After hobnobbing with the French and millionaires in fashionable St. Barts and blowing our frugal cruising budget on overpriced drinks in posh beach-side bars, Anguilla was a welcome change of pace.
Anguilla is for lovers. In recent years it has regularly topped lists as the Caribbean island of choice for honeymooners and destination weddings. A tourism ethos of quality over quantity – yield over volume – has saved Anguilla’s glorious powdery-white sand beaches from brash development. That’s not to say it’s untouched, but low-rise resorts generally blend into the island’s flat and dry landscape.
A long and narrow landmass (26 kms long x 5 kms wide) and just 50 metres at its highest point, when sailing from St. Barts we could barely distinguish the island on the horizon, except for its many palm trees and holiday apartments glowing in the sun. Anguilla’s approach to yachties is different to many others in the West Indies, where an expensive ‘daytime only’ cruising permit is required should you wish to leave the lovely main anchorage at Road Bay. It’s either intended to protect Anguilla’s many delicate coral atolls and sandy cays from damaging anchors, or to maintain exclusivity in sweeping bays in respect of resort guests paying a small fortune for their stay.
Either way, the perceived threat of hefty fees appears to keep most yachties away as we shared Road Bay’s anchorage with just a dozen or two other yachts; unlike the hundreds of boats in crowded anchorages at neighbouring St. Barts and Sint Maarten/St. Martin. The basic immigration fees for our 44’ catamaran were minimal and we’re pleased we made the detour. Instead of taking the boat around the island, we hired a car (left-hand drive on the left-hand side of the road is always fun!), packed an esky with ice-cold Caribs and drove near-deserted roads past bleating goats and roaming roosters to a succession of magic, postcard-perfect beaches.
Our favourite was hard-to-access Little Bay, entailing an abseil down a fraying, knotted rope to a wedge of sand hidden beneath 20-metre cliffs. A perfect escape for rock jumping and cheeky daytime nudie dips…Unlike nearby Commonwealth islands such as Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla is autonomously governed yet remains a British overseas territory – not a country in its own right. The island’s barefoot and laid-back Caribbean vibe benefits from a distinct absence of cruise ships off its shores. Smattered around the low island are colourfully painted or faded and neglected fibro shacks – original homes having survived many hurricane batterings. Elvis, of Elvis Beach Bar at Road Bay, looks more like Snoop Dog and is somewhat of a local celebrity. He’s rasta cool and served us stiff rum punches across a bar built from an old Anguilla racing sloop. Holding up one end of the bar, a petite, chatty grandma from Melbourne with raging red hair recognised my accent. She regaled stories how, after falling in love on her first visit, she’d been frequenting the Caribbean sometimes twice a year for the last 15 years.
For the record, the island of Dominica was her favourite.
In the 1930s, following a fall of the slave trade and plantation crop industries, the island was designated a duty-free port. With the subsequent explosion of tourism from the 1950s, today it’s the Caribbean’s biggest duty-free shopping mall.
The 95 square kilometre island is divided in two separate nations: French St. Martin in the north and Dutch Sint Maarten in the south.
As legend goes, instead of battling for borders, a Dutch and Frenchman took a civilised approach. They set off with a flask of gin and bottle of wine respectively; where they met in the middle, the border would be laid. The gin was stronger than the wine and subsequently French St. Martin gained a slightly larger slice of the island. Though fact tells a different story where between 1648 and 1816 the border was contested and changed 16 times.
Joining the afternoon procession of yachts through the drawbridge into the sweltering and shallow protection of Simpson Bay Lagoon. We chose to anchor and clear in on the Dutch side. I’d seen pictures of Sint Maarten long before I knew it was an island in the Caribbean. At the end of busy Princess Juliana Airport’s runway is Maho Bay; a hectic little beach famed for its low-flying aircraft. A visit here is the touristy thing to do and cruise ship passengers or airline travellers with a few hours layover flock here day in, day out.
Flight arrival times are posted for best photo snapping opportunities; the money shot capturing KLM’s granddaddy 747 jumbo jet as it lands directly from Amsterdam. Then as jets depart, brave (or stupid) beach revellers stand in the down draft as thousands of pounds of thrust send sand flying and onlookers tumbling into the sea. Entertainment for hours!Together with visiting friends Chad and Sarah, we again hired a car to explore the island’s outskirts and highlights. Enduring a near-constant traffic jam (passing casinos, strip clubs, all day happy hour pubs and countless grocery stores) we crawled around Marigot, Simpson Bay Lagoon, Maho Bay, Orient Beach and Philipsburg. With cruise ships parked five-deep in Philipsburg’s port, Sint Maarten’s bustling capital was basically an outdoor shopping mall and day bar servicing patrons off the ships.
Popular Orient Beach was heaving with sun loungers, umbrellas, fruity cocktails and an exuberant cruise ship crowd. Many yachties rave about Sint Maarten/ St. Martin. And I 100% agree it serves a purpose as a shopping utopia for boat parts, repair services and provisioning (which can be awfully painful and expensive in other islands). There’s also a wealth of other live aboard cruisers for socialising and story swapping at lagoon-side happy hours. But after five days of boat work, a A$1,000 grocery stock-up and bidding farewell to our fun-loving friends Chad and Sarah, we were content to leave the stagnant lagoon and sail overnight 80 nautical miles northwest to the heavenly British Virgin Islands.