Having past the mid-point of our Caribbean cruise, we were already liking the way the holiday trip was progressing. There was simply not much of a hassle, not much thoughts on where to go, where to eat and where to sleep as this was pretty much taken care by the cruise. There was even enough time to catch forty winks whilst on board after the island visits, making it really relaxing unlike other sort of trips that we were used to.
Antigua was the port of call for the day and similarly, we weren’t prepared on what to expect for this trip. Read up the “Lonely Planet” and decided on getting to Nelson’s Dockyard and Shirley Heights for the views and maybe visit Stingray City for interactions with the feared infamous killer of Steve Irwin. There were tours available but if we had decided to go with the tour, it would have been consequently 3 days that we were with the cruise tour and it would become a little straining on our budget (after all, tours were a little more expensives since they guaranteed that the cruise would wait for you if the tours were delayed, unlike in self arranged tours where you would be left behind).
So we decided to take the plunge and explore Antigua on our own. After breakfast, we disembarked quickly and went to nearest Hertz to get a car. Taking a taxi would be difficult because attractions were pretty far apart and that would really cost us if we booked the whole day. Getting a car gave us flexibility of timing. We weren’t sure of the driving conditions but heck, they wasn’t much time to decide. We checked with the information counter near the pier and she brought us through alley to a sheltered location on the outside of a building and asked us to wait as the Hertz personnel hasn’t arrived for work. It sounded dubious but since it was from the information counter that was commissioned by the tourism board of Antigua, we didn’t really get overly suspicious. Sure enough she arrived after a while and set up a little table to get the paper work done. I would have thought that there would be a fixed company space for such a big company such as Hertz and would never imagine settling the paper work and the credit card payment on a makeshift office table and a portable card swiping machine. But if it meant getting the car early, it didn’t really matter. After filling up the forms, we were brought to our car and that was just parked around the corner. Requested for GPS but there wasn’t one around and thus we depended on general map and common sense to get us around.
First stop for us was Nelson’s Dockyard, located some 40mins away, at the southern eastern side of the island. Since the driver sits on the right hand side, the same as Singapore, it was just 2nd nature for me. We studied the map for quite a bit to ensure that we exit at the right exit, if not that the impact from detours could be quite catastrophic. Since Nelson’s Dockyard was at the end of the highway, it would be quite easy if we made it to the highway.
On arrival, there was parking readily available. We proceeded into the dockyard after purchase of tickets and explored abit. It was an area previously used by the navy and there were barracks styled buildings now converted to cafes and museums to explore. It reminded me of Dempsey Hill except that this was a dockyard and there was a sense of quietness about the place that made it so relaxing. Visited the museum and walked around abit before we headed out for our drive to Shirley Heights.
Without the GPS, it was a little difficult to get to Shirley Heights as there were big road signs to point us towards it. Had to stop a few times ask people along the way and the streets were busy especially at the town near Nelson’s Dockyard. After wandering around, we somehow managed to find the road that brought us uphill towards the top of Shirley Heights, and it was a good thing that we didn’t give up because the view was exceptional.
We spent quite a bit of time at Shirley Heights as there were a few vantage points to go to. We were suckers for seaside views and the cool wind with the beautiful weather made it all the more endearing. Antigua was starting to turn out as a nice surprise for us since we weren’t certain if it was just like any islands.
We knew that we can’t stay there forever as there was one more activity in our list, Stingray City. It was located north of our location and looked like another 40 mins away. From Shirley Heights, it was not difficult to get back to the main highway since there was just a single road down. It actually started to drizzle while on the way there, typical of the tropical weather but that ended as soon as it started.
Getting to Stingray City was pretty easy as there were already signboards on the road along the way. There was a private parking place for guests and that took off some of the concerns of leaving the car unattended.
Went straight to the registration area to register and we had to wait for the next slot which was about 2pm (can’t remember so better call and asked if you intend to go). Since it was about an hour for the whole activity, we would still make the ship departure. Signed up and waited at the bench for further instructions when nearer to the time.
The staff first divided hordes of passengers into 2 big groups, one that were from the cruise and the others as independent travelers. Obviously the cruise group was much bigger and we were lucky that we didn’t end up in that group. Then our group was further split into subgroups to get the gears and the life jackets. Before boarding the boats, there was a elaborate briefing on the dos and don’ts and we were then ushered onto boats and we were went straight into the open seas.
Some 10 mins later the boat slowed down and we see people getting onto a floating platform that was somehow blended with the hues of the seas. Then people started to get into the seas and they were all standing up and the water was only up to waist level. Amusing to see something like that in the middle of the ocean. But what’s to come was even more amazing. Like a the B52 stealth bombers closing in on their targets, these gentle winged creatures came from everywhere to the barricaded area where the humans were standing. Just like what the staff previously explained, they were all like pet dogs, you could pet them as they swam by. The large female dwarfed the male ones but all behaved the same. Time to snorkel and watch them underwater!
Each staff accompanied their subgroups and tried to give an introduction of the stingrays and also informed that we could pet them, feed them and carry them. But you have to “warm them up” before carrying them. It was like trying to gain their trust first.
I took some feed from the staff (small fish) and try to place it under and incoming stingray, since the mouth was on the underside. Then I felt the vacuum as the fish was sucked out from my hand. Nice! But then the worrying thing happened, the stingray didn’t stop coming forward and seemed to go straight towards me. There were instances where the stingray actually ended up sucking on the body of another guest and I thought I was going to get that too. Fortunately, it changed direction after pushing me a bit.
As staff were carrying stingrays and there was one that actually flip it up a bit to reveals its teeth. Then I wanted to carry too so I approached one of the staff (who already had a stingray) to teach me how to do it. Took a little time for warming up and some amount of courage and the rest was all history (as seen from the sequence of photos below).
Good times were short and soon we were getting off the water and back in the boat and on the way back to shore. Took a quick shower at the toilet and went to the shop to check what the people had on offer. There was also dvd with photos of myself which I thought was pretty good and so we bought it. Were contemplating on the stingray soft toy but didn’t get it in the end, partly because it wasn’t cheap and also we didn’t have a place at home for it. There were a couple of caged animals in the area which we saw and then we left afterwards back towards the pier.
When we reached the pier and back to the same car park where we picked up the car, I had to call the same woman who had handed us the keys but she didn’t pick up. I then went back to the same information counter and they had helped me to call her. We finally handed over the car and went around the shops to look around. Went to one of the food stall to get some small food (as we hadn’t had lunch) and when back to the cruise after that since there weren’t much time left.
The trip to Antigua was awesome since it was really unexpected and we wished we had more time to savor the beautiful views. We shared our experience with our dinner companions and they also felt the same although they did different activities. Back in the cabin, we were greet with a cute evil creature.