Admiral Lord Nelson and me

Caribbean editor Gay Myers explored Antigua's English Harbour and Horatio Nelson's Dockyard. Her report follows:

ENGLISH HARBOUR, Antigua -- It takes a lot to get me off the beach and into sightseeing.

However, the tales I'd heard about Antigua's famous harbor, Adm. Lord Horatio Nelson's naval exploits and the historic dockyard intrigued me.

This trip was my fifth to the island in recent years. The beaches are indeed numerous, the sailing unsurpassed, upmarket resorts outstanding and festivals colorfully chaotic.

Now it was time for history.

From Curtain Bluff resort on the south coast, I headed out on Fig Tree Drive, reportedly Antigua's prettiest road.

It was a bumpy 40-minute drive on a road that ran from almost decent to pothole-ridden. The taxi fare was $20.

The entrance to Nelson's Dockyard National Park at English Harbour belies what is behind the gates. The admission fee of $5 is a real deal.

Here's the historical skinny on this attraction, Antigua's most prized and most popular.

In 1671, the astute governor of the Leeward Islands wrote his superiors in London about Antigua's almost-landlocked harbor, which was a safe haven during hurricanes even then.

The British took due note and by 1704 set up a naval base called English Harbour.

From there the British Royal Navy sallied forth against other European powers, vying for the sea lanes and the sugar and spice islands of the Caribbean.

In 1784, 26-year-old Horatio Nelson arrived aboard a 26-gun frigate of the Royal Navy.

During his three-year stint as commander, the dockyard played a vital role in history.

Ships pulled into the dockyard after a voyage from Europe or a battle on the high seas for supplies and repairs.

However, its heyday waned and the Royal Navy closed the dockyard in 1889. It finally reopened in 1961, and in 1984 became the centerpiece of a national park -- Antigua's equivalent to Colonial Williamsburg.

History has come full circle. Instead of old naval vessels, the harbor now serves private yachts. Two historic buildings are hotels. The dockyard once again is a source of jobs.

Horatio would be proud.

Here are some highlights:

  • The first building beyond the entrance gate and market place is the 1785 Pitch and Tar Store and Engineer's Office.
  • In 1960, the site became the 14-room Admiral's Inn and is now the place to bunk in before or after a yacht cruise.

  • The 17 massive stone pillars that flank the original boathouse were brought from England as ships' ballast. They stand sentry among royal palms, planted in the 1960s by Queen Elizabeth.
  • The 1789 Copper and Lumber Store housed supplies and seamen during port stays.
  • Fast-forward to 1963 when a restoration converted the store to a 14-unit hotel with suites named after Nelson's ships in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar.

  • My favorite was the 1855 Admiral's House with a bust of Nelson over the entrance.
  • The ground floor now is a museum with compasses, sundials, ropes, model ships and lots about Nelson himself.

    The stone kitchen is still in use, and if the bakers are there and the ovens on, try a pineapple turnover. Nelson would.

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