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Sailing the Caribbean With Silver Spirit - A Visit to St. John, Antigua

December 4, 2011 By: Susan Young

Exploring Maritime History and Nelson's Dockyard


St. John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda, is dominated by the towers of St. John's Cathedral. // All photos by Susan J. Young.

One of the joys of luxury travel is putting out a room service hang tag on your suite door knob as you retire for the evening. Presto, the next morning at the appointed hour, your hot breakfast, fresh fruit and piping hot coffee arrives -- served by your private butler!

Sailing on a recent Silversea Silver Spirit cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Barbados, I relaxed and worked on the computer early at daybreak as our butler Preyish arrived to unfurl a linen tablecloth and set up our dining room table.

In moments, we were chowing down on scrambled eggs, bacon, fresh mango and melon, wheat toast, and freshly squeezed juice and coffee. We splurged by ordering the chocolate croissants, so decadent but, hey, I just couldn't resist.

Another touch of luxury? Silversea took great care at following specific guest instructions for cooking, such as "extra crispy" bacon or scrambled eggs "well done."

Dining en suite on Silversea also makes breakfast just a bit more civilized -- as you dine blissfully alone in your jammies and view the incredible island scenery outside, rather than dress quickly to traipse to a public dining room and back, or wade through a buffet line of other guests.

It's also a bit of a time saver. While the butler was unveiling our meal, we did our hair, prepped our camera, picked out clothes to wear for the day, and started packing our bag for the day ashore. 


Shopping area at Antigua's cruise pier

Antigua Overview

Silver Spirit docked at a modern, 900-foot-long pier at St. John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda. It can accommodate four cruise ships, but only Silver Spirit was in port during our visit.

Christopher Columbus sailed by Antigua, so naming it in 1493. Antigua and its neighboring island, Barbuda, became an independent nation within the British Commonwealth in 1981.

Peering out from our suite balcony on the starboard side, it was impossible to miss the massive, baroque St. John’s Cathedral, towering over the city. 
Originally built in 1845, this church is a third incarnation; earthquakes in 1683 and in 1745 destroyed the earlier structures.
Shoppers who don’t wish to take an organized tour have close choices for browsing and buying. Adjacent to the cruise pier is the Heritage Quay shopping area, and nearby is Redcliffe Quay, which was also once was a slave compound. Both are brimming with shops and restaurants.

For this sixth day on Silver Spirit, though, we'd booked a half-day tour, Silversea’s “Antigua Overview” shore trip. Costing $59, this around-island historical tour is designed for cruise guests seeking a hefty dose of maritime history.
The hero of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson arrived with his British fleet in the 17th century. As a result of the maritime power he brought to bear, Antigua was one of the few Caribbean islands never to be tossed back and forth politically between rival European powers.
Thus it seemed fitting to explore the centuries-old British military fortifications and maritime-focused sites. So, we headed for the gangway, picked up two bottles of complimentary bottled water and off we went.
As I wheeled my mother in her transport wheelchair to the pier’s end, we met the shore excursion tour operator, who quickly whisked us ahead of the group to the waiting mini-coach in a nearby parking area.

Guide in touring vehicle displays the flag of Antigua and Barbuda

Our guide, Danna, was out in front, assuring that we’d get to the coach and board, before the rest of the group was escorted onboard. The ground operator was exceptionally good with handicapped passengers, also taking a 98-year-old man and his caregivers to a separate mini-coach.
From the outset, Danna was something special. A cut above as a tour guide, she joked, she laughed, she engaged everyone in the coach in conversation, and she taught everyone facts, figures and stories about her country.
And she promised "a quiz" at the end, in between the mix of information and humor. If Antigua is looking for a tourism ambassador, Danna is it.
It's worth noting that Silversea guests are highly experienced travelers. Most have taken dozens -- if not hundreds -- of tours all over the world. Later in our cruise, one Silversea guest discussed her shore experiences with me, noting "That tour guide in Antigua was the absolute best guide I've ever had.” And, I’d have to agree.
As Danna talked, our coach headed out along the mahogany-lined Independence Avenue on a 35-minute drive to the south of the island.
Along the way, we viewed an old sugar mill and Danna pointed out the ruins of an old windmill. Hundreds of windmills once dotted the island to power sugar cane production. 


Dow's Hill Interpretive Center

Dow's Hill and Shirley Heights

As the coach climbed up a mountainous area, the views were spectacular. Our first stop was the Dow’s Hill Interpretive Center, where we entered for a 15-minute audio/visual show.
Entitled “Reflections of the Sun,” this is a sound-and-light diorama. It introduces visitors to the history of Antigua – from native Arawaks and Caribs, to the European era, to rum and sugar cane and slavery, to emancipation, prosperity and modern times.
As the theater's small stools swivel, guests just turn to follow the lights which focus on various vignettes around the room.
Next, cruisers on our tour explored the site's military battlements and snapped photos of panoramic views from the hilltop location. On a clear day, the volcanic island of Montserrat is often visible 27 miles away.
Leaving the visitor’s center, a short drive took us to Shirley Heights and additional military structures. The entire area was named for Sir Thomas Shirley, the governor who fortified the harbor in 1787.
During this era, it's surprising but the reality is that Antigua and Barbados were the only West Indian colonies that still belonged to Great Britain.
We first stopped at a former British Navy look-out point and perused a ruined blockhouse. The island needed look-outs as Antigua once was a favorite port of marauding pirates.

Lookout Bar & Grill

The mini-coach then continued onto the Lookout Bar and Grill at Shirley Heights, about 500 feet above the harbor below. Tour goers quickly walked through the bar to the creme-de-la-creme of viewing points.
This spot is where you almost hold your breath, given the stunning scenery. Our group seemingly just couldn't take enough photos of English and Falmouth Harbors and the surrounded green hills. Everyone jockeyed for position to get the best shots.  
Interestingly, for more than 25 years, Shirley Heights has been a party place every Sunday evening for locals and tourists alike. Danna quipped that you'll usually find Antiguans in church every Sunday but you'll also find them here that same evening -- enjoying savory barbecue, drinks and live steel drum and reggae music.
If your luxury clients enjoy the gorgeous harbor views from Shirley Heights, they may wish to return with their own yacht or a yacht rental in a future year. English Harbor is a magnet for international yachting and sailing enthusiasts.
In winter, the population might surge by 35,000 on the island simply because of the large numbers of yacht visitors, the Antigua Yacht Show in December and Antigua Sailing Week, the Caribbean’s largest annual regatta, in May. 


Guides lead the way into historic Nelson's Dockyard area

Nelson's Dockyard

Leaving Shirley Heights, our coach motored down from the mountainside to Nelson’s Dockyard National Park (, home to the world’s last remaining Georgian-era dockyard still in use today. The English naval base here at English Harbor was built between 1725 and 1746.
Only 26 years old, Nelson captained the HMS Boreas, when he served as head of the British fleet in the Leeward Islands fleet from 1784 until 1787. While tourists today flock to Antigua, Nelson reportedly spent nearly all his time within his ship’s cramped quarters, as he didn’t much care for the climate.
Eventually, the British maritime complex at English Harbor was closed and abandoned by the British Navy, which sailed away in 1889. Over the decades, the area fell into decay.
Finally, in the 1950s, the Society of Friends of English Harbor began restoration work. In 1961, the site was opened to the public, named Nelson’s Dockyard National Park, and today it's a prime tourism attraction.
What appeals? Silversea guests on our tour said they enjoyed strolling around a picturesque collection of restored Georgian structures, some now housing restaurants, bars and shops, but were most intrigued that the dockyard still functions as a working yacht port.
As a result, Antigua Customs and Immigration occupies one historic structure, signs point to showers and laundry facilities for boaters, a historic inn and restaurants are on site, and high-priced yachts moor alongside the dock.
Yet, the past survives in old anchors, cannons and the historical aura of this dockyard. Past and present meld in many ways; a bakery is still housed in the building that served as the dockyard's bakery in Nelson's time.
More fun at Nelson’s Dockyard? Dockyard Pottery is a good place to buy local pottery and souvenirs. All guests on our Silversea tour received a coupon for a rum punch, so we headed inside the Copper and Lumber Store Hotel pub; it's a rustic place and the rum drink packs a punch.
If you take a cab and independently explore the Dockyard, you’ll pay a $7 entrance fee that includes the Dow’s Hill Interpretive Center, Shirley Heights and Nelson’s Dockyard. The entry is included within the tour price for those on shore trips.
Our tour didn’t really offer time to peruse the artifacts at the Dockyard Museum, but agents might suggest clients touring independently check out to see what's offered, and learn more about the dockyard's history. 


Museum at Nelson's Dockyard, with cannons as a remembrance of the British maritime past

Back to St. John's

During the mini-coach ride back to St. John's, Danna, our guide, sang the Antigua and Barbuda National Anthem, showed us the flag and explained what the colors meant. Then, she gave the promised, and highly anticipated, "quiz” -- asking questions based on her commentary earlier in the tour.
The gentleman in front of me answered correctly that Antigua has 365 beaches, one for each day of the year. He was rewarded with a small bottle of rum.
Next question was, "What does the blue in the flag symbolize?" Amazingly, I correctly answered "hope" and won. I chuckled as Danna handed me a small bottle and I read the label, which bore my name, Susie’s Hot Sauce. A third lucky traveler won a bottle of local beer.
As we disembarked the mini-coach, we said goodbye to Danna. I was happy to see she was collecting big tips, by the way, not just one-dollar bills, but fives, tens and even a few 20s, clearly reflective of the high quality of her commentary and care for guests.
We strolled through the shopping area adjacent to the cruise port. Here your clients might buy anything from Colombian emeralds to Antiguan foods, from handicrafts to tacky tee-shirts.
U.S. dollars are widely accepted throughout the island; however, change is generally given in Eastern Caribbean dollars. 


Cruisers who opt to forego an organized shore trip, might just go ashore and shop near the cruise pier.

More Shore Options

While we headed out in search of history on this day ashore in Antigua, other Silversea guests in search of high flying views booked “Flight in Paradise,” a three-hour tour that included a 30-minute helicopter ride; it was priced at $239.
Some guests selected the "Kayak and Snorkel Eco-Adventure,” priced at $79 per person. "A Landscape and Seascape Cultural Tour of Antigua by Segway" was $109 per person.
While we didn’t need a fully accessible vehicle, Silversea fielded “Accessible Antigua," a half-day tour for those with mobility issues; it was priced at $99 per person and included visits to Dow’s Hill and Nelson’s Dockyard.
Silversea says this accessible tour requires four guests to operate and visitors are transported in a special needs vehicle that accommodates three seated guests and one guest able to transfer from a wheelchair to a special lift seat.
For those wanting the very best, Silversea also created the "Exclusive Yacht & Lobster Lunch," a six-hour Silver Collection option priced at $1,499; the price is for a pampering private yacht experience for up to four guests onboard a 47-foot sailing ketch.
However, the yacht is capable of accommodating eight people. So, the guest who purchases the experience can add up to four more guests onboard for $289 per person. Once booked, this excursion becomes nonrefundable two weeks prior to the start of the client's voyage.
The captain and first mate handle the sailing duties although guests may take a turn at the helm. Guests enjoy a magnificent sailing vessel all to themselves, go snorkeling in intimate coves, possibly view dolphins or whales, and listen to seafaring stories.
The vessel sails to Turner's Bay for an island-style lunch with lobster and cold drinks. Guests then have time to swim or sun on the beach before returning to the yacht. They sip on chilled champagne onboard as the ketch sails back to the cruise ship pier.


Guests might take fitness classes here onboard Silversea's Silver Spirit.

Staying Onboard

Not all guests want to go ashore, though. Experienced travelers, particularly if they've visited a port repeatedly in the past, often want to just relax onboard. On our Silver Spirit cruise, these guests often booked a shore treatment.
One Silversea port day option is Aromaflex, a 25-minute back, neck and shoulders massage, followed by a 25-minute foot reflexology session. The combination treatment is priced at $129 per person.
For those in search of "Beautiful Hands and Toes," Silversea offers a traditional pedicure, stimulating exfoliation and conditioning skin treatment, along with a foot and ankle massage. The cost is $109 per person.
Silversea also fields many fitness classes onboard in its exercise facility. Guests on our cruise had a mix of Pilates, yoga, circuit training or aerobics available to them.
Or, guests wanting to burn calories on their own could simply head for the exercise room with its state-of-the art machines and weights.
The Silver Spirit sailed from St. John’s at sunset, heading in the Caribbean en route to St. Lucia. At The Restaurant, the main dining room, we were warmly welcomed and escorted to our table by wait staff.
At dinner, we tried to not over-indulge -- but usually fell short of our goal. It's hard to find restraint with multiple yummy courses and desserts that entice.

Sweet Dreams

After a long day, we retired early. Upon arrival in their Silversea suite on the day of embarkation, guests learn that their bed is set up with soft sleeping pillows that are 25 percent down and 75 percent feather.
This is the standard pillow, but our butler informed us we could select other types of pillows. Since we loved these pillows, we kept them.
Clients who wish another type of pillow should read the small "Pillow Butler" pamphlet on the nightstand next to the bed. It describes what's available and then clients push a button on the phone to talk to their personal butler and order a preferred pillow.

Guests can choose from a variety of pillow types.

For example, a Prominent Pillow is a medium-firm sleeping pillow with 30 percent down, and 70 percent feather stuffing. In contrast, a Memory Foam Pillow confirms to the guest's unique sleeping shape.
The Buckwheat Pillow reportedly relieves body aches or pains, sleeplessness and snoring. A Body Pillow adds extra fluff and puff to one's sleep and gives clients a full-body hug, of sorts, from head to toe.
One neat perk? Silversea's Tiara Collection pillow covers in 300 thread count cotton or 100 percent silk charmeuse have hidden pockets for scent sachets such as chamomile or lavender.
The beds onboard Silver Spirit have another nifty feature. They can be flipped by the steward, as one side is for guests who like a firm mattress, the other side pampers those wanting a softer sleeping experience.
Stay tuned to next Monday for our newest installment of this series. It focuses on an aerial tram adventure through the lush rainforest of northern St. Lucia.


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About the Author

Susan Young
A veteran of 100-plus cruises, Susan J. Young, is senior contributing editor for cruises – covering ocean, river and niche cruises for Travel Agent and

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By Susan Young | December 4, 2011
Six days into a luxury cruise onboard Silversea's Silver Spirit, Travel Agent sailed to the city of St. John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda. While some cruisers shopped in the areas around the pier, others headed out on Silversea shore trips that ranged from a Segway tour to an exclusive Silver Collection lobster and jazz outing, we set out to explore Antigua's maritime history at Shirley Heights and Nelson's Dockyard.
Filed under : ocean cruises