Yacht Charter and Sailing Around Antigua

How about sailing in the day and fine dining in the night while enjoying tropical weather, palm trees, blue waters and white beaches? Sign us up too. Here’s a short guide to the best of Antigua.

Some basic facts first. High season runs from December to the end of April. The rest of the year is hurricane season, still hot and sunny with some great deals on yachts, but somewhat at the mercy of tropical depressions coming off the Atlantic trades. From the UK the regular carriers are BA, Virgin and XL. The US is served by Delta, AA, Continental and US Airways. But local airline Liat makes it easy to hop over to Antigua if you end up at any other Caribbean island. Sailing in Antigua suits all sailing skill levels with good protected waters inshore and more demanding passages out to nearby islands. But with plenty available inshore you don’t need to leave Antigua to have a busy vacation. In fact even for non-sailors a skippered charter is arguably the most pleasant way to visit the island.

Antigua itself is a special yacht charter destination because of the range of sailing and moorings available. One of the island’s features is the large amount of sheltered water. Since the trades create consistent easterlies (westerlies simply don’t exist in the Caribbean) the island itself protects the waters all around to the west. Then an enormous reef and islet system a mile or two off the north of the island extends the protected waters much of the way along the north coast. And also, looking to the south, while the seas there are more exposed to Atlantic swell, there are two of the most protected anchorages in the Caribbean; English Harbour and Falmouth Harbour.

If the seas are calm you can visit Non-Such Bay, hidden in behind a reef on the south-east side, a few miles from English Harbour. Non-Such Bay is also a good place to start describing Antigua’s other great strength, its restaurants. Harmony Hall is one of the most delightful restaurants in the Caribbean. It has views over Non-Such Bay and a quiet peaceful ‘get-away-from-it-all’ atmosphere. There’s an old mill at Harmony Hall converted into a bar downstairs and a viewing platform upstairs so you can take your drinks and watch the dusk settle over the island before heading down for dinner. Below the restaurant there’s a small anchorage and jetty so you can moor up close to the restaurant. Call in on the VHF to reserve a table. Right now Harmony Hall is only open Fridays and Saturdays but this is due to change, call ahead when you arrive and plan it into your itinerary.

Around to the south are English Harbour and Falmouth Harbour, Antigua’s party central. There are stacks of recommended restaurants here. At Falmouth Harbour KC’s is one of the friendliest character’s you’ll meet with masses of great stories who serves up quick bite Mexican foods and a good place to hang out and meet people. [note 10 May: KC serves up only at high season and moves around a lot, last seen operating at Zanzibars, just ask around] Across the road is one of the islands most popular restaurants ‘Trappas’, owned by Simon and Caroline, with excellent fixed price menus and a fun atmosphere which, if you can book ahead to get a table, is a ‘must-do’. If you can’t get in there don’t worry there are lots of places to eat and you can wander around quite happily deciding which one will suit you best.

A couple of minutes down the road from Falmouth Harbour is the historic English Harbour and Nelson’s Dockyard. Also a ‘must-do’. The Galleon Bar serves up easy-bites and beers and the old colonial-style ‘Admirals Inn’ will beg you for a gin and tonic. It’s all too easy to settle in for the night there. Grab a taxi at the entrance to the dockyard to take you up to Shirley Heights for a sundowner and dinner with its unforgettable views over the island. The big night here is Sunday night with a steel band and BBQ, but that can be quite touristy. Call before-hand and plan it into your itinerary since they often have themed nights on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

It’s fun to anchor or come stern-to in English Harbour just for the experience of being at a historic Royal Naval Dockyard. But it can get very crowded, so if you have any doubts it’s better to go round to Falmouth Harbour where there’s plenty of space to anchor. This is also where the superyachts moor up. If you coincide your trip with the Antigua Charter Show in December or the Race Weeks at the end of April you can see and sail with some of the world’s most fabulous yachts.

Out of Falmouth Harbour and heading west you sail past the exclusive Carlisle Bay resort, where you can stop for lunch, before heading around the south and up the west side of the island to the main yachting marina, Jolly Harbour. The entrance has some red and green poles to lead you in (remember red-right-returning). Be sure to leave in good time from lunch to get to Jolly Harbour. But if you find yourself too late you can anchor along the south west coast. It can be rolly but if the surf is low and you can make a beach landing go ashore for the famous Red Snappers at OJ’s bar and restaurant.

At Jolly harbour there’s an anchorage outside the inner enclosure, moorings just inside, or pontoons. There’s a full service marina here with a ‘Budget Marine’ chandlery, haul out, electricity and water. Look for Melini’s ristorante, one of the author’s favourite restaurants, which has an outstanding menu which won’t disppoint. At Jolly Harbour you’ll find one of the island’s largest supermarkets, the ‘Epicurean’, so if you need to stock up, this is the place. For a day on the beach walk over to the Jolly Harbour resort where you can buy a day pass to all the watersports toys you can think of.

Going north choose from a range of bays depending on your mood. Five Island Harbour is very secluded and perfect for a sundowner barbecue. Stay further out from the mangroves to avoid the mosquitos. You can nip past the capital St. Johns where the cruise ships moor and drop the hook in Dickenson Bay. Here is Peter Keswick’s water sports playground who is ably assisted by instructor ‘Rambo’ for serious fun during the day. Then later visit the superlative ‘The Beach’ restaurant. There are tables right down to the beach-side, a menu you can pore over for hours, a relaxed atmosphere and a well designed interior – very highly recommended.

From Dickenson Bay sail around the north of the island where you can test your pilotage skills within the northern reef system. The cliffs and deep atlantic waters of the south coast are replaced with shallow, sandy, blue waters that have to bee seen to be believed. Jumby Bay Resort here is another of the island’s top resorts and their bay is also a good anchorage. Further on, beside a channel marked for the commercial vessels is Maid Island with a beach you can anchor off. I say a marked commercial channel, but the the mark is a faded red metal buoy at its western end and the traffic is not heavy. You’ll be perfectly alone here, with your very own beach island to enjoy the next morning. Pushing further into the inner reef opens up a large bay and you can anchor completely away from it all at Great Bird Island, another wonderful place for a sundowner barbecue. The shallows here make for interesting navigation, try and take this on when the sun is right overhead so you can clearly see the shallow patches.

The reef system is closed off to the east. You’ll have to come back west and then sail north and outside the reef for a long day all the way back down to Non-Such Bay in the south-east. As you come north of the reef you’ll immediately become exposed to Atlantic swell, so you can test the waters and see what you think and always head back south if a full island circumnavigation seems more trouble than it’s worth. Besides, with a fresh trade wind you’ll fly back down the west side of the island in no time on a cracking broad reach. Keep away from the island to keep the wind and get a fabulous day’s sail.

There’s so much more to Antigua and if you extend your stay and decide to take the longer passages out to Barbuda or St. Kitts and Nevis and perhaps up to St. Maarten you’ll have no end of options. If you do sail away from Antigua a one way trip to St. Maarten is strongly recommended, or at least hop on a plane to come back, the leg from Antigua to St.Kitts is an upwind 40NM slog you won’t miss. Have fun and happy sailing!