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It’s a role he takes seriously and he never forgets to dress the part. In fact, Paul, aka Cap’n Crunch, is probably the most stylish scuba diving pro in the Lesser Antilles, an archipelago of Caribbean islands stretching about 600 km across a sheet of topaz blue from Puerto Rico to the roof of South America.
Paul, who was born in the Dutch East Indies and raised in New York and Connecticut, always dives in a dress shirt and bow tie. What’s more, he rarely wears the same shirt and tie twice, at least not for the same clients.
Like its namesake, Antigua is comparatively small, but it punches above its weight class with eco-adventures that will make your eyes pop out. Whether it’s snorkeling with stingrays in open water or slicing through the jungle canopy along a zip-line, this Caribbean island knows how to deliver big-time kicks.
Plus, Antigua has perhaps the highest concentration of dazzling beaches anywhere in the Lesser Antilles. A French couple from nearby Martinique told me they take regular trips here. “In Martinique we have only small beaches and the sand is not so white,” Xavi told me over an ice-cold Imperial.
On my first dive with Paul, we’re working a pocket of ocean at Jay’s near the southwest corner of Antigua, an island that resembles a sea turtle from 10,000 feet on our approach to V.C. Bird International Airport.
We push through a forest of Bermuda chub to a sandbank on the edge of a reef at a depth of 18 metres. Paul, who’s wearing a white shirt and red bowtie, makes a squiggly line with his underwater pen and writes the words “moray eel.”
I swim toward a small cave flanked by sharp coral overhangs, knowing these ocean wolverines have a vicious bite. As I steady myself against the current, a green moray with a head the size of a Jack Russell terrier hastily emerges and fixes me with a sidelong stare that says “Keep out!” Then he gives me an eerie smile, revealing sharp teeth made for tearing up flesh, before wheeling around in a tight muscular ball and disappearing down his murky hole.
Back on the surface when I lift my mask up, the purple-green summit of Mount Obama, the island’s tallest peak renamed after U.S. President Barack Obama, appears in the far distance. This reminds me of the flying fox tour I took the previous day through Antigua’s fertile tropical rainforest.
Jake fastens my body harness to a double-zip line attached to a silk cotton tree and gives me a thumbs-up sign. I step off into empty air and, soon, I’m screaming over a rocky precipice at a height of 350 feet. Like Christ’s path to Golgotha, this canopy trek has 12 stations, and the previous three have twisted me around like a pretzel.
This time I reach back and lightly grip the zip-line with a gloved hand as I shoot through the cloud forest. But just as I begin to get comfortable, I slam into a padded sandbox tree at the other end with a huge smile on my face. “That was better,” says Keno, also of Antigua Forest Zip Lines.
That afternoon, Jake and Keno are taking their flying fox clients seaside for some snorkeling with stingrays, but I have a lunch appointment with Rosie McMaster.
This promises to be nearly as challenging as the jungle canopy, because her Susie’s Hot Sauces — with names like Burning Desire and Tear Drops — are famous for reducing grown men to jelly. They have also earned Rosie an MBE (a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), which she received from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in 2009.
Where does the inspiration for her recipes come from? “God speaks to me,” says Rosie. After tasting her five-alarm sauces, I think it’s more likely Lucifer.
On my last dive with Cap’n Crunch, we anchor at Gizmo, where the star attraction is a black-tip reef shark big enough to take off your head. “We only ever see him once on any dive,” says Paul. “Then he vanishes.”
At 20 metres, Paul, this time wearing a blue shirt and black bowtie, plays MC to oversized Nassau groupers and a gorgeous spotted eagle ray with a two-metre long tail. It’s all first-rate stuff, but the reef’s muscle man is MIA.
As I surface with 50 Bar on my air gauge, the black-tip reefer comes rocking into view. He’s a bull more than 2 metres in length, with a thick middle and meaty tail that he whips back and forth through the heavy ocean water. For an instant we cross paths, and then he’s gone.
Antigua has again delivered a peak experience. Now it’s time for rum punches at the Jolly Beach Resort’s poolside bar.
Erik Heinrich is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
JUST THE FACTS
DOING Jolly Dive, Jolly Harbour. Paul Roos has run this independent operation from Jolly Beach for more than 30 years, offering underwater thrills including black-tip reef sharks, moray eels and eagle rays. Price: $ 124 per excursion, including wet suit, mask, flippers and two tanks for two dives. A three-day discount is available. jollydive.com.
Antigua Rainforest Zip Lines. Located at the south end of the island near Signal Hill, a first-rate canopy tour that thrusts you into the heart of this island’s lush jungle scenery. Cost is $ 135 for eight stations, followed by snorkeling with stingrays and lunch on the beach. antiguarainforest.com.
Circumnavigate the island in a catamaran with Adventure Antigua. Based at Jolly Harbour, the tour includes a beach lunch and a visit to a dramatic outcrop with a doughnut hole known as Devil’s Bridge. Eco-Tour $ 115. adventureantigua.com.
SLEEPING Jolly Beach Resort & Spa, Jolly Harbour, St. Mary’s Parish. Located on the southwest coast of Antigua with perhaps the best mile-long stretch of white-powder beach on the island. All-inclusive, including meals, beer, wine and rum. Indian and seafood restaurants offer a la carte menus and an extensive list of premium wines. Standard room, single occupancy is $ 245 per day. jollybeachresort.com.
LambLion Guest Apartments, Freeemans Main Road, Belleview Estate. Seven self-catering units, all amenities including kitchen, AC and web. $ 75 per night, double occupancy; $ 115 for a room and rental car combo. lamblionapt.com.
DINING OJ’s Bar & Seafood Restaurant, Crab Hill, St. Mary’s. Plenty of rustic Caribbean charm in this open-air beach restaurant with daily fish specials and potent rum punches. Lunch for two with beer or mixed drinks, $ 35.
Shirley Heights Sunday barbecue and jump-up. Located at the southern end of the island, with live music and dramatic vistas overlooking the historic Nelson Dockyards. A national tradition: don’t miss the sunset here, and views of Eric Clapton’s Scottish mansion/recording studio from the east platform. Dinner for two, $ 40.