Papa Zouk’s is the fairy light-strewn location of my re-education.
“This part is the sweetest,” says my host, Francine, as she rips a delicate morsel of flesh from the top of the head of her whole red-snapper. She laughs as I follow suit by tearing a white nugget, skin and all, from its crown as my pan-fried fishy friend stares back at me.
“You’ve got it. See, isn’t that delicious?” she says encouragingly.
I’m quick to tell Francine that devouring parts of fried fish heads is not even the most remarkable sea-life encounter of my day. That honour would have to go to manhandling wild stingrays earlier that afternoon.
The Ohioans I day-tripped with described the swarm of stingrays descending on us, encouraged by a meal of baby squid, as like “being rubbed in buttered mushrooms”. I didn’t question their vegetable bathing preferences; but the comparison was accurate.
The burble of idling boat engines is a dinner bell to the wild rays, and they glide in from the Atlantic to our shallow sand bank. I became momentarily rigid with every button-mushroom ray that brushed by. Underwater though, watching these alien-eyed black discs move became strangely therapeutic. While smaller blots of colour darted around the reef, the rays carved through the shallows with a hypnotic, undulating wave of the fins. Still, it was impossible to ignore their barbed tails when giving the friendliest ones a hug.
“Yuck, no. I could never jump in with them,” grimaces Francine, who clearly prefers the sea-life on her plate.
Papa Zouk fish and rum bar in Antigua’s capital St John has the hum of an establishment in its prime, not a next-door neighbour of a would-be shelter in the just-finished hurricane season. But the owner reflected on her own disaster relief effort as she delivered my rum punch, and I complimented her on the cool décor.
“This whole place burnt to the ground less than two years ago – everything gone. We were rebuilt by 2016 so I’m just glad we’re back.”
Anybody I asked about this last hurricane season agreed it was the most ferocious in living memory, but nobody doubted the resolve of the Caribbean islands to rebound eventually. “Give Barbuda until next Christmas to really pick itself up”.
Street-art decked walls, tempting shelves of boutique local rums, an unhappy march of rejected clientele without bookings. It’s a far cry from the scenes of devestation in the Caribbean I had feared encountering after the relentless march of Hurricanes Jose, Irma and Maria just a couple of a months ago. Hints of a brass band at the neighbouring school float in on the warm breeze, but Francine says they are practicing for an upcoming independence day parade, rather than a relief concert.
“Antigua is open for business,” announces the country’s tourism minister Henry Fernandez within seconds of us shaking hands over (yet another) rum punch at Blue Waters resort.
Driving around the island’s interior there was little clue of the headlines of a wind-pummelled Caribbean, save for a couple of upturned sheets of corrugated iron on a roof and some boarded up windows on faded pastel facades. “We were very lucky,” became a motto I heard repeatedly. The same cannot be said of the sister island Barbuda and its pink-hued beaches. Irma decimated it. Close to 90 per cent of all structures were damaged or destroyed and the entire population of 1,800 became climate change refugees in Antigua.
A boat returns to the island daily to attempt to reconnect water and electricity during daylight hours, so villagers can rebuild. The minister admits that some may not return. Anybody I asked about this last hurricane season agreed it was the most ferocious in living memory, but nobody doubted the resolve of the Caribbean islands to rebound eventually. “Give Barbuda until next Christmas to really pick itself up”.
Antigua’s collection of all-inclusive resorts encourages lounging around, where the only exercise is shimmying up to the poolside bars. The staff at Carlisle Bay and Blue Waters resorts made sure I didn’t even have to do that often. After one too many rum punches, goat curries and fried fish heads it was time to break a sweat. But why dawdle on a resort gym treadmill when you can stumble and stride in the Antiguan rainforest?
Dressed in a hideously bright pink t-shirt and roused by an ungodly wake-up call at 5:30am I was ready to join the Wadadli Trail Blazers. The company takes my mind off my screaming hamstrings as we trudge up the moss-covered steps towards signal point. I’m not the only one with problematic muscles, it seems, as Antiguan comedy duo and group ring-leaders Jason and Jamie critique each other’s physiques. Loudly.
We sailed past Eric Clapton’s hilltop mansion and, with my hands on the wheel, I steered our vessel to the volcanic silhouette of Montserrat on the horizon.
They crow-call to each other at either end of our plodding group: beauty pageant girls-in-training, forty-something local ladies who were out celebrating a birthday until only a couple of hours ago, and me. Emerging from the cutty-grass our views across the virgin rainforest on the south side of the island were broken only by the glint of reflected sunlight of my room at Carlisle Bay. The summit photoshoot with a dozen smartphones showed that even born-and-bred locals don’t tire of this green corner of the world.
On the glass-pane shallows of Falmouth Harbours aboard the mono-hulled Athena, it was even harder to imagine the storm surges and howling winds that had battered these parts. I was joining OnBoard Sailing’s Sadique and Jahfiec as their rather second-rate first mate for a lunchtime lesson.
“Lesson” might be a bit of a stretch – similar to when a parent lets their child “help” mow the lawn or “cook” dinner. But hey. I still learned to yell “ready for tack” and “jibe”. At the very least Sadique’s motto that “a flappy sail is an unhappy sail” was an easy nautical motto to live by.
We sailed past Eric Clapton’s hilltop mansion and, with my hands on the wheel, I steered our vessel to the volcanic silhouette of Montserrat on the horizon. The white caps grew plentiful on the open Atlantic and our boat was battered around like a toy duck in a bath. My host disappeared below deck for quite some time, although I didn’t hear her being sea-sick, so still maintain I was doing an alright job.
A smile remained plastered on Sadique’s face and he commanded me to go for a tack, despite our crew member’s apparent discomfort. My sea legs were out of shape but exploring Antigua’s many bays and beaches by boat was worth the occasional bumbling nautical miscalculation. It certainly built an appetite for my next fried fish head supper.