These Eastern Caribbean islands offer a beach a day
If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, what spiritual or bodily benefits might visiting a new beach each day have?
If you, like any other red-blooded surf-and-sand lover, are eager to find out, meet Antigua and Barbuda. This island nation in the Eastern Caribbean Sea is blessed with enough beaches to fill an entire calendar year.
Of course, the pink and white sands are reason enough for many travelers to start searching for flights. (Spoiler alert: There are nonstop options into the capital St. John's from six U.S. gateways.)
But it’s more than beaches that have turned everyone from UNESCO to Oprah to Eric Clapton on to these islands. A charming historic harbor, a high-energy events calendar, top-rated resorts and an enticing dining scene are among the islands’ NBR (not beach-related) draws. As you explore historic forts, churches and museums; browse art galleries; observe native wildlife and rub elbows with locals about town, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of what makes this place so distinctive.
Here are eight recommended experiences for building an amazing trip.
Get the lay of the land with a hike
With its treasure trove of beaches, your first instinct once you land in Antigua and Barbuda might be to make a beeline for the sand. But a hike through the country's gently sloping terrain—followed by some blissful recovery time on the beach—will give you a good view of the islands' beauty in its entirety and make that first dip in the Caribbean waters even sweeter.
Wallings Nature Reserve is a top place to start. The park protects 1,680 acres of Antiguan rain forest and includes five trails ranging in length from one to five miles. In-and-out Wallings Dam to Signal Hill Vista Point trail is somewhere in the middle and provides hikers with 360-degree views from its pinnacle atop Signal Hill—Antigua's second-highest peak. Guided tours are available for those eager to learn more about the plant and animal species that call the forest home, and many include transport from and to your hotel.
For an extra layer of adventure (and a little less legwork) you can score great views of the lush rain forest with a zipline tour across the tree canopy.
Check out Nelson’s Dockyard
Much more than a picturesque shipyard (though it is that, too), Nelson's Dockyard is a 15-square-mile national park that's been recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2016. The Georgian-era dockyard was built to protect the interests of British sugar cane planters in a time when European powers competed for control of Eastern Caribbean islands.
The park comprises the historic marina, which has been in continuous operation since 1745 (the mega-yachts you'll see there prove it's still very much in use), as well as restaurants, hotels and shops housed in restored buildings. The Dockyard Museum lends context to it all, detailing the storied past of the island, the shipyard and the area's centuries-old forts, which make for intriguing points of interest along the walks and hikes you can take from the dockyard.
Post-walk, refuel with a colorful plate of French and Creole cuisine at Colibri, a farm- and sea-to-table restaurant housed in a charming cottage. Its inviting garden patio is a sought-after spot for enjoying cocktails and light bites, too.
Get out on the water
A boat tour around the entire island of Antigua is one of the best ways to get the full picture of just how idyllic the island's beachy coastline is. A total circumnavigation of the 54-mile shoreline is a full-day affair, usually broken up by visits to Stingray City, where you can swim with the friendly local marine life; opportunities to snorkel, for example at the base of the surreal geologic formation known as the Pillars of Hercules at the eastern mouth of English Harbour; and a trip to a secluded beach, where celebratory cups of rum punch may be passed.
If you don't have a full day to explore by sea, shorter excursions, including romantic sunset cruises, will also give you a good dose of salty air (and a good reason to wear the chic linen outfit you packed). Check out a comprehensive list of tours here.
But maybe the best reason to take off by sea is the chance to explore Barbuda. The Barbuda Express ferry takes off from Antigua's St. John's Harbour and arrives on Barbuda about 90 minutes later. The ferry is comfortable and includes air conditioned seating options, but if your sea legs aren't up to the journey, daily flights are available, too.
Attend an epic event
While any time is a good one for visiting the Land of 365 Beaches, certain dates jump off Antigua and Barbuda's events calendar as particularly epic times to go.
The islands have long been known for Antigua Sailing Week (April 27-May 3) and the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta (April 17-22), widely held as some of the world's most sought-after sailing events. The former got its start in 1967 and brings upwards of 100 yachts, 1,500 participants and 5,000 spectators to the island each year. And once the sun sets on the day's races, the festivities continue, with reggae performances, dance parties and a convivial atmosphere in every local bar and lounge.
Overlapping with the Classic Yacht Regatta, a new celebratory tradition began last year and will continue for 2024: Antigua and Barbuda Art Week (exact 2024 dates TBD). The festival is a smorgasbord of art forms—from live music, to traditional dance done in in vibrant cultural attire, to visual arts of all kinds. The lineup includes interactive painting sessions with lauded local artists—to make for a spectacle on land as dazzling as the classic sailing vessels on the water.
Those who elevate eating to an art form will want to book a trip in May, during the islands' Restaurant Week (exact 2024 dates TBD). During this dining extravaganza, dozens of eateries across the island offer prix fixe lunch and dinner menus at special low prices, so visitors (and locals) can taste all the island flavors, stamping their Food Passports along the way. Prolific eaters can collect stamps to get free entry to a special food and art reception at Nelson's Dockyard at week's end.
June is for lovers in Antigua and Barbuda: couples traveling to the island can pre-register for complimentary fast-track service at the airport (they'll get expedited via a special "Love Lane") to start their Antigua and Barbuda getaways off right.
And in summer, it's all about Carnival, which takes over for two weeks in late July and early August. Amid the live soca music, steel drum band competitions, glittering parades, food and drink bonanzas and crowning of festival royalty, fun takes center stage (and sleep becomes an afterthought).
For those looking for something a bit lower-key, a toothsome seafood festival begins just days after Carnival winds down.
Dine on signature dishes
Antigua and Barbuda's cuisine draws on indigenous (Arawak), Spanish, British, West African, Indian and more international culinary traditions, resulting in a plethora of dishes and flavors that are both new and familiar. Many foods are grown locally—including corn, coconuts, eggplant, hot and sweet peppers and root vegetables—and these feature prominently in local recipes, alongside fresh-caught seafood and local meats.
The national dish is called fungee and pepperpot, which pairs a hearty beef stew with polenta-like balls of cornmeal and okra. In Antigua and Barbuda, hearty dishes like this are often eaten for breakfast and on weekends, so be sure to scout local markets and restaurants during these times to try them yourself.
Beyond this staple, the list of must-try dishes includes ducana, a lightly-sweet blend of sweet potato, coconut and spices wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf; goat water, which, contrary to its name, is a rich, thick, flavorful stew; and saltfish (salted cod), a mainstay of Antigua and Barbuda life that's paired with all of the above and countless other dishes.
Many island resorts feature these authentic dishes, but wherever possible, it's a good idea to stop by neighborhood restaurants and markets to try them straight from local kitchens.
Or, for an Antiguan farm- and tide-to-table dining experience (where locally grown black pineapple, eggplant and whatever else is in season finds its way to the gourmand-pleasing tasting menu), make a reservation at Sheer Rocks. The restaurant offers a selection of fine wines along with its line-caught fish, Barbudan lobster and French-inspired desserts, and vegans will rejoice in its divine plant-based tasting menu.
On Barbuda, Uncle Roddy's Beach Bar & Grill is a favorite for its fresh seafood and beachfront location. Meanwhile Nobu is the choice for Asian-fusion fare in a luxurious coastal setting. The latter offers exclusive custom packages that range from Japanese- and island-inspired beach barbecues to sunset dinners to arrival from Antigua by private helicopter.
Become a birder
Also on Barbuda is the largest Frigatebird sanctuary in the western hemisphere. The birds' signature expanding red throats, sported only by males, are a dead giveaway to the throngs of birds perched in the sanctuary's lush green foliage.
Beyond the 5,000-strong colony that travels between the Caribbean and Galapagos islands from season to season, birders can spot up to 170 additional species that call the preserve home. Reserve a spot on a small boat tour to get up and close with these avian treasures.
Dig into 365 sands
Thanks to the island's small size (roughly 109 square miles), you'll never be far from one of Antigua's beloved beaches—and every single one of them is public.
One of the best known spots to sun and swim is Dickenson Bay. Here you can people watch, lounge, swim and refuel at nearby food trucks, restaurants and bars. It's a popular place, but the sand stretches for a mile, so even on a busy day you can find ample room to spread out your towel.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Rendezvous Bay Beach on the island's south side. This wide white-sand natural beach is surreally gorgeous and, like as not, completely unpeopled. That's because you have to either hike or boat to get to it. If you don't have your own vessel, you'll park near a local riding stable and follow a trail for a good half hour. For those in search of a truly remote piece of paradise, the quiet plot at the base of the lush hillside will be more than worth the walk.
For a truly picture-perfect beach day, pencil Half Moon Bay Beach into your plans. True to its name, the shore here is crescent-shaped, and the pale sand is a continuation of the moon metaphor. This tranquil spot is widely considered to be one of the best of the 365, and the lovely views you'll catch of nearby, uninhabited Smith Island only add to the experience.
Barbuda's beaches are incredible, too—quiet and pristine, with soft sands, sometimes tinged pink thanks to the accumulation of coral-colored shell fragments. You can't go wrong among its nearly unanimously loved shores, but Pink Sand Beach, located just west of the ferry terminal, and Princess Diana Beach (named after the late princess who holidayed here) toward the island's southeast side, are top recommendations.
Relax at a resort
With attractions spread across every corner, cove and peninsula, Antigua and Barbuda are islands particularly suited to exploration extending beyond your hotel's grounds. That said, many island resorts present a pampering experience that will be hard to leave. (Travelzoo tip: We've rounded up a handful of exclusive special offers to make your trip planning easier.)
Blue Waters Resort & Spa on Antigua's northwest coast (read: magical sunsets) is one example. The resort comprises a number of beautifully kept buildings outfitted with tasteful coastal decor, all dotted across a lush, secluded cove that includes not one, but two white-sand beaches.
Honeymoon-ready suites and cottages feature balconies and terraces with million-dollar sea views, and some include private plunge pools. On the other hand, family travelers will appreciate the activity-packed kids club, which gets consistent raves from little ones. Eco-friendly measures include providing guests with refillable water bottles for use at numerous refill stations.
On the south end of the island, another 5-star favorite Carlisle Bay Antigua is split into two sections: one aimed at couples and the other at family travelers. Four restaurants serve Asian, Italian, Caribbean-fusion and surf-and-turf cuisine, and complimentary water sports equipment rental makes it a breeze to get out on the calm bay waters.
On Barbuda, you'll find a handful of stay options, ranging from humble guest houses to apartment rentals to luxe resorts. On the north end of the island, Barbuda Belle Luxury Beach Hotel whisks guests via private boat directly from the airport in St. John's to their own secluded bungalows on the sand. The resident Culinary Institute of America-trained chef wows guests with artfully prepared meals—which is a good thing, because there's not another restaurant, hotel or shop for miles—and that's kind of the whole point.