Most visitors to Antigua come for the warmth, the sunshine, the aquamarine sea, and the Crayola-hued fish that dart around the coral reef.
Not us. We were hoping to enter an Antiguan realm that was dark, cool and guano-covered Bat Cave. Rumor has it that this cave system stretches all the way to the island of Guadalupe. Or was that merely an urban or island myth? Weve belly-crawled in caves from Bozeman to Belize, and are always up for exploring the musty mysteries of another cavern.
A little sleuthing revealed wed need a pass from the Antigua park service to enter Bat Cave, 24 hours before entry. And then they inquired about our identities: we were
university scientists, were we not? Um, nope. Buh-bye, Bat Cave.
I think the cave is crumbling inside, and isnt safe to visit, a local naturalist told us later. Whatever. We couldnt lure Miami Herald readers to a cave that wasnt open, even if we had managed to sweet-talk (or lie) our way in.
We quickly learned that Antigua has lots of other enchantments, besides the forbidden cave, for those of us who are too energetic to sit on a beach all day. You need to hook up with Eli Fuller, our charming hotelier at Sugar Ridge Resort, Annie McCauley, told us. He knows anything and everything about the outdoors here, she said. Hes a former Olympian, and he grew up on the island. Fuller runs eco-tours, and calls his company Adventure Antigua. Perfecto!
An all-day tour on Fullers 52-foot power catamaran reveals the glories of this West Indies isle that most visitors miss. Plus, there are opportunities to snorkel, swim, hike, and
enter a cave. Well, sort of.
With yacht captain Ross Bloomfield at the wheel, we motored out of Jolly Harbor, up the west coast of Antigua, past beaches accessible only by boat. They say that the island has 365 beaches, one for each day of the year after a day exploring the island, you wont doubt it.
Every beach on Antigua is public, Bloomfield said, indicating a designated nude beach near the Hawksbill hotel. We dont want to get too close, he added, the average age is 93 over there. Spoken like a true 20-something.
Overhead, brown boobies and frigate birds swirled; rising before us were velvety green hillocks dotted with stone sugar mills, among 80 or so of these that still stand, dating back to the 1700s and 1800s when the island was a major sugar producer. Nowadays, these are used as shops, even homes.
One of our most interesting stops was Great Bird Island, one of 40 offshore islands surrounding Antigua; all are national parks. We saw trees covered with nesting brown pelicans and a riot of red-billed tropic birds (thus the name), but another creature is the star attraction here: a sandy-colored, speckled snake called the Antigua Racer.
Theyre gentle and harmless, and theyre the rarest snake in the world, said Nicola Ross, a marine biologist who is part of the Adventure Antigua crew. There are only 310 of these snakes on the planet, Ross said; Great Bird Island is a sanctuary for them.
We hiked up a small hill, and were rewarded with lovely views of aqua water and tawny patches of reef and a splash, when a spotted eagle ray pirouetted into the water. If youre lucky, you can see humpback whales and bottlenose and spinner dolphins here in winter, Ross said. And if youre really
lucky, youll see one of these, she added, displaying an Antigua Racer shed discover on the trailside. Those who hadnt hiked scrambled off the boat to see this rare reptile. I think this snake is having a Justin Bieber moment, someone said as the cameras snapped.
OK, so that was kind of cool. We were starting to get over our disappointment at being shut out of Bat Cave. And we still had a couple of nice snorkeling stops ahead of us. But first: Hells Gate. One of three natural bridges around Antigua, this towering limestone archway was sculpted by wind and waves at a spot where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea. Getting to the gate may be the hell part, since its surrounded by reef and took some tricky maneuvering to reach. There was a small cave inside it, hooray.
The boat stopped a few yards from Hells Gate and we swam toward it, wearing water shoes. After navigating over the rock-filled shallows, we reached the giant limestone chunk. Pockmarked by wind and dotted with triton snails, Hells Gate resembled spiky lava rock up close.
Following guide Trevor Erskine, we climbed a short, rocky pathway, and crawled down into a small room with a cave pool. Rusty-red with algae blooms, the pool was full of rushing water, with a small opening that led to the sea. Was it big enough to
Oh, yes, Erskine said. Not on a day as windy as this, but on a calmer day, you can swim through it if youre a strong swimmer. The hard part is getting back on land any land. Pam and I shared a look that said, Well be back. A short walk outside the cave, onto a rocky ledge, revealed more stunning views of the island.
Later on, feeling tired but happy after a day spent outdoors, we ran into Eli Fuller. Surely hed been inside Bat Cave. So what had we missed? I dont know anything about it, other than it was only a tiny one compared to the wonderful caves on Barbuda, our sister island, Fuller said. I have explored many of them.
Barbuda! Yet another island to put on our list. Those wonderful caves wont explore themselves, you know.