Driving inland from Antigua's airport, I spy a crumbling, rusting sugar cane factory to my left and, soon after, the edifice of a large, modern cricket stadium. Dotting the lush landscape are houses ranging in style and size, from bright pink to dark green; from wooden and small to limestone and big. The only constant is the abundance of churches.
These jumbled contrasts – evidence of both old-fashioned life and modern living – are subtle but everywhere. There are signs in Mandarin, a side-effect of China's growing influence, yet elsewhere I spot farmers hacking down crops with machetes in fields. But then, Antigua is a nation both old and new. English Harbour – a name that speaks of the island's colonial past – was briefly one of the British Navy's most strategically important harbours, and after the US War of Independence made North America a tricky part of the world to navigate. The Georgian buildings of Nelson's Dockyard today house a museum filled with interesting nautical insights and a terrifying picture of Prince Charles, as well as modern shops, hotels and marina businesses that cater to the dozens of sleek, expensive yachts bobbing up and down in the harbour. These days, instead of war, it's the Caribbean island's yachting industry that brings life to the island for several months of the year.
As we drive towards Falmouth Harbour on the southern tip of the island, the verdant interior gives way to built-up towns, and I gaze longingly out of the window, staring at locals as they tend to roadside grills; huge portions of fish and chicken sizzling on open barbecues. I've come to Antigua not to flop onto one of Antigua's famed 365 beaches, but in search of inland hiking and coastal eating, and it looks like I'm in the right place.
At sunset, I hike the Middle Ground Trail, from Pigeon Beach to Nelson's Dockyard near Fort Berkeley, watching those expensive yachts from a distance as goats amble past me in the hills near English Harbour. Bougainvillea plants cast a pretty pink sheet over the hilltop and a herd of skittish goats scamper away from me and my guide Joey as we walk the trail, with the modern world and its yachts in the distance.
It's an up and down walk, long flat surfaces mixed with rocky terrain. I come out feeling satisfied, but journalists are like empires: greedy and base. I want more.
I've had red snapper and walked hilly trails, I've eaten shark bites and descended a rocky path by rope as goats stare at me in disbelief. And still I want more.
Gary John Norman / Getty
That evening I make the half-hour journey to BeachLimerz, a restaurant not far from the capital of St John's on the north-west coast. I eat conch fungi, a mollusc-based (the conch) dish with a polenta-style mash (the fungi). Sausage and mash it is not. Elsewhere, I eat more variations on conch, an Antiguan staple that can be found in curries, fritters, chowders or ceviche-like salads. Sadly, those roadside grills are just a weekend thing, though, and I miss my window of opportunity.
The next day John Henry, who drives me around for much of my stay, drops me at Wallings Nature Reserve with the promise that we'll grab something to eat afterwards.
The reserve is a large area of woodland enveloping a reservoir built by the British. Popular for events and parties thanks to its lush forest surroundings, it has just expanded, opening a series of hiking trails at the end of last month. Most are guided, but some of the walks can be done unassisted, and range in difficulty from three miles to 16. With lunch in the offing, I opt for the shorter, more manageable three-mile variety.
The forest is thick, the greenery is lush and the trees’ limbs spool out far from their bodies like a prankster’s legs
Along with seven others, I venture into the dense forest with Refica, our local guide. We walk past the stony, empty reservoir, which looks like something out of an Indiana Jones film. Sunlight pours through gaps in the trees above and the soil beneath my feet is red as clay. Talking to the others during a three-and-a-half-mile hike, I pick up tidbits of Antiguan life along the way.
"Antiguans don't like going to the beach," one woman says with a laugh. Given their number and proximity, it seems a surprise, but then I try – and fail – to remember the last time I spent an afternoon walking around the British Museum or the Tate.
The forest is thick, the greenery lush, and the trees' limbs spool out far from their bodies like prankster's legs. Refica and the others warn me of deceptive bumps in the path as we traverse the sometimes stony ground, popular with lizards the size of your hand. Around halfway through, I hear an eerie noise, like a banshee on helium.
"It's a bird," says one of the guys. "When we were young children our parents told us they were duppys to stop us going too far into the forest."
"What's a duppy?"
We walk on, away from spectral avians and tall tales from childhood. The walk is up and down, hot and heavy-going, and when we emerge sweaty an hour and a half later, I am knackered but pleased, fulfilled but spent. I finally feel like I've had my fill of hiking. When I get back to John's car, his eyes glisten with mischief.
"I was told to take you to a particular restaurant," says John. "I told them, 'I am taking him to where I would go.'"
John clearly knows when a man is looking for something different. We drive along the coast, which glistens under a hot sun. John veers left at an innocuous turning and pulls into Sea View Lawn in Urlings Village in the island's southeast, a restaurant popular, he says, with local workers on their lunch break.
A group of men are watching NFL and eating lunch washed down with punch and beer when we arrive. It's roasting hot out, and despite the cooling fans overhead, fairly warm within. Jacob 'Chappy' Joseph, the restaurant's owner, pulls a can of Carib beer from the fridge and passes it straight to me. John asks me if I like seafood; I nod, and he looks back over at Chappy.
"Get him the octopus fungi," he says, telling me people come here every Wednesday just for this dish. He watches as I shovel spoonfuls into my mouth; a quasimodo in cargo shorts.
Sometimes, seeking out local food is little more than a pretentious way of differentiating yourself from people who've worked hard and paid well to eat familiarly in touristy restaurants and expensive resorts. But sometimes, you know deep down it'll be memorable. This meal, eaten at a simple off-road restaurant, will stay with me; the cornmeal fungi tender, the octopus meaty, the stew spicy and filling. I don't know what I ate for lunch this time last week, but I know I won't forget octopus fungi.