As the plane comes in to land over the lush green island, I crane my neck to see the hurricane damage through the window.
Villages of colourful wooden cabins punctuate the rolling landscape, the slightly ramshackle football stadium still stands tall and, on the coast, palm trees flutter in the breeze. So far, Antigua looks untouched.
From the way it was reported, the Caribbean was flattened by the September hurricanes, and an entire region rendered out of bounds for tourists. Yet this was true in only a handful of cases. Among those places most affected was Barbuda, Antigua’s sister island, where 95 per cent of its buildings were destroyed or damaged, while its entire population was evacuated to Antigua.
Elsewhere, Dominica, St Martin, The US and British Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico also sustained substantial damage. In contrast, Martinique, St Kitts and Nevis, Haiti and the Dominican Republic emerged unscathed. After minimal damage, Antigua opened again after just four days — only to find that the number of British travellers to the island had fallen by 34 per cent.
With local economies relying heavily on tourism, this ill-founded idea has had consequences for the communities on the island, and as we drive from the airport to the hotel it’s easy to see why. Antigua is small — it’s just 14 miles long and 11 miles wide, and frequent droughts make farming difficult, but with its palm-fringed, white-sand beaches it’s a heavenly escape from the chillier climes of Europe or North America.
It’s 29C in early December as we drive past villages of candy-coloured houses and on towards the coast, where — unlike the high-rise hotel blocks of Barbados or the Bahamas — the resorts are tucked away in the palm trees. Presumably, it’s this laid-back vibe that attracts the many celebrities who have a home here.
The next day, as we speed out over the waves on a catamaran, our captain, Joseph, points out actor Timothy Dalton’s luxurious pad; then, as we near English Harbour, Eric Clapton’s enormous villa perched upon a headland. But we’re not here for star-spotting. Joseph and his crew’s main aim — like all good hosts — is that we have fun. Crew member Anthony throws open his ice box and offers us all a fruit juice. “No alcohol until after snorkelling … But then it’s time to party!” he grins.
We cruise into English Harbour, where million-dollar yachts and tall ships are overlooked by Nelson’s Dockyard, a complex of colonial buildings where the naval captain lived in the 1780s. We drop anchor by a reef near the bulbous towers of sandy rock that are known as the Pillars of Hercules. Under the waves, all around me small fish dart about, confused by their new swimming companion.
A few days and many sunbathing sessions later, we return to the water. A few miles offshore, reached by speedboat, Stingray City is the rather hyped-up name for a simple pontoon moored on a sandbank where wild stingray come to be hand-fed, and visitors swim and snorkel.
Standing thigh-deep in the water, I squeal with nervous excitement as the huge rays — some more than a metre across — bump into us, their graceful wings rolling through the water. The guides show us how to hold the alien-like creatures gently on each side — their skin is smooth and blubbery, and the experience gives a thrill of adrenaline.
Talk of Aussie croc-wrangler Steve Irwin’s fate is, of course, inevitable — he died after being attacked by a stingray on the Great Barrier Reef — but I’m assured of their harmlessness, and soon I’m gladly feeding them calamari from my clenched fist, holding it tight as they swim over the top of my hand and suck it up.
Back on shore, beakers of Antigua’s ubiquitous rum punch are waiting for us. At beach bars, restaurants and hotel receptions you’re welcomed with smiles and a glass of the heady mix of rum and fruit juice.
It tastes best, however, when there’s a party going on — and for that, there’s nowhere better than Shirley Heights. By day, this 18th-century military complex, built high over English Harbour as a signalling station, offers the perfect lookout over the beautiful bay.
By night, however, its parties are legendary. When we arrive at the Sunday night barbecue the terrace is rammed with rum-toting revellers and within minutes we’re dancing to the steel band on stage. As the sun goes down, the lights from the yachts twinkle in the distance and the moonlight dances on the water — yet I’m having so much fun that I scarcely take any notice of what is the island’s most spectacular view.
It seems sinful, but then again, what better way to help get an island back on its feet than to enjoy what it does best?
Virgin Holidays offers seven nights in Antigua from £1,299pp including direct flights from Gatwick, all-inclusive accommodation at the four-star Pineapple Beach Club and transfers.