- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2004

SANDYGROUNDVILLAGE, Anguilla — Travel agents are perfectly nice people. I truly believe they have our best interests at heart when we plop down in a chair before them, veins bulging in our foreheads, and say, “I need a vacation. You know what I mean? I need to go away now or someone is going to get hurt.”

Sometimes it takes a little explaining to get a destination that really suits your needs.

“How about three days and nights at the Slumber Inn in Hershey — that comes with half-off passes to Chocolates on Ice and free tickets for the Tilt-A-Barf ride?”

Maybe I wasn’t clear. “I need to go somewhere to relax.”

“Oh. I have a great special on five days and four nights at Epcot with complimentary Continental doughnuts and fruit-flavored breakfast drink along with free passes for four to Orlando’s Famous Pets in Wax Museum.”

Remember, sometimes getting what you want means listing for the agent what you don’t want.

If you are one of the silent majority convinced that cheap airfare to Orlando is a deal akin to a cut-rate ferry across the River Styx, speak up.

“Look, I am one of the long-suffering who believe that the fifth level of Purgatory is filled with screaming children and their parents waiting in line in 100-degree heat and 99 percent humidity to sit in a teacup while robotic, lederhosen-clad devil-spawn sing: ‘It’s a ride in air-conditioning, after all. … It’s a ride in air-conditioning, after all. It’s a short ride with a long line.’

“I want no lines of screaming brats and no male-pattern-baldness yahoos on vacation from riding around in their Hummer by riding around in the surf on a 5-million-decibel Viagramobile. I want great beaches, great food, a great spa, and peace. And quiet.”

“Ohhhhhh. I’ve got just the place. Anguilla. It’s in the British West Indies. Somewhat undiscovered, no big airport, the resorts are small with decadent amenities and lots of quiet.”

Like I said, nice, helpful people, these travel agents. Sometimes slow on the uptake. An-GWILL-a. Even the name sounds quiet.

Visions of Corona commercials danced in my head. This was, indeed, the place for me.

It is not often that you come back from vacation with a story of a little old Anguillan woman you have never met who tries to kill you on the first day of your vacation. Manslaughter would be closer — in an extrapolated synchronistic kind of way.

The word around Anguilla’s 35 square miles is that this lady has held up the lengthening of the runway at the island’s Wallblake Airport by refusing to sell her house and land and just being a royal pain in the tarmac.

It is also said that American Eagle, which flies to Anguilla from San Juan, Puerto Rico, has quite the burr under its wing flaps because the Anguillans haven’t just gotten on with it and bulldozed the old woman into the Caribbean. A small price so they can land larger airplanes, cut the number of flights and save fuel.

The airline hasn’t quite said it is going to take its planes and go pout, but it often claims that the planes are too broken to fly.

The first day of my vacation fell on one of those days at the San Juan airport when the air execs decided to stick their collective tongues out in the direction of Anguilla and planes just kept getting broken two minutes before boarding time. There we sat, all day, with visions of boat drinks dancing in our heads, waiting for the executives to say, “That’ll fix their wagon” and all the planes get unbroken.

The San Juan airport is not one of Puerto Rico’s attractions. If a traveler thinks Disney World is the fifth level of Purgatory, the flight into Greater Hades has a layover in San Juan.

Finally, 10 hours later and a couple of cardboard airport pizzas later, one of the planes was unbroken enough for us to fly to St. Martin. So a group of us would-be boat drinkers, huddled up for a strategy session; cell phones at the ready. Could we catch the ferry to Anguilla tonight? Is someone going to pick us up at the airport?

Should we get a hotel room in St. Martin and get the ferry tomorrow? Whaddaya mean the airline isn’t going to pay for our hotel? Suddenly, an intrepid mob member clicks shut his cell phone. “The CuisinArt Resort is sending a boat to get us.” I tried to suppress the visions of a rotted-out drug boat floating in my head.

After passing some shady-looking characters hanging around the St. Martin terminal and dragging our bags down the dock next to the airport, we piled into a luxury speedboat piloted by Garfield Richardson. A lovely breeze blew away some of the stress as we slowly motored through the lagoon on St. Martin. Twinkling lights, island music — we had arrived.

FULLTHROTTLE

Then we reached the channel and the throttles were put to the stops. As we took to the air between swells, I realized that a piece of floating debris or a late-night fisherman in our path would really ruin our vacation. Children turned green, knuckles turned white. And then it was over. We were alive and on vacation.

That which does not kill you makes you laugh like a mental patient. Just another travel story courtesy of one old, old Anguillan gal who stood up to the corporate man. I was loving this place already.

The moral of this story: Rather than fly through San Juan to connect to tiny Wallblake Airport on Anguilla, fly from Baltimore Washington International Airport directly to St. Martin, grab a cab to the docks and plop down the extra $10 for the ferry to Anguilla.

However you reach Anguilla, you need to make a decision as to whether you want to go straight to your accommodations or pick up a rental car. If you plan to cheat yourself and never leave the environs of your plush resort, then take your taxi to the registration desk. If you plan to see some of this wonderful little island and experience its most noteworthy attribute — its people — consider renting a car.

ONVACATION

Yeah, they drive on the left and that can be scary, but there is little traffic and the cars are automatics, so don’t get yourself in a tizzy. You’re on vacation. Live. Better yet, take the midnight speedboat ride. Everything feels safe after that.

You can get bled dry taking taxis all over, as they charge usually no less than $40 for a round trip. When you see the prices at the finer restaurants, you are going to wish you had that extra $40 to choke on. While the food ranges from perfectly fine to top-notch, you can’t get out of most places for under $100 for two persons.

If you are on a budget, find a nice travel review Web site or ask other travelers where they have eaten. Then pick your time and spots to fine dine. The big resort restaurants are lovely and worth the trip if you want to see how the other half lives and eat like them, too. But you’ll do just as well at Blanchard’s in Mead’s Bay, Straw Hat in the Forest, Flavours in South Hill or Mango’s at Barnes Bay.

There are many moderately priced eateries on the beaches with wonderful food. Don’t miss Uncle Ernie’s at East Shoal Bay, Tasty’s Cafe for a breakfast of johnnycakes and bush tea, or a walk on the beach from Cap Jaluca along Cove Bay to Smokeys. Remember, the catch of the day really was caught that day and can be gone by the end of the dinner rush. If you put reservations off till late, the catch of the day may have been caught, cooked and eaten.

You will also hear a lot about Scilly Cay, a little spit of land on the northeast shore, accessible only by boat or helicopter and barely large enough for the restaurant it holds. It looks like Gilligan’s Island, but with room only for Gilligan, the Skipper, the Professor, Ginger and Mary Ann. Those snotty Howells will have to go down with the boat.

Owners Sandra and Eudoxie Wallace are lovely, but Scilly Cay is open only from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., as there is no electricity. That means no lights, no ice, no blender and no boat drinks. So you betta like your Red Stripe, Mon.

It also means no fans, so the shade, the silken water and any breeze will be all to cool you.

The food is the same tasty lobster, fish and chicken that you can get elsewhere but for around $100 for two. Once the food and beer are gone, there is little to do and most find the trip is just OK to disappointing.

You won’t get Scilly on Mondays, as it is closed. Otherwise, you can get cheap eats in the Valley, the central town on the island, at any number of eateries or the Peoples Market for fresh produce and nice conversation.

The Valley is no fun-in-the-sun spot, but it is a crossroads of sorts between paradise east and paradise west. It has shops and markets and ATMs (the resorts charge at least 10 percent to give you cash on your room bill). Not to worry about changing money: While the island is a British protectorate and the official currency is the Caribbean dollar, U.S. dollars are accepted by all.

LOVELYCHURCHES

After filling your money belt, take in some of the old island churches. St. Gerards Roman Catholic Church on Wallblake Plantation is a handmade mosaic of island stones built by the original priest and is worth a look. Better yet, go to Sunday service and meet the priest and parishioners and find out how upbeat Catholics can be. No somber Gregorian chants here; every song is a joyous island ditty of worship sung to a wacky electric piano. Truly spiritual and truly Anguilla.

The island is covered with lovely churches of all faiths and worth a stop at the house of the Lord of your choice.

Most brochures list Shoal Bay East, often referred to as just Shoal Bay and not to be confused with Shoal Bay West, as one of the world’s premier strips of sand. As sand goes, it probably is closest to a mile-long strip of toe-tickling powdered sugar. It is also where you will find some of the island’s more affordable, if Spartan, accommodations, from small cottages to a small beachfront hotel.

Be forewarned that the premier beach also attracts a somewhat drinking, partying, noisy and smoking crowd. If those things ruin your relaxation buzz, stay elsewhere on the island and do a day trip to East Shoal Bay; it’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Mead’s Bay is a quiet alternative with delicious water and snorkeling. You can get great deals, especially during shoulder — between high and low — season, at Carimar Beach Club or Mead’s Bay Hideaway. For fine dining, Blanchard’s is right down the beach, with the Malliouhana Resort next door for drinks or dining.

CAPJALUCA

If you can afford to live like the other half, the island’s three largest resorts, CuisinArt, Cap Jaluca and Malliouhana, all have world-class spas, restaurants, tennis pros and fitness centers, as well as decadent rooms — the Malliouhana’s are plush with hardwood British colonial style, and Mediterranean-inspired villas are at the two others.

Accommodations on the island are limited to no more than 100 rooms by law, making the land of the posh feel all that more exclusive.

Cap Jaluca, on the southwest end of the island, is consistently rated as one of the top resorts in the Caribbean and features two miles of white powdered sugar for a beach.

If you are looking for an active vacation, Cap Jaluca may be for you. Sheltered from the trade winds on Maundays Bay, it is an excellent place for water-skiing and learning how to windsurf, but off season it can get very hot on the beach.

Sometimes voted the premier resort in the Caribbean by travel magazines, Cap Jaluca’s Moorish-style villas are simply elegant and the amenities plentiful; including suites with private pools.

While in the Cap Jaluca neighborhood, a left turn at the beach access and a 15-minute walk up Cove Bay leads to Smokeys on the Bay, a beachfront eatery where the whole fish and burgers are first rate but take a back seat to a seafood chowder that is the best on the island.

COOKINGSHOW

CuisinArt’s Executive Chef Daniel Orr, formerly of Guastavino’s Restaurant in New York City, and Gaithersburg’s own Christopher Heath, the chef de cuisine, not only have your taste-buds tap dancing, but they show you how to do it yourself in the resort’s own Kitchen Stadium.

Cooking classes occur a few times a week, with a master class on Saturday, and cost $50 per person for instruction in making homemade spiced rum, an appetizer, soup, main course and a dessert prepared by pastry chef Evon Moulton. And you then get to stuff your face with what you have made.

Preaching the gospel of fresh ingredients, Mr. Orr infuses the catch of the day with herbs, fruits and vegetables grown on the property’s own organic and hydroponic farms.

CuisinArt’s every-jolly general manager Rabin Ortiz will be overseeing an expansion of the kitchen stadium facility to accommodate daily cooking demonstrations. CuisinArt’s Venus Spa, while small, is comfortable and has a wide menu of indulgences, from beauty salon and wraps to couples massage. The locker rooms, however, could use an upgrade.

MALLIHOUANA

If you are the family vacation type, the Malliouhana is where you should hang your sun hat. You can ditch the youngsters at the children’s pool and go pretend you are newlyweds again. With a huge pirate ship for a water-slide park, you won’t hear a peep out of your child all day.

Perched on a cliff on Meads Bay on the island’s north shore, the Malliouhana Spa is the pick of the litter, offering not only treatment rooms, but luxurious suites, rented by half- and full-day, that are basically high-end flats complete with massage and treatment tables and amazing views of the Caribbean.

All this comes at a price, but you only live once. Sleep in one of the inexpensive cottages around the island and spend your cash here getting rubbed and wrapped.

While vacation packages are available at each of the larger resorts, it is still a pricey way to unwind, with room rates ranging from $300 per night to more than $5,700 a night for a five-bedroom villa at Cap Jaluca.

Before you start reading Stephen Hawking books trying to bend the fabric of the vacation universe, visit the Anguilla Tourist Board (www.anguilla-vacation.com), drop them an e-mail (atbtour@anguillanet.com), and you will find a bounty of realistically priced properties. Many of them have shoulder-season deals that are cheaper than a week in Ocean City.

Anguilla is small and easy to navigate. No matter where you park your overpacked roller bag, you are a short drive from sampling the goods at other resorts.

Even if Anguilla is starting to get a little uppity with all the posh private villas and the nearly completed Temenos golf community with a Greg Norman-designed course, a larger airstrip and newly paved roads, all that window dressing takes a back seat to the island’s best assets: its slow pace and lovely people.

ISLANDDELIGHTS

Anguilla’s delights are that rare commodity that is measured inversely. Three traffic lights at last count, no fast-food restaurant, no long stretch of beaches gobbled up by sprawling resorts, no Gucci, no Applebee’s. Anguilla is the antithesis of St. Martin, a few miles across the channel. It may comfort some people that great shopping, posh restaurants, nude beaches, traffic and a multiscreen cinema house are a 20-minute ferry ride away, but for the Anguillan faithful, the channel is a protective moat. The island government is ever looking across the channel for guidance as to what not to do with their island.

A couple I met ventured across the divide for a day of shopping but returned a few hours later, saying, “It’s nice, but it kinda killed our buzz, you know?”

If you are from Washington and get homesick, a quick trip to St. Martin can make you feel right at home when your rental car gets broken into.

There is, sadly, on many a Caribbean island, a kind of bunker mentality. You don’t have to get far past the resort gate before you start fretting about getting conked on the head and having your sunscreen stolen.

During a taxi tour down Anguilla’s Back Road with Franklyn Richardson, a walking Encyclopedia Anguilla, it became apparent that all the people we met were more likely to lend you their car than break into one.

RICHARDSONS

This is a good time to point out that a good chunk of Anguilla’s 11,000 residents are named Richardson. We arrived on the speedboat of Garfield Richardson and were taxied up Back Road and back by Franklyn Richardson one day and Russell Richardson the next. We got a lift to church on Sunday with the lovely Christopher Richardson of the CuisinArt Resort.

The place is just chock-full of Richardsons. You can hardly take a walk on the beach without tripping over a Richardson.

Richardsons or not, on this lovely little coral isle, the locals have a reputation for making everyone feel skinny and good looking and smart. You are cheating yourself if you don’t leave your lounge chair, at least once, to venture out and stroll the streets of Sandy Ground Village or Crocus Hill to chat up the locals.

Go down Back Road, take a left at the chained goat and descend the hillside to Johnno’s, in Sandy Ground, where fish gets grilled on a bed of jazz standards while chops get busted as domino tiles slam down under a shade tree.

The verbal thrust and parry of the domino match is good-hearted, but ruthless and honed razor-sharp from endless weekends of repetition. It is a scene common around the island.

Find an extension cord running from small home to a front-yard tree dangling a light fixture over a makeshift table and you have found the local domino palace.

The competitors are rarely shy about describing their opponents’ shortcomings for onlookers, but all the talking is in good fun and wholly warmhearted.

If you are in a party-with-the-locals mood, stay into the night, weed through some more goats and dogs wandering around as you seek some Red Stripe beer and carousing at the Pumphouse down the road.

As nice as all those Richardsons are, it is not to say that Anguillans are incapable of getting in a flap during a boat race, the national pastime. They have been known to throw a revolution or two, but even that seemed to be good-natured and done with a smile.

INDEPENDENCE

For over a century, Anguillans had to go with their hands out to the council on St. Kitts to get as much as a “How-do-you-do” from their British overseers. This was well and good, until they noticed the folks on St. Kitts keeping for themselves all the tea and crumpets the British sent.

In the late 1960s, the Anguillans were fed up and packed all 30 of St. Kitts’ police officers on the island in a boat and told them to get rowing.

St. Kitts went whining to Downing Street about what thugs those Anguillans were and before you knew it, 350 British paratroopers and half of Scotland Yard showed up in Anguilla, demanding to see the management.

It didn’t take long for the Brits to notice the lone half-collapsed schoolhouse and the island’s half-mile of paved road before they admitted the Anguillans had cause to be sore.

Besides, these Anguillan thugs were all cheery and made the soldiers and cops johnnycakes and let them win at dominos and told them to take a little swim before making them bush tea and tucking them in for the night.

The Brits tickled their toes in the powdery sand and floated around in pristine water for a few months, then decided that if the Anguillans wanted to tell the folks in St. Kitts to go soak their heads and run things themselves that would be fine with them as long as they kept driving on the left, making a proper cup of tea and singing “God Save the Queen” before the boat races.

Since then, things have been cheery on the little island that could. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston swing by every now and again.

It’s amazing that the whole island hasn’t burst from excitement, but while nobody is breaking out the windows on Brad and Jenn’s Ferrari, folks don’t put on airs either.

Save your blazer and knee-socks for Bermuda, then save your blood pressure by flying direct to St. Martin and taking the ferry, then save your money by staying at the smaller accommodations and having the johnnycakes and bush tea at Tasty’s for breakfast.

Then with all the money you save, spend a night or two, if you must, at CapMalliouhanArt before going home.

You can lock yourself up in a posh resort almost anywhere, but get out and see and meet the real Anguilla. It’s just out your door, down Back Road. Take a left at the goat.

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