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Sure, Antigua’s beaches and resorts are spectacular. But Gordon Bowness fell in love with the Caribbean country’s cool

Superette. What a wonderful word. A superlative married to a diminutive. On the east Caribbean island of Antigua, a superette is a small mom-and-pop grocery store. Antiguans love their diminutives: shackette, snackette… and superette. I can’t think of a better word to describe this little island with its outsized attitude.

On a recent whirlwind tour of this sunny nation, I was determined to get a handle on what comprises that unique Antigua attitude.

The country, a jagged network of coves and promontories, dramatic cliffs and pristine beaches, has been a prime destination for the well-heeled and well-travelled ever since the 1960s when it was one of the first islands in the region to turn from sugarcane production to tourism. Socialite Bunny Mellon was an early convert, welcoming the likes of Jackie O and Robert Kennedy to her secluded villa above Half Moon Bay (recently restored by the current owner, American fashion designer Tory Burch). Giorgio Armani still has a home here, as does Eric Clapton, Lord Sainsbury, Pierce Brosnan, Oprah… the list goes on.

Yet Antiguans—a tiny nation of about 80,000, built by slaves and their descendants—are famously blasé about their celebrity visitors. While having dinner at Trappas, a boisterous eatery popular with both locals and tourists in the town of English Harbour, I ask my host, Mauricia Frith of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, about her favourite celebrity sightings. She demurs. “Oh, no,” she says, waving her hand. “We don’t care about such things.” There is an intriguing nonchalance to Antiguans. They’ve seen it all. Most locals work in or support the tourist industry. They are very adept at handling the idiosyncrasies, if not the idiocies, of all manner of tourists. I call that sophistication, which is just an old-fashioned word for cool.

Fruit vendor in Cobbs Cross, Antigua

Antigua is one of the most popular wedding destinations in the Caribbean. Upon arrival in the airport, it’s common to see two or three grooms-to-be holding giant garment bags containing fluffy wedding dresses and veils. This presents a delightful irony. For on this island of love-ever-after, the most visited attraction is named after a cad, Horatio Nelson, English hero of the Napoleonic Wars.

“Maritime criminal” is the preferred term of Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid to describe Nelson, who was an ally of Caribbean slave owners and took a position against the abolitionist movement in Britain. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, an estimated four million were brought to the sugar islands of the Caribbean, though many died on the journey or soon after arrival.

Although Nelson can be seen primarily as a symbol of the global scale of British colonial aggression, he is a notable as a character specific to the history of Antigua. English Harbour is home to Nelson’s Dockyard, the world’s best-preserved Georgian-era dockyard. The UNESCO World Heritage site is still very much a working marina with a suite of 250-year-old stone buildings refurbished as boutique hotels and chic restaurants. At Pillars, housed in the former pitch and turpentine storehouse, you can order a Dark and Stormy (rum and ginger beer) under the watchful gaze of Nelson, whose portrait presides over the dark wood bar. From underneath the almond trees by the patio, I look out across the water to the recently restored Clarence House, a very pretty 18th-century cottage overlooking the harbour. It inspires dreams of great love. Kind of. It’s where Nelson likely fell in love with a married woman, Mary Moutray, wife of the harbour master when Nelson was stationed here in the 1780s. She would return to England and Nelson would marry a widow from the nearby island of Nevis, though that marriage didn’t end well either.

In matters of romance, a healthy dose of skepticism goes a long way. I find a kindred spirit while dining at Sugar Ridge Resort. Its special event restaurant, Carmichael’s, is one of the most romantic dining spots on the island, perched way up a hill above Jolly Harbour. Facing west, it catches the sun setting over the Caribbean as tree frogs begin their nightly serenade. When our dinner conversation turns to divorce, as it sometimes does, Sugar Ridge’s food and beverage manager sounds off. “We renew our car licence, we renew all kinds of licences,” says Alfredo Diedrick, “so why don’t we renew our wedding licences?” It’s a grown-up dose of realism in the land of young romance. While happy to host weddings, Diedrick finds greater satisfaction from hosting couples who choose to renew their vows at Carmichael’s. “Five years, 10 years in a relationship,” he says, “that’s something to celebrate.”

Throughout the trip, I was on the hunt for national dishes like saltfish and ducana (white sweet potato and coconut), fungee (cornmeal and okra dumpling) and pepperpot (salt beef, chopped vegetables and mine had pickled pig tail).

Commonly paired with ducana or fungee, saltfish is another mainstay in Antiguan cuisine that ignites your palate with salty, savory, and sweet tones.

“I hate making ducana,” says Frith over a plate of seasoned rice. “My mother insists I grate everything by hand. I can’t use a blender, I just can’t…. Our food takes a long, long time to make and a lot of finesse.”

That finesse is an essential component of Antigua’s history. These national dishes began as off-cuts and other foodstuffs the slave owners didn’t want, but were transformed through hard work and a few ingenious flavourings into something sustaining and delicious. They suggest the most crucial ingredient in Antigua’s bewitching attitude: resilience.

Sophistication, realism, hard work, resilience—that’s Antigua cool.

I love what ordinary Antiguans have built here. This is a beautiful island that has moved past its dark colonial history. Superette.

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