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16 May 2022

Why there’s more to Antigua than sun, sea and sand

Why there’s more to Antigua than sun, sea and sand

There’s nothing like a sprinkling of stardust to make a holiday go with a swing.

I’m soaking in the views of the picture-postcard Coolidge Stadium in sun-kissed Antigua, climbing up the concrete steps of the main stand, when I realise I’m in the presence of cricketing royalty.

Sir Andy Roberts, one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time and a star of the all-conquering West Indies teams of the 1980s and Nineties, is in the seat right next to me.

I’m not normally one to go all of a quiver when meeting a childhood hero, but I’m momentarily lost for words.

“Hey man, how ya doin’?” he asks in his deep and lilting West Indies drawl, the twinkling eyes and mischievous smile making him instantly recognisable.

“I’m good thanks. It’s… it’s an honour to meet you,” I stammer, not knowing whether to bow, sit, shake hands or quickly slip away.

In the end, we do one of those fist-pumps that are de rigueur among sportsmen in these Covid-restricted times and I slide into my seat.

We begin to reminisce about days gone by before being interrupted by a sharp blast of music by Reggae Powerhouse Band as England skipper Joe Root clips a ball to the boundary in a warm-up match against West Indies Presidents XI.

As a keen cricketer in my younger days, I’m eager to hear how Sir Andy was able to generate such deceptive power for his feared bouncers.

“No one looked at the last four yards of my run-up, man,” he says. “That’s where I got the extra height to give me the force.”

I also ask him why the Windies were able to dominate the sport for so long. “You don’t ever give up, even when you’re losing,” he adds.

But mostly I want to find out how a country of a mere hundred square miles and with a population of less than 100,000 was able to generate players of the calibre of Sir Andy, Sir Vivian Richards, Sir Richie Richardson and Sir Curtly Ambrose – all knighted by the Antigua government for their services to the sport – over such a short period of time.

Sir Andy modestly points to the influence of their great skipper, another knight, Sir Clive Lloyd, who “made us believe we could beat anyone”.

“Man, he was tough, but he showed us the way.”

In the 10-year period from 1976, West Indies won 16 out of 17 Test series and became the best one-day side in the world, winning the cricket World Cup in 1975 and 1979.

As Simon Lister writes in his brilliant 2015 book, Fire In Babylon – based on the film of the same name – their actions brought a nation of cricket lovers to its feet and liberated a people.

These days it’s less easy to see ‘calypso cricket’ being played on Antigua’s famed 365 beaches – one for every day of the year – although the players of old are still revered wherever they go.

Success on the pitch may currently be in short supply for both West Indies and England, but a trip to the Caribbean to catch Test or one-day action remains at the top of most cricket fans’ bucket list.

Many are due to head for Antigua’s Verandah Resort and Spa as a base camp for this week’s first of a three-match Test series against England (March 8-12), staged at the striking Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Stadium.

I gladly take up the offer to see what the resort is like, and I can attest their biggest challenge will be swapping a feast of fun, delicious Caribbean dishes and a never-ending supply of potent rum punches for a day at the cricket.

The resort’s two pristine white sandy beaches and turquoise shallow waters make a welcome distraction from the ravages of winter back home.

A pleasant breeze provides just enough energy for me to enjoy one of my favourite holiday pastimes – sailing.

After trying to put a life jacket on inside out – much to the amusement of the laid-back beach staff – I begin tacking and jibbing a Hobie cat sailing boat around the bay.

I’m no Sir Ben Ainslie, but when the towering sail fills with a gust of West Indies air, I skim across the water and feel exhilarated.

I can see fellow guests looking on from infinity pools outside their blue and white wooden villas, children splashing about at the water’s edge and, in the distance, waves crashing against a coral reef that protects the bay.

Everywhere there are swaying palm trees and banana plants interspersed with splashes of bright red hibiscus and yellow laburnum. It’s a beautiful sight.

Next, I’m torn between trying the 18-hole mini golf course, snorkelling or pedal boats, but settle for games of table tennis and pool.

Like many resorts, the all-inclusive Verandah is relatively quiet as it rebuilds after tourism ground to a halt because of the pandemic. But it seems well placed to bounce back, judging by the bonhomie among the largely British fellow guests and hotel staff.

I could happily stay in the resort for my entire holiday, but take up an offer to sample two more of my other childhood pastimes – kayaking and sea fishing.

We head through the picturesque Mount Obama national park, with the iconic music of Bob Marley And The Wailers filling our minibus, to meet football-loving kayak guide, ‘Puppy’ Savita, from South Coast Horizons.

After running through fairly strict Covid procedures that are a regular feature of the holiday, we step into two-person kayaks and gently steer our way through a dense mangrove lagoon to a beautiful, secluded beach.

We look on as huge pelicans dive bomb for fish before heading up Goat Head Hill, spider crabs scuttling across our paths, for panoramic views of the dazzling Antigua coastline and, in the distance, mountainous Monserrat, scene of the devastating volcano eruption in the 1990s.

Next, we head to upmarket Jolly Harbour and meet Sugar Island Tours’ captain Jason and his sidekick, Nathan, for two hours of memorable fun on board their immaculate fishing boat.

We catch an array of colourful fish, including lion and angel fish, using lightweight tackle, spot sea turtles and sample some of the strongest and tastiest rum punch on the holiday.

As we head back to the resort, word reaches us that another of my heroes, Sir Richie Richardson, a former West Indies skipper and phenomenal batsman, is happy to meet for a chat after finishing his round of golf at the Cedar Valley Golf Club.

Our wise and cool-as-you like driver, Cassim, is impressed. “Man, could he bat,” he says with a knowing nod, “and what a skipper. See that flagpole over there? That was Richie – dead straight.”

Sir Richie is courteous and slightly reserved when we meet, again offering a fist pump for a greeting, and kindly sends a video message to my cricket-loving son-in-law, Lenny.

We share memories of when he played for Hampshire against Somerset in my home town Weston-super-Mare, and of how he hopes to revive West Indies’ fortunes through a new cricket academy, run by the four Antiguan knights.

Day swiftly turns into night and, after more beers than I care to remember, we reluctantly part ways.

What a knight. And what a day.

How to plan your trip

Elite Island Holidays (eliteislandholidays.com) offers a seven-night all-inclusive stay at the Verandah Resort and Spa from £1,185 per person, including flights. Departs September 14.

Kayaking at South Coast Horizons can be booked via southcoasthorizons.com.

Fishing with Sugar Island Tours can be booked via sugarislandtours.com.

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