Getting there is half the fun
29.04.2010 - 05.05.2010
“No, An-GWILL-a,” I repeated for the third time with a sigh.
“Yes, yes, An-geeeee-ah.”
I was obviously not getting through to the man from USAir. The fact that I was trying to book a flight to an island he had obviously never heard of was not helping matters, nor was the fact that English was quite obviously not his first language.
“Okay. I have you booked for two, departing April 29, returning May 5 to An-geeeee-ah.”
The fact that the guy helping me with my Dividend Miles reservation had never heard of this island might have struck fear into the heart of some, but it simply made me more certain that I had made the right choice. Whatever. Let him pronounce it however he wanted. I was on my way to Anguilla!!!
Having traveled to the nearly perfect island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands every May since 2001, Matt and I were itching to try something new. We love St. John, but we felt the lure of secret and hidden places ….. places where there was something new to discover around every turn in the road, places with virgin sand that our feet had not yet been buried in, places with strange new waters and mysterious corners, places that no one had heard of and couldn’t pronounce.
As I did my search of the Caribbean islands, this little name kept popping up. Always with it were words that were like music to my soul: off the beaten path, exclusive, hard to reach, private, remote, undeveloped, small and serene. With no direct flights and no cruise ships, no casinos or high rise resorts, no shopping malls or chain stores….Anguilla seemed to be my kind of place. Anguilla lured me in.
THURSDAY: TRAVEL DAY BITES
We reached Anguilla by flying into Dutch St. Maarten, taking a cab from the airport to Marigot (French St. Martin), and grabbing a ferry to Blowing Rock, Anguilla. This process was similar to the process to reach St. John, so it seemed old hat to us and before we knew it, we saw Anguilla bobbing in the distance, like a tiny jewel floating on the blue sea. I could feel the excitement welling up inside me. I felt like a child on the tram to Disney World.
We noticed a difference between Anguilla and the other Caribbean islands we have visited almost the minute our ferry pulled up.
“Here, you two go in front of me,” said the local gentleman in his beautiful accent. His mountain of luggage was piled high, and it was obvious that he was as hot and travel weary as we were as we waited in the customs line just after getting off the ferry in Anguilla. “You are starting your vacation. You go first.”
Matt and I looked at each other, suspicious. What did he want? Was he going to steal my suitcase when I wasn’t looking? Had he put drugs in my pocket? Did he want a tip for letting us go first?
We figured out quickly that he was simply being generous and kind for absolutely no reason. Must have been an anomaly, because while folks weren’t exactly hateful on some other islands we’d been to, there was generally an underlying current of something less than pleasant in most of our encounters, no matter how polite we were. Deciding that he was unusual, and preparing ourselves to be treated the way we usually are, we braced ourselves and pushed our luggage outside to find our villa rep, Jackie.
We were early and she hadn’t arrived. We could wait, but it was HOT. I had the phone number, but our cell phones were not getting any reception. Matt tried the pay phone but came back with his shoulders shrugged.
“Doesn’t work,” he said, “I guess we can just wait.”
Another local gentleman, standing outside the ferry office walked up. Uh-oh. Here goes, I thought. Now we’ll get treated the way I am used to. I smiled, hoping for the best.
“Would you like to use my cell phone?” he asked as he extended his phone to Matt and I.
Ashamed of my preconceived notions and embarrassed that I had so quickly judged an island of people that I didn’t even know, I smiled gratefully. After no luck dialing, a taxi driver watching the exchange came over to see if he could also help.
“I know Jackie,” he said. “I’ll find her for you.”
He walked off and returned moments later to tell us she was on her way.
We learned that Anguillans were the nicest people on earth. From the guy that picked up the money Matt had dropped and chased him a city block to return it, to the stranger that helped us pump gas as he was walking by and could tell we were having trouble. From the sweet girls that helped me search all over Savannah Bay to find Matt’s sunglasses to Nat who had them inside all along, tucked away safely when Matt forgot them.
Friendly folks, these Anguillans.
Jackie was there in a flash and we were whisked away to L’Embellie Villa on Forest Bay, just a hop, skip, and a jump from the airport. L’Embellie stunned me into silence. I have never entered a more perfect place. The gated entry led to a manicured parking area. That led to a beautiful mahogany door that led into the expansive grounds. As we walked down the beautifully tiled paths that wound their way through extensively landscaped grounds filled with tall palm trees, banana trees, and brilliant bursts of flowers, I saw a small gingerbread guest cottage on one side with a patio and a hammock (one of 3 hammocks on the property!) and a neat storage house on the other that was filled with beach chairs and umbrellas, coolers, snorkel gear, etc.
As we continued down the path, the sparkling blue of the swimming pool came into view and we crossed a small wooden bridge that went right across the center of the pool. Around the pool were numerous patios filled with furniture and an outdoor shower. Bougainvillea spilled off the white stucco walls and tall palm trees waved lazily in the breeze. Behind the villa was a large yard with lounge chairs shaded by palms and two paths to the white sand beach that sat at the gate, fringed by the blue sea. The villa itself was beautifully appointed, rich with mahogany and cool tiles, windows to the front opening to the cool blue pool and windows to the back opening to the sea. The back of the house also had a covered patio that ran the entire length and the master bedroom was huge with a giant outdoor shower. My favorite spot, however, had to the rooftop patio that caught the delicious, ever blowing breeze and looked across the waves of Forest Bay.
Jackie showed us around and we said our goodbyes. We looked in the fridge and found a surprise gift of wine and Carib, a block of cheese, crackers, bread, milk, butter, and eggs.
L’Embellie was a slice of heaven. I could never leave the villa and I would be perfectly happy here.
After the business end of travel day was over and done, we celebrated our arrival on Anguilla with dinner at the Barrel Stay. As we neared the happy little restaurant in Sandy Ground and I saw the twinkling lights strung in the palm trees and saw the tables sitting in the edge of the sand as the waves lapped gently in the setting sun, I knew that this was going to be a wonderful week.
My heart sighed, my muscles relaxed, my mind let go of all the worries of the world, and I breathed in my first real breath of vacation air.
Dinner was a wonderful affair. Jill was a gracious hostess and her beautiful accent, flowing gown and flowers wound in her hair immediately set a tropical and elegant tone to the evening. We had rum punch followed by a shrimp tempura appetizer that was topped with mango salsa and a side of greens. We also tried the famous fish soup, with the crunch croutons and zesty cheese. Dinner for me was the crispy maple leaf duck leg and for Matt it was the blackened snapper. For dessert, we washed travel day away with a dark chocolate tart with a chili lime sauce and a scoop of Bailey’s ice cream on a butter shortbread spoon.
Eating well is a right on Anguilla. It is as sure a thing as the facts that there will be sand in your bed at night no matter what you do and that you will get at least one bug bite no matter how much Deet you coat yourself in. Whether you dine barefoot on the beach under the stars, at a picnic table in an open air hut, in an elegant restaurant or at an outdoor patio, the experience is going to be a culinary delight. And it was.
Delicious. Decadent. Rich. Perfect.
Little did we know as the last rays of the sun dripped into the ever changing sea, these were words that would not only describe dinner that night, but would describe our week on Anguilla.
FRIDAY: SHOAL BAY EAST, WHERE IT IS HAPPY HOUR ALL DAY LONG
We had chosen Shoal Bay East for our “Anguilla Day One” beach because I had read one time to many that it was “the most beautiful beach on Anguilla….possible the entire Caribbean.” Why not start off with the best, right?
We immediately found getting around on Anguilla to be super easy. There is one main road that runs east to west. Follow it. Turn when you see a sign to what you are trying to get to. It really was that simple. After that first day, we didn’t even need the map.
Shoal Bay East is what I surmised was the “premier” beach on Anguilla. The western end of the beach is home to several resorts as well as some beach front restaurants and bars. Lots of chairs and umbrellas are set out and it has a very resorty feel to it. Walk just a few minutes west to the far western end of the beach and enter an entirely different world. We parked at Gwen’s Reggae Grill on the west end, referred to as Upper Shoal Bay East and we were smitten.
I did my “I’m finally at the beach” happy dance, something between Pee Wee Herman and a really bad cheer, and beach day was officially underway.
The only life on the beach were two local fishermen and a baby nurse shark that kept skirting the edge of the sand.
It was like having our own private beach for the day. The sand was sensuously soft, blindingly white, and the water an electric blue. Nestled in a palm grove, we heard the rustling of the branches waving like music in the morning sunshine.
We walked to the far corner where Serenity cottages were tucked quietly on the hillside, their colorful shack of a bar built right into the stone cliff at the beach’s edge. Matt became quick friends with “Janet from Jamaica” who he swears makes the best Bahama Mama he has ever had.
We spent the day walking the long expanse of the beach, usually not seeing another soul until we reached the more popular end of the beach where music pumped out of Uncle Ernie’s and mixed with the smells of grilled fish and bbq ribs. We grabbed one of Ernie’s $5 famous rum punches and enjoyed the lively atmosphere and the friendly people.
When we’d had enough, we’d walk back along the completely deserted beach to Gwen’s, where our two chairs were the only two on the beach.
When the smell of Gwen’s grill was more than we could resist, we walked up to her porch, salty and sandy, and grabbed more rum punch as well as bbq chicken and grilled lobster.
The smells of the grill, the sounds of the waves, and the visual display of blues and greens before my eyes was intoxicating.
Okay, maybe it was all the rum punch.
Regardless, I felt like I was in a dream, the beauty of it was more than I could take in.
When we were lazy from sun and food and swimming, we dragged our bodies back to L’Embellie to cool off in the pool and catch a breezy nap in a hammock.
Because it was Friday night, we decided to try Roy’s Bayside Grill in Sandy Ground for the Friday Night Happy Hour.
We learned 2 things: 1) The Happy Hour fish n chips are only served in the casual beachside pavilion, not the main restaurant and 2) they don’t take food orders until 6:00 p.m. Both were fine with us as we grabbed two big stools at the Happy Hour bar as the sun started its slow descent.
Matt kept trying to order a frozen drink despite being told over and over that they didn’t have a blender in this bar, you had to go to the main bar for a frozen drink. Obviously the 7 rum punches of the day had done his brain in and finally, the bartender took pity on him and said, “You just tell me what you want. I go get it at the other bar for you.” She kept him supplied in frozen drinks the rest of the night despite the fact that they “don’t serve frozen drinks at that bar.”
Friendly folks, these Anguillans.
Precisely at 6:00 p.m. the servers showed up and took the order of everyone who had arrived. Within minutes, we had giant plates of crispy fried fish and french fries. Washed down with Malibu rum and pineapple juice, a fan blowing a sweet breeze across my freckled and sunburned nose, that might have been the best fish I ever had.
After dinner, we headed down to the Sand Bar for drinks. What a gorgeous place! Right at the water’s edge with cool sofas and great tables right at the sea, we ordered two shots of their homemade pineapple rum. SUPERGOOD! Once I saw the menu, I was wishing I had room for food. After another cocktail, we called it a night and made our way back to L’Embellie for a night of rum soaked sleep.
SATURDAY: A LITTLE TASTE OF ITALY ON THE BEACH
After such a perfect first day, we almost felt like we could just go home, but we still had 4 more days to enjoy Anguilla’s 33 luxurious beaches. Not sure which one we wanted to call home for the day, we decided to do a little “beach tour” of the west end.
Trying to decide between Cove Bay, Rendezvous Bay, and Shoal Bay West, we just went to all of them to see what they had to offer. They were all beautiful, but Shoal Bay West won the prize when we saw the beach in front of Trattoria Tramonto.
Bright blue chairs littered the beach under bright palm trees and the smell of roasting garlic drifted through the air. The calm, clear water gently lapped the shore where the sand was blindingly white and as soft as sifted flour. Not one soul was on the beach. Not as far as I looked to the right or as far as I looked to the left. Again, it was like our own private beach for the day.
We settled into two chairs (free if you have lunch with them…and with the smells that were coming out of that place ….how could I NOT have lunch with them???). The morning was a lazy affair filled with slow walks, cool swims, light reading, and a little Bob Marley in the background.
We had lunch at the Trattoria.
We started off with two frozen mango daiquiris that were so good, we drank them fast enough to get a brain freeze. The cure? Get two more.
They brought out a basket of fresh sourdough and focaccia bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. For lunch, we ordered a Panini with prosciutto, mozzarella, tomatoes, and pesto served with a salad and delicate fried onions. We also ordered the penne pasta with a rich pork and beef Bolognese sauce. Lunch was finished off with two little almond cookies. I ate them both while Matt was in the bathroom. Unfortunately, I think the powdered sugar on my cheeks gave me away.
Luxurious. Opulent. Tranquil. The day went by in a slow haze of perfection.
It wasn’t until well after lunch that anyone else even showed up on the beach, and even then there were less than 10 people.
Rendezvous Bay had been so beautiful, we decided to stop at Bankie Banx’s Dune Preserve on the way back.
Dune Preserve is a magical place. When you first pull up to it, you’re pretty sure you’re in the wrong place. It sort of looks like an abandoned junk heap. However, the brightly painted entry way beckons you in.
“Park Outside. Walk Inside,” it says in cheerfully hand painted letters.
A combination of several old wooden boats, some plywood, some duct tape, some sand, and a few gallons of colorful paint, and you have the Dune. Defying gravity, this ramshackle collection of old chairs and driftwood sits perched so close to the water that you can practically dip your toes in the sea at the bar.
Bankie himself greeted us.
“Hello! What you havin’?” he asked, cheerfully.
“What’s the best thing you’ve got?” I asked.
“Oh, that a Duneshine, but we got no Duneshine right now. How about a rum punch? You like a rum punch?” he asked.
“Sounds good. Two rum punches,” I said.
He left and spoke to the bartender for a minute. He came right back.
“We got no rum punch. We got rum, but no punch. What else you like?”
“What else do you have?” I asked, eyeballing the bar and the three or four bottles behind it.
He again conferred with the bartender. He came back.
“We got rum. We got cranberry. We got margarita mix. And we got Coors beer.”
And that, my friends, is how I ended up with the worst tasting margarita of my life.
A bar with no drinks? So what! I was at the Dune. I was hanging with Bankie. I had the gentle waves of Rendezvous Bay lapping at my feet. I had my sweet husband laughing at my side as I grimaced with each swallow. It was all good.
Despite the fact that you may not know what they have from one day to the next, you have to go to the Dune if you are on Anguilla. The eclectic structure, the colorful people, and the stunning location make up for the lack of superior bar stock. I have heard that the live music is the best at the Dune, but each time we went, there was nothing scheduled, so I didn’t get to hear any of the bands, although I’m pretty sure they are better than the margaritas!!
When the afternoon lure of the villa pool was more than we could resist, we packed it in and called it a day. We’d had more than a few drinks that day, and as we neared the road that took us to our villa, the Jeremiah Gumbs Highway, Matt looked at me and said, “Are we at the Jumbo Gumbo Highway yet?”
When I realized he was dead serious and was not making a joke, I nearly peed my pants.
We called it the Jumbo Gumbo Highway from that point on.
Dinner that night was at Blanchard’s on Meads Bay. Ever since reading the book, “A Trip to the Beach,” I had wanted to eat at Blanchard’s on Anguilla. Was it everything I expected? Yes.
The sun was setting as we came to the happy blue shuttered cottage, dimly lit with candles and dotted with bright pink bougainvillea. We were seated at a perfect corner table in front of two giant open windows overlooking the beach. The restaurant was beautiful and the servers wonderful. I ordered a Caribbean Cosmo and they brought us a basket of warm rolls with butter and with a garlic and curry hummus.
Next up was an appetizer of fritters filled with chicken, ham, and cheeses. Matt and I both ordered the same entrée: The Caribbean Sampler. It was a tower and each plate held a treasure trove of Caribbean favorites. The first plate had tender lobster in a butter sauce with cooked carrot slices. The second plate was an oven crusted mahi-mahi with coconut, lime, and ginger with sides of sugar snaps and marinated purple cabbage. The third plate had a spicy jerk chicken with cinnamon bananas and mashed sweet potatoes.
For dessert, we had what was called the “cracked coconut.” It should have been called “coconut CRACK” because it was so good it could be highly addictive. A dark chocolate and coconut shell was filled with coconut ice cream and Bailey’s. Sinfully delicous.
I felt like I had done nothing but lay in the sun and eat since arriving on Anguilla. Worries, anxieties, tension had left my body. I felt warm, full, happy. My mind was at peace and my body was relaxed. Anguilla had brought a quietness to my soul and I was happy to continue to bask in her warm, sandy glow.