledgeable guides regale you with tales handed down through generations of master blenders and distillers. Antigua Distillery remains family-owned and small-batch focused to this day.
The walking tour through compacted molasses and fermentation cellars reveals Antigua’s rum production secrets. Learn how molasses from the island’s own sugarcane fuels a dozen rums aged in used bourbon barrels. You’ll gain insight into their signature milky hues and complex flavors infused by the tropical climate. Peek through windows into the active distillery to witness the rum-making process firsthand.
A highlight is sampling rum straight from the casks before blending. Drawing a measure through a copper siphoning tube lets you appreciate the bold and pure flavors during various aging phases. Your guide will point out nuances ranging from oaky, leathery notes to traces of mango and tobacco. It provides perspective on how selecting and blending different barrels creates the distinctive rums that Antiguans proudly claim make the best rum punch in the islands.
The tour finale is an informative tasting of five premium rums, each showcasing distinct personalities based on aging time and cask profiles. Savor the rich molasses and vanilla bouquet of their flagship five-year-old English Harbour Antigua Rum. Considered one of the Caribbean’s finest sipping rums, it earned the Ministry of Rum’s highest accolade.
Ramp up the oomph with a tot of their punchy high-proof rum bottled at 69% ABV. For bold rum on a budget, Cavalier is another island favorite aged for two years in Antigua. Their spiced rum delivers familiar warmth mingled with traces of island fruits and peppers. Aficionados will appreciate their limited expression called 1907, a nod to the year the original estate was founded.