Exploring the waters around Antigua

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Snorkeling at Stingray City Antigua, which is in the middle of a marine park.
Snorkeling at Stingray City Antigua, which is in the middle of a marine park. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers

On a recent trip to Antigua, I abandoned the comforts of the Sandals Grande Antigua Resort & Spa and headed out for the day to explore what was beyond the largest pool in the eastern Caribbean, the beach cabanas and the suite amenities.

I bid adios to my butler, Romane, and climbed aboard a 45-foot racing boat named Extreme Adventure Antigua for a high-speed, all-day run past many of the 365 beaches that ring the island's coastline.

"Straddle the bench seats and hang on if you're sitting in front," said Capt. Jason, who was in charge of the boat. "The Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea in these waters, and it gets pretty exciting."

And bumpy. After leaving the calm, turquoise waters of the Caribbean, we hit 6-foot, spine-jolting swells in the indigo-blue Atlantic as the boat zipped along.

The tour, one of Island Routes Caribbean Adventures' offerings in Antigua, is called Extreme Circumnavigation and is one of the company's most popular excursions, according to Sarah Belfrage, Island Routes' marketing coordinator.

"It was introduced in October 2011, and people love that it's a fast-paced adventure that offers fantastic views of the island as well as stops at popular attractions," Belfrage said.

Our first stop was Stingray City Antigua, off the southeastern nub of the island. The rays, more than 50 of them, were waiting for us, well-attuned by now to the sound of boats, which means tourists as well as handfuls of squid.

We tied up the boat at a floating rubber dock in the middle of a marine park with gin-clear water that was 5 feet deep.

I've swum with rays before, and their rubbery flesh and beady eyes aren't my thing. But others donned snorkel masks and took the plunge.

The Extreme Adventure Antigua racing boat, which travels the waters of the Atlantic and Caribbean surrounding Antigua.
The Extreme Adventure Antigua racing boat, which travels the waters of the Atlantic and Caribbean surrounding Antigua. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers

An hour later, we anchored off the beach at Green Island at the mouth of Nonsuch Bay on the east coast.

Jason and his crew unpacked coolers full of mango juice jars and set out chicken wings, fried plantains, green salad and banana bread for a picnic on the sand.

Later, as we headed to Nelson's Dockyard at the English Harbour on the south coast, we passed magnificent racing yachts, competing in a trial race as a prelude to Antigua's annual Sailing Week events, set for April 23 to 29.

Jason proved as knowledgeable as a historian as he was skilled as a boat captain. He cut the engines, and we slowly cruised the landmark harbor, part of a national park that served as a base for the British navy and was the scene of naval battles in the late 1700s.

"This was the headquarters of Horatio Lord Nelson from 1784 to 1787," he said. "It's still a working dockyard. There's a museum, a marina, an interpretative center and lots of cafes and shops. This place is full of history, but don't come when the cruise ships are in port. Too many tourists."

Snorkeling the reefs at the nearby Pillars of Hercules, a giant limestone formation that guards the entrance to the English Harbour, was the next activity for our hardy group of 15, now used to the bumps and swells of the seas.

Eddy, one of the crew members, guided a group out to the formations where parrot fish, coral and some rays glided below us.

"OK, now we celebrate," Jason said, as we headed to the last stop, the secluded beach at Rendezvous Bay on the Caribbean side of Antigua.

The crew held coolers aloft as we swam ashore. A few minutes later, with rum punches in hand, we toasted the crew and each other for a perfect day on Antigua's waters.

The full-day tour, offered weekdays, is priced at $190 per person, is commissionable and can be booked in advance through www.islandroutes.com.

If I'd had more time, I would have taken the 15-minute flight or a catamaran cruiser to Antigua's sister island, Barbuda, which is 28 miles north.

Barbuda is known for its pink beaches, the Frigate Bird Sanctuary and its quaint capital of Codrington.

That's the next trip. So many islands, so little time.

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