The road to Rendezvous Bay on Antigua's south shore is not for the faint-hearted.
Just over two kilometres long, it winds up and over one of the tallest coastal hills on this gem of an island in the eastern Caribbean. At some points, it is little more than a goat path strewn with boulders and half-metre crevasses deep enough to swallow a small car. At others, it is not a road at all - just a rock face sloping toward the Caribbean Sea.
But my husband had talked often about making the trip on foot about 20 years ago, expounding on the beauty and seclusion that waited at the end of an arduous trek. And we had rented a four-wheel drive for the express purpose of getting to places that others would not see.
So over the hill we went, stopping often while I climbed out to plot the best route over an especially tricky patch of ground.
Two hours later, we were on a half-kilometre of white, windswept sand caressed by azure waters - a beach so pristine that our footsteps were the only visible evidence of humans having spent time there.
It was not the only beach we had to ourselves during the 11 days we spent in Antigua. There were many moments when we could have doffed our clothes without fear of locals or other tourists stumbling across our path. But the hours we spent playing in the breakers, letting the waves toss us out to sea then back to shore were confirmation that we had planned this trip to the West Indies exactly right.
My husband and I are veterans of all-inclusive vacations. They are wonderful places if you don't want to plan meals or do much more than relax on a beach or poolside. But there is no way of knowing exactly what you are getting until you arrive. And, at many, you spend your days cheek by jowl with other guests, fighting for lounge chairs and lining up for reservations for dinner.
This vacation was a 50th-birthday gift to ourselves and we decided to do something different.
So we bought return flights to Antigua, booked a Jeep, packed light and reserved a hotel for the first three nights. The remaining time would be spent wherever the wind took us. In the end, we agreed we would never do it any other way.
We stayed in four different hotels and resorts, choosing according to what we wanted to do the following day.
We spent our time travelling roads with fabulous ocean vistas, grabbing lunch at uncrowded beach restaurants, and soaking in the sun on huge swaths of sand with no one else in sight.
Our first accommodation - the one we booked by Internet from Canada - was at Dickenson Bay Cottages. This was a clean, well-appointed, two-storey villa complete with a full kitchen that provided a great home base for exploring. But there was no view and the heavily populated beach was a challenging hike down a steep hill.
The next two nights were spent on the opposite corner of the island, at English Harbour where, more than 200 years ago, Admiral Horatio Nelson sheltered and repaired his fleet. We found the Copper and Lumber Store Hotel as we were wandering around Nelson's Dockyard. It is an amazing building, built in 1789 from bricks that were used as ships' ballast. The large rooms have been exquisitely restored with broad ceiling beams, copper fixtures and heavily varnished wood floors. The knowledgeable staff included the uber-friendly Lawrence and Eloise, who sat down with us and offered tips about Antiguan sites not to be missed.
Our next stop was Sugar Ridge, a resort overlooking Jolly Harbour with a fabulous pool bar set high on the hillside. We had noticed it as we drove down the west coast. The balcony of our room had its own plunge pool, where we cooled off after hot days of exploring. But this was the most expensive accommodation of our trip - the three nights at Sugar Ridge cost as much as the other seven nights combined - and, although breakfast was included, we didn't think the extra expense was worth the cash. (The rates online are now less than half the $400 per night that we paid, an amount that was advertised as a sale price at the time.)
Finally, we returned to Dickenson Bay, but this time we stayed at the Trade Winds Hotel, with an expansive view of the turquoise Caribbean. We found it online and scouted out the property on one of our excursions. The Trade Winds was an excellent choice in every respect, from the food, to the service, to the spacious and comfortable room. But the view from our balcony was best.
Throughout our adventure, our newly acquired iPad made the trip easier. We used it to plot the next day's outings, to play music during the late afternoons on our balcony, to catch up with the news back home over coffee in the morning, and to scout accommodation. At one resort, we ended up booking a room from the iPad in the lobby because the staff at the front desk could not match the online price offered by one of the major Internet travel agencies. We were also astounded at the places where free Wi-Fi was available, including the tiny beach bars - and the beaches surrounding them.
One day we spent duty-free shopping in St. John's, glad that we were not part of the crowd getting off the mammoth cruise ship docked at Heritage Quay. One day we explored the national park in the hills surrounding Nelson's Dockyard. One day we sought out a tiny rasta bar, off the beaten track, where we were the only paying guests.
And one day we got completely lost in the island's lush interior as we followed what the map said was a road but which turned out to be little more than a dirt track through banana plantations. Laughing at ourselves, we somehow got our little truck turned around on a trail just large enough for one set of tires and worked our way out of a mud pit while local farmers in dreadlocks looked at us shaking their heads.
The food at local restaurants was wonderful, and lobster is offered everywhere for about $20 a plate. An excellent selection of imported wine can be bought at the island's spacious grocery stores, where prices are nearly on par with those in Canada. (Beer, and rum and Coke, costs between $3 and $5 at beach bars.) On a Sunday afternoon, in Nelson's Dockyard, we watched the National Football League playoffs with a bunch of Americans in a dumpy-looking pub called the Mad Mongoose - they served the best mahi-mahi either of us have ever tasted.
But it was the beaches that we will remember best. They say Antigua has 365 of them - one for every day of the year. On the Saturday before we flew home, we decided to try as many as we could. We started with a breakfast at Jackee's Restaurant on Dockyard Drive and then worked our way along the south and west coasts, stopping for a dip at every beach we saw. We had many to ourselves; others we shared with just a handful of other sun seekers. By beach No. 12, we were exhausted.
At the end of 11 days, we had covered a few hundred kilometres on Antigua's heavily potholed, and adventure-filled roads. But we were relaxed and ready to rejoin the world, leaving behind those beautiful stretches of coastline that, for a brief time, had been our own private retreats.
WHERE TO STAY
Dickenson Bay Cottages: From $131. Dickenson Bay, Antigua and Barbuda, 268-462-4940, dickensonbaycottages.com
Copper and Lumber Store: From $135. English Harbour, Antigua, 268-460-1160, copperandlumberhotel.com
Sugar Ridge: From $130. Tottenham Park Bolans, Antigua and Barbuda, 268-562-7700, sugarridgeantigua.com
Trade Winds Hotel: From $162. Dickenson Bay, Antigua and Barbuda, 268-462-1223, twhantigua.com