The Unmissables – The island of Barbuda
This week’s Unmissable Experience is a boat trip to the tiny, pink sand island of Barbuda.
Barbuda. Just the name sounds exotic. Sounds expensive. Aspirational. Out of reach? I had never met anyone who had been there and, apart from knowing it was near Antigua, I knew nothing about it.
So when I was offered the chance to visit Barbuda from Antigua last month, I had no hesitation in grabbing my sun cream, setting an early alarm, and pocketing a couple of travel sickness pills. I’m not great on boats.
Barbuda is a sparsely populated island, just 27 miles and about 90 minutes by boat from its much larger sister island of Antigua. Antigua and Barbuda is a dual island nation, governed by the same administration and promoted in the same breath. However, life on Barbuda is very different. The island was devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017, ripping off roofs, destroying homes and businesses, damaging the infrastructure, and flattening the trees of the coconut plantations.
Home to only around 1,500 people, an additional 1,000 workers have now moved into Barbuda, not only to rebuild, but to develop the island in accordance with the ambition of the government, and quite a bit of Robert De Niro’s money, to turn it into ‘the next St Barts’. So, if you like your Caribbean a bit more authentic now is the time to visit.
The trip to the island from Antigua can be done by daily high speed ferry, by private catamaran, by plane or, if you are Robert De Niro visiting the new Nobu which has recently opened on the island, by helicopter. We set sail from Antigua early one morning, heading north east across the water, blue skies and sunshine on our faces and reggae in our ears. It was one of those moments of pure joy, when you can’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else.
Arriving in Barbuda was quite a surprise. I am not sure what I was expecting, but the island is definitely different to its larger neighbour. It’s dusty, it’s flat, there seems to be very little there. As we climbed into the mini bus to head for breakfast, I watched pelicans dive bombing into the sea for fish behind me. We drove off. It was hard to tell on which side of the road as we zig-zagged around, avoiding the pot holes and the various donkeys and horses meandering around.
It felt more like Africa than the Caribbean. As we passed the coconut plantations, and headed towards the small capital of Codrington, we saw regular reminders of the destruction caused by the hurricane.
Barbuda has one bank, one petrol station, a handful of cafes and restaurants and only 10 taxis. But it also has some of the wonders of the Caribbean and, after an excellent breakfast at the ‘G-Milt’ cafe of freshly cooked omelette and home fries (more like mashed potato than chips), we set off to board another, much smaller, boat, to take us to the island’s famous frigate bird sanctuary.
Only accessible by boat, the sanctuary is home to the largest colony of frigate birds in the Western Hemisphere, with around 20,000 birds coming and going to the lagoon. As you approach, you see movement in the mangroves ahead before realising they are packed full of single, large, white headed chicks sitting in individual nests and squawking to be fed.
The birds themselves are fascinating; almost prehistoric in appearance, and reminiscent of small dodos. The juveniles stay in their nests and the colony works together. According to our guide, if a mother bird dies, her chick will be adopted by another bird and, if a chick falls into the water, it will be pulled out by the wings by two females.
We visited in June, when the chicks were large and attended only by their mothers, but the most popular time to go is during the mating season which takes place between September and April. Then, you will also see the wonderful male frigate birds, puffing out their huge red chests to attract a mate. There are also many other species of birds in the lagoon, such as pelicans, the tropical mockingbird and the Christmas bird, but the frigate birds are the main attraction and well worth seeing.
Across the bay, we pulled up by a scrubby piece of sand and hopped out into the shallows, trying to avoid the tiny pink jellyfish floating around our ankles, the favoured meal of the sea turtles that live in these waters. It seemed an inauspicious place to stop as we walked onto the sandback and over the top. How wrong we were. Just the other side, the view opened up onto the most beautiful beach I have seen in 30 years of travelling.
This is Coral Bay. A stunning 18 miles of pink ‘sand’. Not sand in fact, but the tiny pink shells that wash up on the shore and give the beach its wonderful colour. This beach is the highlight of a trip to Barbuda. Truly stunning.
However, this is not the only beautiful beach in Barbuda. There are many of them, some white, some pink, and all, for now, fairly deserted. Princess Diana Beach is another stunner, and so called because Diana would bring her young sons to this remote spot to enjoy a holiday away from press attention. The sea is warm, clear, calm. Make time to enjoy it.
The other highlight of a trip to Barbuda is a visit to Darby Cave. There is a bit more of a walk involved here, as you explore the mini rainforest leading to a sinkhole decorated with drawings made by the Arawak Indians. Some of the views up through the roof of the cave make for stunning photos, and it’s great to also experience a different side of the island away from the better known beaches.
Highs: Watching the pelicans dive bomb into the sea, right next to the pier. Completely unfazed by the arrival of our party, and clearly oblivious to their audience.
Lows: The roads. Dusty and uncomfortable. But there are many plans afoot to improve them.
Unmissable : The pink beach at Coral Bay will stay with me forever.
Day trips to Barbuda from Antigua can be booked through your tour operator or at your hotel. For more information, visit www.visitantiguabarbuda.com