Anguilla: so much more than a luxury haven for the rich and famous

By Catherine Leech, Director of 101 Holidays

A comfortable place to stay that isn’t a swish hotel and is located on a shelving beach with warm and calm water; restaurants and bars within walking distance; guaranteed sunshine in late November; no jabs or anti-malarials required; a destination where tourists and locals socialise together; solo-female-friendly.

This was my wish list for a recent holiday, with a special birthday as the added incentive to opt for somewhere really special.

I mentally searched the globe and chose the Caribbean island of Anguilla – not only because it ticks every box but also because I was so inspired by Anguillans’ incredible efforts to recover from the ravages of Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

To say I hit the holiday jackpot is an understatement, made even more special when my BFF, Louise, joined me from her home in Sydney.

I’d been to Anguilla before, in the 1990s with my (former) tour operator hat on but that was at a time when the island’s reputation was largely predicated on the minted few jetting in to stay in a handful of über-luxe hotels – Malliouhana and Cap Juluca to name two – and exclusive villas with hot- and cold-running butler service.

Little did I appreciate back then that Anguilla was and still is home not only to world-class resorts but also to charming B&Bs, self-catering condos and, more recently of course, a wide range of Airbnb options. My choice was the low key Carimar Beach Club, located in a prime spot on the white sand and crystalline turquoise water of Meads Bay.

(* See our pick of the best Caribbean holidays, and the best time to visit the Caribbean).

This uniquely appealing property hits the sweet spot between a self-catering holiday (with a superbly-equipped kitchen in each suite, top notch bed linen and seriously comfy mattresses) and the charm of an intimate hotel. There are 34 spacious one- and two-bedroom villa suites with daily maid service, glorious tropical gardens, friendly and efficient staff who really care and zero formality.

We hired a car ($36 per day and incredibly quick and easy thanks to Carimar’s concierge) and found it easy to get around – Anguilla is only 16 miles long and 3 miles at its widest. We beach-hopped, bar-hopped, restaurant-hopped and (the joy of having kitchen facilities) were also able to stock up the vast fridge with fresh salads, herbs and veg from the delightful Vinty’s roadside kitchen garden, pineapple and mangoes from Marcella’s fruit stall and a surprisingly wide range of groceries, wine and beer from the Best Buy supermarket.

Another discovery was the huge range of places offering take-away food such as authentic French patisserie from a choice of local bakeries, hot and spicy local dishes and, a favourite, blackened Mahi Mahi and kale salad ($17 with enough for two) from Blanchards Beach Shack, a 50m stroll up the beach.

As day turned to evening, we loved the fact that we could glam up, gawp at the sunset and people-watch over a cocktail in one of the hotels, wander along the beach for a bite to eat in a pair of shorts or, a bit dressier, stroll to one of Meads Bay’s superb waterfront restaurants such as Straw Hat and Jacala.

A short drive extended the dining options – not least one of Anguilla’s lip-tingling roadside BBQs such as B&Ds where $12 buys a huge plate of tasty ribs, chicken, coleslaw, rice and freshly-fried Johnny Cakes (moreish savoury doughnuts). Plastic chairs in an Anguillan family’s back yard with ice-cold beers, island-time service and the gentle buzz of happy tourists and locals never felt so perfect. Just ask any Anguillan for recommendations – they all have a favourite and know which is open and when.

Sunshine Shack on Rendezvous Bay is one of several toes-in-the-sand experiences on Anguilla and we loved it, not least the beaming welcome from the owner, Garvey. Soak up the sun on one of the (free if you eat there) loungers, swim in the turquoise Caribbean with views of St Martin in the distance and then tuck in to a rum punch and barbecue fish, ribs, chicken or lobster for around $30 pp (more for the lobster). There’s live music sometimes too – there and at other similar spots.

When the water got a bit choppy at Meads Bay, we drove round to Sandy Ground where the water is always incredibly calm and sheltered – and a fun crowd gathers every evening at Elvis’ Beach Bar, one of those ‘5-o’clock somewhere’ toes in the sand institutions that the Caribbean does so well and that never failed to make us smile.

At this stage, you might be wondering if we did anything other than eat, drink and swim – and the answer is, yes but not a lot. And that was the whole point of this particular health-restoring holiday. Anguilla isn’t for you if you want to explore ancient ruins, hike through dense tropical jungle or if swanky retail therapy is high on your list. We did visit some wonderful small boutiques and art galleries and loved driving around, stopping wherever that took our fancy for a mooch or a swim – pretty East Harbour Village and Crocus Bay for example. Of course, we could have gone on a boat trip, enjoyed some guided bird-watching or art classes, cliff hikes, horse-riding, joined a National Trust activity such as a night-time turtle patrol or hopped over to St Martin or St Barths for the day. Next time……

One exceptional birthday treat was a facial at the Zemi Beach House Hotel. I’m a bit of a spa junkie so have plenty to compare it with; it was the best experience of its kind that I can remember. Appropriately called the Zemi Thai House, the authentic 300 year old spa building was transported from Thailand to Anguilla and rebuilt in the 1980s as a private home. Allow an hour before your treatment to enjoy the complimentary Hammam, mud or scrub ritual and a lazy, hazy dip in the vitality pool before surrendering to the masterful hands of the therapists. Reassuringly expensive, it’s worth every penny.

After two weeks of indolent indulgence, we had to decide where to spend our last day. We returned for the third time to our favourite spot, somewhere which sums up much of what made Anguilla such a uniquely special place for our holiday – a class act with no pretension. Trattoria Tramonto sits on Shoal Bay West (not to be confused with the blindingly gorgeous Shoal Bay East which deservedly tops many ‘World’s Top Beaches’ rankings).

Chill out on fabulously-comfortable beach loungers, with lots of space around you and plenty of umbrellas for shade, enjoy some swimming and snorkelling, feel thoroughly spoiled with fun and friendly lounger-side service from the fantastic Tramonto team with a rum punch or chilled rosé before donning a cover-up for a hard-to-beat lunch in the airy restaurant. Their authentic pastas and salads were stunning and the daily catch always perfect. Bliss – not cheap and worth every cent.

As we watched our last blazing Anguillan sunset we counted ourselves so fortunate, with every wish list box ticked and more – and to any solo travellers reading this, had I been there on my own as originally planned, I know it would have been equally perfect.

Getting there

Anguilla is located in the northern end of the Leeward Islands. I flew to nearby St Martin from Heathrow via Paris CDG with Air France. Louise joined me on JetBlue’s non-stop service to St Martin from New York JFK. Anguilla is a half hour boat ride from St Martin – it’s such a fun way to arrive. There’s a public ferry service or you can book a semi-private crossing with a company such as Calypso Charters. Anguilla Air Services and TransAnguilla fly several times a day between Anguilla and St Martin – just eight minutes in the air and the best views. You can also reach Anguilla by air via Antigua. Find out more here.

Louise and I paid for our holiday. Huge thanks to Carolyn Brown and her colleagues at the Anguilla Tourist Board – their passion, in-depth knowledge and insider tips were a stellar example of how a tourist board should be!