The Caribbean

On Antigua, everyone comes to the party

The tropical sunsets, food and music draw hundreds of people every week to the party at Shirley Heights, a Caribbean tradition.
The tropical sunsets, food and music draw hundreds of people every week to the party at Shirley Heights, a Caribbean tradition. (Sharon Matthews-Stevens)
By Mark Stevens
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Not much of a party spot, this place.

Barrel and organ-pipe cactus wrestle for claw holds in the rocky, rusty soil. Dagger trees moan in the trade winds that batter this scrubland almost 700 feet above the sea, assaulting Shirley Heights, on Antigua's southern coast, like the French who once lusted after this Caribbean bastion of the British Empire.

There are ruins here: the skeleton of a barracks for soldiers who once guarded English Harbour, the naval base far below, sprawled at the foot of slopes so steep they make even the goats nervous. When the soldiers left, local authorities converted the barracks into an insane asylum. It's a pile of rubble today.

And here, the remains of a hospital rest beside a cemetery where the headstones are stained the color of blood by the dying sun.

Two hundred years ago they called Shirley Heights the "Englishman's Graveyard."

A rutted track leads past a crumbling parapet, where a yellow sign depicts falling rock and a figure plummeting to certain death. Some years ago, a visitor married an island girl who got pregnant with someone else's baby. He reportedly roared down this path in his car and sent it airborne. Smashed it to smithereens on the razor-sharp rocks at the bottom. "Hell of a job recovering the body," one local tells me.

Nice spot for a party.

So why the parade of cars, taxis and buses climbing the switchback turns toward the Heights? Why are 200 or 300 people sipping rum punches in time with the band at 5 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon?

"Haven't experienced Antigua until you've done the party," says Neville Holloway, a British sailing skipper who has lived on the island for 15 years. "Race relations at work."

Most Caribbean jump-ups welcome locals only or function as faux fun for heavy-pocketed tourists. Here, everyone parties together.

Laden with plates of food, my wife and I trudge across the grand-piano-shaped cobblestone courtyard. We find a picnic table where cannon once guarded the harbor approaches. We sit with two Antiguan couples. They talk between mouthfuls of lobster in a machine-gun patois that we can barely decipher. They greet us with smiles and more patois. Just across the cobblestones, a cop sways with the music, a steel drum orchestra gliding through a calypso "Can't Help Falling in Love." A young guy, dreadlocked and shirtless, dances suggestively with two girls with blond dreadlocks and fire-engine-red faces.

When the band stops -- liquid melody flowing like an acoustical waterfall down the slopes to where yachts sway in time with the waves and the wind and the last few chords of the Elvis classic -- Italian, French and German join the patois.

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