UK reggae stars UB40 find even hurricanes can’t destroy Antigua’s Caribbean vibe
Sat at a clifftop bar in Antigua with the sun on my shoulders, sharing a beer with band members Ali, Astro and Mickey Virtue, it was hard not to agree.
“This is a winter holiday, not skiing” Astro added. “Out here, you grab your Bermuda shorts, string vest and flip-flops, and that’s you for the day.”
The Brummie band — big fans of the Caribbean — were the obvious partners for Virgin Holidays when it came to getting the word out that the islands are open for business, despite taking a battering from Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria.
Frontman Ali explained: “These are hardy people. They’re used to getting back on their feet. It’s not like us and snow in England — they can whip the place back into shape in months.”
I was catching up with the band at The Outhouse, a ramshackle-chic bar and grill that’s part of the boutique Pineapple Beach Club resort.
The lads were there to shoot a new video for their 1998 hit Come Back Darling, which they will use to end the misconception that storm damage has made holidaying in the Caribbean impossible.
Most of the islands were barely affected by the recent storms and Antigua itself was largely unscathed.
For my part, I was there to be an extra in the video, swaying awkwardly in the crowd like a teen on Top Of The Pops.
Before the video shoot, the 100-odd guests, including Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, got into the party spirit with a support act of steel drums and plenty of rum punch.
I asked the band if they’d be serving any of their Red Red Wine. Don’t groan, the band really did launch their own UB40-branded cuvée last year.
Ali tells me: “It was a bit too pricey because of postage and packaging. We’re coming out with a more reasonably priced pinot noir for the spring, when we bring out our next album.”
As cameramen rushed about, we partied away and I positioned myself strategically behind Virgin’s ever-attractive cabin crew in the hope that if lenses pointed their way, I might end up in shot.
Filming done, we headed to Shirley Heights Lookout, a bar with views over the English Harbour, and UB40’s top island hangout.
The Lookout’s Sunday barbecue is an Antiguan institution. For the past three decades, local bands have got the crowds moving with mind-blowing sunsets as the backdrop.
We finished the night with a beach party at our awesome all-inclusive St James’s Club and Villas.
Located on a peninsula, there are sea views no matter what way you’re facing. The resort has six pools and four fantastic open-air restaurants, of which Piccolo Mondo, a fine-dining Italian, topped my list.
The next day, on a snorkelling trip aboard the resort’s own catamaran, I discovered it’s not just reggae stars who are into Antigua.
We passed the seafront homes of former Bond star Timothy Dalton and musician Eric Clapton, while Oprah also has a retreat on the island.
Cruising into English Harbour we passed Nelson’s Dockyard — named after the doomed hero of Trafalgar who spent three years here — then on to ogle the mega-yachts of Falmouth Harbour.
Captain Joseph wouldn’t let us raid the rum cabinet until we’d been snorkelling, so I was keen to get in the water.
Suspended in the warm sea, I could have nodded off watching the soothing mess of wildlife.
From a puffer peeking out behind rocks to tropical fish packed tight like scales on a neon dragon, it couldn’t have felt more Blue Planet if Attenborough had waterskied by in his cossie.
Later, I got a lot closer to the marine life than I intended on an excursion to cuddle stingrays.
Stingray City, a short speedboat ride from the north shore, is a shallow sand bank surrounded by coral reef where the huge creatures congregate.
The ghostly shadows cruise by you at speed, and if you’re brave enough to feed them a squid, turn into excited underwater hoovers, sucking at your hand . . . or worse.
Luckily, I managed to escape without any fishy hickeys and as the proud owner of a squinty portrait of myself, timidly hugging what looks like a big shiitake mushroom.
Despite its reputation for relaxation, Antigua’s hilly, terrain makes it a top location for hiking and there are various jungle trails leading to the island’s highest point, Boggy Peak.