Antigua, the main island of the country of Antigua and Barbuda, makes an ideal escape this time of year, all white-sand beaches, rocky coves, and serene turquoise water. But this is not an island to visit for its palm-fringed chain hotels. Antigua provides a great opportunity to leave the resort behind for real local flavor – not to mention less crowded beaches.
You'll need an apartment, a car, and a clue about where to eat. Beachfront apartments, like this two-bedroom, two-bath listed on Vrbo.com, can go for less than $200 a night even in high season. (A search on Airbnb.com reveals 37 more whole-apartment rentals, many priced around $150.) Having your own place on a Caribbean island is surprisingly underrated, but you not only get your own kitchen – a great excuse for picking up local fruit from the roadside – you also often have your own slice of beach, not to mention a terrace or hammock on which to enjoy it.
A rental car at V.C. Bird International Airport buys you freedom to explore the island, from the beaches of the west coast and the handsome harbors of the south to the busy streets of the capital, St. John's, and the interior, where village churches and pineapple plantations give way to verdant jungle. Having your own wheels also opens up a world of food – visit your local grocery store to stock up on kitchen essentials (and local English Harbour rum), and hit the road for lunch.
In Fort James Beach, in the island's northwest, Russell's Bar & Seafood Restaurant – picturesquely perched above the entrance to St. John's Harbour on historic Fort James – has a fantastic Antiguan menu on Saturdays, a great chance to mingle with locals and taste dishes like conch water, souse, salt fish cakes, and seasoned rice, washed down with a rum punch, of course. In St. John's bypass the cruise-ship souvenir vendors at Heritage Quay for sWholefoods & Deli, where you can try freshly made West Indian drinks like sea moss and sorrel, and then head to The Quay for the excellent ducana, a tamale-like dish of grated sweet potato, coconut, pumpkin, and cinnamon, boiled in a banana leaf and paired with salt fish. Sundays require a drive down to pretty Shirley Heights Lookout, a restaurant and bar tucked into the Shirley Heights military complex in the island's southeast, overlooking stunning English Harbour. At 4pm the steel-drum band starts up and a parade of barbecued pork and chicken comes out (the locally caught fish "burger" is good too). Before you leave the island, make sure you get your jerk chicken fix at roadside-stall Jerk Master – conveniently, it's located just outside the airport.
More information: Both American Airlines and United fly nonstop to Antigua from New York, in about four and a half hours.