For most visitors to the Caribbean, the island of Anguilla has little to offer. There are no casinos, no discos and not even a town. Shopping is so limited that T-shirts are almost non-existent. Cruise ships pass it by because of the absence of a deep-water port, and its small airport can accommodate only prop-driven planes, which ferry visitors to and from the larger islands.
To Anguilla's legion of devotees, the absence of all of the above gives this northernmost isle in the Leewards, a scant eight miles from St. Martin, its charm. Of course, Anguilla's 33 deserted white coral sand beaches, considered to be the region's best, and three of the Caribbean's finest and most expensive hotels -- the Malliouhana, Coccoloba Plantation and Cap Juluca -- also have helped to make it, almost overnight, one of the hottest and most desirable vacation spots in the Western Hemisphere.
Sounds confusing? Anguilla, perhaps more than any other island in the Caribbean, suffers from an identity crisis, since it's often confused with the bustling, larger island of Antigua, about an hour's flight to the south. Unlike Antigua, which gained its independence from Britain years ago, Anguilla remains a tranquil crown colony of 7,000.
The first Westerner to discover Anguilla was Columbus, who thought its 16-mile-long, 3-mile-wide shape resembled an eel -- hence its name, which means "eel" in Spanish. It is not a lush, verdant, volcanic island like neighboring St. Martin, but rather flat, with poor soil that is ill-suited to growing crops. One gets the idea that Mother Nature spent so much on the lavish beaches that encircle the island that nothing was left to beautify and enhance the interior.
As such, the Spaniards made no attempt to colonize it. It wasn't until well into the 17th century that some British settlers arrived and Anguillan life began, one devoted to the sea and its bounty -- boat builders, fishermen, whalers and sailors, providing some of the best in the Caribbean. Salt was and continues to be the island's principal product.
Tourism wasn't to arrive until well into the 1980s, although a handful of small guest houses was built as early as the 1950s. Of these, Rendezvous Bay was the largest, and continues to attract longtime visitors who like their islands casual and food served family-style.
An attempt was made to build a grand resort, to be called Maundy's Bay, on the island's north shore in 1968, but construction was abandoned halfway through. For decades thereafter, Anguilla continued to be a little-known oasis and the exclusive domain of a handful of visitors who cherished the serenity that it offered.
Then, in 1984 the ultraluxurious Malliouhana was opened overlooking Mead's Bay on the north shore and a new standard of excellence was ushered into the Caribbean. The hotel-resort was booked solid from the start and continues to be, although in truth it has no relationship, either in its Mediterranean-style architecture or European ambience, to Anguilla.
Another resort, originally called the Anguillan Holiday Health Spa, soon followed at the far end of crescent-shaped Mead's Bay. It became the highly regarded Coccoloba Plantation, and while much simpler and less ostentatious than the Malliouhana, it attracted many who favored the Rockresorts in the Caribbean, in part because of E. David Brewer's having been the original managing director. That tradition continues with Coccoloba now headed by another Rockresorts alumnus, Martin Flaherty.
The third top-of-the-market property, Cap Juluca, on the site where Maundy's Bay was to have been, opened in 1988. It is known for its Moorish architecture, fantasylike bathrooms and the dramatic Pimm's restaurant. Cap Juluca's owner-developers, Robin and Sue Ricketts, originally were associated with the Malliouhana, and are well-respected by and known to most upscale visitors to Anguilla.
One should not get the idea that Anguilla is only for the rich and very rich; there are several other fine resorts nowhere near as expensive. Mariners at Road Bay is a casual, fun find, as is Cinnamon Reef. The Carimar Beach Club, in the middle between Coccoloba and Malliouhana, is a delightful cluster of condominium rental units on the beach, with tennis as a bonus. Next door is the Sea Grape condominium complex, developed by Bob Carroll, the master hotelier and restaurateur of Martha's Vineyard. Another is the North Shore hideaway appropriately called Cul de Sac. There also is a uniquely Anguillan property, the recently completed Great House, owned by a consortium of Anguillans. It offers what is perhaps the most genuine and finest West Indian hospitality in all the islands.