I’m standing on a tree-thicketed cliff, 40ft above Little Bay. The soil is crumbling under my feet. Lemon-yellow butterflies flicker in and out of branches. The pint-sized cove below me, stashed midway along Anguilla’s northern coastline, is devoid of loungers and umbrellas. That’s because it can only be reached by boat. Or by lowering yourself down a thick rope, somewhat precariously fastened to a large rock atop the cliff. My plan is the latter. Fins and snorkel tucked into my backpack, stomach doing somersaults, I take the chunky thing in my hands, and begin easing myself down.
My Anguillan adventure kicked off just a few days previously. Even back then, it was clear this was no ordinary Caribbean island.
Flying into the neighbouring island of St Maarten, I caught a ferry shuttle that whisked me away from the casinos, traffic and forested peaks towards a limestone hump a local guide described as “what the other islands are not”. I asked what she meant. Anguilla is not like St Maarten, with its crowds and fast-food restaurants, was the proud reply. It’s not like St Bart’s, either, apparently, where people go to be seen (“Here, they come not to be seen.”). And it’s not like Antigua… well, you get the picture.
Another local, Farah Mukhida, of the Anguilla National Trust, told me that when she first moved here from Nova Scotia, she flew from St Maarten. “From the air, it looked small and flat,” she said. “I was thinking, what have I done? But once you get here and start exploring, you find some really spectacular places.”
Farah and her friends were the first to show me Little Bay. The National Trust provides guided walks on Anguilla from $50 (£32), and we left her office in The Valley, the island’s tiny capital, to walk down mahogany-lined Coronation Avenue, towards one of its most idyllic beaches, Crocus Bay. Along the way, we passed several ruined relics of Anguilla’s past — a 19th-century limestone church built by slaves, a Dutch-style house now sadly boarded up, its trees said to be haunted by jumbies (ghosts), a rundown entrance to an old plantation, and a payphone fixed to a hurricane-thrashed tree stump.
We turned east before Crocus Bay, climbing up a series of corkscrew bends, growing sweaty in the Caribbean heat. We left the road near the Ani Art Academies, ducking through the trees and emerging to this wonderful view of emerald-green waters lapping against honeycomb sands.
“It looks good, eh?” Farah smiled.
It did. But that’s no surprise. Anguilla is an off-radar island compared with big hitters like Antigua, Barbados, St Lucia and St Maarten, but its beaches rival the very best. Limestone powders nicely over the millennia, you see. To the south west, Rendezvous Bay curves like a pirate’s cutlass. Overlooked by leafy bluffs, the sandbar at Sandy Ground — the island’s best nightlife strip — is a double-page magazine spread in the making. Offshore cays like Prickly Pear and Sandy Island boast some of the island’s best-loved restaurants. Long Bay is another looker. Shoal Bay is fringed by palm trees. And so it continues.
Anguilla is no secret, of course. Snowbirds come for winter. Author Dan Brown has a holiday home overlooking the golf course at CuisinArt Golf Resort & Spa. Elizabeth Taylor and Oprah Winfrey were guests at Malliouhana — recently rebooted as an Auberge Resort. But those who know and love the island would definitely prefer to keep it to themselves. One evening, for example, I’m tucking into a Caribbean buffet at Anacaona Boutique Hotel’s Firefly Restaurant, watching a colourful show by the Mayoumba Folkloric Theatre — a singing troupe in traditional costumes. Midway through, its leader singles me out as a travel writer who will use his “big voice” to bring more visitors to Anguilla. An English woman turns her head.
“Oh no,” she implores. “Let’s keep it as it is!”
Anguilla is a British Overseas Territory, the most northerly of the eastern Caribbean’s Leeward Islands. At just 16 miles long, and home to barely 15,000 souls, it’s a mere speck. Running water and electricity didn’t arrive until the 1970s, and at times the place seems pretty rough and ready — potholed roads, rusty boats and boarded-up buildings give an unpolished feel. But there’s a jolly, irrepressible character too — a joie de vivre in its hand-painted signs, ramshackle food trucks and laid-back locals. Couple this with Anguilla’s biggest surprise — it boasts around 100 restaurants — and you have something pretty special.
That’s not to say it’s a backpacker Shangri-La, however. Anguilla’s balmy climate, stunning bays and luxury resorts like the Viceroy Anguilla and CuisinArt ensure it remains, for the most part, pricey and exclusive. Anguillan aficionados love the fact they can park themselves by an exquisite infinity pool one day, and rent a buggy to explore the backroads, find a cove to themselves, or sink their teeth into a tub of barbecue chicken in The Valley the next.
I ate like a king on Anguilla. Something unique is going on with the foodie scene here, I reckon — something that goes way beyond tourism. I tucked into teppanyaki at Tokyo Bay, CuisinArt’s Japanese restaurant. I ate fresh seafood at Cobá, overlooking Meads Bay at the Viceroy. At Mallihouana, I sat on what felt like the deck of a luxury yacht and was blown away by the artful arrangements, balanced flavours and nutritional edge to Jeremy Bearman’s cooking. The chef came to Anguilla via New York’s Rouge Tomate and Las Vegas’s L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, I learn, and there’s a breathtaking finesse to his blend of US, Mediterranean and Caribbean dishes. For a light lunch, try the yellowfin tuna poke with jicama, Asian pear, black sesame, red onion and sherry vinaigrette — it’s at once airy, spicy, plush and elegant. This kind of healthy fine dining is way ahead of the curve for the Caribbean, but I’m not at all surprised to find the envelope being pushed in Anguilla.
While you’ll pay a small fortune to eat and drink at the island’s top resorts, the most vivid memory cost me all of $4 (£2.60). That came courtesy of Ken’s BBQ, a makeshift kitchen patched together from old oil drums, sheets of wood, hanging bulbs and improvised tarps in The Valley. Here, I found big grills crammed with chicken thighs and pork ribs, lathered in a tangy marinade and cooked to crispy-skinned perfection. Pure, unadulterated street food.
“Try the secret sauce,” the grill man told me, shrouded in smoke and dripping with perspiration. “It’s the best in the world. If you don’t like it, you get your money back.”
When I ordered at the counter, my chicken was picked off the heat with tongs, slapped onto a chopping board, whacked to pieces with a cleaver and served in a Styrofoam tray. I squirted it with the sauce. It was sweet and smoky, catching hold of the chicken and firing it down my throat. Around me, locals flapped like moths to Ken’s flame, grabbing takeaway, hanging out. The barbecue chicken operation has been here 20 years, one told me. Ken’s is the top-rated Valley eatery on TripAdvisor, said another.
Needless to say, I didn’t ask for my money back.
That’s just the start of the eating, too. In fact, you could do a full-blown foodie-themed visit to Anguilla. There’s Smokey’s at The Cove, for coconut shrimp, or da’Vida, on Crocus Bay, for grilled lobster. The Valley Bistro is good for breakfasts, pancakes and fish ’n’ chips. Pizza is a thing in these parts (and a good thing). The chef at CuisinArt’s Italian restaurant is from Italy. The Pumphouse on Sandy Ground does a mean British banger. Johnno’s, across the sandbar, doesn’t just do a whopping great snapper, it does jazz on Sundays too.
Over a couple of days on the island, I live the dream, basing myself in the five-star luxury of the Viceroy Anguilla and CuisinArt, both overlooking gorgeous beaches and bluffs on opposite sides of the island. Striking out when the mood takes me, I drop into the Heritage College Museum, where the curator, Colville Petty, presides over a personal collection of Anguillan artifacts, ranging from leg irons and cannonballs to an Arawak axe head he’d found on Meads Bay. I stop by the workshop and gallery of Cheddie Richardson, a local sculptor who trawls the beaches for driftwood and coral to transform into animal forms.
“You find a lot after hurricanes,” I’m told.
I hit the water. Anguilla’s snorkelling never really appeals, due to a legacy of coral bleaching, hurricane damage and overfishing (the best diving is on its wrecks and offshore cays), but its glistening seas are peachy for sailing. One Saturday, I hook up with Deborah Vos and her partner, Laurie Gumbs, owner of the Pumphouse. They take me out for the afternoon on a beautiful 50ft Carriacou sloop called Tradition. Built on a beach in the 1970s out of wood from the jungle in Grenada, she’s the only surviving West Indian gaff-rigged sloop built to trade under sail.
“She’s the last of her kind,” Laurie purrs, cracking open a beer as the mast and boom groan gorgeously above us. When the sails are up, and the engine is cut, everything clicks. We float along the coast, stop to swim, shoot the breeze and eat a gourmet lunch of meats and cheeses that including a homemade pork pate made by Mark Alvarez, chef at the Pumphouse.
That’s Anguilla — even in a beach bar, they love their food.
On Rendezvous Bay, I join Judson Burdon, of Anguilla Watersports, for a sunset paddle along the coast. Judson worked in ecommerce before relocating here from Canada to offer SUP (Stand-up Paddling) and kite-surfing tours. As we paddle, a turtle zips under our boards, followed by a spotted eagle ray. Judson dives in, surfacing with a huge red starfish. I whip off my hat and shades and pile into the ocean after him.
“This is the shit,” he says. I have to agree.
The more I explore, the more Anguillans I meet. There’s reggae musician, Bankie Banx, who runs the Moonsplash Festival every March at Dune Preserve, a tumbledown beach bar just a short walk from CuisinArt. Bankie sups a Scotch as we talk, breaking tobacco into a bowl, never removing his shades.
“I wrote most of my songs taking a long walk by the beach or coast,” he tells me. “I love the cliffs, the rocks, the offshore cays. I played in London and New York. But I always knew what I had here.”
There’s local boatbuilder, David Carry. I meet him in his yard, close to the salt lake at Sandy Ground, where he tells me about the proud tradition of boatbuilding and racing on the island. He shows me an old boat he’s hoping to restore, lying derelict under a tree. “This is a poor man’s boat,” he says. “But it kept body and soul together for 100 years on Anguilla, through fishing and smuggling.” He shakes his head at the notion that all Caribbean islands are the same.
“Anguilla is a little, two-by-four place, but don’t get me wrong, we still like to think of ourselves as the centre of the world.”
The longer I stay, the more I lean towards that view. Sure, you’ll find more spectacular scenery in the Caribbean — you only have to look over the water to St Maarten for that. Sure, Anguillans could look after heritage buildings like the ones Farah and I passed on our walk a bit better — rather than boarding them up and leaving them be. Sure, there’s no shopping to speak of. But wasn’t that the whole point? Back at the ferry terminal, wasn’t I told that Anguilla was, “what the other islands are not”?
Slowly but surely, this mix of white sands and hurricane-battered coast, of sizzling street food and top-notch resort fare, of rustic charm and high-end holiday sophistication works its magic. Who needs Starbucks? Who needs casinos or cruise ships? Soaking up the fresh air, eating well, swimming in warm water and feeling a glow on your skin… that’s Anguilla for me.
First, however, there’s the small matter of a 40ft rope descent. I remind myself not to look below, take one short step after another, and gradually lower myself down the rock face. It’s not as bad as I’d feared. The rope is solid, the footholds are easy to find, and I’m done in less than a minute. A last, three- or four-foot leap, and my feet plunge into brown-sugar sands.
Little Bay, let’s be having you!
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly direct from Gatwick to Antigua, from where LIAT flies once daily to Anguilla. KLM flies via Amsterdam to St Maarten, while Air France flies via Paris to St Maarten. From here, catch a 30-minute small-ferry connection (or seven-minute flight) from Anguilla (Funtime Charters departs from opposite Princess Juliana airport).
Average flight time: 10h.
Anguilla is just 16 miles long, safe, English-speaking and driving is on the left. Hire cars through Island Car Rental.
When to go
Rainy season is September to October, with February and March the driest months and temperatures in the 20C range. Peak season is December to April. May to August and November sees the best deals, but a greater chance of rain.
Need to know
Visas: No visa necessary for UK citizens — just a passport with at least six months’ validity. Visitors must pay a $28 (£18) departure tax on leaving Anguilla.
Currency: Eastern Caribbean dollar (EC$) and US dollar ($). £1 = EC$4.1/$1.5.
Health: Get routine vaccinations before travel, and take precautions against mosquitoes, which are a nuisance.
International dial code: 00 1 264.
Time: GMT -4.
How to do it
Western & Oriental offers seven nights at the Viceroy Anguilla, including flights to St Maarten with Air France, transfers and breakfasts, from £1,990 per person.
Tropic Breeze has flights with Air France, all transfers (boat and land) and seven nights in a sea-view Junior Suite at CuisinArt Golf Resort & Spa from £2,149 per person, based on select dates from November 2015.
Published in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)