I’ve just stepped off the packed Barbuda Express ferry from Antigua.
I’m scanning the seafront parking lot while digging for my shades, buried somewhere in my tote. No sign yet of the young woman who’s supposed to pick me up from the dock and show me around the island.
Barbuda! I’d finally made it to elusive, remote Barbuda. I was as curious about it as I was about visiting Antigua. And now I was getting the chance to see both islands.
I had just one free day left in my weeklong itinerary with Traverse. After a few emails with contacts I made in Barbuda online, plans were made. The rest would be up to Mother Nature – as the ferry only runs on time when the weather is good. Mother Nature delivered, with sun and blue skies for my 1.5-hour sea journey.
I. Arriving in Barbuda
Familiar with Caribbean time, I decide to walk back toward the sea until my host arrives.
The last group of passengers are unloading their suitcases and what looks like surfing gear. I found out later those were paddle boards. Tourism must be getting back on track, I thought, feeling a bit surprised.
I turned back to the sea and the bright shoreline. The truth is, I hadn’t been able to shift my gaze from Barbuda as soon as I’d spotted it from my seat on the ferry.
An hour and a half ride had felt short in my eagerness to see an island I rarely heard about until after the hurricane hit, with images of a place almost completely washed out. It was impossible to guess this was the same place I was seeing today, from the dock.
There are no buildings in sight where the ferry docks, just birds and bright, white sand.
An echo snaps me out of my thoughts.
“Lily? Lily!” I turn around and see an older man a few steps away. He’s here from the Art Café, he says, to give me the tour. Great. The owners of the cafe, who also run the only complete website on Barbuda, had planned my custom day trip.
He opens the pick up truck’s passenger door. After quickly turning back to speak to someone, he returns to my window.
“This is a map of Barbuda,” he says, handing it to me as he starts explaining our itinerary. “We’re going to be taking you to three different locations.”
I was already thrilled, realizing I’d picked the right folks to show me Barbuda. A map! It’s the first tool I use to know my destination before and after I’m on the ground.
Places remain etched in my visual map long after I’ve gone home to write about it.
“There’s Princess Diana Beach. And then there’s a pink sand beach on the southwest end; it may not be pink sand this time of year – that’s usually in June July, through October. But we can pass there and have a look.”
Pink sand! Ooh, please let it be.
The next stop would be Codrington, the village and the heart of the community, hit hard by Hurricane Irma two years ago.
From there, we’d go around to Two Foot Bay, on the northeastern side of the island. After lunch would be my scheduled boat tour of Barbuda’s famous Frigate Bird Sanctuary.
“Lunch is at the Art Café, about a mile from Codrington. My daughter is preparing your lunch, that’s why she couldn’t make it.”
It sounded like the ideal itinerary for my nearly five hours to see and feel as much of Barbuda as I could.
Mac, my guide, finally hops into the truck and we began to slowly roll away from the ferry. He didn’t waste a moment. “We are at River Dock. This is the main dock when it comes to cargo boats, sand mining, and the ferry you came on,” he smiles.
The fishing community, it turns out, also gather here with their boats. They often fish on the southeastern coastline, and east. The fishing industry is big in Barbuda; typically, lobster fishing and it lasts eights months. Much of it is consumed on the island.
We pass a bar in construction – Hurricane Irma had destroyed it, but it’s now being rebuilt.
II. The Old Coastal Road: The Exploration Begins
As Mac makes a right turn off the main road, we go past overgrown bush and appear to near the sea again.
“This is the main coastal road – it was seriously damaged by Irma. I’m going to take you there. I don’t think it’s been completely reopened yet. But it’s a very strong limestone foundation, which is basically what Barbuda is. It’s a limestone plateau that has been around since the ceramic age or 3000 BC.”
Barbuda’s complex history begins with its original inhabitants, Amerindians – the Ciboney, followed by the Arawaks and the Caribs. Archaeologists have made major finds here in Barbuda, like the 200-year old skeleton of an Arawak man, discovered with pottery beside it.
Mac says they used to take this road, which led all the way to the K-Club luxury resort and Princess Diana Beach, up to Cocoa Point and Spanish Point.
We bump our way slowly further on the abandoned coastal road and reach what Mac wanted to show me: hundreds upon hundreds of conch shells are heaped on both sides of the car.
“This whole area (the southwest coast) it’s believed the original inhabitants, the Taino Indians, had a station down here and lived a lot on queen conch.
And this stretch here, a quarter of mile, is almost entirely conch shells. Research dates it back to 2,000 BC at least.
Irma pushed all the stones and heaped up the conch shells onto land.
So the road has been closed since 2017 but now they’ve started to do some work.”
“Were you here for that?” I ask, seeing an opportunity to learn about a first-hand hurricane experience, a tragedy that’s now immediately and still associated with Barbuda.
“Yeah, yeah. That was the most violent storm I’ve seen at least in 25 years that I’ve been back. I used to live in Europe. My parents took me up there as a child. I came back in my 30s.”
Along this old coastal road were Barbuda’s three major hotels – Barbuda Cottages, Cocoa Point Lodge (the first one on the island) and K-Club. The last two were eliminated by Irma, despite having been around for at least 50 years, while Barbuda Cottages had to do extensive repairs and redo all their roofs.
According to Mac, the owner of Cocoa Point was an American who came to Barbuda in the late 1950s, when the US had a naval base in Antigua. Of all the places he’d traveled and searched for from Trinidad to Cuba, the man wrote in his memoirs that the best beach he’d found was the one at Cocoa Point.
Eventually, we turn back and head to the drivable, gravel road parallel to the coastal road, that came into use after Hurricane Irma.
Like much of the Caribbean, Barbuda’s history continues from its original inhabitants to the arrival of European colonizers. Still, its trajectory is as unique as the landscape I’ve been seeing.
After unsuccessful attempts by the French and Spanish, the British colonized the island in 1667, annexing it to Britain in 1628. They brought in enslaved Africans for forced labor on tobacco and sugar plantations. In the late 1600s, the island was granted to the Codrington family who held it until 1860.
We stop in front of Barbuda Cottages. The beach leading up to it is so bright, so pristine against an iridescent turquoise. Magnificent.
But Mac tells me I’ve yet to see what magnificent really looks like on Barbuda.
Speaking of sand, all beaches in Barbuda are public – there’s a law that specifically allows access to people, and the same goes for Antigua. There has to be an access road and a beach can’t be shut off.
Barbuda Cottages is owned by a Barbudan sister, Mac tells me. The cottages had gotten knocked down in the storm two years ago, but you wouldn’t be able to tell now. They’ve been rebuilt, with floor cabins that now have an upper level.
Stepping out of the car to get a closer look and for me to snap a photo, we spot a worker who’s finishing the painting on one of the cabins. The yard is being cleaned up and the work seems near complete. The road actually should continue right along, but a series of rocks stop us from going farther up.
III. A Unique Land Ownership Law
We hop back in the truck, turning around to the main road to continue the tour. It isn’t long before we stop before a set of abandoned buildings. It’s the famous, former K Club and 551-acre land that was leased to Robert de Niro and James Packer in 2015. They were to begin a big resort project, but the terms and conditions of the US$5.2 million lease over 198 years (basically, peanuts when calculated on a yearly basis for one of the best beaches in the world) were disputed in court by Barbuda’s Council and the work was stalled.
Irma then came and destroyed what little was there – the karma of it all isn’t lost on anyone.
“The land law in Barbuda is that no one can buy land and sell it. You can only lease it from the people of Barbuda, and it has to return to them after the lease period is over.”
No foreigners can actually own land here? They can only lease it? Where did this unique law come from?
The Barbuda Land Act of 2007 has been at the crux of a major controversy and legal battle between Barbuda and its government in Antigua. According to the enshrined law and the Act, Barbudans hold communal land rights – meaning that each Barbudan or person of Barbudan descent, even if abroad, has the right to own up to three areas of the land for a home and for farming or other business. This has been the case, according to residents, since the end of slavery. Under the same Act of 2007, the Barbuda Council was given the rights to manage the distribution and leasing of communal land.
On the other hand, the government of Antigua and Barbuda wants the law modified so that the land can be privately purchased and owned, and foreign investors can come in and build up the island of Barbuda for large scale tourism and jobs. The battle remains in courts.
As Mac drives, I realize I hadn’t heard of this land debate until I reached here. It turns out, Barbudans are very politically active whether at home or abroad, and they’re determined to fight for their ancestral lands.
We arrive at the old Cocoa Point Lodge gated entrance, where new residence type of lodging are being built as Barbuda Ocean Club. We have to get permission from security but the manager isn’t there and the security, whose face pretty much spoke the answer, says she can’t let us through.
It turns out being a travel journalist isn’t always enough, especially when you’re a Black female.
IV. Stunning Princess Diana Beach
Turning back around, within minutes we eventually hit the entrance to the million-dollar stretch for which Barbuda is best known. The beach that was Princess Diana’s favorite and bears her name.
I could not believe my eyes; it was even more spectacular than the photos I’d seen over the Internet. There’s absolutely zero shade, but in my giddiness I don’t mind my skin taking licks from the harsh sun.
I ask Mac to take a few videos and photos – showing him how to use my iPhone. I want to eternalize this stunning place and my state of giddiness.
V. Driving through Codrington Village
We’ve got a lot more to see and I reluctantly pull myself away from the glorious Princess Di scenery. But I sense there’s more to come.
In Codrington Village, signs of life begin to show in the form of wild donkeys roaming on the sidelines as we bump along a limestone road.“We have more donkeys than people,” Mac jokes. Click To Tweet
Most of Barbuda’s residents who were evacuated to Antigua have moved back since their evacuation in 2017. There were about 2,000 people before the storm. Overseas, there are more Barbudans in New York than in Barbuda — part of a migration pattern Mac explains began in 1910. Codrington Village was founded in 1666 when the first colonialists came here from St Kitts.
I see clear signs of Irma in the village. Some homes have been rebuilt and boast new roofs, thanks to charity groups like Samaritan’s Purse who sent it a labor force from the USA, and materials donated by China and the UNDP. We stop in front of a small home, gutted entirely from the inside out.
Street electricity hasn’t returned as of my visit, but businesses with generators power up every evening for a few hours.
We drive through the village and soon we’re on a quiet stretch with two kids up ahead biking their way into the horizon. We pass the Art Café, Mac’s family’s business a mile outside the village; the house looks brand new and it survived Hurricane Irma.
It turns out, they’d just finished building their home and the roof was new when the hurricane hit.
Mac starts sharing more about living through Hurricane Irma.
“We moved our car from the east side of house to the west side. The actual wind direction reverses after the eye passes, you get same hurricane but the wind coming at you from the west – and it’s dragging along, like coat tails. You get the tail and it stretches out for five to eight hours. It started at 11pm and didn’t finish till 6-7 am. This one was short. Imagine if it had lasted 36 hours.”
I can’t imagine even one hour of it, let alone three days.
“You know that shell of a house I showed you earlier in the village? That’s where we used to live before. That’s where we would’ve been.”
The further we move along the road, heading to the eastern coastline, the more dramatic the landscape change. We pass small plots of farms, where locals have small one or two-acre plantations of peas, corn and sweet potato.
More donkeys and guinea fowls appear roadside, while tall cactus flowers tower over the car. I’d seen this particular species in Antigua and it turns out it’s the national flower.
“They flower at the end of their life. After 20 years.”
Soon we’re surrounded by a rocky, dramatic Atlantic shoreline, the complete opposite of what we’d seen on the Caribbean side. Princess Diana Beach was the antithesis to the raging waters and the Taino caves on this side, where the native inhabitants and later enslaved Africans would hideout.
We’re going to get out of the car and see if we can hike through one of the caves, because the view from the top, he promises, is spectacular.
I’m already in awe at ground level, staring at the beach before me, hugged by giant rocks and feeling minuscule against this spectacle of Barbudan nature.
VI. Two Foot Bay: Barbuda’s Taino Heritage
Local lore says that a runaway slave came up to this area to hide. When the plantation owners’ men were looking for him, he reversed his sandals and wore them back to front. This way, the men would follow his footsteps in the opposite direction than the one he’d taken. This area was named after him, as Two Foot Bay.
Mac and I cross the beach, pushing against the strong, refreshing breeze and reaching the entrance of the cave.“I haven’t been in here since Irma, so let’s see how it is.” Click To Tweet
We advance, slowly. Mac reminds me to hold on to the rock all the time.
The views are getting better by the minute. I could almost imagine Barbuda’s first inhabitants looking out from these vast chambers at the outside world.
We continue to climb slowly, spelunking with fair ease, until we reach an opening that takes us up to an outlook area, on top of the cave.
Take a look at this footage:
We head back down, realizing that we’re at least 15 to 20 minutes behind schedule for lunch. I couldn’t miss the bird sanctuary or miss the ferry.
VII. The Art Café
As soon as we arrive, parked streetside, I spot the elusive woman who was to pick me up at the dock. She stood in the distance, past an immaculate yard with cactus and garden seating, smiling from the doorway.
She looked like a model, perfectly framing the entrance of the family home that doubled as an art gallery and gourmet cafe.
As I was to learn later, Asha Frank was not only Miss Antigua Barbuda in 2015 but she’s also a former teacher who served on the Barbuda Council as the Chairperson of Tourism, Culture and Youth Affairs.
She’s also recently launched an NGO to help rebuild her island home, while running the Art Cafe with her mom, Claire, who helped set up my tour.
Her father and my guide Mac, I learned later, was also once a player in Barbuda politics.
I’d been privileged to tour the island with an accomplished local family.
Once inside the cozy cafe area, I tried, once more, to imagine what it must have been like here during a category five hurricane. Nothing would indicate that there was one today, sitting inside the cafe, if it weren’t for the occasional reminder – like having to turn on the generator for power so I could quickly use the Wi-Fi for a few minutes.
The table’s been set for my arrival. The visual displays keep me busy, especially the pink sand, for the benefit of visitors who’d arrived in the off-pink season. That was me, too.
Soon, Asha and I talk about Barbuda, and she generously shares her experience of Irma.
“We were all right, we didn’t lose much of our roof. It’s just the sounds you hear. The roof is recently built – people who left their home 10 years and didn’t restore or maintain it, lost it.
We were lucky it was recently done. On the other side of the house the rain was coming in though so we all had to stay on that [other] side of the house.
It was definitely life changing. The aftermath is the difficult part. Afterwards you have to have your stocks of water. So you’re literally surviving. We slept on the floor. My sister was pregnant, she and her boyfriend slept on her bed. We had to keep in the dry part of the house and that was the floor for me.”
I imagine hurricanes have a heck of a way of bringing a family together. A village. An island.
My whole fish lunch is so fresh. I’m tempted to try one of their craft cocktails, but since I’m heading back out in the sun to go birding and later hopping back on the ferry, I figured I shouldn’t.
Next time I’ll stay overnight, glamping under the stars at the Art Cafe’s new Frangipani cabin.
After a quick change of clothes I’d brought with me, it’s time for my last excursion before hopping on the ferry back to Antigua.
VIII. Barbuda’s Frigate Bird Sanctuary
Asha parks at the fishermen’s dock, leading me to Captain Jeffrey and his boat. She shares a few words with him and soon I’m hopping inside.
We take off, heading towards the Codrington Lagoon – known as the second largest nesting area in the Western Hemisphere after The Galapagos.
Soon all I hear is the motor and the breeze drowning it out a little. About 10 to 15 minutes later, we’re entering a narrow mangrove channel and Captain Jeffrey turns off the engine.
He explains that to save time, since I’m running behind, he’s starting the tour with the last stop. We’re facing a giant metal container, thrown over a heap of mangroves. It’s a remainder of the force of Hurricane Irma: she’d hurled the gigantic steel box from the dock where we’d left earlier and landed it all the way to this point.
When we head back out to the lagoon, the sound of the breeze and the sight of birds in the distance remind me of the force of nature and its incredible power to regenerate and reset with time.
We near the Bird Sanctuary and Captain Jeffrey turns off the motor. He uses a stick to quietly glide the boat along so as not to disturb the wildlife. I let out a gasp. They were in all directions I looked: frigate birds. I had never seen as many, not even in Belize.
Perched over dozens after dozens of mangrove bushes, a couple would occasionally fly out and back into their nests.
“Welcome to Barbuda,” Captain Jeffrey states, standing before me in his boat. He’s been in tourism for as long as this sanctuary has received visitors and he tells me that if it weren’t for the tourists decades ago, perhaps the locals might not have realized the importance of these birds.
These birds have the best GPS in the world too, he says.
After Irma, they returned to their beloved sanctuary in Barbuda.
It’s not mating season, when the males’ red throats inflate like red balloons, but the sight of them is still incredible.
I’ll never forget that feeling of being surrounded by thousands of frigate birds, even as some of the mangroves are growing back their leaves. Nor Captain Jeffrey’s stories, his voice filled with passion and pride irrespective of how often I imagine he’s given this tour.
With most of Barbuda’s outdoor attractions back like its residents, Captain Jeffrey tells me Barbudans are eager to get the correct word out to visitors in search of the Caribbean’s few remaining secluded and less developed destinations.
As my tour ends, I ask him the question that’s burning on the lips of those who saw the island covered under flood waters two years ago: “So Barbuda is open for business?”"I hope guests don't listen to rumors outside or people outside talking about there's nothing here. It's still the prettiest part on earth: Barbuda." – Captain George Jeffrey. Click To Tweet
Captain Jeffrey’s last advice? Talk to Barbudans.
IX. Getting to Barbuda
Barbuda is an easy day trip from St. John’s, Antigua on the daily Barbuda Express ferry. Just make sure to reserve your spot by email – no deposit needed – and check a day before your trip to ensure the trip is set (the schedule might adjust per weather conditions). You can check their updated schedule online or on their Facebook page.
X. Where to stay and eat
Be sure to stay at one of the several Barbudan-owned properties when visiting. Use Barbudaful.net‘s excellent website for up to date information on the island; they planned my custom day tour. Staying and spending local is particularly important to Barbuda as the island works to restore their home, their sustainable income and preserve their heritage and natural sights.
The upscale Barbuda Belle reopened in November 2018; sadly I didn’t get a chance to check it out. Long timer Barbuda Cottages has completed their restoration, and Frangipani offers new glamping opportunities that I can’t wait to try out.
In the village of Codrington, you’ll find local places to eat, aside from the beautiful Art Café outside the village, as well as small B&Bs.
Rent a car or bike from Barbuda Rentals to explore at your leisure, but also hire a guide. Barbudans are really interesting people to talk to – and they’re actively involved in their home and community.
XI. A rare, magical island
Back at the ferry dock, as my host Asha and I snap a selfie, I felt blessed. To experience a place so connected with itself, its history and its people. To see a corner of the Caribbean where nature dominates human activity. To meet people who’ve stood back up stronger in the face of adversity.
Perhaps because the land and tourism businesses remain mostly in the hands of its people, who approve of who comes to live and lease on the island, Barbuda remains a rare find in this ever-exploding tourism industry. It has a spell you’ll feel right off the ferry – one that will definitely bring you back.
Couple it with a stay on Antigua and you’ve got the trip of a lifetime.