Getting There – From Saskatchewan, we traveled to Antigua via Toronto with Air Canada Vacations, overnighting in Toronto both ways. Allow lots of time to get through Toronto airport. The lineups are long, and for Antigua; departure was from a different terminal, with bus transportation after check-in and security. The Antigua airport is small, crowded, and hot. Getting through customs took at least a half hour, but we expected that. Once we got outside, Air Canada Vacations was right there, but it was just chaotic. They’d lost most of the welcome vouchers (or something), didn’t know who was who, nor where anyone was going. For Pineapple Beach, they generally herded us into one group, and finally got some vans organized for us. We met with Kim, the Air Canada rep a few days later, and she apologized and told us that a few heads rolled over the Saturday fiasco at the airport.
Although there were only about ten or twelve couples checking in, it was slow. Not a problem though. There was only fifteen minutes of daylight left when we arrived, so we just left our bags at reception and went for a quick look around. By the time we returned there was only a couple of people left, so we got our key quite quickly. They told us that the key for our room safe was stuck in the lock, but that maintenance would be around to fix it. There were safes in reception that could be utilized meanwhile.
We got to our garden view room quickly; it was the first room right across the road from the reception building. Despite booking and paying in full, five months earlier, I thought we had what is likely the pooriest garden view location (Room 220) of any room on the property. When we got inside the room and found two small double beds taking up most of the floor space, we went back to see if there was anything available with only a single queen/king bed. The only one that was available was in the upper oceanview section, and they wanted $40/day for the upgrade. We declined, but they did say that they would watch for something for us. It took a few days, but they did call and moved us to a beach front room with a single king bed (Room 117). Although this was an upgrade, they did not ask for any additional money. We swapped the nightly sounds of the tree frogs for the sound of the surf just 20 or so metres from the door. We loved this location. However, if you are fussy about your room, pay the extra money and get into the rooms in the 6, 7, 8, or 9 hundred blocks. There is no comparison in terms of quality and size. Most of the couples that we ended up hanging out with were staying in these rooms. One of them, who was a repeat visitor said that after staying in one of these rooms, they never go back to any of the blocks on the lower levels, and they’d stayed in most of them at one time or another.
Overall the food was terrific; far superior to any other all inclusive that we’ve ever stayed at although breakfasts weren’t anything special, but quite adequate. Breakfasts were only at the main restaurant (Topaz). There was always one pre-cooked egg choice that usually alternated between scrambled and poached egg. The bacon had a bit of an off flavor to it, and the sausage was a bit bland. Made to order omelets were always good. Waffles were also available, but I never tried any. Fresh fruit was always out, but was usually restricted to various melons and usually pineapple. Citrus fruits were almost never available. There was usually a bowl of bananas ( some we ate, some the turtles ate, and some got fed to the fish when snorkeling) The fresh tomatoes that were usually in the lunch/supper salad bars were a real winter treat, but not out for breakfast either. Especially at breakfast, it’s a good idea to go up to the buffet one at a time, leaving somebody at the table on bird watch. They like full glasses of juice or fresh water, or almost anything else left sitting on a plate. There were numerous options for lunch one of which was the Topaz buffet, but we only did this twice. We generally ate a bit lighter than buffet for lunch. The snack bar made good burgers and fries as well as good nachos and cheese in the late afternoon if we ate too lightly at lunch. Mary’s Outhouse on the hill lived up to it’s pre-billing reputation, with excellent ribs and chicken. I’m not certain that all those ribs were pork though; I don’t think I’ve ever seen pork ribs as long as some of those ones were; regardless they were good, the beer was cold and plentiful, and the view from her tables was like eating lunch in paradise. My wife paints a lot of folk art, so she pre-made a sign which we took to hang at Mary’s. She never heard the end of that from some of our friends that we had made.
One couple who had gotten married there had spent hours chiseling a sign out of driftwood using a nail, and filling in the letters with a ball point pen. He stepped back to admire it after pounding it to the wall using a rock, when he looked up and realized he’d hung it right beside this nicely painted sign of ours. There were several good laughs about that around the bar table that night. Stories about how strenuous the walk up the hill to Marys is, are greatly exaggerated. One other lunch option was in the Italian (Chef Pietro) restaurant, which offered a sit down menu lunch. I don’t remember seeing this the first week we were there, but it was available all the second week, possibly because the resort was so full. They offered items like BLT sandwiches, catch of the day, etc. Dinner was where the resort really shone with it’s food. On Monday, Thursday, and Sunday, the Topaz was open for dinner as buffet; on these nights there was no other option. On buffet nights, Chef Pietros was used for extra seating. The girls had arranged a table for eight on one of the buffet nights to celebrate Max’s 60th birthday, complete with a cake and the staff signing him Happy Birthday. On the remaining nights, Topaz offered a menu. Chef Pietro’s was open on Tuesday, and Friday. Pineapple grill was open on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday. I’m not sure how much variation there is to this a la carte schedule. Reservations are made one day in advance, by booking after 9 am at the tour desk. They did take your name down two days in advance if you were going to be away on a tour or something; but they didn’t really advertise or encourage this. We didn’t have one poor meal, other than a grilled fish selection that was dry and overcooked. There were always a couple of appetizers, two or three salad choices, a couple of soups, and maybe ten or so selections from the entrée list. Our favorite was the Pineapple Grill, although their Conch stew was unavailable all three visits. The shrimp appetizer can’t be missed; only three shrimp but each one was three good mouthfuls. Their salsa and guacamole were both very good, and I really enjoyed the house salad with an orange tequila dressing which I’ve already tried to duplicate at home. Two of the three nights that we ate at the Pineapple Grill included entertainment the most notable being two guys singing some humorous albeit racey ballads.
Beach and Grounds:
One of the reasons we’d selected Pineapple Beach this year was because of its size. We’d stayed at a massive resort on the Mayan Riviera last year and had found it to be very un-social due to the size. The entire resort of Pineapple Beach would have fit under the main lobby/dining room of last years resort. Despite running at 100% occupancy, we never felt crowded. The entire island was running well over average for occupancy, mostly due to a large influx of Brits who had planned to be vacationing in Thailand. The beach isn’t huge, but the sand was fine, white, and raked of seaweed daily. The water was warm and with the protection of the hills on both ends and the reef out front, it was never too rough for swimming. The weather for our two weeks was about as good as one could ask for over a fourteen day stretch. It rained twice during the night and there wasn’t a single day that could be considered as windy. The resort is very nicely treed, but doesn’t have the profusion of flowers that are often seen on the Caribbean resorts. There were lots of birds especially doves, and on a couple of occasions we spotted a hummingbird (Antillean Crested Hummingbird) checking out the flowers in front of our deck.
Around the Resort: The resort was pretty laid back, not a lot of people did much of anything except relax. There were the typical resort activities; water aerobics in the morning and beach volleyball in the late afternoon. Bottles of rum were competed for in ping pong, ring toss, and kayak races. Our group of friends came home with three bottles from these endeavors. There was always someone available at the water sports area to take people out on the Hobie Cats. One of our friends was an experienced sailor, and he went out several times a day. They also had wind surfers, but I don’t think I ever saw one in the water. Not sure why. We have out own masks, but flippers were available after 9 am at the water sports center. The snorkeling was disappointing in the first few days, with the water really murky with fine silt. Apparently there had been a strong storm out in the Atlantic that had really caused the entire Caribbean to get cloudy water. However, after a few days conditions improved and the snorkeling at the resort got a lot better. The coral is a bit beat up, but on a really calm day you can see some better coral by going out past the marker buoys to the ocean side of the reef. Out near the buoys, inside the reef and a bit to the east there are two huge brain corals that are both about ten feet in height and diameter. The variety of fish is reasonable, the usual Blue Tang, Sergeants, French Grunts, and Parrotfish but also some less common ones like Squirrelfish. There weren’t many days that I didn’t go out snorkeling once or twice. We went on the Great Bird Island picnic and snorkeling trip that the resort offers five days/week from 10 am – 2 pm (US$30) Savage cooks up a good lunch and offers up his special drink (coconut rum and ginger ale) The snorkeling again is good but not great. The two beaches at Bird Island are popular stops. There were several boats on the beach and others anchored offshore with snorkellers. On another day, our “group of eight” all got together and booked the afternoon snorkel trip (US$15) that the resort offers on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Because it was a really calm day, we convinced Savage to go to Green Island where the coral was impressive and the fish quite plentiful and seemingly less spooked. I would have gladly gone back here again, and although we tried to get it arranged, it didn’t happen. Fishing was also offered through the resort, but I don’t know anything about this. Internet access is available on two computers in a small, air conditioned room next to the gift shop. You purchased an access code that got you logged on – US$5 for 30 minutes. One night that we had an extra late dinner, we found ourselves still mobile at 11 pm when the Piano bar closes and the disco starts up. Our whole group went but were pretty much the only people there and I don’t think anyone stayed long. The air conditioning works very well in this building, which it shares with the Pineapple grill.
We walked to Devil’s Bridge twice, it’s about an hour and a quarter round trip. During the week it’s a nice peaceful walk. On the weekends there is a bit more road traffic but still not bad. There are a couple of side roads that you can take. One leads down to a small beach on the opposite side of the bay from Dian Bay resort, where several local families were relaxing. Took some great pictures of the surf roaring up through a small blow hole, the perfect situation to use the “burst” mode on my digital camera.
Between about 9 pm and 11 pm, every night but Sunday, there was entertainment at the main bar (Piano bar). I thought that it was quite good on most nights, even the Tuesday karaoke. Two or three nights were local bands, the best was the one that included two female singers. Steel band on Saturdays, fire eating limbo guy with about a twenty inch waistline on Fridays. The piano in the “Piano” bar was silent for the entire two weeks except for the afternoon that a tourist uncovered it and started to play. I only listened to him for a few minutes when I came to get fresh beach towels from the Activities desk, but he was a really good piano player. Music was played at the main pool during the days; but it was very quiet and enjoyable. We never spent much time around the pool other than to pick up a snacks at the snack bar or drinks from the main bar. By the way, the Aqua Bar, which is just at the edge of the beach and is open from late morning until about 4:30 in the afternoon, serves beer that is far colder than the main bar. Although we didn’t see many others; our large insulated mugs were put into use every day; a highly recommended accessory.
For US$10, vans run to St Johns leaving at 9 am and returning about noon. Doesn’t sound like much time, but it was long enough for us. We saw the cruise ship docks, the tourist vendors, museum of Antigua and Barbuda, St Johns Cathedral and stopped at a sidewalk café for drinks (one beer and one bottled water for US$4 – not bad). We missed Redcliff Quay; I don’t know how or why, we just did. Prices in St Johns were similar to the beachside vendors at the resort. T shirts around US$10, polo shirts about twice that much. If your going to take rum home make sure you get it here; the resort has nothing and the airport was much more expensive. Cavalier rum was US$4.75, English Harbour was about $7.
There is little to say that hasn’t already been said about this tour from the rave reviews that others have already posted. One thing to keep in mind though; guests from Pineapple Beach board the boat at Dickenson Bay, and the taxi fare is not included in the cost of the tour. A taxi from Pineapple Beach to just about anywhere on the Island was typically $30 one way, so this really adds to the cost. True to his word though; our driver came and got us for the return trip, arriving in the parking lot the same minute that we did. We went with another couple, one of our “group of eight”, that managed to get booked at the last minute after someone cancelled. Eli stopped the boat every 5 or 10 minutes to give a description of what we were seeing, be it geography, ecology, or history. His dialogue was a big part of the tour. Juices at Long Island, a hike up to the top of Bird Island, lunch on the boat from an anchor just north of Bird Island where Hawksbill turtles could be seen surfacing, snorkeling at Hells Gate (surf was a bit rough here and my mask fogged up badly), and then snorkeling a few hundred metres north of Bird Island (great coral here especially some of the fan coral). Out came the traditional rum punch (which the girls loved but it hit them hard and heavy), and then a slow boat along the mangrove coast of Guiana Island before heading back to Dickenson Bay at about 4:30.
Treasure Island Catamaran:
Again this departed from Dickenson Bay, but the cost of the taxi from Pineapple Beach was included in the price for US$5 extra. All eight of us went on the Treasure Island Cat. The Cat nosed into the beach at Dickenson Bay at the same time as the Wadadli Cat was loading passengers. We were quite happy to be getting on the Treasure Island Cat because the big Wadadli Cat looked very crowded. Our Cat just had a nice sized group. We got on and headed around the point to Blue Waters, although we didn’t load any more passengers there; we just seemed to be killing time for some reason. When we cruised back to Dickenson Bay, a few more passengers boarded via the rubber motorboat that would then be towed along behind us. We then set sail along the scenic west and south side of the island, on the way to Cades Reef. The water was pretty calm at Cades Reef, and although I didn’t see too many fish (should have gone straight out instead of left), most of the people we were with thought it was the best snorkeling of the entire vacation. A school of Spanish Hogfish were firsts for me. However we only got one hour in the water and then it was off to Ffryes beach for lunch. The BBQ lunch was good, as was the Steel band but then most of the guests just hung out while a couple of people played some beach cricket. The advertised limbo dancer was not present. Rum punch was included in the price of the tour, but a bit surprisingly anything else at the bar (at lunch and on the boat) was cash, although I don’t think they were charging very much. Back to the boat for the return trip, stopping in at places like Jolly Beach and Royal Antiguan to drop off passengers. Overall this Cat trip was a bit disappointing, in part because I didn’t get to the best snorkeling, but also because we could easily have doubled our time in the water rather than kill it on the beach waiting for a very few people to get finished with their cricket game. One of our friends that had been on a Circumnavigation Cat a few years earlier, thought that was a much better trip than this Cades Reef day. A video of the tour was also offered (two people had been aboard taping all day) for video US$40 or dvd at US$60 (I think that is correct pricing). Karl bought one and made a copy for us. It’s fun to watch but the quality is really poor.
This attraction is very convenient to Pineapple Beach, in fact you can see it out in the ocean from Mary’s Outhouse. They pick you up right at the watersports center and then it’s a very quick boat trip out to the Rays. You get into the water with the rays and probably spend about half an hour with them, getting photographs and feeding them some squid that they suck out of your hands like a vacuum cleaner. There is also a young hawksbill turtle, conch, and starfish. They take you back to their headquarters on shore to settle accounts and to offer you the option to purchase the pictures that they’ve taken of you holding a stingray US$15 for an electronic copy on CD and a similar price for a glossy print. Overall, a unique excursion but a bit pricey for what you get ($US40 each).
Jeep Rental: Spring Hill Stables, Shirley Heights, Nelsons Dockyard, Fig Tree Drive, OJ’s, Half Moon Bay – do you think we tried to do too much in one day?? Yes, but what a wonderful day it was. Spring Hill wanted us to get there early so we arranged for the jeep to be delivered late in the afternoon, so the four of us were ready to roll first thing the next morning. The five speed left handed stick shift looked intimidating at first, but I really didn’t have much grief on the roads at all. You quickly get quite adept at shifting because you never go much more than a few hundred metres at one time without shifting for one reason or another. Signage on the highways of Antigua in almost non-existent. We knew we had to be close to the turnoff for Spring Hill, and when we pulled over to ask for directions we found we were indeed right where the turnoff was. Karl and Karen hadn’t ridden for many many years. Karl mounted up and was good to go, but Karen only spent a minute in the saddle before she admitted that she couldn’t do it, so off she got. Karl and my wife went for an hour or so, riding through the lush valley and then down to a small beach on the west edge of Falmouth Harbour. The ride was nice and the horses were in reasonably good condition. US$40 each.
Back into the jeep and off to Shirley Heights which was quite close by. Took the pre-requisite photos from the hilltop and then drove back down to Nelsons Dockyard where we enjoyed a cold beer at the Admirals Inn sitting right next to the Boathouse Pillars. We strolled the dockyard for awhile, admiring the boats and doing a little shopping in one of the gift boutiques. We decided to drive Fig Tree and find OJ’s for lunch. Found the east end of Fig Tree drive without much trouble, but the first few miles of that road are in dreadful condition, but the road improves considerably in the more scenic section, which is the southern half of the drive. If I did it again, I would probably approach Fig Tree from the south and then turn around half way rather than drive the north end again. OJ’s was a very nice place for lunch, although at US$23 the lobster salad wasn’t worth the money. Our plan was then to get to Half Moon Bay, which is about as far away from where we were as you can get on Antigua. We needed gas, so instead of going back though Fig Tree, we went north as there was a gas station showing on the map. Shortly after filling up, we made our one bad turn, a right instead of a left, followed shortly by road construction and a detour that left us at a dead end on a dirt road in the center of Antigua. Asked twice for directions, and the second time this young fellow just grinned at us, and told us to follow him to the highway. Once there, we were fine however I would warn you not to take the “highway” past Potworks Dam. That might have been a highway in someone’s lifetime but it isn’t anymore. All the other roads in that end of the island are good, just avoid that one. We found Half Moon Bay, but only had time for about a half hour stroll on this beautiful beach. A few pictures and then back to Pineapple Beach. The rental rep met us there and we finished off the paperwork. They’d run out of forms for Antigua drivers licenses so that $20 was waived, took off a few more dollars because we’d put in $20 for gas, and ended up charging us a total of $60 for the days rental. Not bad but next time I’d rent for two days and spend a bit more time really seeing the island.
Resumé: In summary, we have to say that this was the best winter vacation that we’ve ever taken, with nearly ideal weather, terrific new friends, great food, and lots of snorkeling. The number of people that we saw wearing T-shirts with “We’re Repeaters” on the back, is a testament to the popularity of this place although we did hear repeaters telling us that it wasn’t as good as usual because of the high occupancy. Personally, there wasn’t much to complain about, although there were a few things cancelled apparently due to staff shortages.
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