From its colorful streets to its bustling harbor, the city of St. John’s should be explored before relaxing on any of the island’s 365 beautiful beaches.
Antigua is half of a dual-island country known as Antigua & Barbuda located in the Caribbean Sea. Part of the Leeward Islands, they are located east of Puerto Rico where the northeastern Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Tucked away in a bay on Antigua’s northwestern corner is the historic city of St. John’s, which is also the capital and the largest city on this roughly 10-mile-wide island.
According to the Antigua & Barbuda Department of Tourism, the first settlements on the island date back to 2400 B.C. by the Siboney Indians with the arrival of the Arawak Indians about 2,000 years later. But the first European “contact” was made by Christopher Columbus (on his second voyage to the Caribbean) in 1493 when he spotted the island and actually named it after Santa María la Antigua, the saint of Seville. By 1684, an Englishman, Sir Christopher Codrington, helped to create large-scale sugar cultivation on the island that expanded into more than 150 sugar-processing plantations by the mid-18th century. The thriving sugar plantations dotted the island with stone windmills until the industry began to die in the 19th century. Today, many of the sugar plantations are abandoned and there are so many that these unique stone windmills have become synonymous with the image of the island.
Since St. John’s is the capital city and the commercial hub of the country, it happens to be the most populated. To make things a bit more crowded, the city’s historic sites and nightlife attracts many visitors who disembark from the major cruise-ship docks at Heritage Quay and Redcliffe Quay. But despite the relative crowds, there is still a feeling of a down-to-earth quality that makes the city special to visitors as well as it residents.
Exploring St. John’s in Antigua
For visitors who do not arrive by cruise ship, the V.C. Bird International Airport (named after the country’s first prime minister, Vere Cornwall Bird) is located on the northeastern side of the island approximately a 20-minute drive from St. John’s. As stated on the V.C. Bird website, there are both direct flights and connections from North America via San Juan and St. Martin and several weekly flights from Europe.
Most of the activity is centered around and near the busy harbor. Popeshead Street is the main route out of the city and toward the north. Once in the city, there are several attractions that every visitor must see that include:
St. John’s Cathedral – Located on Newgate Street near Church Lane in the northern section of St. John’s, the twin towers of this baroque cathedral is the area’s major landmark both on land and sea. According to Antigua & Barbuda Tourism, the current church was built in 1845, which was the third reconstruction after earthquakes in both 1683 and 1745 destroyed the original structures. The interior has been specially reinforced in design due to its precarious past.
Museum of Antigua & Barbuda – Located on the corner of Long and Market Streets, this informative museum is situated in the former court house that dates back to 1750. It offers exhibits that cover the early history of the islands and its sugar plantations as well as displays of Arawak artifacts, which includes their well-known tools made out of stone and shells that number more than 10,000. It also proudly exhibits the bat of Viv Richards, one of the best cricket players of all time who played on the West Indies cricket team.
Fort James – Located on the northern side of St. John’s Harbor, this is one of the oldest forts on the island of Antigua. It dates back to 1672 when it was built to primarily defend the entrance to St. John’s Harbor. Strabon-Caribbean, in its history of Fort James states that the fort is divided into the both “old” and “new” sections with the newer section dating back to 1739. The fort was never actually used in war, but it successfully used to extract money from passing ships by charging a harbor-entrance fee. Many of its original cannons that once threatened the harbor still exist today.
Markets and Shopping – With the departing passengers from cruise ships in mind, both Heritage and Redcliffe Quays are packed vendors selling everything from souvenirs to arts and crafts. On weekends on the southern edge of the city, there is a popular farmer’s market that also offers a wide array of arts and crafts but also locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Beaches Near the City of St. John’s in Antigua
Antigua & Barbuda Tourism states that there are 365 beaches on the island of Antigua alone and they stand by their slogan of “One Beach for Every Day of the Year.” But two beaches worth visiting located close to St. John’s are Dickenson Bay and Runaway Bay along the northwestern coast. Of course, there are the other 363 beaches, which include many secluded ones along either sandy or rocky coastlines.
Runaway Bay – This resort area is the closest to St. John’s and it consists of everything you would imagine about a relatively quiet Caribbean beach: palm trees, white sand, clear-blue waters, and handfuls of visitors just enjoying the sun. It is lined with plenty of private restaurants each offering beach-lounge chairs and and basic tourist amenities. It is the best choice if you want a quiet and peaceful day at the beach and to simply relax with only a few people around.
Dickenson Bay – Located just a 10-minute walk north of Runaway Bay, this resort area includes the same landscape and beach but offers much more action due to the access to jet skis, parasailing and other popular high-energy activities. It is lined with open-air restaurants, dozens of hotels and vendors selling t-shirts and jewelry. For those seeking a more crowded location, Dickinson Beach is the way to go.
Although there are crowds from its busy cruise-ship port, the city of St. John’s is a charming and friendly location that offers visitors a relaxed atmosphere and many historical attractions to explore. It has managed to retain much of its British character (after their independence), which can be seen in everything from its historic structures and red telephone booths to its narrow streets. It is no surprise that all of the major cruise lines make a stop in this coastal city.