© Robb Beattie
Anguilla’s place in the sun
Escape to the Caribbean island that is deliberately low-key despite beaches and hotels that are the height of luxury
Tropical beaches give me vertigo. It’s not just unfamiliarity or a midwinter vitamin D deficiency or even the surrealness of holiday air travel (all parkas one instant, flip flops the next). Instead, I’m usually dizzy with nordic astonishment at life’s vividness nearer the equator: the dazzling laser sunshine, the sky’s technicolor depth and clarity, the iridescence of the jewel-like sea. And then there are the beaches. Whether tranquil coves or endless expanses of sand, stepping out of February onto a beach at this latitude makes anybody feel like an astronaut in a bathing suit.
My most recent experience of beach wooziness came courtesy of a splash down in the British Caribbean territory of Anguilla, a slender, 24-kilometre-long island due east of Puerto Rico and the Virgins. It boasts 33 sprawling beaches reputed to be the best in the Caribbean, if not the world. That’s a tall order, but spectacular, immaculate and never crowded, Anguilla’s gleaming white beaches are routinely compared to velvet, wax, powder snow or icing sugar, the last one perhaps the most apt given the incredible fineness of the sand. When I got to highly praised Shoal Bay East, a curving four-kilometre stretch of turquoise and ivory, I was as enthralled as a pastry chef by the beach’s silky, delicate texture, never mind the molecular way it clung to every surface, including me.
Apart from a far-off kite surfer, the only other person around was a local guy walking a horse through the breakers. Grinning on noticing my dusting motions, he called out in a lilting voice, “Just like flour and sugar, right? All caked in sand!” On cue, his horse snorted at the joke and vigorously shook saltwater from its sun-bleached mane. As they splashed away, the owner shouted back, “Here we have our cake and eat it too, but leave the sweetness of the beach be!”
Paradise — at a price
If you’re unsure whether you’ve heard of Anguilla, relax; even the mail has to be occasionally redirected from neighbouring Antigua or the African nation of Angola. Deliberately low-key, the island also tends to be overlooked because of its flashy close cousins, the jet-set island of St. Barts (10 minutes south by small plane), and the joint Dutch-French possession of St. Maarten/St. Martin, a major Caribbean destination and travel hub with many regular flights from Canada.
Easily reached from St. Maarten via an 11-kilometre ferry ride, Anguilla has been flying under the radar since the British first settled it with slaves in 1650. Flat, scrubby, dry and fairly featureless apart from its ravishing beaches (the north side has ocean bluffs and a pretty, hilly lookout), the limestone and coral island was long left to goats and the deliciously sweet giant crayfish that congregate on its offshore reefs. Now a self-governing UK dependency and tax haven, it still has only six traffic lights, no real urban area (the main centre, the Valley, is not much more than that), and an easygoing, gregarious population of 15,000 locals with far fewer surnames (everyone you meet seems to be a Richardson or a Gumbs).
Most strikingly, Anguilla, unlike many vacation spots in the West Indies, has absolutely no chain hotels, high-rise condos, cruise ships, casinos, swanky nightclubs or shopping malls. Instead, along with day trippers from St. Maarten, the island attracts about 50,000 overnight visitors a year who raid their bank accounts to stay an average four days at the discrete boutique hotels and exclusive upscale resorts ($900 and up per night for a double room). The languid seashore on the breathtaking bays of the island’s western half is particularly popular, where Rendezvous Bay and Meads Bay are two favourite havens.
A wide range of rental villas are also available: lavish ones patronized by celebrities like actor Robert de Niro can start at $50,000 per week. While mid-range hotels and even cheaper options under $200 per night exist, Anguilla’s emphasis is definitely on luxury with a laidback, unfussy twist.
“It’s about being chic, but casual; what people like to call ‘barefoot elegance,’ you know?” explains Chantelle Richardson, graciously spending the day escorting me around her island. “Anguilla’s too small and slow a place for snobbery or pretension. Nobody would ever come here to show off; they come to unwind and completely escape in the most relaxing way we can offer.”
Chantelle and I had just come from seeing Cap Juluca (capjuluca.com; doubles from $1300), probably Anguilla’s premiere resort, a Moorish extravaganza of domed, whitewashed guest compounds featuring Moroccan rugs, multiple bedrooms, courtyard lap pools, plant-filled solariums and the hyper-real panorama of Maunday’s Bay Beach just outside the French windows. Now, though, we were loitering beside food shacks on the curb of a dusty thoroughfare in the Valley eating the island’s best corn soup, cooked in a big pot with “sun, spices and the right amount of shade” by 85-year-old Mabel Gumbs under the boughs of an overhanging tree.
Looking around at the pecking chickens and sleepy dogs, the lack of commercialization and laconic pace of life, I could easily understand why Anguilla is often referred to as the way the Caribbean used to be. Although its resorts are jaw dropping —another one, Zemi Beach House (zemibeach.com; doubles from $800) sports tiered infinity pools like a Babylonian garden along with a spa in a transplanted 300-year-old Thai pagoda — what stays with visitors is the island’s unassuming charm and colourful houses, the children who dawdle with goats en route to school, and the affability of its inhabitants, always ready to chat with sunburned strangers.
But the island also holds other treasures. Hidden in the tangle of scrub and palms are over 100 restaurants, more per acre than Manhattan, and the vibrant food scene is rated as the West Indies’ best. International accolades aside, the island’s culinary vibe is as relaxed and casual as everything else. When I went to well-known Blanchards (blanchardsrestaurant.com) for spiny lobster, geckos followed me in the door; on the terrace at Veya (veya-axa.com), a bird seemed to have read the rave reviews and filched at what might have been the last of the Moroccan spiced shrimp cigars (it’s on the menu, along with conch carpaccio with chayote slaw). Complimented on the roasted-tomato chermoula (an Arabic marinade), owner Carrie Bogar said she had sourced the tomatoes from the taxi driver dozing behind his newspaper in front of the restaurant.
Ultimately, though, every day in Anguilla is a beach day. You can snorkel the reefs, hunt down hidden coves, commune with dolphins (try Captain’s Beach) or listen to local reggae legend Bankie Banx serenade the waves at his bar, Dune Preserve, built from driftwood. (Moonsplash, the jubilant music festival he founded, takes place annually the second week of March).
On my last afternoon, I went for a sea cruise to Prickly Pear, two deserted islands of blinding white sand 10 kilometres offshore. When we left to return to Anguilla, I stood at the launch’s prow watching a team of clearly visible barracuda prowling the shallows and shuddered at the thought of my immanent departure into frigid orbits. Elvis Raun, the boat’s captain, saw me twitch, and shouted concernedly, “Feeling lightheaded by the sun and sand, Mr. Canada?”
“Always,” I replied, “always,” as, once again, I dusted sand like icing sugar from my shorts.
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