Welcome to Antigua and Barbuda! (Arriving in the City of St Johns)

What a place this is, you guys!! Antigua and Barbuda is part of the British Commonwealth, with old Queen Liz as head of state, but with its own Prime Minister who governs the islands independently of the UK. Like almost every Caribbean state or nation, its history is completely intertwined with the slave trade, and back in the day when the English first colonised the islands, they attempted to use locals as their slaves before resorting to importing Africans to work the sugar plantations and mills; the mortality rate was monumental, and the mills had to be running 24 hours a day because of how quickly the cane can spoil. The industry was at one point so reliant on slavery to succeed that there were 37,500 slaves and fewer than 3,000 white people actually ‘in charge’ of the whole shebang. Lord Nelson (you know, the guy from Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square), was one of these English folk, stationed on Antigua for a few years, where he met his wife Fanny Nisbet (great name Fanny, good on you).

Thankfully slavery is since long gone, and the main industry around these parts is the rather more cheerful one of tourism. Thank goodness for that, know what I’m saying!? The islands are well known for their luxury beach resorts, and many an Antiguan proudly declared to us that they have ‘365 beaches, one for every day of the year!’ It goes without saying that these beaches are absolutely, full on, amazing. Bright white sand and milky turquoise water, and every last one of them is fully open to the public, which is an added bonus which not many other Caribbean islands can offer.

St Johns, the capital city, is located on the Northeast corner of the bigger island of Antigua, and Antigua itself is where the majority of the population of this little Caribbean nation live. The island of Barbuda is to the North of here, and when almost the entire place was destroyed when Hurricane Irma ripped through in 2017, the whole population was evacuated onto Antigua. I spent one afternoon in a taxi on the way back from Jolly Beach with a taxi driver who was ragingly mad at the government, explaining that after the Barbudans were evacuated and their homes were destroyed, the government decided that they now owned the land and that if the citizens of Barbuda wanted to live there again, they would have to buy their land back from the people in charge. Don’t get me wrong pals, I don’t know enough about the politics of this place to know the full story, but this man was angry, and the situation sadly didn’t seem a surprising one.

Antigua and Barbuda is on the mend from the hurricane now, and with those 365 beautiful beaches around, the city of St Johns is (kind of understandably), rather overlooked. We always arrived in the port on a Sunday morning, and although there are some who might beg to differ, I thought that was the best day of all that we could have visited. But why, I hear you ask!? Whilst it’s true that the majority of the shops and restaurants were closed (definitely anything outside of the small open-air shopping mall and the wall of taxi drivers clutching laminated pictures of the best beaches to head to that stood awaiting all the swathes of cruise passengers), and the streets were completely devoid of people, there was always a sound to be heard in the distance. And that sound, pals, was the sound of church. I’m not actually a church-going kind of gal, but the sound of any kind of music on the wind makes my ears prick up in the style of a hunting dog, and I subsequently have to track down the source of the music on the double. It’s sort of an obsession, if you will. The sound of a joyous Antiguan congregation loving life and singing their praises to the lord is absolutely glorious, and I’m not even ashamed to say that several times on my strolls through St Johns, I legged it towards the sound of singing and then hung out outside a random church building appreciating the music all by myself. Not sure if that’s actually rather a weird thing to admit, but life’s too short to worry about hanging out outside churches, and those moments really brightened up my days!

With almost everything closed, this really was a place where the only thing I could really do was stroll around and soak up the atmosphere, but this is one of the activities in life that I really do appreciate- mainly because it allows me the time to take as many pictures as I feel like in the process. The shops, houses and restaurants of St Johns are the most vivid paintbox colours, with hand painted lettering and pictures on top, outlining a menu or the pricelist for what they have on sale inside. It’s a strange experience to walk around a place that looks so cheerful in the baking Caribbean sun and yet feels so deserted, with only that faint sound of the church congregation in the distance to remind you that people do live here.

The two white towers of the St Johns Cathedral sit at the highest point of the city, looking out towards the Caribbean Sea, and I’m not gonna lie here, the building looked a little on the spooky side. The imposing structure sitting behind slightly rusting iron gates seems a bit dusty these days, and isn’t in the greatest state, with an overgrown graveyard directly in front of it. When it was first built (and then the second time it was built, and then the third, because it’s been knocked down a few times by earthquakes), it was more a place for the white planters to worship, with the rest of the population of St Johns seeing it as a symbol of English power and therefore definitely not the kind of place they could sing their praises like they do nowadays. It wasn’t until the era of WW1 that the black citizens of St Johns began to attend the Cathedral too.

St Johns is a beaut little city; although I didn’t get very far out of the centre, the atmosphere on the Sundays that we were there was so peaceful but full on joyous- I’d love to see it during the week to figure out whether there’s a massive difference in the pace of life, and meet more of the people of this jolly island nation.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE YOU VISIT ST JOHNS

  • Currency is the Eastern Caribbean Dollar, although USD is widely accepted.
  • If you want to use WiFi in a cafe, be prepared to hand your phone or tablet over to let the waiter put the password in for you. They don’t generally hand passwords out willy-nilly.
  • If you’re arriving by ship and are wanting to get a taxi to a beach, be prepared to haggle, and to share the taxi with strangers. The fewer passengers in the taxi, the more expensive it’ll be.
  • On one day when out by myself, I was catcalled and followed by a man for no longer than a few minutes. I didn’t feel particularly unsafe as it was broad daylight and I wasn’t too far from the port, however as a solo European female strolling around the city when 95% of visitors head straight for a beach, I half-expected to attract some unwanted attention. So, it pays to be vigilant, and unfortunately also mentally prepared.

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