by Katherine Hafner
As our boat rounded the eastern tip of the island, bouncing over choppy, sparkling blue water, a fleet of about a dozen sailboats appeared on the horizon.
Industrious crews of up to 20 people worked to push their boat into the lead as we watched the spectacle unfurl alongside other vessels, some of them with partiers perched on bows, drinking rum punches and blasting Caribbean hip-hop.
On May 30, Anguilla Day, nearly all of the island’s roughly 17,000 inhabitants celebrate the 1967 nonviolent revolution that gave them their independence from St. Kitts and Nevis. The boat race around the island is the main event. And it’s a big deal. Boats bob in harbors and wait for the competitors to sail by. People stuck on land watch from the nearest beach or balcony.
But this year the day, which is primarily an outpouring of local pride, felt even more special as the determined islanders showed that even one of the worst storms ever to hit their home could not stop them. The previous summer, on Sept. 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma hit as a Category 5, winds whipping at about 185 miles per hour. It devastated homes and wiped out hotels and restaurants, and along with it the island’s linchpin tourism industry.
My visit began (and ended, for that matter) with my balancing a rum punch on a charter boat as it sped over the channel between the island and St. Martin. I’d flown into the neighboring island’s makeshift airport – the regular airport, destroyed by Irma, was being rebuilt.
Unlike some of its neighbors, Anguilla is flat and small, some 16 miles long and 3 miles wide. It’s made of coral and limestone, which gives the beaches their characteristic white sand that never gets too hot. Exquisite turquoise water hugs alternately craggy coastline and gentle shoreline. Birds nip at fish congregated in reefs just below the surface. Buildings carry the vibrant colors that characterize the Caribbean: oranges, yellows, greens, purples. Locals lounge on their front porches, and in many cases you can see through open front doors into living rooms from the road.
Anguilla was colonized by English settlers in the mid-17th century and in the 1800s was placed into a single dependency with St. Kitts, an arrangement that angered Anguillans as the other island drew more resources. That spurred the revolt decades later. The island wasn’t valued for much as an early colonized territory – its land wasn’t fertile enough to support an agriculture industry. The largest natural resource was salt. The vegetation is mostly scrub and palm trees.
On Anguilla Day, nine months after Irma, evidence of the hurricane’s force was still present everywhere: trees missing their palms, boats still abandoned, tarps flapping on roofless houses. But by most measures, the island has rebounded quickly and is ready to welcome tourists again.
The Four Seasons Resort and Residences was one of the first of the major hotels to reopen. The hotel, built using a literal quarry’s worth of silver travertine, was under Viceroy’s management until a $10 million Four Seasons rebrand in 2016. The beautiful property spans about a half-mile and is sandwiched between Meads and Barnes bays. It provides beach access to both.
On my first night at the resort’s Sunset Lounge, I discovered the Essence of Life, a refreshing cocktail made of vodka, tamarind puree, pineapple juice, ginger and the local moringa plant. (The manager of a different Four Seasons eatery, Half Shell, sang the plant’s praises this way: It has more Vitamin C than an orange, more iron than spinach and more potassium than a banana. Just don’t drink it if you’re expecting.)
Cobà, the flagship restaurant, is perched right above the ocean, giving you the feeling of being on a cruise ship. I ordered the Caribbean swordfish and wasn’t disappointed. A Long Island native in my group said his beef tenderloin equaled – or surpassed – those of the best New York steakhouses.
As you walk through the property, it’s hard to focus your attention on one place: Your eyes bounce between the clean architecture, the sleek infinity pools with attendants ready to pamper you, and the ocean, forever lapping its teasingly clear water.
Almost all of the resort’s rooms are for sale, running from $750,000 up to about $6 million. On our first full day we toured a penthouse with wraparound ocean views and a private villa that was fit for some Hollywood mogul: five bedrooms, modern kitchen, game room, pool, beach access.
Away from the luxury of the resort, Anguilla is quiet, lacking the cruise ships or the constant streams of tourists you find elsewhere. Locals wave and honk at each other on the road to say hello. Only a handful of intersections have traffic lights. Goats, which you can spot hanging out most anywhere, had to be relocated from one roundabout where they’d often fall asleep in the middle of the night.
People go to St. Bart’s to party; they come to Anguilla to relax, said Four Seasons manager José Adames.
The island’s lovely, quiet beaches are its main tourist draw. But there are also places like the fishing village of Island Harbor, where I found 52-year-old Junior Fleming standing on a pier with his catch. Anguillans, he said, are a proud people and always have been. His home took a hard hit in the storm, costing nearly $17,000 to fix. But he shrugged it off, saying there’s not much he can do.
“We breathing now. We gonna come back,” he said. “I love home so much.”
His cooler was full of fish from the day’s haul, including parrotfish, yellowtail and an island favorite, red snapper. He laughed as a snapper flopped in his hand.
“Do Anguillans want tourists back?” I asked.
He flashed a grin. “Are you kidding?”
I drove across the island and followed Farah Mukhida, the executive director of Anguilla’s National Trust, down to another hidden gem: a rock formation right off the main road.
“Two eyes and a mouth. Two eyes and a mouth,” she said, repeating the description as she pointed with a stick to small carvings in the rock.
From 600 to 1400, Anguilla was home to Amerindians called the Taino who used this place, now known as Big Spring Heritage Site, for celebrating births and deaths. For those celebrations, archaeologists say, the group would carve faces into the rock. About 150 of these petroglyphs now have been identified there since the 1990s, when an earthquake caused some rocks to fall and block the spring – and opened the way to the glyphs. The site is also home to a gaggle of native plants, such as the pope plant, which spawns a tiny pink bud I may or may not have inadvertently brought back to Virginia in a shorts pocket.
That night, our last in Anguilla, the group ventured to the upscale treehouse-style Veya Restaurant, which has drawn the attention of Bon Appetit and The New York Times.
Run by chef Carrie Bogar and her husband, Jerry, the secluded and intimate space was the perfect setting for a feast of johnnycakes, lobster fritters, calamari, coconut rice and grilled chicken. After stuffing ourselves with food including, in my case, a dense and heavenly coconut cake, we stopped in Anguilla’s capital, The Valley, for a drink on what locals call “The Strip.” It’s a block of bars and food trucks featuring disco balls and the best barbecue in town. But we didn’t stay long, because we had to make time for the local music legend Bankie Banx.
Banx, the so-called Anguillan Bob Dylan who’s played with the man himself, has had hits across the Caribbean since the 1970s, mostly in a reggae style. He had a beloved beach bar and music scene on Anguilla’s Rendezvous Bay until Irma came along and stripped it bare.
The bones of that bar cast a ghostly figure against the night sky as we pulled up to Banx’s home, which sits right next to it. We were invited into a large room, which he calls “the grotto,” complete with a small fish pond and white grand piano. He sang us a set, and we all drifted off, reveling in the small wonders of Anguilla and the mound of food we’d just inhaled.
Then it was off to pack for the journey home.
When you’ve been in Anguilla for 15 years, you can apply for “belonger status.” It’s a legal term, but it’s been adopted as a badge of honor and messaging campaign across the island as well.
This place claims you, belongers say.
As I prepared to depart the next morning, I found myself feeling a little jealous of the people who have been claimed by the island. After just a few days, I may not have belonged yet, but I sure didn’t want to leave.