The small plane soars north from Antigua after sunset, quickly crosses 26 miles of open sea, and lands on an island that might as well be in another universe. Even for seasoned Caribbean travelers, nothing feels familiar about Barbuda. But it captivates just the same. Says New Yorker Linda McDonough, "I once asked a pilot, 'Where is the most beautiful island in the world?' and he said, 'Barbuda.'"
Hardly developed at all, this little-sister isle to bustling Antigua is an oxymoron. With sparse annual rainfall, a dry, rugged landscape splays over 62 square miles. Yet this coral island is also lush with mangroves, the rich waters of Codrington Lagoon, and forests that inspired Spanish explorers to call it Barbudo, or "bearded" place, a name that evolved to Barbuda.
Most of the 1,500 islanders live in Codrington, the only town. A couple of cafés, a boat dock, and a smattering of homey shops and guesthouses along the one paved road define "city life" for visitors. Dirt roads lead to miles of pristine beaches, to vistas where the Atlantic and Caribbean meet, and to three small luxury resorts.
Princess Diana used to stay at the ultraexclusive K Club, which opens to guests at different times each year. Coco Point Lodge opens only from late fall to early spring. So it's The Beach House, on tantalizing Palmetto Point, that remains a strong favorite among many travelers. The hotel welcomes visitors December through August to its 20 guest rooms and one suite, all with private decks and stunning water surroundings. In each room, king beds face the water. The blue-and-white decor complements the horizontal layers of pale beach and sea beyond.
Guests at The Beach House quickly become familiar with staffers behind the bar (watch out for that wicked rum punch), at the breakfast table (oh, the coconut French toast), and at dinnertime (five stars for lobster cavatelle). General Manager Mo Sallah hails from a West African hotelier family, and he treats every visitor like a dignitary. Mention the cascade of stars glimmering in the sky over The Beach House terrace and Mo will point out constellations. "My father ran an observatory in the BVI [British Virgin Islands]," he says, "so he taught me this love of the stars." Mo picked the right place to keep an eye on them.
The resort offers activities such as snorkeling or fishing along the adjacent miles of beach, and various island tours. "But why not just stay here?" says a British visitor after a whole week at The Beach House. If indolence presents a negative image back in the real world, it settles happily into the soul here.
Still, a sampling of this island is in order, and word around town is to "ask for Mr. Thomas." That would be Lynton O. Thomas, whose former titles include executive chairman of Barbuda's tourism board and senator for the Barbuda Council in the Antiguan-Barbuda Parliament. These days, his Paradise Tours service escorts visitors into the nooks and crannies of the island he reveres.
On a jaunt arranged by The Beach House, Mr. Thomas (it seems impossible to call him Lynton) shows off his favorites: Two-Foot Bay, with its intriguing growths of seaside grapes; Spanish Point, where the Atlantic and Caribbean swirl together; the local harbor where horses swim to train for ever-popular Sunday races; and Wa O'moni's restaurant, where tables are packed at lunch and dinner with locals enjoying lobster and barracuda specialties. The bumpy, asphalt-free route continues past wild donkeys, who gaze drowsily back, and robust herds of goats. The goats, Mr. Thomas explains, intuitively return to their home yards each night.
An equally enthralling alternative to the land tour is a quiet anchorage in Codrington Lagoon, by the mangroves of the Frigate Bird Sanctuary. It's home to the Caribbean's largest nesting colony of the species. Here, these birds, known for their sweeping (up to 8-foot) wingspans, woo their mates, and boatman/guide Pat Richardson whispers the details to skiff passengers. Complimented on his command of the subject, Pat says, "I try to give accurate information so that when people come back, they say, 'I did my research, and you were right about the birds.'"
It's chatting with locals like Pat that makes Barbuda so memorable. Much of the resident population descended from Africans brought to this soil by the British in the 1700s. Those ancestors emerged from "slavery times" (a common phrase here) to take hold on an island that inspires their fierce pride. That's an aspect of Barbuda well worth getting to know. Back at The Beach House, the guestbook bears testimony to the charms of Barbuda and its special people. Noted a Charlottesville, Virginia, couple in May 2006, "We hope heaven looks just like this."