The sun streams through gaps in the foliage overhead as I bite into the best slice of pineapple I have ever tasted. Behind me, two dogs lie in the dust as calypso music crackles from a tinny speaker in a roadside hut selling fresh mangos and jars of spicy jellies made from ingredients grown in the owner’s garden.
My driver, Cleo Henry, tells me the Antigua black pineapple is considered the sweetest in the world. As I nod in agreement while wiping juice from my chin, she passes me a bottle of sorrel drink – a slightly bitter concoction made from the petals of the hibiscus plant and infused with cinnamon and sugar.
“If you are hot, this will really refresh you,” she laughs heartily, watching me struggle to hold the ice-cold bottle between the bulging bag of pineapple slices and cashew fruit spilling from my cradled arms. “It also makes for an excellent rum mixer if you like that sort of thing,” she grins.
Here on Antigua, in my picture-perfect scene, it’s hard to imagine the devastating storm, Irma, that rampaged through the area last September. Neighbouring island Barbuda found itself directly in the path of the hurricane, with Barbudans having to flee the 155mph winds that reduced 90% of the nation’s structures to rubble.
Yet the recovery efforts on Barbuda are progressing, as I discover at Showcase Antigua Barbuda. Henry Charles Fernandez, minister of tourism, foreign affairs, says 300 homes have been repaired – 120 of which are now supplied with power – and that 500 Barbudans have returned home.
He is confident that life on the island will be “back to normal” by the end of 2019.
“I was in Barbuda two days before the showcase. I flew by helicopter and landed at the Barbuda Belle property,” he says, adding that the six-room hotel, which opened in 2016, hopes to welcome visitors back by November.
“We’re not just putting the buildings on the island back as they were – we’re building them in a more robust way to ensure they can withstand hurricanes,” he adds.
Progress has also been made with the De Niro-Packer development on the K-Club site, where Princess Diana once stayed with the young princes, says Fernandez. Hollywood actor Robert De Niro and his billionaire business partner James Packer have signed a land lease for 99 years and plan to build 40 cottages with private pools on the 859-acre site.
However, Barbudans opposed to the Paradise Found bill, which was passed by the Antigua and Barbuda parliament in 2015, say that the deal overlooks sections of existing legislation that enable the elected Barbuda Council to veto hotel developments.
Speaking to CNN in 2017, De Niro vowed to help the islanders to “get everything up and running”, promising that the resort would be of economic benefit to the island. As yet, it is not known when work will begin on the Paradise Found project. While the tourism authority is excited at the prospect of the development, the Barbuda Council has yet to comment formally on the matter.
Colin C James, chief executive at the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, tells me the reconstruction of the 35-room Coco Point Lodge, Barbuda’s original hotel, would not begin until new ownership is found. However, work has started at other properties.
“The Barbuda Cottages are currently being rebuilt,” enthuses James. “I would say that in the next 18 months, all four of the buildings will be completed.”
Fernandez says the recovery on Barbuda has been aided by the reopening of Codrington airport, which has made it easier to deliver supplies and manpower.
He is also happy to report that day trippers from Antigua are visiting attractions on the island again.
“Barbuda has one of the largest lagoons in the region and a bird sanctuary. All of these are back up and running and are beautiful attractions. Barbuda is also known for its day trippers – the people who visit Princess Diana Beach,” James adds.
“It’s as pristine and as beautiful as ever and it is open for clients who want to go over for the day. Guests can book a boat trip there from any of the hotels on Antigua.”
While Barbuda is known for its barefoot luxury, seclusion and Pink Sand Beach, Antigua is awash with experiences and attractions that range from the sublime to the exhilarating.
I take in the buzz of the capital, St John’s, on market day, with fresh produce sold from brightly coloured stalls, goats roaming freely and rum punch liberally enjoyed. At the Antigua Rainforest Canopy Tour, I zip line through the trees like a bird, screaming myself hoarse as each line gets higher and longer.
Between the beautiful Ffryes and Coco beaches, I gorge on the local delicacy of curried conch at Dennis’, a restaurant renowned for its wild St Patrick’s Day celebrations. One afternoon, I stop off at Shirley Heights. Overlooking the English and Falmouth harbours, the restored English military lookout and gun battery becomes a party spot on Sunday evenings, when both locals and tourists alike flock to the area to watch the sunset. It’s only mid-afternoon, but I’m completely blown away by the panoramic view of the turquoise waters and bobbing boats glittering in the sun hundreds of metres below.
Watersports are popular on Antigua, with jet-ski rental available from kiosks on many of the island’s 365 beaches, and non-motorised options offered at hotels. Those who prefer to stick to dry land can explore the island’s hiking routes, which range from coastal trails to jungle walks.
New hotel developments on Antigua will double the island’s current 2,500 rooms by 2021, says James, explaining that clients can expect product to be more diverse.
“We have seen a shift change in seat configuration of aircraft coming to Antigua from 3-3-3 to 3-4-3. We have a mid- to high-end product range, so we are very good at working with our airline partners to support the front of the cabin. We want to be able to utilise the full extent of the aircraft to take care of the economy class as well.”
Clients can reach Antigua from Gatwick with British Airways daily and with Virgin four times a week, while Thomas Cook flies from Manchester once a week.
New properties due to open in late 2018 and 2019 include Hodges Bay by Elegant Resorts (79 suites and villas); Nonsuch Bay (188 rooms); Hammock Cove by Elite Island Resorts (45 suites); and the Royalton Antigua (500 rooms).
From the unpretentious and authentic vibe of St John’s to the astounding beauty of its beaches, Antigua is a destination that I hope to return to soon. For clients visiting Barbuda, the recovery efforts, like the Antigua black, should make their experience all the sweeter.
Book it: Classic Collection has seven nights at Carlisle Bay from £3,039pp with Gatwick flights, private transfers, UK airport lounges and fast track through customs in Antigua included.