Not so with me. I enjoy each island for its individual offerings and can easily recognize and appreciate how they differ; and they do differ, folks.
Whether it's the arid, cactus-strewn landscape of Aruba which is quite reminiscent of the American west or the lush tropical rainforests of the Dominican Republic which seem to bow in unison amidst the sea breezes which caress its gently rolling hills.
Or the volcanic cliffs and cascading waterfalls of Dominica which boasts but one single, black-sanded beach on the entire island or the boulders of immense proportion which jut skyward from the gelatin-blue waters along the sandy shoreline of Virgin Gorda.
Sorry for the ramble, but my point here is, "All islands are not alike."
Agreed, you can find a stretch of beach worthy of a postcard on most any island, but that's not what makes me tick. I'm all about absorbing every detail a destination has to offer; scenery, food, culture, mood, lifestyle and perhaps, then some beach time.
Set in the Leeward Islands, it is actually the main island of the country of Antigua and Barbuda.
The island was originally referred to as "Wadadli" by its native inhabitants (Arawak, then later, Carib Indians), but that changed in1493 when upon his second voyage, Christopher Columbus arrived and dubbed the larger of the two islands, Santa Maria de la Antigua.
In spite of Columbus's arrival, strong Carib defenses prevented attempts by Europeans to colonize the island
for the next 140 or so years.
Beginning in the 18th century, Antigua was used as the headquarters of the British Royal Navy Caribbean fleet, and throughout its history of colonization, the island was considered Britain's "Gateway to the Caribbean". That continued until the islands were granted independence from the United Kingdom in 1981 and became the modern state of Antigua and Barbuda.
So needless to say, I was elated to get back to an island so high on my adventuring depth chart.
The island itself is gorgeously panoramic and colorful villages dot the landscape amidst pristine backdrops drenched in Jurassic Park-like beauty.
The locals take pride in their history and fare from towns such as the deeply religious All Saints, or Free Town, which became the first free black settlement on the island following the abolition of slavery.
The most recent Foodidude Adventure had set upon traversing Antigua and began in the island's capital, St. Johns.
With a population of over 31,000, St. Johns has been the administrative center of Antigua and Barbuda since colonization in 1632.
Located in the northwest corner of the island, its deep harbor is able to accommodate large cruise ships, and thus, ensures its position as commercial center and chief port of Antigua.
Boasting the island's largest population usually means boasting the largest array of influences and interesting digestibles. But that will come later. The first task at hand was crossing the island.
The trek across the island was inspiring and insightful, and finally culminated in the opportunity to take in the breathtaking views from Shirley Heights.
At 490 feet above sea level, Shirley Heights is part of a 19th-century British military complex that is currently protected as a national park.
The views here are majestic - from one point, you can overlook the home and studio of guitarist, Eric Clapton, and from another, enjoy a view of English Harbour in its entirety.
Upon the crest, there is rambling array of gun emplacements, a cemetery and military buildings in various states of ruin, including the skeletal remains of an officer's barracks. But I found the jewel of these sites and buildings to be, the Guard House, dated 1791.
The view offered to the rear of the Guard House, also referred to as "the lookout", is that of English Harbour shown above. I overheard someone say that on Sunday afternoons the spectacular view is accompanied by a barbecue, rum punch, and the tropical strains of steel band and reggae music.
But views aside, the true gem for me was entering the historic interior of the Guard House.
The stone walls of the interior coupled with the open windows and doors provided a cool respite from a blistering sun.
A gray-haired fellow stood behind a period bar, and behind him, three wooden shelves held neat rows of various rums and liquors. Inside this wonderfully restored edifice, one could sit and enjoy a drink of the alcoholic or non-alcoholic variety, or simply grab a snack. But the day was still young, so a couple of bottled waters tossed in the backpack and it was time to get a move on.
From Shirley Heights, it was nearly a 500 ft. descent into the heart of English Harbour, and in particular, Nelson's Dockyard.
English Harbour became renowned among the English fleet for its protected shelter during violent storms, and is a natural harbor which established itself as a base of operations for the area during the 18th-century.
In the 1740's, enslaved laborers set to work on construction of a naval dockyard.
And although it functioned in the role of refitting British warships on a daily basis, construction went on continuously for the next 100 years and concluded with the Naval Officer’s and Clerk’s House being built in 1855.
Today, English Harbour and the neighboring village of Falmouth are internationally famous as a yachting and sailing destination, particularly during Antigua Sailing Week, where the annual world-class regatta brings many sailing vessels and sailors to the island; while Nelson's Dockyard is a authentically restored dockyard museum which boasts restaurants, bars and a hotel in the original Copper and Lumber Store.
From the second I set foot in the dockyard, I knew this was my kind of place. The smell, the taste on the breeze, the stoic stature of the many stone outbuildings drew me like a moth to a flame. I didn't know what I was about to see, but knew I wanted to see it.
The centerpiece of the entire dockyard is the Copper and Lumber Store Hotel. Built in 1789 to store lumber and copper sheets that were used for ship repair, the structure has been fully restored and converted into a small hotel with 14 suites or studios.
Those who know me well will tell you I am an explorer at heart. I'm not one to look; I want to taste, see, hear, feel and absorb everything I can, and when I get that "little boy" look in my eye, you blink and I'm gone.
I became fixated on this building; circled the grounds until I became cognizant of the fact that I was the only one in the vicinity. Alone.
I was at the rear of the hotel overlooking the water and at the edge of a deck attached to the rear of the hotel. There were a few tables here, and it would be easy to imagine this being the spot hotel guests retreated to for a quiet cocktail to watch the sunset. It was truly a magical setting, but eerily quiet as well.
I climbed a few small stairs onto the deck and noticed an open door leading into the rear of the hotel. I stuck my head in and gave the place a cursory glance. Seeing no one about and obviously in full-exploration mode, I jumped in the doorway and smiled. At that point I really didn't care whether this place was off limits or not - that "little boy" look had settled in my eyes and I was too far gone to worry about dos and don'ts.
Walking through the dining room I espied a rather large black man sitting in his chair with his back towards me. Something about his stature and body language, along with a suspected hotel priciness, told me he was some sort of security, and that made it decision time. So I did what any blissfully ignorant explorer who channel surfs past each episode of Locked Up Abroad would do - I made a hard right and continued deeper into the building.
Quietly edging past him, I emerged into a sunlit courtyard, and even had the onions to snap a few pics en route while he snoozed peacefully in a chair three sizes to small for his stature.
I found this picturesque courtyard was actually in the center of the hotel and was overlooked by the many of the hotel's rooms and suites. It was truly a magnificent and magical place, and I'm sure a stay here would provide memories to last a lifetime.
Getting a hankering for some rum, and really not wanting to press my luck any longer, I darted through an archway and popped out into a waitresses station. I swatted back a curtain, stepped out a side door and made my way towards the front of the restaurant like any normal tourist would do.
Me? I opted for the latter in Rum Punch form.
Now, please let me digress but a moment - rum punch in the Caribbean is not your mama's rum punch. Here, they serve it wherever you go and I've learned it is a tropical catch-all phrase for something that looks harmless, tastes even less harmless, but kicks you in the teeth with the velocity of a mule hoof.
I don't believe they have any more potent rum than we do, however, I do believe their fruit has much better masking qualities than ours and their prowess with units of measurement is all but worthless.
Digressions aside, I patiently took my turn in line at the bar for my ration of liquid "Jekyll and Jackass".
Looking about, I saw the restaurant was decorated authentically as well. The booths were period; wooden high-backed benches, and the walls, the same ballast brick used throughout the rest of the structure. I also took note of how it was remarkably cooler inside the building than outside, and contemplated the colonials indeed knew how to make the best of what they had. With my rations in hand, I stepped out into the Antigua sun.
Wandering aimlessly, the rum punch had barely made it past my gullet, when I felt the first waves of light-headedness strike; and that was quickly evolving into wobble.
I chuckled aloud and murmured in my best Rainman impression, "I like being buzzed in Antigua." Dork.
Yep, Jekyll & Jackass Juice strikes again.
And being Italian, I contemplated the only two options available to our kind when buzzed beneath the tropical sun; nap or eat. And although I must confess option number one wasn't entirely out of the question, I opted for the latter.
Luckily, I was mere steps away from the Dockyard Bakery. This was the original bakery which baked bread for those who toiled here back in the day, but today it has been restored to it's original glory with wide hearth brick ovens and all.
Inside, I found a number of treats, of obvious British origin. I opted for a Banger (sausage) Roll and a Meatball.
I retreated to a lone picnic table I found at the rear of a building and sucked down my feast.
Though the time spent seeing the historic countryside of Antigua was extremely rewarding and enjoyable, my mind was already fast-forwarding towards hitting the streets of St. Johns and seeing what type of local goodies I could drum up and devour.
The effects of the rum punch had worn off and in addition to finding some grub to write home about, I was ready to indulge in the local lager, Wadadli, and taste a shot of English Harbour Rum to see what all the fuss was about for myself.
The streets of St. Johns were alive with activity. Tourists mingled with locals and created waves which ebbed and flowed through the crosswalks of the city's main thoroughfares. Souvenir shops with higher end wares lined the piers of the waterfront. The designer bathing suits, pottery vases and hand-blown glass dolphins denigrated to three-for-ten-dollar tee shirts the further you walked from the water.
As well, the trendy waterfront restaurants faded to their less elaborate kin, and finally, the all-American fast food joint the further inland you traveled.
Yes, friends, not unlike your very own hometown, fast food establishments like Burger King and KFC are at your beckoned call here in St. Johns.
I pondered how it had become woefully apparent to me that although one can always find shelter from a storm at sea on most of these islands, there indeed was no safe haven from the long tentacles of the "Home of the Whopper".
But that's not me at all. I am completely in my element in such environs. In fact, I flourish along the razor's edge.
I am the furthest thing from your average tourist. I am street smart, alert, and chameleon-like, blending seamlessly into any atmosphere. I'm blessed with the ability to walk into a bar-full of locals and walk out with a bar-full of friends. I smile easy, but also have a knack for making it visually apparent that I am nobody's fool and can physically handle any threat. I exude confidence.
And that mindset has carried me through some rather questionable geographical decisions.
But even so, I moved about like I belonged. I held my head high and made eye contact with everyone. And when that eye contact was returned, I nodded and offered, "Wah gwan", which is a greeting in a local dialect that translates to "What's going on?" - my way of stating I'm an alpha male, yet not unapproachable.
The one thing I love about these tropical inner cities are the fresh fruit stands. They are run by locals just trying to scratch out a living by any means at hand. And the best thing about buying from these local venders, besides helping the local economy, is nine out of ten times you can be assured the fruit you're eating was picked earlier that day.
After passing a few of these little corner markets, I stopped beside the stand of a rather large Antiguan woman who did not smile easily. In these parts, I find that understandable as life is not always easy for these folks. I picked up a ripe grapefruit and said, "I'll take this," handing her a dollar and waving off the change. She finally broke down and issued me a grin and said, "Thank you, sir."
I sat on the curb beside her stand and peeled away the grapefruit's skin, biting deeply into the fleshy fruit. Juice, which tasted far more sweet than bitter, ran down my chin as I devoured every morsel to the hum of passing motorists. My new best friend leaned over and asked, "annuda one, sir?"
"Maybe in a bit," I answered, washing my hands and face with a bottled water from my backpack, and rose to my feet.
Continuing my travels, I came upon a machete-wielding Rasta operating a street-corner sugar cane stand.
I was quite taken by the process as he hacked three foot canes and pushed them into a machine that appeared to squeeze them and strip them. He then cut them into 6" or 7" pieces and bagged them for sale.
He did this while never looking up from his work, nor acknowledging my presence in any manner.
He stopped what he was doing and looked up at me as if I were interrupting a love-making session between he and his favorite gal, and spoke without batting an eyelid, "Dat'll be two dollars."
Now something about that comment didn't sit well with me.
I figured I could answer with the typical tourist, "okay," and fork over two bucks for no damned good reason. Or I could issue the alternate tourist response, "I'm sorry, I don't have any cash on me."
But in truth, I was in no mood for acquiescing and momentarily considered the response, "go piss up a rope."
Conversely, I didn't want to tick off a guy with a machete, and deep down, I still wanted a photo of his operation. I thought for a moment and pulled off my sunglasses.
I looked him dead in the eye and replied, "No, my friend, I won't do that. However, I've got a business deal for you - for one picture of you working, I'll buy a bag of your cane."
His body language relaxed, he smiled and said, "Good deal, mon."
Everybody won, everybody got what they wanted, and everybody escaped with their self-respect and alpha male status (as well as body parts) in tact.
In truth, I don't do sugar, especially raw sugar, but I just had to give a taste in the name of Foodidude. So I tasted the end of the cane and one word - unbelievable. I knew a second taste would do little good for me and actually gave the bag to some local kids who were highly appreciative.
The next stand I stumbled upon was run by an animated, friendly Antiguan gent who sold Coconut Water. He made it fresh right there in front of you - proof being the skid of coconuts he had beside his workspace.
Again, the greatest joy of these stands are the freshness of the product as well as the characters you happen upon.
This fellow yapped nonstop; not in a bad sort of way, but more with an indistinguishable musical cadence. I gulped the sweetly refreshing beverage, thanked him and moved along.
I emerged from a quiet side street onto a main drag aflutter with activity. I noticed there were a number of eateries along this strip, but I wanted to be sure whatever I decided upon, it would be a new experience.
In passing a colorful little establishment, I noticed some locals hanging out on the streetside deck which held a couple of tables, as well as a counter around the entire perimeter of the deck where one could take his/her meal mere feet from passers-by, enjoying the bustle of the city.
The smells emanating from the eatery were tantalizing, and I stopped momentarily to take it all in with a deep breath.
I looked up above the doorway and saw an interesting sign constructed of corrugated steel and driftwood that displayed the name of the restaurant, "Slice".
For the briefest of moments I thought to myself, "Hmm, another tourist trap pizza joint capitalizing on the tropical theme," and began to continue on my way.
But then, by chance I noticed a cooler with Wadadli Lager, the locally brewed beer, beside the doorway. Figuring it would be as good a place as any to swig back a cold one, I climbed the steps.
Before entering, I overheard a number of voices within chatting with the workers (and who I later surmised to be the owner) on a personal level. I thought, "this isn't really geared towards tourists at all. Everyone here knows one another. This is a local joint."
I stepped inside and my eyes lit up. This was indeed no tourist joint. It wasn't a chain. And it wasn't glitzy.
It was local.
Once the locals cleared out, I took a moment to check things out. To my left, along with more Bob Marley pictures, there were also a number of photos of other folks I took as celebrities, but none recognizable to me. There also hung a small sign, "Be happy". I was indeed.
On the counter was a glass warming unit which held perhaps, a half dozen rectangular pizzas. But this wasn't your everyday pizza; it was easily discernible that these utilized ingredients which were part of the everyday diet of these islanders.
The original native population were an agricultural-based people and cultivated crops such as corn, a sweet potato with a whiter, firmer flesh than its bright orange American counterpart, and of course, the Antiguan "Black" Pineapple, as well as guava and chiles. And many of those original crops have become staples in today's Antiguan recipes.
For instance, the national dish of Antigua is Fungie (foon-jee) and pepper pot. Fungie is a cooked paste made of cornmeal and water, and is similar to Italian Polenta. Another popular Antiguan dish is called, Ducuna (DOO-koo-NAH), and is a sweet, steamed dumpling made from the grated sweet potatoes described above, flour and spices. And in addition to local staples such as plantains, pineapple, saltfish, and tamarind stew, I found that Antiguans are just wild about eggplant as a breakfast food. That's right, eggplant.
In short, many of these Antiguan staples were implemented in their version of pizza.
I pointed to the one I wanted, grabbed a Wadadli Lager, and took a seat outside to wait.
A few minutes later, my pizza arrived and it smelled incredible. Let me describe what I chose:
The pizza's crust was whole grain and crisp on the edges, but soft inside; reminiscent of a pita or moreso, Indian naan.
I was starting get full from all the street treats and the day was waning. There was but one thing left on my checklist - English Harbour Rum.
Heading back to the more touristy section, I saw a place called "Hemingway's". The name alone made it worthy of a shot.
I walked in and ordered. The shot went down smooth and warm. I ordered a second just to be sure. I have to believe those Brits were onto something distributing rum rations to their seaman for 300 years. It was indeed all they say it is.
To be continued...