Saturday

ANGUILLA - FANTASY ISLAND (appeared in NUVO Magazine)





I stepped out of my hotel room onto a near-empty beach with eggshell-coloured sand. About twenty steps later, I was in the pristine, turquoise waters of Meads Bay, on the island of Anguilla. No rocks,no slimy seaweed, no dead things on the beach or inorganic matter like plastic bottles. Just soft white sand and embracing blue water, so translucent you can see the sand below.

Is this a Caribbean cliche, I wondered? Who cares, I thought, wading waist-high into the warm, glittering water: this is the beach of dreams.

The island, only 16 miles long and four miles at its widest, is reputed to have the best beaches in the Caribbean.

There are 33 of them, each one different. Some dock the boats of this sailing-crazed place; others lead scuba divers out to an l8th century sunken Spanish Galleon. There are beaches you can access only by boat.

But Mead’s Bay is beach at its purest and gentlest. Anguilla? Most people have not heard of this spit of land on the northern edge of the lesser Antilles, where the Caribbean Sea merges with the Atlantic Ocean.

They’re more likely to be familiar with its neighbours - the island of St.Maarten is only 25 minutes by ferry; an hour away by boat is the chic French island of St. Barts. These are where day trippers go shopping, because although Anguilla is decidedly upscale, shopping is not a big deal.

There are some tiny freestanding boutiques that sell bathing suits and sarongs; and in recent years, some wine stores have opened. There are galleries showing the work of local artists (www.anguillaart.com). But you don’t come here for malls or duty free emporia.

You do come for the rich and diverse marine life, which is conscientiously protected. One of the most impressive unbroken coral reef chains in the north-eastern Caribbean yields hard and soft corals, with bouquets reaching 20 feet.

As you would expect, there are lots of aquatic activities. Scuba divers can take resort courses, the more experienced can explore Anguilla’s seven intentionally sunken ships, each one completely covered in coral.

Snorklers can marvel at parrotfish and turtles in Shoal Bay East. You can see the fish from a glass-bottomed boat, go sailing or kayaking.

Bird watchers can train their binoculars at the snowy egrets, blue herons, red-legged stilts and pelicans and other sea birds.

Some people come to sit under a palm tree and read. For this is a place to let go of all anxiety, including worries about danger.

On this small but uncrowded island there is a sense of more than enough space and privacy. Yet you’re not fenced in, and the local population of fewer than 12,000 resourceful, amiable people, neither servile nor surly, are not fenced out.

They seem to know each others’ business, but they’ll give you a blank look if you ask where the celebrities are staying. Sara Jessica Parker, Robert DeNiro, Mariah Carey and Kevin Bacon come here regularly and rent villas at tens of thousands of dollars per week.

Others are drawn the island’s glamorous resorts, where sorbet is brought to you on the beach. Yet Anguilla’s upscale image obscures the fact that there are reasonably priced hotels and guest-houses. The state of the art spas are open to everyone, and the beaches are public.

The island is flat and arid, with an interior of hardy green scrub that is nothing to look at. Beauty, aside from the beaches, comes from the tropical blooms planted by human hands: Oleander, hibiscus, frangipani, mahogany trees, papaya and mango.

Then there ‘s the food, an artful French and West-Indian inspired fish-based cuisine. There are over 100 restaurants on this small island, from simple beach side bistros to grand dining rooms run by celebrated chefs, drop-outs from some of the world’s gastronomic capitals.

But what makes this island distinctive is also what it doesn’t have: a coastline crammed with hotels and people, all inclusive resorts, cruise ships and casinos, jet skis and topless sunbathing.

They were nixed by the government when Anguilla began its ET, era of tourism.

Before that, life was a hardscrabble attempt to make ends meet on this tiny limestone piece of land with its thin, barely fertile soil. There was fishing, boat building and a salt mill. Amazingly, as late as the l970's, there was no electricity or phones.

Thousands of people left, some to work temporarily on nearby islands, others for good. But there was one thing even the poorest Anguillan was likely to have: land.

At the Heritage Museum, a house with a half dozen rooms, Colville Petty OBE, the museum’s founder, will explain why. Petty, the island historian, will direct you to the exhibit on the slave era, which started in the l650's, when the British arrived to set up sugar plantations. They found the soil was far from ideal, and so slavery gradually faded away; by the time the British left in the l830's, most former slaves owned land.

The last room completes the chapter, with displays of newspapers and other mementoes devoted to what is reverentially called The Revolution. In l967, the proud Anguillans, fed up with the forced union with the British territories of St. Kitts and Nevis, an arrangement that yielded almost no funds, mounted a revolt.

Britain sent a warship to quell what they thought would be trouble - and were met with people waving the Union Jack. The island returned to the bosom of England, and is now a British Overseas Territory.

Fast forward to today. Super stylish, award-winning resorts, luxury villas designed by architects like Myron Goldfinger; skilled and inventive cuisine everywhere. Tasty’s, a casual cafe painted purple and green, looks like the kind of Caribbean eatery where everything is fried. What a surprise to taste chef Dale Carty’s curried snapper, lobster salad and, one morning for breakfast, eggs benedict with fresh mushrooms and the lightest hollandaise sauce on earth. This casual place seems to downplay Carty’s stratospheric credentials: working as a chef in Paris and Antibes in the Michelin-starred restaurants of his mentor, Michel Rostang, who fell in love with the island and took over the kitchen of its first upscale hotel, Malliouhana.

Building that hotel was the start of what hotelier and former tourist board director Alan Gumbs calls Fantasy Island. He was referring to the visionaries who poured millions into building some of the islands extraordinary luxury hotels.

"Building here had nothing to do with the reality of business”, Gumbs said dryly, looking out at the sea beneath his open air restaurant.

“In terms of a sound investment, it was a joke. People built here because they fell in love with the place.” Good thing the major players had already made their fortunes before they started following their bliss

(complete article on request)

www.go-anguilla.com www.dreamanguilla.com

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