It was like the old days last weekend. An England cricket team annihilated by the West Indies in Barbados with a day to spare, the players looking a little shell-shocked, the thousands of English fans with an extra day to down their sorrows at Mullins Bar on Gibbes beach or on the Jolly Roger cruising up and down the west coast, the “pirates” forcing selected landlubbers who spilt their rum punch on deck to walk the plank…
And just as it used to in the Eighties, the tour has moved on to Antigua. Every Caribbean island has a different feel. If Barbados is the most glitzy and posturing with its fancy hotels and celebrity-owned homes and people claiming to be related to Rihanna, Trinidad is edgier (until you escape to Tobago anyway) and Grenada more chilled. The style of play on the field was roughly in keeping.
Back then, Antigua was unique on the cricket circuit. It was the party island. It looked unprepossessing as you flew in to land between abandoned quarries on the rather unkempt north coast. But you’d soon pass a rustic-looking rum shack with a few locals sitting outside playing dominoes. They’d slap the pieces down on the rickety wooden table with extravagant vigour, drain their drink and order another. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. They’d be still there when you passed by again at dusk, joined by a few others, gassing about the prospects for the Test match. “Richards’ gonna give you some licks!” they’d say when they heard your accent.
In Antigua you could party all day at the cricket match, and continue all night. The old Test match ground in St Johns thrummed to the sounds of Chickie’s famous disco, blasting out calypso tunes between overs as Gravy, the cross-dressing cricket fan, adopted all manner of hilarious poses on a raised platform. There was also the “iron band” parading around the ground playing all manner of “instruments” – metal pipes, cymbals, cow bells, drums, whistles, even car hub caps – in syncopated rhythm. It created a fantastic atmosphere and the players bought into it, swaying or jigging to the beat. It seemed to energise their game, too. It was a real celebration of cricket, which often went on long into the night at the ground itself or at various bars and night spots nearby. The major drawback was it was all so much fun you barely ever saw a boat or a beach – except on a skinny-dip dare late at night – and you needed another holiday to recover from it all.
The island has changed. It has grown up, leaving its teenage self behind. It is not a place to get plastered on rum punch after the cricket and soak it all up with a swordfish burger and chips, before staggering back to your modest hotel – glorified boarding house would actually be more accurate – feeling bloated and ill. Now there is still the fun side, but there are more restorative pursuits available too.
The drive to the south coast from the new Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in a Seventies Chevrolet (Antiguan taxis are a Hawaii Five-O throwback) took me along a narrow, winding road through sleepy Swetes village. I passed the house outside which the great fast bowler Sir Curtly Ambrose’s mother Millie used to ring a bell every time her son took a wicket for the West Indies (she had to ring it 630 times). I was hoping to find an impromptu match on one of the slightly unkempt club grounds, but no luck. Instead I hopped along the undulating Old Road, where the vegetation becomes noticeably lusher and dwellings more rudimentary.
I stopped at the Antigua Rainforest, a slightly elaborate name for a copse of tropical trees in a gorge. Nevertheless it’s a lively two-hour distraction, taking six zip wires and two suspension bridges, with spectacular glimpses of the coast from the wires stretched across the canopy.
Then I went to Carlisle Bay hotel for lunch and beach cricket. Carlisle Bay is like a chic holiday village built in homestead style, spaciously laid out around a secluded cove. It’s a world away from the bling of Barbados establishments or the old Antiguan tat. The beach is quiet, just a solitary Hobie Cat bobbing on the water. But the sand is too soft for cricket (you need the hard stuff covered with the gossamer of a receding wave to skim the ball across.) Instead I found a grassy area behind the Indigo restaurant to play on, the wicket a mature palm tree. A couple of gardeners on lunch break joined in and it was quite a focus of interest until the ball was accidentally hit under a table of guests lunching on octopus ceviche.
I took my new team-mates next door to the exclusive Curtain Bluff resort, where I was staying. It boasts beaches on two sides – one for surfing, one for swimming – as the hotel straddles a small peninsula. There’s a small sunbathing platform 98ft (30m) out to sea and we used that as a springboard for a display of diving catches (with an explosive wet finish) before sampling the buffet lunch in the beach restaurant enlivened by a live band.
Curtain Bluff is an old-school sort of place, frequented largely by wealthy Americans, many of whom had been returning annually for two decades and some of whom admitted they came for their regular fortnight and never left the premises. Given the range of sports and free activities on offer – especially the daily snorkelling and diving trips on the hotel’s own boat to a nearby reef stocked with tropical fish and the odd stingray – you could understand why. Many guests seem to know each other, which gives the place an especially sociable feel.
It’s a big mistake not to explore this quarter of the island, though. After taking off in a hotel kayak and finding the water beyond the bay a bit choppy, I retired to dry land and borrowed a hotel bike. A short ride along the coast connects you with the Antigua Beach Bar Trail (there’s a handy map at visitantiguabarbuda.com) and I started at Tranquility Bay with OJ’s, a ramshackle, two-tiered joint perched just above the water and stashed with the flotsam the waves washed up. Cocktails are good here, but the food is rather basic.
Just along at Love Beach is Jacqui O’s – a beach bar with slightly more sophisticated cuisine (the England team doctor was eating there so it must have been OK), but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Well they tolerated me stumbling in straight from the sea, anyway. I sat barefoot at a table and wolfed down a superb and beautifully presented crab salad and lobster ravioli, and then dozed off in one of their cabanas on the beach.
Of course everyone wants to know where Antigua’s most famous son, Sir Vivian Richards – nominated as one of the five greatest cricketers of the 20th century – hangs out. That’s BeachLimerz on the north-west coast close to the forgettable main town of St John’s. It was in a small playground behind the Richards’ modest home in the town where the “Master Blaster” learnt his signature leg side shots. “If I hit the [tennis] ball over the wall to the right – the offside – it was six and out,” he said. “There was a grumpy fisherman living there and he never threw the ball back from outta his back yard. But if I hit the ball over the fence to the left it hit the side of that building and bounced back. So it was six and still in!”
Viv was busy for lunch so I headed off to BeachLimerz with his brother Mervyn. BeachLimerz is a low-slung bar set at the edge of a scruffy beach road near the port. Barry and Gail, the couple who own it, welcomed Mervyn as family: cocktails were on the house. They were prepared to rustle up any drink I could think of (I recommend the Dark ’n’ Stormy) and after giving us a taste of the daily special – redbean pigtail soup – they produced a towering quadruple-decker burger (they should call it an Ambrose special) which took us most of the afternoon to devour. As the sun began to set I was hoping the locals would turn out for a beach game.
“No, they rarely cricket here any more,” Mervyn said. “People are more interested in just liming.” Liming is the Caribbean expression for hanging about chatting, and BeachLimerz is a great spot to do so as the sun sets to the strains of a steel band.
The Test cricket ground, named after Richards, is the island’s one disappointment. It is in a fairly inaccessible, windswept area, mainly open plan, with what looks like an airport terminal at each end. No wonder the Antiguan public don’t come. The cricket-themed party has shifted to Shirley Heights, a former military lookout on a cliff above English harbour in the south. It’s a bar and live music venue where, if you time it right, you can see Spirited perform. This band features the great Ambrose on bass and former West Indies captain (now match referee) Sir Richie Richardson on rhythm guitar. It’s compelling to watch someone of 6ft 8in making a bass guitar look like a ukulele.
Spirited play a mixture of reggae, soca, calypso and R’n’B – and have a habit of beckoning people up on stage for dancing competitions. The sad reality is, of course, that even if we English generally compete better than we used to with West Indians on the cricket field, the one thing we will never beat them at is dancing.
Simon Hughes is editor of The Cricketer magazine and commentates for BBC. He was a guest at Curtain Bluff (0800 051 8956; curtainbluff.com), Antigua, which has double Deluxe rooms from £689, all-inclusive.