When Irma — a Category 5 hurricane — tore across the Leeward Islands, Anguilla was directly in her path. Yet, this 91-square-kilometre limestone island, which relies on tourists filling its hotels, eating at its fine restaurants and enjoying an impressive 33 pristine beaches ranging from long, sandy white swaths to secluded coves, took it in stride. It’s a testament to Anguillians’ character — and their ability to recover quicker after each successive hurricane — that, for the most part, the island was ready for tourists just six months later.
Sandy Island was one of a few exceptions. Fifteen months after Irma, I find myself on a cigarette boat headed for this tiny cay just 15 minutes off the main island that has been billed as “quite possibly one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever visit.” Steadying myself to take a photo, I’m surprised to see a mere sliver of sand, naked but for a makeshift trailer, framing for a café and patio, and a handful of wooden picnic tables shaded by umbrellas emblazoned with beer logos. The scene is a far cry from the offshore oasis — landscaped with palm trees and flowering shrubs, a row of beach loungers with orange sun umbrellas awaiting sunbathers and private yachts and chartered cruise boats bobbing offshore — of pre-Irma photos.
Irma is the eighth hurricane to reshape Sandy Island since 1984, when it opened to tourists with a traditional drum-pan barbecue grill and a cooler stocked with cold beer. This time round, the reef all but disappeared beneath the water, returning bit by bit as the sand washed in with the tides. We count ourselves lucky to be able to indulge in Crusoe’s delicious heaping plates of grilled crayfish, lobster, mahi-mahi or other grilled fish with macaroni salad, a green salad, coleslaw and rice and beans — a feast well worth the US$30 to US$60 cost, depending on your choice of seafood.
Back on the main island, the scars are minor — a piece of tin roof wedged high in the branches of a tree; a new roof being laid on an old church; one or two boarded up houses; and the final touches being put on a few hotels, including the posh Belmond Cap Juluca on Maundays Bay, readying for a late December opening. I do, however, see a beautiful sign of transformation and renewal: early on our first morning, a double rainbow hangs in the sky above our villa, near enough, so it seems, to touch.
The slower recovery of neighbouring St. Maarten — where most visitors to Anguilla arrive by air before catching a charter boat — is a bigger concern. From September 2017 through to December 2018, visitors flying into Princess Juliana International Airport had to line up for customs in a big event tent before joining a free-for-all to retrieve their luggage; delays and power outages were a common inconvenience. That situation spurred Anguilla to hire a Canadian Crown corporation to fast-track expansion plans for Clayton J. Lloyd International Airport that will see the runway extended to two kilometres from a current 182 metres, allowing international carriers to land a Boeing 737, for example.
Anguilla isn’t on most Canadians’ radars, something Anguilla Tourism hopes to change by increasing its marketing efforts in Canada. Don’t worry, though, this sleepy British Overseas Territory isn’t likely to be overrun with tourists anytime soon. That’s because Canadians looking to escape winter with an annual trek south often choose all-inclusive resorts with unlimited cocktails and food and a nice beach at a bargain price. Anguilla, by design, caters more toward the exclusive, luxury market though there is affordable accommodation particularly in low season. For my money, I’ll take the warm Anguillian welcome over a bargain all-inclusive experience any day. If you decide to get to this private paradise before word gets out, here are a few recommendations to get you started:
On the water
“You haven’t seen Anguilla until you’ve seen it from the water,” is a frequent refrain from the locals. It does prove to be a great way to get acquainted with the island. Calypso Charters planned a tour that took us along the north shore, with Captain “Little” Eddie pointing out key sights and offering tidbits, such as where NBA star Michael Jordan likes to stay and which restaurant is rumoured to have put the kibosh on pop singer Justin Bieber’s attempt to commandeer tables. We were glad Eddie was steering our course when the water became too choppy for us to head to Prickly Pear Island from Sandy Island.
A repeat winner of the Champion of Champions sail boat race, Eddie knows these waters better than most. As it turned out, Little Bay — a secluded beach reached only by a steep climb down a rock face with your beach necessities hung on your back, or from the water — proved a perfect place to end our cruise. Jumping into the azure waters to swim among sea turtles, surrounded by layered limestone of coral to grey, highlighted by the late afternoon sun, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in paradise. A rope attached to Pelican Rock — a pillar rising nine metres out of the water — lets the more adventurous experience cliff diving on a small scale. Semi-private excursions with Calypso Charters Anguilla (www.calypsochartersanguilla.com/) start at $140 a person.
Sunset cruises, a popular Caribbean excursion, can feel like boozing it up with a boatload of strangers. However, two-hours aboard The Tradition felt more like we were spending an intimate evening with friends. That’s because the Tradition, a West Indian trading sloop built in Grenada in 1978, holds just 12 passengers and a friendly crew of three. While Anguilla born captain Laurie Gumbs goes through safety instructions — mind the boom, hold on to the ropes and be prepared to shift sides when tacking — and a brief history of the sloop’s career as a trader in goods and contraband alcohol and cigarettes until the 1990s, first mate Deborah Vos, who was raised in Alberta, passes round Mango Bellinis. After an exhilarating sail from Sandy Ground to Little Bay, we anchor just after sunset to enjoy a spread of French cheeses, charcuterie and grilled watermelon with a glass of rosé beneath a canopy of stars. The Tradition Sailing Sundowner Cruise (www.tradition-sailing.com/) costs US$175 a person.
For those travelling in a group, there are plenty of private villa options with varying prices.
For a special occasion with your besties, you may want to retreat to the luxurious Four Seasons Resort and Residences (www.fourseasons.com/anguilla/), on Anguilla’s northwest shore, order up champagne and strawberries and take advantage of a private outdoor oasis with an infinity plunge pool overlooking Barnes Bay Beach. At sunset, take your private path to the beach and float in the ocean as the stars slowly reveal themselves. Private villas at Four Seasons Resorts range from US$4,800 to US$15,000 a night.
Tucked into a hillside above Crocus Bay, CéBlue Villas and Beach Resort (www.ceblueanguilla.com/) is a quiet, very private spot to enjoy a cocktail at sunset on the top deck of your villa. Each of the eight five-bedroom private villas affords a spectacular view, and no room disappoints. Vaulted ceilings with teak beams, a rain shower with river rock flooring, and a soaker tub with a view of garden or ocean offers a sense of serenity. With each villa sporting a saltwater pool, a private patio with barbecue, and a fully equipped kitchen, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to leave. But you may not want to miss out on the onsite spa and fitness facilities; or lounging on Crocus Bay Beach, where private beach chairs and umbrellas await; lunching at the Bayside Grill; or dressing up for dinner at Da’Vida. A five-bedroom villa in peak season costs US$1,995 (or US$400 per couple) a night and includes use of the fitness and spa facilities, a hot breakfast and afternoon cocktails at the clubhouse.
Mango’s Seaside Grill (mangosseasidegrill.com/) at Barnes Bay got back to business as usual a year after Irma destroyed the restaurant. Run by Americans David and Kim Coburn, who bought Mango’s with a partner in 1995 and became sole owners in 2009, the grill is known for preparing classic Anguilla dishes from fresh local ingredients. I recommend the trigger fish — locally referred to as “old wife” fish because its firm, sweet-tasting white flesh is often stewed — served with an orange and caper sauce, a vegetable medley of zucchini, broccoli and carrots, and rice and beans; a whole grilled yellowtail snapper and the Barnes Bay lobster-cake appetizer also got good reviews. Three courses with wine or a cocktail costs about US$100.
Fifty years after the late David and Vida Lloyd started Anguilla’s first hotel, the Guest House, in 1959, their offspring, David and Vida opened Da’Vida Restaurant (davidaanguilla.com/restaurant/). Soaring ceilings, plush cushions and plenty of mahogany give this veranda-style restaurant on Crocus Bay Beach an air of colonialism but the dishes are decidedly Asian Caribbean fusion. The ahi tuna tartar with mango, cucumber and scallions, and an orange and soy vinaigrette, was a perfect prelude to tamarind glazed sea scallops and a vegetable stir fry on black sesame soba noodles. Tempting desserts include mango-coconut panna cotta and coconut crème brulé. The complimentary 10-seat shuttle service is a great perk. Three courses with a cocktail or glass of wine costs US$100 a person.
Watching the sunset overlooking Barnes Bay from Sunset Lounge at Four Seasons Resort (fourseasons.com/anguilla/dining/lounges/sunset-lounge/) is a ritual for many regulars. Its hand-rolled sushi and unique Thai dishes are delightfully delicious and an extensive list of cocktails, wine and vintage rums mix well with the reggae-tinged tracks spun by the DJ or sung by a live band. The Mona Lisa, Last Emperor and Serpent sushi dishes make for a great Instagram post if they aren’t devoured first. No tallying the cost here, just enjoy.
The writer was a guest of Anguilla Tourism. The organization did not review the article.