Far out in the well charted waters of the east Caribbean lies the Leeward Island chain, and at its northern tip is an utterly charming little strip of limestone called Anguilla. Its interior is arid, scrubby and overrun with semi-domesticated goats and chickens, but it is frilled with some of the most incredible beaches in the world. A short boat ride from Saint Martin, or about half an hour from Antigua by air, Anguilla’s imagined inaccessibility has made it a popular destination for celebrities wanting to get away from media intrusion. Its friendly people and natural beauty make it perfect for anyone wanting to get away from anything else.
The island’s especially apposite coat of arms is orange and aquamarine, and features not one but three gamboling dolphins, which is near as you can get to a universally understandable pictographic representation of “tropical fun times”.
Anguilla has a permanent population of around 17,000, less than 5 per cent of whom are ex-pats, and with relatively little in the way of onshore natural resources, tourism is a major industry. It’s only in the last 40 years or so that cars, paved roads, and electricity have become widespread, so go inland and it feels like a drier and more colourful rural Ireland. It is not a shopping destination. There are no luxury stores. There aren’t even international chains.
Let’s be upfront though, Anguilla is not for everyone. The tourism specialist Resonance Consultancy recently ranked it at number eight on their list of the top ten vacation destinations for the wealthiest 1 per cent. But if you have money, and like the contradictions inherent in the idea of unpretentious, low-key luxury, then Anguilla is absolutely the place to be.
The Island offers a wide range of options for tourist accommodation, from the merely sumptuous to the grotesquely opulent, and each of the resorts has a distinctive look and atmosphere. For instance, the spume-flung Cap Juluca is the place to go for retro-beach fun; Malliouhana combines Continental sophistication and quirky design for an enjoyably topsy-turvy effect – like a non-threatening version of The Village from The Prisoner; while the pristine Viceroy looks like it was designed by an uncharacteristically coquettish Albert Speer.
During my trip I stayed at Ani Villas and Zemi Beach House Resort and Spa. Importantly, both made fantastic pizza, but they are angling for different markets. The former is an extravagant, two villa, cliff-top estate, which would be ideal for group vacations. The villas, one with four bedrooms, and the other six, can be booked separately or together. There are pools, a garden, incredible views, and a friendly, attentive, but unobtrusive staff who go to considerable lengths to accommodate visitors’ desires, everything from tennis or child-minding, through to fully refitting the kitchen to meet the requirements of a strict kosher diet; they work with their clients to provide a bespoke holiday service.
Zemi Beach is less personalised, but no less luxurious. The resort, which had opened only the day before my visit, was newly constructed around a 300-year-old building, that had been shipped in from Thailand and reassembled on the site by a previous owner. The building, now remodelled as a spa complex, is a centrepiece and inspiration for the rest of the resort, which features many South-East Asian flourishes, both architectural and culinary. With a choice of rooms and self-contained suites (some of which are available for purchase), the resort fronts directly on to the magnificent Shoal Bay East beach. There is a Kids’ Club, a gym, two great pools, a tennis court, a boutique, a waterside eatery, and a restaurant for formal dining. The Rhum Room, which offers more than 140 rums, was sadly still under construction at the time of my visit, but having tasted some of the signature cocktails at the poolside bar I can see Zemi Beach becoming a destination for rum enthusiasts and aficionados alike. It’s done a great job hiring and training friendly, helpful staff, and once it is fully operational it will provide employment to more than 1% of the island’s population.
What to do? Eat! Anguilla is such a popular destination for foodies that most of the resorts offer half-board options so that visitors can take advantage of some of the island’s many and varied eateries. There are beach shacks, like Gwen’s Reggae Grill (just a sandy 5 minute stroll from Zemi Beach), or Smokey’s which does magnificent burgers and sweet potato fries. From the jetty at Sandy Ground you can catch the boat over to the privately owned Sandy Island, where you can spend the day swimming, and dining on only the freshest grilled lobster, served with a palate-expanding curry-vinaigrette dipping sauce. At the smart-casual end of the market Veya does food with accents of North Africa, and Straw Hat’s curry goat is rich, tender and quite simply sublime. Afterwards, drag yourself to a sun-lounger for a blissfully torpid afternoon.
And when I’m done relaxing? Although food is a big part of a vacation to Anguilla, the rocky terrain means that most of it is flown in. Some seafood, such as the sweet, delicately flavoured lobsters, are caught locally, and recently there has been something of a revival in small-scale market gardening, but a little company called Anguilla’s Jammin’ have turned an aquaponic garden into a source of ingredients for a range of exotic jams, and offer tours of the facility which combines traditional aquaculture with hydroponics in a largely closed system to raise freshwater fish and commercial crops such as chili peppers in a way that seems like science fiction, but will no doubt be commonplace to our descendants living in the domed colonies of Mars.
The national sport of Anguilla is sailing, so it would be a pity not to get out on the water. Tradition is a 50’ wooden sloop, built by hand in Grenada, in 1978, and it offers a range of trips with free-flowing mimosas. I took a half-day trip sailing along the coast to Little Bay, with a delicious picnic lunch and the opportunity to snorkel with turtles; this is the Caribbean of popular imagination.
The Anguilla Heritage Collection is an incredible labour of love by local historian and curator Colville Petty OBE. He has turned his home into a national museum, with each room focusing on a different period or theme. Covering everything from natural history to contemporary politics, it is a fascinating resource for anyone wanting to gain a better understanding of the forces that have shaped the island, and a testament to the incredible work of a man determined to preserve and celebrate his heritage. Petty deserves a knighthood.
To my pleasant surprise, it turns out that golf isn’t just an opportunity for rich old white guys to discuss market trends and enlarged prostates; it’s also a fun way to waste a morning. The Greg Norman-designed course at the CuisinArt Golf Resort and Spa is the only one on the island. Calibrated for players at all levels of skill and ability, it has great views of Rendezvous Bay, and there are little paved roads for the golf carts to zip along between holes, which gives it a bit of a theme park vibe, and helps dispel any remaining fears of foustiness. Though well acquainted with mini-golf (the Sport of Court Jesters), this was my first attempt at the real thing. I expected to be appalling, but with the genuinely constructive technical advice and encouragement of the club’s professional, former-ice hockey player Scott DeLong, I was soon barrelling down the fairway with the care-free elan of a trust fund baby, waving my club aloft, shouting, “I am the king of all golf”. And although I managed to hit balls into a sand trap and an ornamental lake, I successfully avoided the course’s biggest hazard; bestselling airport novel aggregator and regular player Dan Brown. Afterwards, back at the clubhouse, drinking mango coladas with the Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism, Sports, Youth and Culture, I had to concede, golf is kinda cool.
Other possible activities include paddle boarding or kite surfing with Anguilla Water Sports, or for the ornithologically inclined, a wetland bird-watching tour with Nature Explorers.
Anything else? It’s been touched on a few times, but drinks are an important part of visiting Anguilla; and in the Caribbean “drinks” often as not means “rum”. Carib lager is widely available, and pleasantly crisp and refreshing, and there are exciting varieties of tropical fruits that you can have in a daiquiri, but wherever you go, beach shack or resort, you will find a rum punch. And if you like that, you’ll love Anguilla.
The recipe. The specifics vary depending on who you ask, but I managed to cobble together a recipe incorporating some of the best suggestions, which showcases why the drink has such enduring appeal. Ideally you want a mix of at least half a dozen assorted rums, but Bicardi will do in a pinch. Fill a tall glass with ice. Then half fill it with rum. Top that off with freshly squeezed juice, equal parts orange, pineapple and guava. Garnish with a glacé cherry, a wedge of lime, and a dusting of freshly grated nutmeg.