Nelson's Dockyard, Antigua
Updated: Jun 22, 2020
Nelson’s Dockyard, strategically tucked into the furthest back bay of English Harbour in Antigua is intriguing. It’s hard to pin down why it is exactly. When I went there the first time it felt like I’d been there before. That’s usually what it is with me. There are beautiful places all over the world, where I can say objectively, I like this place, I’d like to come here again. But those places are different from the ones that settle inside your soul. Nelson’s Dockyard has settled in. History has a permanence here.
Nelson’s Dockyard is pretty simple really. It has a cute museum, a good rum store, an art store, a waterfront area where you can imagine the 18th century ships docked, their big white sails just pulled down as they came through the narrow harbour. A delightful bakery reminds you that it’s Christmas and serves an apple cider with Caribbean spices. A couple of the old brick buildings have been turned into restaurants.
In 1788 Admiral Nelson and his crew completed work on a storage building that still stands today. It’s now a cool, ocean-side inn and restaurant called The Admiral’s Inn. The bartender will make you something unique, as if you just stepped off a ship from a long journey and have earned the right to make demands. I run my fingers along the bricks in the wall knowing they had likely steadied many a staggering sailor finding his way back to a bed. Here stand the hallmark of Nelson’s Dockyard, its sail loft pillars, steadfast reminders of Antigua’s colonial past.
There’s a great hike here! An undersold hike, one only found by explorers, the people who say, yeah but what’s out there? My family and I took that hike, of course. It was smokin’ hot, and we were told we should only go if we felt comfortable hiking. Say what? Challenge accepted, of course we were going to go! It was the kind of heat that slows you down, and there was no one out there but us. We saw a little bit of wildlife, a goat, some butterflies, a lizard. We drank lots of water and walked over the rocky, hilly shoreline out to the thin stretch of cliff that makes the harbour a safe and protected one. Imagine the curved lower claw of a lobster pincer. You can see it from Google maps. You can see the brown path that stretches out to the remains of the sentry walls on which men would keep watch for encroaching ships. Like all good hikes it rewards those willing to go. Once out on the skinny peninsula you get a wide, open view of the rough sea to the south, a view you can’t get sipping your drink in the protected inner harbour. Waves crash relentlessly against the rocky wall, and seagulls call you back in time. With this accompanying orchestra you can wander into the low, abandoned, gunpowder storage room, with its dirt floor now wonderfully cool and quiet, as only large old stones can offer. Here at the very end of this peninsula you can look across to the south east sweep of the other side of Freeman’s Bay. Two hundred and thirty years ago, across this narrow opening an underwater heavy chain laid silently in wait. When enemy ships dared cross the threshold the chain would be winched up, ripping apart the bottom of the ship. Sailors would be killed or taken hostage and the ship’s possessions looted. What treasures must remain hidden on this ocean floor!
I have returned to Nelson’s Dockyard since that first visit. This time entering not by car and parking lot, but by boat which set sail from the Gunpowder House, an inn and restaurant across another part of the harbour. Not surprisingly this little boat docks directly at the Admiral’s Inn, where outdoor tables invite you to sit and enjoy some Antiguan rum. The hike, already tackled, can wait again till another day.