"The beach is just the beginning. . . . "
That's the tourism slogan for Antigua and Barbuda, the multi-island nation in the British West Indies, and it's accurate, to a degree.
Antigua, by far the larger and more populated, claims to be ringed by "365 beautiful beaches (one for every day of the year)," and while I didn't see an official tally during my recent visit, I did experience enough excellent white sand beaches pocketed in bays, harbors, coral reefs, and tiny coves not to quibble with poetic license.
On the other hand, the entire 17-mile western coast of Barbuda, an island that has fewer than 1,500 residents on its 62 square miles of low scrubland, is essentially one long beach - a slice of pure, unadulterated perfection at the eastern edge of the Caribbean.
At Low Bay, that coast becomes a narrow ribbon of white sand that stretches like the handle of a teacup separating the ocean from an enormous shallow saltwater lagoon. The lagoon serves as an incubator for lobster and a sanctuary for vast flocks of magnificent frigate birds. Accessible only by boat and undeveloped except for one small resort, it is the most beautiful beach I have ever seen.
The ocean water is wonderful, crystal-clear, calm enough for floating, and sufficiently cool to provide refreshing escape even during the heat of the day.
Beyond the beaches, Antigua's the place to be, with a centuries-old boating and sailing tradition, supplemented by snorkeling, scuba, surf casting, and saltwater fishing.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors are drawn to Antigua's wide range of all-inclusive resorts, posh hotels, quaint inns, condos, and quiet guest cottages on picturesque beaches. And cruise-line passengers swarm the streets of St. John's, Antigua's only port and significant city.
But there's much to see and do elsewhere, from a new forest-canopy zip line and SubCat submarine tour to historic ruins of sugar mills such as Betty's Hope. There are stone forts and former British military facilities at Shirley's Heights and Nelson's Dockyards, with its museum filled with memorabilia from the illustrious admiral. There are cricket tournaments, sailing regattas, and horse racing.
And there's an abundance of beautiful birds and lush, lovely flora - magnificent oleander, bountiful bougainvilleas, flaming and fruit-laden trees.
But the island's most ingratiating asset is its genial, educated, and self-possessed people, who seem proud of their piece of paradise and happy to share it with visitors.
Antigua, pronounced locally as "an-TEE-ga," was named by Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World, after the Church of Santa María la Antigua in Valladolid, Spain.
Barbuda is pronounced "bar-BEOO-dah."
Airline service to the island is abundant, with American, Air Canada, Continental, Delta, and US Airways all offering nonstop flights to Antigua's VC Bird International Airport (ANU) from their East Coast hubs. Shuttle flights are available from there to Barbuda, but we took the daily express catamaran service ("A to B by Sea"), which needs 90 minutes to make the 30-mile crossing from St. John's.
There's plenty to do on Antigua, but getting around can be a challenge. Driving on the left is only one issue. The island's twisting and narrow roads are treacherous with parked cars, pedestrians, speed bumps, even the occasional herd of livestock. To further complicate matters, street signs are rare. If you rent a car, get careful directions.
Antigua and Barbuda tourism: www.antigua-barbuda.org.
Environmental Awareness Group Antigua: www.eagantigua.org.