Vacation like a celebrity on Anguilla

Caribbean island may cater to rich and famous, but ordinary folk welcome too

Destination Caribbean


My assignment: Go behind the scenes of a celebrity vacation. Test the waters, so to speak, of Anguilla, a 35-square-mile island in the eastern Caribbean that ranks high on the list of uber-chic superstar hideaways.

I didn't object. Who would complain about a winter trip to the British West Indies? Besides, Anguilla (rhymes with vanilla) has been generating a lot of buzz: Town & Country magazine called it the "new luxury capital of the Caribbean"; VH1 named it "celebrity winter vacation destination of the year"; and Travel & Leisure readers laud it annually for having one of the top resorts in the Caribbean.

After all the hype, it was sort of a shock to see how, well, downright homely Anguilla is. It's flat, dry and covered with thickets of scrub brush and brackish ponds. It's no Bali Hai. In fact, it's woefully lacking the rudimentary qualities needed for World's Favorite Island status: no cascading waterfalls, soaring volcanic mountains or luxuriant tropical foliage. There aren't even many palm trees. And if you're looking for a nightclub or casino -- or some boutique shopping -- forget it.

But those things apparently matter little to Anguilla's A-list guests, who have found other qualities to commend it. And I have to agree that the island of 12,000 souls has undeniable virtues. Its beaches are narrow, but the sand is dazzling, stretching to the horizon, as white and fine as powdered sugar. The sea that washes them is a brilliant turquoise. And looming on shore are ultra-luxe retreats for multimillionaire guests in search of serenity and seclusion. Of course, such surroundings come at a price. In Anguilla, that can mean $1,000 a night for a standard hotel room and $75,000 a week at a pricey villa such as Exclusivity, a 15,000-square-foot bluff-top mansion that was a favorite of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.

"It's very, very private," Terry Peck, Exclusivity reservations manager, said of the villa. "There's a staff of 15, all of whom are trained to be invisible."

Discretion is the maxim in Anguilla. "It's part of the appeal," said Amelia Vanterpool-Kubisch, director of tourism. The country's celebrity guests appreciate the anonymity, she said. "They tell their friends and more come. They spend a lot of money."

Unlike Anguilla's high-profile guests, I was traveling on a low-profile budget, sort of a grass-shack-on-a-backwater-beach budget. My options for staying at one of the island's outrageously priced resorts -- the kind celebrities prefer -- seemed limited.

I groused about this to a friend of some means who didn't hesitate long before volunteering to come along. And bring credit cards. She needed some sun, she said, and if a star or two wandered onto a beach nearby, she would be even happier.

So we checked into Cap Juluca, where, we heard, Liam Neeson had just checked out.

The hotel, an "Arabian Nights" fantasy of whitewashed Moorish towers and domes, is frequently chosen as one of the best in the Caribbean by Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler magazines. Our villa was one of 18 spread along Maundays Bay Beach, a golden mile-long crescent of sand and water. The largest villas have five bedrooms, private pools and butler service and cost $7,740 a night in high season, from January through March. All of the villas have access to the beach, where personal attendants set up umbrellas and serve sorbets to ward off the ennui that can accompany a tiring day in the sun.

While my friend sat on the beach eating mango sorbet and watching in vain for stars, I explored the island. Anguilla -- derived from the French word for "eel," a reference to the country's narrow shape -- is only 16 miles long and 3.5 miles wide. Other than the 33 sun-swept beaches, there's not a lot to see.

Away from the coast, small concrete-block homes dot the scrubby terrain, and goats graze lazily on brush. The island is a low-key beachcomber's paradise, with two stoplights, friendly residents and a laid-back attitude. Crime, although not nonexistent, is still so rare that many doors have no locks.

I learned more about the island as I traveled its uncrowded highways. Unlike many colonial regions, Anguilla was so happy under foreign rule that it was willing to fight to stay that way. The English colonized it in 1650 but eventually found the soil too poor to support a plantation economy. Britain recommended an island union of St. Kitts, Anguilla and Nevis, but the Anguillans rebelled, causing English troops to intervene. Their island became a dependent territory in 1980.

"It's not like some other places in the region," said Victor Banks, minister of finance. "Anguillans own the shops, the banks, the businesses, and 95 percent own their own homes. They have power. And they like to share their island with others."

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