Eating Out in Anguilla

 

DSC_0351

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.

Charmz, the boys, and the fish head
Charmz, the boys, and the fish head

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.

Lunch at Scilly Cay
Lunch at Scilly Cay

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.

Racing hermit crabs
Racing hermit crabs

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?

 

 

Arriving in Anguilla

 

DCIM102GOPROGOPR4238.
DCIM102GOPROGOPR4238.

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.

A4F743BA-FE0A-4693-870E-6491D08FA23F

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.