ST. JOHN'S, Antigua — After 350 years under the British flag, the atmosphere on this lush Caribbean island is still about as English as the Tower of London with palm trees in the courtyard, hibiscus, yellowbells and buttercups blooming from the battlements.
Four years of independence haven't dampened the Anglophilia, what with cricket matches viewed in near-holy reverence, Queen Elizabeth's recent lunchtime drop-in greeted with all the pomp of a coronation, and a native steel band just as likely to break into "Hail Britannia" as a jaunty island calypso.
One other enduring British trait stands out around here: Antiguans are almost totally unflappable. Life goes on in a measured cadence, everything in its proper order, nothing seeming to rise above the "bit of a bother" level.
It's infectious. And a few days on Antigua's warm beaches, roaming the green and softly undulating hills or just taking delight in the happy pastel coloring of native houses with their English cottage gardens (throw the whole seed catalogue into the front yard) can take you light years from the madding crowd, farther still from ignoble strife.
Here to there: Eastern has one-stops with changes in Miami, other airlines form combinations via New York, Miami, Toronto and San Juan. The government sets cab prices from airport to various island hotels and they aren't cheap. So if you plan on leaving your hotel to tool around, a rental car or Jeep makes sense, both reasonable.
A few fast facts: Figure on staying at least a week. Hotel costs are moderate for a major resort, dining the same. Currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar, EC, recently valued at 37 cents or 2.69 to ours. Weather is pleasant year-round, seldom rising above 85 in summer. Bring your passport or some other means of positive identification, and plenty of film.
Accommodations: Barrymore (Box 244; $52-$60 double summer, $68-$76 winter) is one of the island's good small hotels, just outside town but not on the beach. Patios and pool areas are a sea of yellowbells, poinsettias and palms. Its Dubarry's restaurant is considered one of town's best, all adding up to making it a favorite of airline crews and other knowledgeable types. Dickenson Bay Beach is only five minutes away and there's a hotel courtesy car. Lawn was long overdue for a mowing when we were there.
Another informal place, Blue Heron (Box 185; $70-$95 summer, $100-$130 winter), is right on white-sand Johnson's Point Beach. Sort of a beachcomber feel, dining and dancing outside; another $30 per person buys you breakfast and dinner.
The Copper & Lumber Store Hotel (Box 184; $50-$75 summer, $85-$125 winter) is across the island from St. John's in historic Nelson's Dockyard. Only 14 units, all suites with fully equipped kitchens and daily maid service. Built in 1782, the fine old brickwork building has recently been fully restored, 18th-Century fabrics, antiques and prints everywhere. Your room will overlook the lovely brick central courtyard or the blue harbor, restaurant soon to open with "gentle" 18th-Century entertainment. Enchanting is about the only word that does credit to this one.
Regional food and drink: Mainlanders will be pleased with the number and variety of seldom-seen dishes here. Ducana is a big favorite, a mixture of sweet potatoes, flour and coconut wrapped in banana leaves and boiled. This and fungi , a cornmeal mix, are usually eaten with salt fish. Seasoned rice with green peas and bits of meat is almost as large, as is pepper pot, several vegetables cooked with salted beef.
Deep-fried fish cakes with onions and herbs joins johnnycake on many island tables. And keep your eye out for "Hot Roti Served Here," a curried meat mixture enclosed in a type of hot cake. Green bananas are eaten in more ways than you can think of, and the same goes for breadfruit. Few tables are minus bottles of hot sauce, Dunlap and Susie being the brands of choice. Then cool your throat with Red Stripe beer from Jamaica.
Moderate-cost dining: Two places where you'll find most of the above are Brother B's and Golden Peanut. Everyone gathers at Brother's beneath the corrugated tin roof to dine on plastic-covered tablecloths and savor his formidable selection of wines, Gallo only. The daily specials run to fresh seafood. Golden Peanut downtown is more of the same, less expensive and the portions are gigantic. Jovial and friendly owner, great rum drinks.
Shirley Heights Lookout on a hill near Nelson's Dockyard has a view from every window, rather predictable menu, steel band and barbecue every Sunday. Big attractions are the restored 18th-Century fortifications, spectacular location.