Last year, while visiting the islands of Nevis and Saint Barthelemy, I read James Michner’s Caribbean, a lengthy novel of historical fiction covering the history of the Caribbean, from the first human occupants through the twentieth century. To be completely honest, I was hoping for a rollicking account of jolly pirates, drunken rum-runners, and kooky natives navigating the most beautiful islands in the world. Instead, I was saddled with a really upsetting thousand-page beach read.
The history of the Caribbean is full of people groups invading the islands and promptly killing and exploiting the previous inhabitants. The Island Caribs fought the indigenous Arawaks, took over many of their islands, and ate them. The Spanish came in and pretty much wiped out the native populations, through disease and murderous rampages. Europeans of all nationalities then arrived, bringing with them slaves from Africa who were treated to exploitation and horrors beyond description. Post-slavery and post-colonialism, the Caribbean is a patchwork of many different nations, most facing some combination of poverty, isolation, corruption, vulnerability, exploitation, and uncertain futures. The difficult histories of its two largest islands, Cuba and Haiti (part of the island of Hispaniola), are legendary, easy examples to cite.
So, how should I, a tourist paying to enjoy the beauty and culture of these islands, respond to this history and its consequent present? As I sat listening to the ocean on the last night of our trip, this question turned over in my mind. In some ways, even asking it was disingenuous. No history is without its unsavory underbelly. Most of us have benefited from the misery of others, knowingly or unwittingly. Tourism handled correctly is one of the most obvious hopes for a brighter future for these islands. Certainly, on Anguilla that process has already begun.
I am not a huge reggae fan, but one of my favorite songs from any genre is Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”. Marley, a native of these islands, wrote it after being diagnosed with cancer, at the end of a long and storied career. “Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom. ‘Cause all I ever have, redemption songs.” Redemption. It was Marley’s hope for his home. It is a fitting prayer for these islands. Redemption is not denial, and it is not despair. It is making good out of bad. It is the business God is in. It is ultimately the business we all should be in. And I came to believe during my time on Anguilla that it is the business Anguillans are currently in, preserving their culture and values, while working for a better life for their children through promoting tourism carefully.
As for me, I left the islands (it was painfully apparent that I had to) and let my question lie, grateful for the beauty and joy that have survived such a history, grateful to have been part of it for a short while.
The Caribbean is full of unlikely mixtures, but French cuisine doused with Caribbean flavors has to be one of the happiest. The French are serious about food, even on vacation, and, consequently, the tiny island of Saint Barts has at least a dozen fine dining establishments with food to rival any found in New York or Paris. Even better, casual roadside restaurants also tend to be excellent. I have never put a non-delicious bite of food into my mouth on this island. It is all about the French-holiday-meal-plan, which involves lots of food, buckets of wine, and an unbelievable amount of time.
We enthusiastically embraced but never quite conquered the long wet lunches that apparently make up the heart of the French vacation. Each hotel on Saint Barts has a restaurant that either wraps around a pool or sits directly on the beach. The idea is to eat a little, drink a little, jump into the pool or the ocean, and then repeat. But the magic of it all is the meal itself, which is not casual or beachy; these restaurants serve formal three-course menus, amuse-bouches and all. And, once you have a table, it is yours for the afternoon. The kids were happy, because they could run around and swim at will. I was happy, because I was sitting on a beach in the Caribbean eating amazing food. And I strongly suspect Mark was happy as well, since some French women still forgo bathing suits tops here.
A non-hotel lunch option that has to be seen to be believed is Nikki Beach, a place to eat sushi and be seen right on the beach in gorgeous Anse a Colombier (“Anse” means “cove”). The French seem to view sushi as the height of chic, which is hilarious if you are from California. Anyhow, Nikki Beach is all about champagne on ice and dishes like the “sexy salad wrap”. The people-watching is top notch, even in the off-season. It was here that we realized how deeply we were mistaken if we thought we could keep up with the French on vacation. Our waitress was truly baffled by our decision to pay the bill and leave after consuming just one bottle of wine. At one point during our stay on the island, we figured out that we were leaving for dinner at exactly the time French vacationers were returning from lunch. It was then that we sheepishly admitted defeat and resigned ourselves to being the ugly Americans, clamoring for our dinner alone in the restaurant at 7pm.
My favorite meal, however, took place outside time and space. Supplied with baguette sandwiches from a shop near the airport, we drove to Gouverneurs Beach for a picnic lunch, following a road that careens down an ocean-side cliff at such an angle the car seems to be diving into the endless ocean in the cove below. On a few beach towels, we ate our wrapped lunch, and tried to fully appreciate the enchanted moment, both body and soul so fully nourished. (To be completely honest, the sandwiches were so good it made me mad. Why can no one pull this off back home?)
Ultimately, its chic lunches are not what makes this island special. The magic is in the gorgeous and gleeful Caribbean crazy that belies and permeates the attempts at glitz and glamour. It is the turtle pooping under your table, the waiter handing your eight-year-old a live lobster, the vanilla rum.
No amusement park thrill ride can compare to landing at Saint Barthélemy’s small airport. The approach requires your pilot to clear a mountain and then immediately dive down the far side of it at as steep a pitch as possible, in order to take advantage of every inch of a very short runway. I have seen fellow passengers literally scream in terror and put their head between their knees during this decent, in some kind of instinctual preparation for a crash landing.
Once on the ground, though, St Barthelemy (“St. Barts” in English; “St. Barths” in French, the language spoken on the island) has an easy-going vibe that belies stereotypes of supermodels on yachts (at least during the off-season). Take a healthy dose of joie d’vivre and mix it with equal parts Caribbean beauty, island sensibility, and a French sense of style, and voilà! Saint Barts.
Full disclosure: I adore this island, in a way I do few places on earth. I love the scale: the narrow patched-together roller coaster roads, the tiny brightly colored buildings (no high-rise hotels here), and the small rocky bays. I love the food: attentive French preparation and wild Caribbean flavors. I love the first-world sensibility layered over third-world charm. If it sounds perfect, that is because it is. (If it sounds expensive, you are really starting to pay attention.)
The following is a brief and entirely accurate description of one night we spent in St Barts: We had a babysitter and reservations at Isola, an Italian restaurant with food to rival any I have tasted outside of Italy. The babysitter’s name was Charlotte, a Parisian-turned-islander who showed up at our hotel room in a halter-top and flowing skirt. Disturbingly, our boys, confused by her French accent, kept calling her “Chocolate”. We were picked up in a taxi driven by a gorgeous young French woman in a little black dress and heels. She spent most of the ride on her phone, planning her night out, which was clearly going to be more exciting than ours and happen long after we were in bed. Once inside Isola, we entered Italy, with burrata with prosciutto, bresaola with arugala, prosecco, and absolutely no nod to its French island location.
After dinner, we navigated dilapidated sidewalks, me in high-heeled sandals, to Bagatelle, a blue and white bungalow-style restaurant situated on the edge of the harbor, for a post-dinner drink. I had read that its Sunday brunches were “rosé -fuelled” and “infamous”, and our fancy taxi driver has recommended it for a post-dinner cocktail (which was enough for me). The restaurant was incredibly chic and incredibly empty; it was just us, a couple of bar patrons, an unrelenting stream of music controlled by a very intense DJ, and a wait staff wearing seventh century clothes and large powdered wigs, most of whom seemed tipsy.
“Do you always dress like this?” I asked the bartender. “Non,” he replied. “Once a month. It ees very hot in the weegs.” After one drink, we started to feel like we had stumbled through a looking glass in which Louis XVI’s court goes to Vegas and decided to move on.
We regained our bearings during a walk along the harbor and decided to finish the night Le Select, a St. Barts institution. The polar opposite of Bagatelle, it looks poised to collapse at any moment under the pressure of time, neglect, the sea air and its own weight. It is the oldest bar on the island, and attracts one of the most diverse crowds I have ever seen, from dumpy tourists to salty islanders and French women barely dressed in the latest Parisian fashions. A friendly but ripe-smelling individual who appeared to be a cross between a homeless man and a Rastafarian sidled up to us at the bar, told us his improbable life story, and ended with an anti-Obama rant. Eventually, it became clear that he was mad at Obama because of a tax bill he had recently received from the United States government. The bartender seemed desperate for him to disappear.
“That guy was pretty worked up about taxes,” Mark mused on the taxi ride back to our hotel. “How much money can he possibly make?” But, really, who knows? Maybe the stinky Rastafarian was a millionaire. After all, c’est St. Barths!
The pace of Anguillan life, charming during our stay, proved stressful while trying to catch a plane off the island. To begin with, our taxi driver took the “scenic route” to the airport. When we finally arrived, we were the only passengers in sight. Furthermore, although a significant number of people seemed to be busily employed in aviation-related activities, none of them appeared to have any association with our particular airlines. This being Anguilla, however, everyone was concerned about us.
A man in an official looking uniform approached us cautiously. “No one there? Did you knock on da door?” He pointed to a small blue door behind our airline’s ticketing counter. Looking like a very large Alice in Wonderland, Mark climbed behind the counter, crouched down, and knocked. Nothing happened. On the bright side, it did give him something to do every once in a while while we continued to wait. Finally, fifteen minutes before our scheduled flight time, I called the number on our itinerary (intriguingly listed as some unidentified person’s “cell” number).
“Yes, hello? We are booked on a flight to St Barts that is supposed to leave in fifteen minutes, but there is no one at the counter in the airport. Are we in the right place? At the right time?”
“Oh. Yes. We are running late. So sorry! I will be there in a few minutes.” Ten minutes later, a man, presumably the owner of the aforementioned cell phone, appeared, not through the blue door but crawling on hands and knees through a chute clearly designed to shuttle luggage in and out of the airport. This agile individual seemed to be operator, gate agent, and porter for Anguilla Air Services. He checked us in, took our luggage, and occasionally appeared running around the airport with half of our luggage while we used the bathroom and cleared security. I started to develop a significant amount of concern for the other half.
Nevertheless, we headed to the departures lounge, an air-conditioned cube surrounded by windows and furnished with a flat screen television (off) and a clock (stopped). Not a single other item hung on the walls. I sat down, arrested by the blatant symbolism of the broken clock. Perhaps Anguillans care about the time but also appreciate its ultimate insignificance: The flight will take off when it takes off. I thought back to our extended taxi ride that morning. The driver, unconcerned about the plane we were trying to catch, commented on the beauty of the morning and veered onto a cliff-top road from which we could see the sunrise over the harbor in Sandy Ground far below. The sun reflected up from the shimmering Caribbean Sea, the useless clock; this was island time, the eternity of now. Could I bring it home with me? At that moment, it almost seemed possible.
Forty-three minutes after our scheduled flight time, a uniformed Anguilla Air Services employee with a huge smile appeared out of nowhere (employees seem to move around that airport using magic). “So sorry! We had a little mix-up!” She led us to our plane, chatting with the kids as we walked along the runway, and I stepped back into a tiny little plane, grateful.
Despite its proximity to popular destinations like Saint Martins and Saint Barts, tourism in Anguilla only took off about twenty years ago, and, consequently, the restaurant scene there feels in its teenage years. Anguilla has about a dozen stand-alone establishments catering to both tourists and locals with creative menus, first-world standards of cleanliness, friendly service, and spectacular settings. However, we found the food, even within the same restaurant, to be inconsistent. This turns out to be the price of staying on an island without a slick tourism industry, and we happily paid it.
The best meal we had on the island was at our hotel, the Malliouhana. (If you ever go, order the unique and delicious “beans and greens” salad tossed with tahini.) The setting is spectacular, on a cliff overlooking Meades Bay, a beach that looks ripped out of a cheesy postcard of the Caribbean. To be fair, any ocean-side restaurant in Anguilla has by definition a spectacular setting. Every beach on the island is powdered sugar and aquamarine and untouched. A friend who saw my pictures asked if I had photo-shopped the colors; they are so brilliant, they are almost unreal.
Case in point, our next meal, at Jacala, on the sand at Meades Bay. Jacala is presided over by one of its French owners, a man who is remarkably high strung for someone running a beach restaurant. He was not pleased by Jake’s sandy appearance and sent us back outside to wash him off better. I decided not to be put off by this exercise; if the owner was picky, so much the better for the food prospects. And indeed, the meal was one of our better ones; my conch ceviche was delicious and thoroughly Caribbean. The highlight of the meal, however, came when a neighboring table ordered a whole fish carved table-side, and our adorable waitress brought my boys the fish’s head. Her name was Charmz (I did not make that up; I am not that good), and she regaled Max and Jake with stories of how delicious fish head is. In the end, she talked them into eating not just the meat in the head, but the eyes, one eye each. I have since learned that, although Anguillans do enjoy fish heads, even they generally skip the eyes. It makes one wonder what else a pretty girl will talk my kids into in the next decade.
In typical Anguillan fashion, we ran into Charmz again the next day on the other side of the island having lunch with a friend. She ran around on the beach with the boys, helping them find shells. At one point, when Jake was being particularly obnoxious, she looked at me with a smile and said “that chile is life!” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and bang my head on the table and beg her to come home with us.
Our fanciest meal was at Blanchards, the first free-standing upscale restaurant on Anguilla (but of course “fancy” is a relative term on Anguilla). I had read A Trip to the Beach by Melinda Blanchard, which tells the story of how the author and her husband made and executed on the incredibly ballsy decision to open Blanchards in 1994, when tourism on the island was still in its infancy. Both the book and the restaurant are heartfelt; the Blanchards clearly love Anguilla and its people. However, if you ever find yourself daydreaming that you would enjoy opening a restaurant on an island in the Caribbean, I highly recommend picking her book up. Among other obstacles, you will discover that every ingredient and supply shipped or brought to a British island in the middle of nowhere has to go through customs, which may or may not operate more quickly than thousands of dollars of wine turns sour in the tropical heat. As for dinner, Mark’s jerk shrimp was delicious, my lobster ravioli was homemade but not particularly tasty, and it was pretty pricey. I had some sympathy for the prices, though, after reading the book.
Our favorite date night started at Sand Bar, a restaurant which serves a menu of small plates in the middle of Sandy Ground, a beach town sitting on, you guessed it, a large sand bar. Most such tropical towns are infested by Senor Frogs and tee shirt shops; this one is perfection. There are some arty shops, a few restaurants, and a couple of beach bars, the main port of the island on one side and a salt pond on the other. I imagine it is how Cabo San Lucas or Cancun felt in the old days, when rum-runners rubbed shoulders with tax evaders and disenchanted society girls, when anything could happen and it was actually possible to lose yourself in these islands. After dinner, we walked down the beach to Elvis’s, a perfect beach bar with a sixteen-foot boat for a bar. Elvis’s is the kind of place where locals mingle with tourists and the yacht crowd, which pulls into the harbor for the night. I cannot imagine a more perfect Caribbean evening.
But by far the most memorable dining experience was lunch at Scilly Cay. In case you ever want to go, here are the directions: Drive to Island Harbor, a fishing village on the eastern end of Anguilla. Walk to the end of the pier and wave. Wait. You will start to see activity on Scilly Cay, a very small island a couple hundred yards away. You will be confused as to whether or not the activity has anything to do with your wave, but you will wait on the pier anyway because your taxi cab has left and you are not sure what else to do. Eventually, you will see a small boat row in your direction. The driver of that boat will smile and help you on board but provide no assurances as to where you are going. You will get on board anyhow and not ask questions because you will start to have an odd feeling that whatever happens is meant to be. The boat will indeed take you to Scilly Cay, where you will wander off the boat and into the only covered structure on the island. You will be greeted by “Gorgeous”, an older Anguillan man who appears slightly out of it at first, but turns out to be both a real charmer and very sharp. “Chicken or lobster?” You will answer “lobster” and “rum punch”, and then you will wander around until you find a table in some kind of shade. You will quickly realize that you probably should only have one of Gorgeous’s rum punches.
Scilly Cay is the most unique of the restaurants we ate at while visiting Anguilla, but it is also a perfect example of what makes each restaurant on the island so special. It feels like a tropical dream, eating lobster, feet in the sand, under a palapa, in the middle of a clear sun-soaked sea teaming with fish. At one point, we realized our waiter was showing the kids how to build a track in the sand and race hermit crabs. The boys decided the waiter was their new best friend and followed him into the kitchen to see how the lobsters were cooked. No one seemed in the least bit phased. I sipped my beer (for real, you should only have one of those rum punches) and tried to convince myself that it was all really happening. The moment was perfect without being manufactured in any way.
In retrospect, that is how I felt about all the restaurants on Anguilla. It was not the food but the experience I feel in love with. Dining at each one felt like stepping back in time to when a traveler could pull his or her boat up to a tropical island and eat fish with the locals, to when the Caribbean “look and feel” just happened organically. The restaurants, like everything else on this island, exude love and pride and beauty and specialness. And, really, for what else do we travel?
Our trip to Anguilla from the west coast of the United States involved three flights, including a redeye, and a blurry-eyed combination of layovers and airport food in two separate countries. The silver lining was that, by the time our third flight rolled around, I was delirious and desperate enough to get on the tiny plane that took us to our final destination.
And it is not just the size of the plane that was disconcerting. When we arrived in the Saint Martins airport and got off our plane from Philadelphia (why we were routed through there remains a mystery), we were already befuddled. We were supposed to transfer to a third flight but had no boarding pass and our bags were not checked through to our final destination of Anguilla (the woman who checked us in at the San Francisco airport just gave us a blank stare when we mentioned this final flight from Saint Martins to Anguilla). I was just getting ready to ask someone when, out of nowhere, a chipper young woman appeared with an “Anguilla Air” shirt and a clipboard.
I approached her hopefully. “Hello. We actually have a flight on Anguilla Air? Regoli?”
“Oh yes, I was looking for you. I want to get you on an earlier flight.”
“That would be great! When does it leave?”
“Two pm. Or after.” She took us to a counter, wrote our names on a piece of paper (yes, a an actual physical piece of paper), took our luggage tags, and gave us boarding passes that included no information whatsoever other than the flight number and departure time. “Just ignore the time,” she advised. “Go to Gate C4.”
“How will we know if our bags made it onto the earlier flight?” I asked.
“I will be there. I will tell you.” And then she disappeared with our luggage tags.
We dutifully trotted off to Gate C4 and waited there hopefully, despite the fact that no flight to Anguilla was mentioned on the marquis there. More disturbingly, no flight to Anguilla was listed anywhere, including on the main departures board. As two o’clock came and went, I started to imagine our luggage disappearing into some Saint Martins black market for sunscreen and crocs.
At 2:13pm, the Anguillan air woman reappeared through Gate C4, cheerfully waving us onto a bus that took us to the smallest plane I have ever seen on a commercial runway. It had a seat for the pilot, with three bench seats behind him, and that was it. We were eyeballed and told to sit so that the weight on the plane would be balanced. At first, I thought the man sitting next to the pilot was a co-pilot. But, it turns out he was just some guy the pilot knew. Up went the doors, up went the plane, and then right back down again on the next island, my nine-year-old clinging to me in delighted terror. We were in Anguilla.
The Anguillan airport architectural style is concrete bunker circa 1960. Not a bench has been updated since. It was perfect. I did not come all the way from California for some Disney version of the Caribbean. (I did, however, say a little prayer that our hotel did not have same look and feel.)
After a lot of input from the locals outside the airport, it was determined that the transfer to our hotel (which we had already paid for) would take place in a taxi cab, the only one in sight. Our driver regaled us with a twenty-minute history of Anguilla on the way there. Both Mark and Jake feel asleep, but it was good stuff. Here is a summary:
At the end of the colonial era, the British created a territory made up of Saint Kitts, Nevis, and Anguilla. The capital of this territory was Saint Kitts, and all British money was filtered through the government there. Unfortunately, the people of Saint Kitts did not see any reason to send dime one to Anguilla. As a result, Anguilla had no money for roads, medical services, electricity, or infrastructure of any sort, a situation that persisted well into the 1960s. The British government was not aware of the situation or did not care or could not find Anguilla on a map. In any event, the Anguillan people figured they needed to take the situation into their own hands, so, in 1967, they expelled all St. Kitts officials from the island. The British, presumably because they did not want to go down in history as having lost a war with Anguilla, sent in paratroopers to figure out what the hell was going on. They were greeted by a bunch of Aguillans armed with three sticks and the truth and taken on a tour of the island (at stick-point, one supposes). No one was hurt. The paratroopers went back to Britain with two reports: (1) the state of the island was indeed shockingly bad and (2) Anguilla had the most beautiful beaches in the world. The crown stepped in and eventually separated Anguilla from Saint Kitts, a few hotel developers stepped in and stepped up, and the rest is history.
I looked at the taxi driver in amazement. “That is a crazy story.” Mark let out a loud snore, and we pulled up to the completely charming Mallihouhana hotel.
Note: The taxi driver’s story was a reasonably accurate history of that time period in Anguilla.