Caribbean haven for lovers of sea lore. Antigua port offers winning combination of history, sun, sand

Before he became an admiral and a lord, and finally the target of a French musketball at the Battle of Trafalgar, Captain Horatio Nelson spent some time on this rugged Caribbean island, running the dockyard that was eventually named for him on strategic English Harbour. As it turned out, Nelson wasn't enchanted with Antigua, which now attracts thousands of tourists each year. He was constantly at odds with the people, the climate, and the mosquitoes. But from Shirley Heights, a high, craggy outpost just above the harbor - his lookouts could watch the island of Guadeloupe and the French fleet. So Nelson and the frigate under his command stayed put here from 1784 until 1787.

For today's visitors, the remnants of history are part of the allure on this West Indies island. So are the deep, sheltered harbor and the island's many beaches.

For lovers of nautical history, the dockyard, Fort Berkeley, and the rest of the English Harbour region is a treasure trove, with its eerie pockets of ruined, overgrown officers' quarters and its Dockyard Museum, full of 1780s artifacts.

Specimens of 1980s nautical life are also plentiful, as the gleaming white and teak of the well-appointed yachts, stern-tied to the docks, suggests. Each year in late April, English Harbour bristles with the masts of racing yachts of myriad registries, competing in Sailing Week activities.

This corner of Antigua (pronounced locally An-TEE-ga) is a rugged non-resort haven with the quiet industriousness of a working dockyard. You can wake to the rustle of sailcloth and the distant tap-tap of a boat-tender's hammer. The outpost 500 feet up on Shirley Heights now houses a restaurant and lively steel bands, rather than wary British lookouts. The sail lofts and ships' provision store testify to the work-a-day nature of Nelson's Dockyard. Even tourists who come by jet make use of the provision store. It's haphazardly stocked, but its shelves can provide visitors with the makings for a welcome break from English ``pub lunches'' and Shepherd's Pie.

Antigua is not known for its cuisine. The fare at the dockyard's three restaurants is hearty but plain. But what the food lacks in diversity is made up for in atmosphere.

There is the dressed-down bustle of Limey's Bar, the sociable yacht club flavor of the Admiral's Inn, and the staid quiet of the Mozart-playing Copper & Lumber Store, where one is tempted to go all out. In this part of Antigua, that means pulling on long pants.

But then those who gravitate to Nelson's Dockyard don't come to Antigua to exhibit haute couture. That is to be done across the island among the casinos and high-priced luxury hotels, where sailboat-loving purists seldom venture. A family made up of history buffs and dedicated beachgoers could spend a very satisfying vacation here at the dockyard compound, with a few forays to other parts of the island.

Clarence House, the governor's mansion, is definitely worth a visit. Open when the governor is not in residence, the white terraced home is surrounded by lush gardens and walkways that afford yet another outstanding view of English Harbour.

The British fleet will seldom be out of mind if you stay at the Admiral's Inn, where it is impossible to escape the gaze of Nelson's portraits, or at the Copper & Lumber Store Hotel, which is run by a retired Royal Navy commander and his wife. The Copper & Lumber features Georgian suites furnished with Chippendale furniture and 400-year-old charts. Ceiling fans coax the sweet, moist air to stir. The rooms in this lavishly refitted supply store are each named for ships and officers with Nelson's fleet at Trafalgar. Some have mahogany-walled bathrooms with wash basins of Argentine brass.

From all but a few windows, guests can see pleasure boats at anchor. Of course, you don't need a yacht to make a week of it here. Antigua claims to have ``365 beaches - one for every day of the year.'' A few of those are near Nelson's Dockyard, although more are on the resort-dominated north-western coast, near the capital city of St. John's.

But the beachgoers might feel a little shortchanged, especially if they come expecting to hop from one beach to the next. A smoke-belching, green wooden launch is employed by Antiguan boys to ferry guests at English Harbour's two hotels from the dingy dock to a pair of small, calm beaches across the harbor. But the launch can't always be found.

The island's finest beaches - the long, wide variety conjured by the word ``Caribbean'' - lie along the southern and western shores. With a boat, it's a short sail along the rocky coast. To reach them in a rental car, especially the battered kind supplied by one of the island's local agencies, is harder.

There are a few stretches of serviceable roads, none of which are marked by signposts, but most trips of more than a mile or so entail cutting through rain forests on sidewalk-size roads strewn with broken-up blacktop and coconuts. But then, high adventure is one of the best aspects of exploring history. Nelson ought to have unbuttoned his hot tunic and enjoyed the perpetual breeze. Of course, he was too busy making history.

Practical information

St. John's, Antigua, is served by Air Canada, American Airlines, British Airways, BWIA International, Eastern Airlines, and Pan American. The Caribbean airline LIAT (which serves 23 islands between Puerto Rico and Trinidad) is based here. For more information, contact the Antigua Department of Tourism & Trade at 610 Fifth Ave., Suite 311, New York, NY 10020, tel.: (212) 541-4117; or at 15 Thayer St., London W1, United Kingdom, tel.: 01-486-7073/6.

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