Antiguans like to boast that they have 365 beaches -- one for each day of the year. And while no one counts to ensure the accuracy of this catchy marketing claim, the squiggly shaped island indeed is full of beachy gems, each with its own unique appeal.
Part of the West Indies, Antigua was first occupied by the peaceful Arawak Indians around 200 B.C. They stayed until the arrival of the Caribs, an Amazonian tribe, whose name was derived from the Spanish word "caribal," meaning "cannibal." Then, the island was known as Wadadli until 1493 when Columbus, who never made landfall, sailed by and named the island in honor of Maria de la Antigua, a saint he worshipped in Seville.
The English arrived in 1632, establishing sugar plantations and bringing African slaves; slavery was fully abolished in 1838. Great Britain held the island until 1981, when Antigua (pronounced "An-tee-gah") achieved independence.
The island was an important colonial base of the Royal Navy, with English Harbour serving as its headquarters. The remains of the navy's presence represent some of the most fascinating attractions -- a walk around historic Nelson's Dockyard and the grounds of Shirley Heights reveals remnants of a working Georgian-era harbor, old forts and officer's quarters, as well as a multitude of crumbling sugar mills from the days when sugar plantations ruled the island. In more recent years, English Harbour has become the capital of international yachting and sailing, and those activities are responsible for a surge in population during the winter months. The season opens in December with the Antigua Yacht Show and ends in May with Antigua Sailing Week, one of the largest annual regattas in the Caribbean.
Since gaining independence, Antigua has all but abandoned its agricultural heritage in favor of a tourist economy. The island can hold its own in the duty-free shopping category, but the real highlights lie well beyond the capital and port town of St. John's.
And if all those beaches aren't enough, Antigua's sister island, Barbuda, is accessible by ferry for day-trippers. The ferry drops you in the middle of 14 miles of unspoiled pink shell beaches -- including one that used to be a favorite of Princess Diana; it's now named in her honor.
Antigua owns an average high temperature of a pleasant 81 degrees, but it's a slightly less hospitable climate in the summer when the trade winds die down. Antiguans celebrate these slower summer months with the annual Carnival at the end of July and beginning of August. The island is susceptible to hurricanes and tropical storms, with a direct hurricane hitting about every seven years on average. The highest risk is in early September -- so there's little need to worry during peak cruising season. Bring your umbrella, though, because more than half of the days in November through February experience rainfall.