After having lived in the Caribbean as a kid myself, where my dad worked as an archaeologist on recovering an old fort, you can say that I have everything needed to appreciate historic harbour towns, forts and lookouts!
It might come as no surprise that one of my favourite experiences during my stay at the island of Antigua a little while back (apart from learning how to sail!), was visiting the UNESCO site of Antigua English Harbour, and particularly the historic center of Nelson’s Dockyard and Shirley Heights Lookout Antigua.
Today I’d love to show you some of my finds here and share a bit of the history of this location.
What we'll cover in this article
- ONE DAY IN ENGLISH HARBOUR ITINERARY
- PLAN YOUR TRIP TO ANTIGUA!
- Products from Amazon.com
ONE DAY IN ENGLISH HARBOUR ITINERARY
Before arriving in Antigua (and Barbuda, which we didn’t get to visit unfortunately), I must confess that I didn’t do a lot of research into the history of the islands, but during my week in the country I was glad to pick up some stories and personal thoughts and experiences from the people that live here and showed us around their home island. Isn’t that the best way to learn anyway?!
One of our visits was to English Harbour, a natural harbour and settlement in the South of the island. While these days, it’s a center of boating (yachting, mostly), there are plenty of restaurants, luxury hotels and many (music) events going on, its history goes back to the 18th century, when the British Royal Navy had its base of operations in this area.
Exploring Nelson’s Dockyard
A bus drops us off in a place called Nelsons Dockyard Antigua, where we will have an evening of drinks and Caribbean-style barbecue. Part of our group makes a straight dash to the bar (no judgement here), part starts taking selfies like there is no tomorrow (ok, little judgement here) and part of us, including me, goes on a little adventure around the harbour, nearby fort and the historic dockyard itself.
Nelson’s Dockyard is actually located in the Nelson’s Dockyard National Park (the largest of Antigua’s National Parks) and is still used today as a working dockyard for fancy (some of them REALLY fancy) yachts and ships. The 18th- and 19th-century buildings have been immaculately restored (which took a decade since starting in 1951) to their original splendor, now with shops, hotels, a museum and other amenities in them.
There are some hiking trails surrounding the modern harbour into the surrounding National Park.
History of Nelson’s Dockyard
Nelson’s Dockyard is a cultural heritage site and marina located on the edge of English Harbour in the southeast of Antigua. It is part of Nelson’s Dockyard National Park, which also contains Clarence House and Shirley Heights, and is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site of the country.
The dockyard got its name from Admiral Horatio Nelson, a British naval officer who lived in this Royal Navy Dockyard from 1784 through 1787.
So why did the Royal Navy build this dockyard and what is the story behind its rise and decline? If you’re interested in a bit of history, keep on reading:
The strategic importance of this location (basically the gateway to the Caribbean) increased after Britain lost the American War of Independence, because it suddenly had two enemies: the United States and France. Caribbean sugar funded the Industrial Revolution and the development of Britain, so these assets and the fleet had to be protected in a safe location.
Since no other island in the area featured natural harbours with narrow bays surrounded by highlands (which offered shelter from hurricanes), Antigua’s harbour seemed the perfect spot.
A year after the War of Independence (1775–1783) ended, a reluctant admiral from Great Britain called Horatio Nelson (you might know him as the the British Hero of the Battle of Trafalgar) was sent over as the captain of the H.M.S Boreas to to enforce the Navigation Act in the Caribbean.
This act barred foreign ships from trading with British colonies, which clearly didn’t make the guy very popular with the local merchants since they depended on this trade with the United States.
Admiral Nelson spend three years in Antigua (1784 to 1787), which he referred to as an ‘infernal hole’, but apart from that negative attitude of his, some major development took place in the following years.
Construction on the dockyard began in the 1740s by enslaved laborers from plantations in the vicinity. Here is the timeline of most of the dockyards construction, so you get a good view on just how much was accomplished over the years:
1745 – Construction of line of wooden storehouses on the site of the present Copper & Lumber Store Hotel and reclamation of the wharves and their facing with wooden piles.
1755-1765 – Building continued:
- Quarters for the Commander-in-Chief (on the site of the Officers’ Quarters)
- Additional Storerooms
- Shelter for the Commander
- Saw Pit Shed (first part)
- Continuing of the reclamation of the Wharves
- Stone Wall enclosing the the Dockyard
1772 – Dockyard Bakery
1773-1778 – Additional construction:
- Extension of the Boundary Walls
- Guard House
- Porter’s Lodge
- 2 Mast Houses
- Capstan House
- Canvas, Cordage and Clothing Store (first bay)
- First Naval Hospital
1785-1794 – Building Program:
- 1788 – Engineer’s Offices
- 1788 – Pitch and Tar Store
- 1789 – Copper and Lumber Store
- 1792 – Canvas, Cordage and Clothing Store (west side)
- 1792 – Blacksmith’s Shop
1795 and onward:
- 1797 – The Sail Loft
- 1806 – Pay Master’s Office
- 1821 – Officers’ Quarters Building
- 1855 – Naval Officer’s House
- 1855 – Clerk’s House
After the sugar industry waned in the mid-19th century, the Royal Navy left the dockyard in 1889. Because the site was abandoned and never looked back on, it turned into some sort of a time capsule, with its architecture, fortresses and artifacts left for us to still see today.
Sure, the dockyard was hit by many hurricanes and earthquakes over the next 60 years and fell into decay, but there were major restoration works done in the 1950s and the site got transformed into the beloved tourist attraction, now carrying the name of Admiral Nelson, that you can find today.
Nelson’s Dockyard is the Western Hemisphere’s only working Georgian dockyard and home to some of Antigua’s sailing and yachting events such as Antigua Sailing Week and the Antigua Charter Yacht Meeting.
With the extensive and stunning restoration works that have been done in the harbour, and it becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, I can highly recommend a visit!
Directions: From St. John’s, simply continue along all of All Saints Road all the way to English Harbour.
Opening Hours: Daily, 08:00 to 18:00
Nelson’s Dockyard Museum
Unfortunately we arrived late in the evening, so the buildings including the Dockyard Museum were already closed, but I’ve been told that this museum located in the former Naval Officer’s House, presents you with exhibits about the Dockyard’s history and current archaeological and environmental research on the island. For example, you can see the telescope used by Admiral Nelson himself on display!
The museum hosts various educational programs and has a research library is available to anyone, featuring plenty of books on the navy, Nelson and old accounts of Antigua. Booking ahead of your visit to the library is recommended.
Of course, there is also a gift shop to bring a little bit of historic Antigua home with you.
Admission: A visit is included in your entrance fee to the whole dockyard, including Dow’s Hill and Shirley Heights – US $8 for visitors, US $3 / EC $8 for locals
Opening Hours : from 08:00 – 17:00 all year round, Sundays and holidays included.
Forts in Antigua
Because the British Royal Navy had begun using harbours in Antigua as a safe haven in the 17th century, they built forts to defend them. These days, there are plenty of remains of these forts left all around the island.
In English Harbour, you can find Fort Berkeley, which was built in 1704 on a spit across the harbour entrance to defend it. While the fort is completely in ruins, you can still walk over the thick walls over to the ramparts at the end of the peninsula and see a cannon that was installed back in this colonial era. There is a nice view over the entire harbour and chances are you’re the only one there, like I was (well… there were some goats accompanying me, haha!)
Walking to this fort from the harbour in Nelson’s Dockyard takes only about 10 minutes, with a little incline. From here, you can also continue on the so-called Middle Ground Trail, which takes you from Fort Berkely to Pigeon Beach (a tree-shaded community beach) in about 1 mile (1.6 km).
If you’re interested in visiting other forts in Antigua, here are some suggestions:
As the only military defense post that saw any real action on Antigua (it got captured by the French for a little while), Fort Barrington was built in 1779 to guard St John’s Harbour. To get to the ruins, it’s only a short (but steep!) walk up, then you have to pass through the entrance way in the stone walls. All that’s left here are a powder magazine and two gun platforms, but this is still one of the best fort ruins to explore on the island.
The foundation stones for Fort James Antigua were laid in 1739 on the northern entrance to St. John’s Harbour and when finished, everyone passing it had to pay a fee of 18 shillings, or risk being shot at! You can still see the cannons these days, but unfortunately all the other structures within the fort have been lost throughout the years. There is talk of restoring some of the forts on Antigua, so fingers crossed it can be returned to it’s former glory. so there is another spot on the island where we can learn about its history!
Fort Charlotte (Pillars of Hercules)
This fort got built in the 1780’s over a natural rock formation in Antigua known as the Pillars of Hercules. It took thousands of years for the ocean to create pillar-looking formations and the fort is situated on the headland (Charlotte Peninsula) that these pillars support. Clearly, the name of the fort came from the British Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. The area is surrounded with stunning beaches and the water is perfect for diving.
The formation is best appreciated from a boat, or you could hike to the end of Galleon Beach (a former burial site for British sailors) and then climb over some large boulders. They’re slippery, so watch your step and definitely don’t do this when the tide is high! The beach borders a resort and has plenty of facilities, calm waters and a snorkeling reef close to shore.
Built on the flat 699-feet (about 213 meters) Monk’s Hill in the 1680’s, Fort George served as a signal station and place of refuge and last resort for the islands inhabitants in case of an invasion. It took 16 years to build and was named after the patron saint of England. You can access it through the villages of Liberta or Table Hill Gordon and there is a great view from the top of the hill, since the surrounding nature is all conservation area. In 1734, the French passed Antigua since the strength of the fort with its 33 guns was too much, and they invaded Monserrat instead.
The Copper and Lumber Store Historic Inn
The Inn at English Harbour Antigua was completed building in 1789 as a storehouse, but these days has been transformed to a 5-star hotel! Throughout the hotel, from rooms to furnishings and a beautiful courtyard, there are reminders of the period centuries ago when the building was originally constructed.
The restaurant has a daily menu, but you should really go here at the end of the week, when they host up their epic ‘Seafood Friday‘. As you can imagine in such a location, reservations are encouraged (call 268-460-1058/1160). Food begins serving from about 19:00.
Other English Harbour Restaurants
Looking for a bit to eat? Then English Harbour is the place to be! Here are some options that come recommended:
- Caribbean Taste – Authentic Caribbean food cooked with soul
- Abracadabra – Italian restaurant that turns into an open-air club on the weekend
- Grace Before Meals – Home-cooked Caribbean food at low prices, good for lunch
- Sun Ra – Laid-back Mediterranean with jazz music
- Dockyard Bakery – Bakery behind the museum at Nelson’s Dockyard
- Bumpkins – Caribbean food & live music on the weekend
- Paparazzi Pizzeria & Bar – Enjoy wood-fired pizzas, tasty pastas and rustic trattoria classics
- Catherine’s Cafe Plage – Great lunch / Sunday brunch spot with a long bar and lounge chairs in the sand (make a reservation!)
- Flatties Flame Grill – Portuguese roadside grill
- Trappas – Lively dining room with upscale comfort food, tropical murals and a big bar
- Shirley Heights Lookout Restaurant – Caribbean food with a great view, don’t miss the Sunday (16:00-22:00) barbecue party with live steel and reggae bands (admission EC$20)
See the map at the bottom of this article for all the locations!
Shirley Heights Antigua History
Another amazing place to enjoy the evening is the lookout point from Antigua Shirley Heights at about 490 feet / 149 meters. This restored military lookout and gun battery got its name from St Thomas Shirley (1727–1800), the first Governor of the Leeward Islands strengthening Antigua’s defenses in 1781. Shirley Heights is part of the same World Heritage Site as Nelson’s Dockyard.
While we were busy chatting on the bus during the drive uphill, you can spot the remains of officer’s quarters and a powder magazine along the way. Reaching the lookout, you can visit the former guard house, which is now home to a restaurant-bar hosting the famous Sunday afternoon barbecue party, the reason of our visit. This party, that has been running for over 30 years now, features Caribbean-flavored live music, good food and of course lots of English Harbour rum punch.
Meanwhile you can enjoy stunning 360 degrees views over English Harbour and Falmouth Harbour and watch the sun go down. On clear days you can even spot the islands of Montserrat and Guadalupe in the distance!
If you want to get active, from Shirley’s Heights Antigua, you can do the moderate 1.5-mile (2.4 km) Carpenters Trail which goes from Shirley Heights all the way down to runs from Galleon Beach.
Directions: Head towards English harbour and continue up Shirley Heights road past the junction with Dockyard Drive.
Opening Times: All day, everyday. The Sunday party runs from 16:00 to 22:00
Admission Lookout: Included in the Park Entrance Fee (also includes a visit to Nelson’s Dockyard)
Admission Sunday Party: $20EC
Dow’s Hill Interpretation Centre
If you’re interested to learn more about the history, culture and heritage of Antigua and Barbuda, then you might want to visit Dow’s Hill Interpretation Centre, which is located just past the entrance to Shirley Heights.
In a 15-minute long multimedia presentation, you get taken on a trip through the eras of the Amerindian hunters, the British military and the struggle against slavery. There are also many educational signs and artifacts on display, which explain about both the site’s and island’s histories.
Here, you can also visit the ruins of a house believed to be owned by the Royal Navy Dockyard Commissioner. Some stonework has been restored, but it is believed that the house dates back to around 1780.
While the interpretation center is low-key and mainly focused on kids, a visit makes for a good introduction to the islands for everyone!
On site, there is also a café and gift shop and you can enjoy the views of English Harbour from the viewing platform.
Opening Times: Monday – Sunday 09:00 – 17:00.
Admission: Included in the National Parks entrance fee (also valid at Shirley Heights and Nelson’s Dockyard) – US $8 for visitors, US $3 / EC $8 for locals
After such a long article about the area, I don’t have many words left. That’s why I let you decide if English Harbour, Nelson’s Dockyard and Shirley Heights is worth a visit by looking at this collage I made from all the Instagram pictures our blogger group made during our visit.
Excited to visit yet?
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO ANTIGUA!
I hope this article helped you finding the best things to do in English Harbour in Antigua. Here is more information to help you plan your trip:
Time Zone in Antigua and Barbuda? Atlantic Standard Time (GMT-4)
Currency in Antigua and Barbuda? Eastern Caribbean dollar (XCD). US currency is also accepted almost everywhere. Check the latest exchange rate here.
Electrical Plugs in Antigua and Barbuda? 230V / 60Hz. Plug types A (two flat parallel pins) and plug type B (two flat parallel pins and a grounding pin). We recommend getting a universal travel adapter to never worry about having the right plug on your travels!
Languages Spoken in Antigua and Barbuda?English is the official language of Antigua and Barbuda. As many of the residents are descendants of African slaves, their English has been influenced by African words and phrases. Linguists consider the dialect to be a type of Creole English, Leeward Caribbean Creole and Patwa.
Best time to visit Antigua and Barbuda? From May to November, the island’s off-season, although some shops and restaurants around the main cruise-ship terminal in Saint Johns might be closed if there are no ships coming in. You’ll encounter less rain between December and April, but it can be more expensive due to the crowds.
Insurance for Antigua and Barbuda? Make sure to get travel insurance! We recommend checking out worldnomads.com
How to get to Antigua and Barbuda? V.C. Bird Intl Airport (ANU) is the major airport in Antigua.
How to get around Antigua and Barbuda? For the local experience, take the bus (but know you might be waiting on it for a while as they are small-minivans that don’t always leave in time or have space). Other options are renting a car at the airport or getting a taxi, of which there are plenty. Fares between the airport, English Harbour, and many hotels and destinations are fixed and should be agreed upon before you leave.
Map of Nelson’s Harbour Antigua
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DISCLAIMER: I was kindly invited to Antigua on behalf of the Tourism board of Antigua and Barbuda on the #WhatCoolLooksLike campaign organised by Traverse Events and Brighter PR. All opinions, photo and video material is 100% my own.