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BARBUDA - BEACHES AND FRIGATEBIRDS

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Although Barbuda is only a 20-minute flight north of Antigua, its Frigatebird Sanctuary seems a century away. Within the primeval mangrove lagoon, thousands of frigatebirds are courting.

Male frigatebirds on nest
Male frigatebirds on nest
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Competition was intense. There were so many scarlet-throated birds in the mangroves, that they resembled red ornaments on an overly decorated Christmas tree. A male Fregata magnificens was hoping to attract the attention of a white-headed female.

He huffed and he puffed and he blew himself up. Way up. So much so that his pumpkin-size crimson breast forced back his head and beak. We wondered if he would explode.

A cacophony of males' guttural clicks and females' high-pitched squawks permeated the sultry air. Some of the black-plumed birds launched themselves from the springy branches. They glided over the colony, with ruby pouches dangling from their necks like partially deflated balloons. Others carried beaks full of grass to line their nests.

Man o' war birds

In flight, frigates are truly magnificent, their five-foot wingspans propelling the fork-tailed birds to lofty heights. While they can dive for fish, with pinpoint accuracy, these aerial pirates prefer to ambush other water birds in midair. As the victim drops its catch in panic, the frigate swoops down to retrieve the meal before it hits water. Their plundering habits have gained them the nickname: man-o'-war birds.

"Mating season runs from September to March," said our guide, Gene, a native Barbudan. "In March, the males migrate to Belize, leaving the females to rear the single chicks." The fledglings are covered with fluffy white feathers, all askew — avian renditions of a bad-hair day.

Frigatebird Santuary
Frigatebird Santuary
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The frigatebird sanctuary in Codrington Lagoon, northwest Barbuda, is the largest in the western hemisphere. It is accessible only by boat. We approached the rookery silently, to avoid disturbing the birds. Our boatman cut the motor and hopped into the chest-deep water to move us within thirty feet of the birds. Busy with courting, they paid no attention to us.

Pink sand beach

We traveled across the lagoon to Luis Beach. In 1995, Hurricane Luis literally blew out the vegetation across a swath of land separating the lagoon from the Caribbean Sea.

Pink shells and sand
Pink shells and sand
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

What remains today is a pristine stretch of powdery sand strewn with drifts of tiny pink shells. Their color is so intense that Bermuda's famed pink sand beaches look pallid by comparison. In both directions, the beach extends for as far as our eyes could see. Ours were the only footsteps in the sand.

Turquoise liquid silk waters lapped the sand with lacy surf, on the Caribbean side. Eighty feet across, on the lagoon side, the moss-green brine sloshed over beds of swaying grasses that shelter delectable local lobsters.

Grilled lobster

At the Palm Tree, one of the island's restaurants, we feasted on the tasty grilled crustaceans. Satiated, we boarded a four-wheel-drive pickup for a tour of the island.

Although Barbuda is two-thirds the size of Antigua, it has a population of only 1,500. Nearly everyone lives in Codrington.

Gene proudly showed us the island's gas pump, operated by a smiling proprietor, the yellow post office, the Spring View Hospital, several churches and the schools. Uniform-clad students, walking to classes, waved to us.

We passed a police station where two officers watched the comings and goings from the verandah. There's not a lot for them to do. "The local magistrates only visit Barbuda a couple times a year," said Gene.

Barbuda history

Our vehicle jiggled and jolted over the pot-holed road, until it was forced to a stop by a Barbudan traffic jam: a flock of goats and sheep. Both are descendants of the animals brought here by the Codringtons.

Goats and sheep on road
Goats and sheep on road
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

In 1685, the Codrington family leased Barbuda from King Charles II of England. The lease was renewed several times, at a rate of "one fat sheep a year," until 1860, when the island was annexed to Antigua. Both islands attained full independence from Britain in 1981.

The Codringtons owned sugar plantations on Antigua. They used Barbuda as a stock farm to supply Antigua with venison, boar meat and guinea fowl. History claims that they also used Barbuda as a human stud farm to raise a super race of strong slaves to work in the cane fields. The tallest and strongest slaves were sent here and told to get busy and make babies. Today, most Barbudans would rather forget about this blatant abuse of human rights.

No roads encircle the entire island. We drove south to the 300-year-old Martello Tower. The stone fort once held nine guns to defend the island.

K-Club

We bumped along the south coast until we reached Coco Point Lodge, a five-star hotel in the "if-you-have-to-ask-the-price-you-can't-afford-it" category. Robert De Niro, the actor, is spending $250 million to renovate another luxury resort in Barbuda, the K-Club. Opening date is late 2016.

Several guest houses and bed and breakfasts offer much more economical accommodations.

Most day-visitors sunbathe on the Pink Sand Beach at Palmetto Point, or on Access Beach, near Coco Point. The more adventurous opt for a tour of the caves on the northeast end of the island.

Arawak petroglyphs

Indian Cave, at Two Foot Bay, boasts petroglyphs created by the earliest inhabitants of Barbuda, the Arawaks. Climbing underground past stalactites and stalagmites, you emerge at an opening 48 feet above sea level for a view of the coastline.

Although Barbuda is quite arid, occasional rains can turn the dirt roads in the northeast into muddy quagmires that are impassable for days. If this happens during your visit, stick to the south coast. The unspoiled pink sand beaches and red-breasted frigatebirds alone justify the trip.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Antigua & Barbuda Department of Tourism: www.antigua-barbuda.org

More things to see & do in Antigua:

Antigua - fun things to see and do