A sliver of white sand and turquoise waters, Anguilla awaits but a few minutes from St. Martin—just a short flight or boat ride away. Despite lying in close proximity to—and even sharing the same volcanic base as—St. Martin and St. Barth, Anguilla is absolutely nothing like the other two: flat and dry, the sea is the overwhelming protagonist on this island—and it’s a good thing, too, because it is utterly spectacular.
The Very Beginning
Back in the days when pristine white-sand beaches were nothing remarkable, Anguilla was sighted by Spanish conquistadores who chose not to stop there, though they gave it its present name—eel, in Spanish—inspired by the shape of the coastline in the distance.
At the time, Anguilla was known as Malliouhana by indigenous Amerindians—Eastern Tainos—who frequented the island on a regular basis, probably to perform religious rituals, though it is thought no permanent settlement existed at the time. From that Pre-Columbian era remain rich archaeological sites—most notably the caves in The Fountain by Shoal Bay East—from which thousands of artifacts have been retrieved over the last few decades.
The English Colony
The advent of European colonial rule in Anguilla arrived when a group of runaways escaped St. Kitts in 1650 and sought to establish themselves in an alternative location. While the Caribbean was deeply affected by the constant warfare plaguing Europe throughout the XVII and XVIII centuries—St. Martin, for instance, changed hands over a dozen times between 1631 and 1814—Anguilla was relatively untouched by the recurrent struggles because it was simply deemed to be of little or no value at all.
Through the XVIII century the British settlement gained some legitimacy, after it was granted a local Council in 1735. A combination of ambition and hardship regulated the lives of Anguillians during this period, with expeditions to colonize other territories taking them to Crab Island (modern day Vieques), the Virgin Islands and, most admirably, French St. Martin, which in 1744 was taken by an army of 300 Anguillians. In large measure these plans resulted from Anguilla’s unsuitable soil for plantation economy: efforts to grow tobacco were frustrated by the unreliable weather, and though Sea Island cotton proved more successful, the full-blown crisis between the United Colonies and Britain took care of Anguilla’s main trading partners.
Anguillians tried their hand at growing cane at the time when King Sugar emerged as the main industry in the region. But plantations on the island were small and rudimentary, and as processes were modernized elsewhere Anguillians lacked the necessary resources to introduce new technology. One of the few manor houses still standing in Anguilla is Wallblake House in The Valley, which is part of the fascinating Heritage Trail around the island.
The Long XIX Century
Come the XIX century Anguilla was mired in serious economic trouble: plantations had proven unprofitable and most slaves on the island had been practically set free, having to farm their own plots for subsistence. The British considered the colony an unwanted problem and in 1825 Anguilla’s representative was sent to the St. Kitts Council, starting an ill-fated administrative association that would prove fatal over a century later.
At the same time, severe drought encouraged the colonial power to devise initiatives to move the full population of the island to other, more productive, territories—to Demerara, to Antigua. But Anguillians refused to leave their homeland, and struggled through the famine and the neglect that came with being bundled into a single “Presidency” with the much larger and more influential territory of St. Kitts. That was the situation in 1873, when the Federation of the Leeward Islands was created; that too in 1956, when it was replaced by the Federation of the West Indies. All along Anguilla demanded a place of its own, independent of the central government of St. Kitts. All along its requests were ignored.
The Mouse that Roared
Until the river ran its course in 1967. At the time the British Empire was in the process of being dismantled. Anguilla was scheduled to form a single autonomous state with St. Kitts and Nevis—but Anguillians revolted: On May 30th 1967 the Kittitian Police Force was kicked out of the island and soon thereafter independence declared unilaterally. A major diplomatic rift ensued, which eventually led to the British invasion of the island in 1969 in an operation dubbed by the media at the time as “Bay of Piglets”. Anguilla, the insignificant territory in the northeast Caribbean, was famously described as “the mouse that roared,” returning de facto to the British fold. The resulting legal impasse would not be resolved until 1981, by which time the infrastructure on the island had been upgraded to XX century standards—and Anguilla was ready to join modernity.
Tranquility Wrapped in Blue
Since that time Anguilla has positioned itself as the exclusive destination in the Caribbean. In the early eighties, the erection of the Malliouhana hotel on Meads Bay and Cap Juluca on Maundays Bay signaled the beginning of a new era. Though both properties have changed hands recently they are still among the most magical locations in the entire region with spectacular views, gorgeous beaches and enviable spas and restaurants.
As Anguilla’s reputation was cemented internationally and the island’s slogan—”Tranquility Wrapped in Blue”—came to be accepted as a self-evident statement, a number of other top-class resorts were developed. One of them is CuisineArt, an understated property on the paradisiacal shores of Rendezvous Bay which combines lush gardens with a lovely spa, a charming Mediterranean feel and an 18-hole professional golf course. Another is Viceroy, the latest addition in the list of breathtaking venues. Built in the late 2000s, it’s grandiose design, superb spa, fabulous infinity pool and outdoor bar brought new levels of sophistication to the island.
Swim Like the Gods, Dine Like Royalty
And yet, the outstanding feature in Anguilla is still the sea. Thirty-odd immaculate beaches peppered along the coastline continue to amaze not only because of their staggering beauty but because they are all so different. On the western end of the island Shoal Bay West stands out for its fine contrast of colors, for the extraordinary quality of the sand; but Long Bay is as sweet to the eye as Meads Bay is beautiful to swim; and Rendezvous Bay is a two-mile dream with three different environments; and The Cove offers a glimpse into what Anguilla was like twenty years ago; and moving eastwards, Crocus Bay is the very definition of picturesque; and Limestone Bay is the living proof of seclusion; and Little Bay is picture perfect; and Island Harbour is charming; and Shoal Bay East is the master of them all, long, wide, lively, the perfect combination of amenities and raw splendor, of coarse white sand and gentle waters.
Additionally, the cays around the island offer a different dimension, ranging from the convenience of small restaurants and a basic infrastructure in Sandy Island and Prickly Pear to a trip into the wild lushness of Dog Island or Scrub Island. And even a simple tour of the island’s coastline in the beautifully restored Tradition sailboat is certain to prove a gateway into the sublime.
But if the sea is the predominant reason why people came—and continue to come—to Anguilla in numbers, these days the natural allure of the island is wonderfully matched by the gastronomic expertise that for the past two decades has been so proudly nurtured by professionals of the local hospitality industry. Be it at the mouthwateringly exotic Hibernia or the classic Italian menu at Dolce Vita, the exquisite Straw Hat on Meads Bay or one of the restaurants in the top hotels of the island, the fact is that after enjoying the thrills of unspoiled nature during the day in Anguilla you can also bask in the more refined pleasures of civilization during the night.
Shop, Lime and Don’t Forget to Come Back
Anguilla is by all means a quiet island, and while there’s a number of boutiques, jewelries and gift shops, there’s no single shopping quarter especially fitted to suit all tastes. One thing you’ll find in abundance, though, is art galleries: Savannah in The Valley is guaranteed to have a tasteful selection and Lynne Bernbaum’s in Sandy Ground is open late for a rare pre-dinner experience; Lydia Séméria is the island’s preeminent naive painter and Courtney Devonish is an exceptionally talented wood carver, as is Cheddy.
By the same token, late night entertainment options are limited in Anguilla. Having said that, strolling up and down the lip of land that is Sandy Ground—crowded with some half a dozen bars—is great fun. Somewhat on the more basic end of the spectrum is The Strip in The Valley, where a dozen stalls offer the classic BBQ experience to the tune of loud music. If you choose to do just one thing at night in Anguilla, though, then head for The Dune Preserve at Rendezvous Bay and spend some time exploring the labyrinth of driftwood and jetsam that Bankie Banx has turned into his home, his stage, his life’s work.
Regardless of what you do, if you fall into the island rhythm of life then you won’t need the reminder in the final headline of this section—you’ll be back no matter what!
Published in the 2016 edition of Experience St. Martin magazine.