Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
Romantic, long white sandy beaches, exclusive hotels, and a feeling of seclusion make this small British outpost, where the strong-minded people are welcoming and courteous, a paradise.
The low coral island of Anguilla sits at the top of the Leeward Islands chain, a serene, remote place of empty beaches with powdery white sand and untouched cays and reefs, adrift in the wide blue sea. Nothing much happens on this tiny British territory, far from the mainstream of a busy world. And this tranquility is the island’s main asset. Since it stood up and flexed its muscles against its governing partners St Kitts and Nevis in the late 1960s, Anguilla seems content to retain its sleepy character, proud and protective of its 12 miles (19km) of well-kept beaches, crystalline waters, and exquisite coral reefs teeming with a wide variety of marine life, a magnet for sun worshippers, water sports enthusiasts (but no jet-skis), and divers alike.
A father and daughter play tag on one of Anguilla’s empty beaches.
Anguilla Tourist Board
At 16 miles (26km) long and 3 miles (5km) wide, Anguilla (Spanish for “eel”) is one of the drier islands, covered in tangled vegetation and low, tough scrub, foraged by hundreds of goats. Trees have never really been a feature here, especially after the ones they had were uprooted by Hurricane Luis in 1995 (a disaster the islanders have put well behind them), but now, thanks to a concerted effort by a band of Anguillians to beautify the island, they are shooting up all over the place. Topsoil is scarce and only a few acres are fertile enough to support some hardy crops: pigeon peas, cassava, yams, corn, and tropical fruits. However, modern technology, in the form of hydroponic agriculture, has permitted a small industry, growing vegetables for the local market as well as for the restaurants of St-Martin (for more information, click here), 5 miles (8km) to the south.
Dive right in.
Anguilla Tourist Board
A quirky history
This impoverished land endowed Anguillians with a social history that, like its political history, is quirky. Archeological excavations have unearthed evidence of Amerindian presence on the island dating from 1300 BC, centuries before the Arawak-speaking tribes are believed to have settled the Caribbean chain (at around the time of Christ). Remains from Amerindian villages have also been discovered at Rendezvous Bay, Sandy Ground, and Island Harbour, making Anguilla one of the most archeologically interesting places in the region. By the time the first British settlers arrived in 1650, the island was uninhabited.
The colonizers tried to plant tobacco and, later, sugar. Because of the dry climate and poor soil, these cash crops never took root and, to a large extent, neither did slavery. Still, slaves were duly imported, although they were freed long before Emancipation in 1834, as beleaguered planters could barely feed themselves.
Thus, Anguilla’s flat, barren land left its people almost free of the scars of slavery, evolving into an extraordinarily egalitarian and color-blind society, where everybody owned their land and helped each other through frequent droughts and hurricanes, and to overcome the lack of fresh water and arable soil. Nevertheless, one resource, besides their character, was left to the Anguillians - the sea. Unlike other West Indians, landlocked by the success of plantations, Anguillians became expert boat builders, sailors, and fishermen.
Up in arms
Such strength of character, sense of community, and loyalty, however, were severely tried when, in 1967, against the Anguillians’ wishes, Britain, in an attempt to divest itself of its dependencies, made Anguilla and the much-resented St Kitts and Nevis, 70 miles (110km) away, an Associated State. More autonomy was directed from St Kitts, sparking the Anguilla Revolution (for more information, click here).
When a major cruise line proposed to develop a cay as an island getaway for its passengers, the Anguillian owners of the land turned down the deal, worth millions of dollars, preferring to preserve the unspoiled islet for their children.
Today, Anguilla is content to be one of Britain’s few remaining Overseas Territories. Local government handles most domestic affairs, while a British governor takes care of the civil service, police, judiciary, and foreign affairs.
Much of Anguilla’s charm lies in what it lacks. There is no mass tourism, although the extension of the runway at Clayton J. Lloyd International Airport in 2004 now allows medium-sized jets to land, as well as the small island-hopping planes. Most visitors arrive by sea at Blowing Point, on the south coast, on ferries from Marigot in St-Martin, just 20 minutes away. With only around 13,000 full-time residents, everybody knows everybody else and cars don’t pass without a nod, a wave, or a honk. There are no casinos, scarcely any crime, and the church - Methodist, Anglican, Baptist, and Seventh Day Adventist - is still the center of Anguillian life.
The islanders have adopted a tasteful approach to tourism, restricting development to small, expensive resort-hotels, such as the exclusive Cap Juluca at Maunday’s Bay and Malliouhana (the Arawak name for the island) in Meads Bay. Moreover, they seem deeply committed to protecting their natural assets, introducing measures to assure the conservation of the fragile ecology, and enforcing strict regulations to protect the marine environment.
Since the island has been reaping the financial rewards of tourism and a thriving offshore finance sector, The Valley 1 [map] has grown from a few houses on a country crossroads to a small commercial center with banks, business places, and a shopping mall. In the renovated old Customs Building across from Ronald Webster Park is the Anguilla National Trust (tel: 264-497 5297). The National Trust plays a leading role in island conservation, creating wildlife protection schemes and youth programs and running heritage tours, highlighting the flora, fauna, and history of the island.
Wallblake House after 7 years of dedicated restoration.
Heading south out of The Valley toward Sandy Ground, you come to Wallblake House 2 [map] (tel: 264-497 6613; http://wallblake.ai/history.html; Mon, Wed and Fri 10am-2pm; tours by appointment). Built in 1787 by Will Blake, and recently restored, it is the oldest plantation house on the island and all its buildings are intact, including the kitchen, slave quarters, and stables. Cut stone had to be hauled across the island from the East End or Scrub Island and burned coral, shells, and molasses were mixed into the mortar. The restored house is home to the Roman Catholic priest of St Gerard’s, the tiny modern chapel next door with walls of open stonework.
Farther along the road is the Old House (tel: 264-497 2228). Built around 1800, it was home to a succession of Magistrate-Doctors, representing the British Crown. The two-story wooden structure has been restored and is now a restaurant.
“We want England!”
Animosity began between St Kitts and Anguilla after 1825 when Britain incorporated the two islands with Nevis into one colony. The Anguillians resented the St Kitts government, which treated them as country bumpkins and did little to help them through some lengthy droughts.
Several pleas to London for direct British rule were ignored and the situation finally came to a head in 1967 when Britain tried to join the three islands together permanently as an Associated State of St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla. Anguillians rebelled saying, “We don’t want statehood, we want England,” set the 13-strong St Kittitian police force adrift in a boat, and mounted an 18-man attack on St Kitts, which then fizzled out.
Until then, Anguilla had been poor and undeveloped with inadequate public and health facilities, including no electricity or piped water, and high unemployment.
The St Kitts administration still didn’t help and Britain remained blind to their plight, so the Anguillians took over their own management. Finally, in March 1969, 400 British paratroopers, marines, and policemen invaded Anguilla to a great welcome, returning it to Britain. Today, the Revolution remains a crucial part of the islanders’ psyche and they celebrate the anniversary every year.
A salty heritage
Anguilla was famous for its salt, mined from saline ponds dotted around the island. They are home to a wide variety of birdlife, visiting and resident, such as the great blue heron and white-cheeked pintail. The last bag of salt was processed at Road Pond in Sandy Ground 3 [map] in 1985, and at the northern end of the bay, which sweeps round in a horseshoe of white sand, the mini-museum in The Pumphouse Bar (www.pumphouse-anguilla.com), once the old salt factory, documents the story of salt “picking.” A few doors away, Johnno’s is said to be one of the best beach bars in the Caribbean, and jumps to live music on the weekends.
Many people come to Anguilla just for the beaches, and the west coast has an uncrowded long stretch of perfect, white sand. From Sandy Ground it’s a 5-minute boat ride (from the pier; on the hour 10am-3pm) to Sandy Island 4 [map], a desert island of sand, with a beach bar and restaurant. The surrounding coral reef offers fascinating snorkeling, and farther out to sea, divers can explore the spectacular underwater canyon by Prickly Pear Cays, another short boat ride away.
Meads Bay 5 [map], 3 miles (5km) along from Sandy Ground, is one of the trendiest, attracting film stars and the super-rich, while Shoal Bay West on the other side of West End Point is more remote. Sheltered Rendezvous Bay on the south coast looks over to St-Martin and offers good windsurfing. Reputedly one of the best beaches of the Caribbean, Shoal Bay East, 6 [map] 3 miles (5km) north of The Valley, is perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and relaxing.
Anguilla’s beaches are reason enough to visit.
Fountain Cavern, just inland of Shoal Bay, is a Unesco World Heritage Site, but not yet open to the public. The cavern and the area around it are to be developed by a subsidiary of the Anguilla National Trust into the island’s first National Park, with plans for an interpretive center, museum, and easy access to the cave (preparatory work was commenced in May 2015). A natural spring in a large underground cavern, this is an important archeological site where magnificently preserved petroglyphs have been found alongside a 16ft (5-meter) stalagmite carved into a head, believed to be that of Yucahú (giver of cassava/yuca), the most important Amerindian deity. Archeological excavations indicate that Amerindians used the site for ritual purposes around AD 400-1200, making it the oldest known and the longest used ceremonial cave site in the entire Caribbean, representing an extraordinary example of Amerindian cultural heritage.
Half-built houses dot Anguilla’s landscape, because after a young islander leaves school, his main aim is to build a house. As soon as he’s earned enough money, he lays down foundations, adding to it bit by bit as he can afford it. This can often take as long as 15 years.
A hotel at Meads Bay, Anguilla.
The national passion
Island Harbour 7 [map], 3 miles (5km) to the north, is a pretty working fishing village where brightly painted, prosperous-looking boats line the beach. Nearby, Big Spring (tel: 264-497 5297), which served as the village’s water source, is in a partially collapsed cave with Amerindian petroglyphs. Fishing has always been a booming business here, where sweet and luscious spiny lobsters are so plentiful; they are exported to St-Martin, Puerto Rico, and St Thomas. After the day’s catch, sacks of them are spilled onto the sand for prospective buyers.
Now powered by outboard motor, the fishing fleet once flourished under sail and fishermen would race home from their grounds 30 miles (50km) out to sea. Racing became a passion and today the traditional boats are built solely for that purpose; sailing is on a par with cricket in popularity. On holidays and in Carnival Week in August, the whole island comes to watch and place bets on boats that race from Sandy Ground, Meads Bay, Blowing Point, and Rendezvous Bay to a marker out at sea.
Two miles (3.2km) south of Island Harbour, in the small locality of East End, you will find the only museum on Anguilla, The Heritage Collection 8 [map] (tel: 264-235 7440; www.offshore.com.ai/heritage; Mon-Sat 10am-5pm). It is owned and curated by local historian and writer Colville Petty, with historical artifacts, including those from the ancient settlements of Arawak Indians and from the period of the Anguilla’s Revolution.