Antigua's Safe Haven

English Harbour offers rich history and a solid dose of the good life.

In the mid-18th century, the British chose Antigua's English Harbour to be their Leeward Islands naval base. With its small coves and gunkholes, this unique corner of the Caribbean was safe from marauders and hurricanes, a place to bring "men-o-war" for careening and their crews for carousing.

The best vantage point for viewing this picturesque panorama-the crow's nest, so to speak-is the old fortress up on Shirley Heights, where the British Army maintained a base during the 18th and 19th centuries. From its lofty signal-gun emplacement, visitors can look out to a narrow channel guarded by the ruins of Fort Berkeley to the outer harbor, then to the inner harbor and the complex of buildings and marinas known as Nelson's Dockyard.

The "Nelson" of Nelson's Dockyard is the British naval hero Horatio Nelson. At a mere 28 years of age, he commanded the entire Leeward Squadron. One of Nelson's buddies was none other than Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence (later King George IV)-also the captain of HMS Pegasus-who built the Clarence House, on the hillside opposite the dockyard, to escape the heat and bustle.

What you see in English Harbour today are the ruins and restorations of the only remaining Georgian-style dockyard in the world, constructed of sturdy native stone and red bricks that first reached the area as ballast in sailing ships. English Harbour is still a place of capstans and anchors, chandlers and carpenters, but this is no lifeless museum. The engineer's office has been reinvented as the Admiral's Inn; the timber storehouse is now The Copper & Lumber Store Hotel; the galley that once catered to shore-bound sailors now does double-duty as a bar/café and boutique; canvas is still snipped and stitched in the sail loft. In 1985, the dockyard and surrounding countryside, an area of 15 square miles, were incorporated into a national park (administered with help from the Canadian government), which now attracts some 85,000 visitors a year.

Forget for a moment the seafaring heroes who sailed forth from these waters-Nelson, George Rodney, Samuel Hood, admirals all-and consider some recent notables who have enjoyed English Harbour: Princess Margaret, Madonna and the late Richard Burton honeymooned here (the princess in her ancestor's Clarence House). Eric Clapton, who has a home nearby, has been known to jam with local groups.

In its 21st-century incarnation, Nelson's Dockyard is home port to one of the world's largest charter fleets, thanks in part to the serendipitous 1949 arrival of an English naval family, the Nicholsons, who practically invented modern charter yachting right here in the dockyard.

When the sun sets on English Harbour, and the last scrapers and varnishers have cleaned their brushes and straightened their backs, it's time for what is known in these parts as "walking the strip"-that is, stopping off for pick-me-ups at the bars and cafés in and around the dockyard. Visitors mingle with locals, mariners renew old friendships formed down island, history buffs breathe the spirit of brigantines and caravels as they admire the megayachts Med-moored in the harbor.

On this island of fun and good living, English Harbour is a perfect fit.

PLACES TO STAY

IN ENGLISH HARBOUR - Admiral's Inn, (800) 223-5695; www.antiguanice.com. 14 rooms. The Copper & Lumber Store Hotel, (268) 460-1058; www.copperlumberantigua.com. 14 rooms. Inn at English Harbour, (268) 460-1014; www.theinn.ag. 34 rooms.

NEAR ENGLISH HARBOUR - Carlisle Bay Antigua, St. Mary's; (268) 484-0000; www.carlislebay.com. 80 rooms. Cocobay Resort, St. John's; (800) 816-7587; www.cocobayresort.com. 41 cottages. Curtain Bluff Resort, Old Road; (268) 462-8400; www.curtainbluff.com. 70 rooms, two showcase suites. Jumby Bay Resort, Long Island; (268) 462-6000; www.jumbybayresort.com. 39 suites, 11 villas. St. James's Club, Mamora Bay; (268) 460-5000; www.antigua-resorts.com. 256 rooms.

PLACES TO STAY

PLACES TO DINE IN ENGLISH HARBOUR - Admiral's Inn, (268) 460-1027. Seafood/international. HQ, (268) 562-2563 (local access only). Pacific/French fusion. Shirley Heights Lookout, (268) 460-1785. Local/continental. The Inn at English Harbour, (268) 460-1014. Continental. The Mainbrace Pub at The Copper & Lumber Store Hotel, contact information above. English-traditional.

NEAR ENGLISH HARBOUR - Chez Pascal, Galley Bay; (268) 462-3232. French. Harmony Hall, Browns Bay; (268) 460-4120. Continental. Le Bistro, Hodges Bay; (268) 462-3881. French. Papa Zouk, St. John's; (268) 464-6044. Seafood. Sheer at Cocobay Resort, St. John's; (268) 562-2400. Continental.