Part 1A: Paradise Lost
Have you ever loved someone passionately, and passionately wanted everyone in your life to love that person too? Yet that first introduction left your friends and family with that same sense of bewilderment you felt the first time you viewed a Cy Twombly, or saw Tree of Life?
Like, say, the time you brought your boyfriend, who you eventually married, to dinner at your parents’ for the first time? And this beloved of yours had a slight shy streak that masked his keen sense of humor, and dressed in baggy clothes that concealed his drop-dead gorgeous body and prompted your parents to question not only if he was gainfully employed but perhaps even if he lived in his car?
This was not the case of introducing my now-husband to my parents. They adored him from the start, as do most people. It was, however, the case of introducing Anguilla to my children.
I first met Anguilla twenty years ago. We were on our honeymoon, and I fell madly, deeply in love.
It was not, however, love at first sight.
We knew very little about Anguilla when we chose it for our honeymoon. This was in the pre-internet Dark Ages, so we had little information to go on. A friend had an aunt who had a villa there, and since it was the “off season,” she graciously offered it to us as a gift from her nephew. We could hardly pass up such generosity.
So after a fantastic, beautiful, and exhausting wedding, most of which we did ourselves, we flew off to spend nine days of complete relaxation on a lush, tropical island in the Caribbean.
Missoula, Montana to Salt Lake City, Salt Lake City to Atlanta, Atlanta to San Juan. Overnight in San Juan. Then up early for the final leg to Anguilla, a brief but hair-raising flight in a prop plane the size of a bathtub. Thirty-two hours of travel later, we finally were minutes from the tropical paradise that awaited us! So close to talcum beaches and coladas under palm trees! Excitedly, I pressed my nose to the window to see what lay below.
Imagine my surprise when our plane began its descent into AXA. Where were the palm trees? For that matter, where were ANY trees? Were those GOATS on the runway?
Now, I’m a Montana girl. I’m no softy, I don’t need pampering, and I’m certainly not afraid of livestock. But I had just spent every spare waking minute for the last five months putting together a wedding for 200 people. Tearing down buildings in my parent’s backyard, painting any buildings that remained, planting gardens, sewing bridesmaids’ dresses, planning menus, shopping for menus, cooking large chunks of said menus. I was exhausted. I wanted a lovely honeymoon. Deserved a lovely honeymoon! Deserved a pina colada under a palm tree on a talcum beach!
The beat-up Toyota Corolla with the faux fur zebra print seat covers that served as the taxi to our villa did little to assuage my worries. There were fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror. Fuzzy dice. And the roads! I had studied the highway map ahead of time to get the lay of the land, but these were no highways. The best of them were barely paved roads With trash on the side of them. Where exactly were we??
Things began to brighten a bit when we arrived at the villa at Seafeathers. It had a Caribbean vibe that began to crack my spoiled brat ego.
And then the aunt was there in the doorway to greet us, warmly and enthusiastically. Luckily she couldn’t hear my inner voice that had been chastising me the last hour for choosing this place over Hawaii. “Come out to the veranda and see the view!”
Well, the view was amazing, overlooking the Caribbean and St. Maarten. And the villa was gorgeous, all high ceilings and tile floors and lots and lots of enormous windows that looked out over that amazing view. Things were definitely looking up.
The aunt took us back to the “town” and got us hooked up with a jeep, then turned us loose on the island with a list of restaurants and advice to check out Uncle Ernie’s, the world famous fish chowder at the Barrel Stay, and the lobster at Scilly Cay (but to watch out for the rum punches). And just like that, the honeymoon I had been dreaming of began, and I began to fall in love.
The deal was sealed with my first glimpse of Shoal Bay East, when we did indeed check out Uncle Ernie’s, and where we returned many, many times. No pina colada, but plenty of rum punches and Heinekens (for a buck each!).
We spent the next eight days exploring the island in our jeep, top down.We had dinner at the Barrel Stay, and tried the fish chowder. We could see why it was world famous. We spent every morning in serious deliberation, planning our day. Which beach to go to? Where to eat? Should we check out some deserted spot, or go watch the boat races again?
We also spent countless hours just exploring the “roads” of Anguilla, some of which were barely tracks in the dirt, and most of which seemed to deposit us at Roy’s in it’s old location on Crocus Bay. We got to know Roberta, their resident parrot, quite well.
We did go to Scilly Cay, stood on the dock and waved to be picked up, then got pickled on Heinekens and rum punches while waiting for our lobster lunches. When they finally arrived, those lobsters were huge, and accompanied by a pile of pasta salad the size of Rhode Island. It was more even than I can eat. And I can eat.
We decided one day to take a day trip to St. Maarten. We couldn’t wait to get back to Anguilla.
The days passed all too quickly on this scrubby little island, and before we knew it, and long before we were ready, it was time to leave.
Those final moments at the airport, having one last rum punch in the airport bar, were seriously sad ones. This was a beautiful place, and these were beautiful people who truly loved their home, and wanted you to love it too. We had fallen deeply, deeply in love with Anguilla. And Lord only knew when we could come back.
Fast-forward through the years. We bought a house, had a baby boy. Sold the house, moved to Ohio. Found out we were pregnant with twins. Bought a house. Began to remodel house, piece by piece. Had two baby girls. Continued to remodel house. Launched a business. Raised kids. Continued to remodel house. Continued to raise kids.
We would take an occasional trip to the North Carolina beach with my husband’s family. It was nice, but it was no Anguilla.
Eventually our business took over all our time in the summer, and the kids started school. Trips became few and far between, and had to be squished into Spring Break. Which has it’s limitations.
We tried Destin, Florida one year. The water in the pictures looked so blue, the sand so white. We drove excitedly for fourteen hours to reach our beach vacation.
The sand was indeed white. And the weather was so cold, you could easily have imagined all the sand to be snow. The kids jumped in the water anyway. They emerged five minutes later with blue skin and purple lips.
The next year we tried Chicago. The weather was fabulous–eighty six degrees! We soaked up lots of culture and ate fabulous food. But it was not relaxing, and we returned exhausted, with very sore feet.
The next year we tried New Orleans. The weather was not fabulous, but we made it work anyway. We soaked up lots of culture and ate fabulous food. We listened to great music everywhere we went. I fell in love with New Orleans too, I confess. But it was not relaxing. My children, who were by now teenagers, were troopers. Still, one day they asked, “Is there a beach near here?” There wasn’t. Plenty of swamps, but no sandy beaches. We returned home pounds heavier, lives enriched, exhausted, and with very sore feet.
“Can we just take a beach vacation sometime?” they asked.
I understood their desire. Believe me, I did. But let’s be realistic: the options within driving distance from Ohio are limited. And the weather during a mid-March Spring Break can be unpredictable, even if you travel as far south as Fort Myers. A beach vacation? We had tried that before.
That’s when the Anguilla Idea began to formulate.
2014 loomed as a milestone year for us. My husband was facing one of those major birthdays, and we would be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. What if we could celebrate these milestones with a return to Anguilla?
I began to research. And immediately realized what a cockeyed dream this was. There was no way we could afford even to sleep in Anguilla, unless we camped on a beach. Not only did having children change our accommodation needs, but we appeared to have one too many children, throwing us into the three-room category. And we could barely afford one.
Then, somewhere in my search, I discovered Anguilla-Beaches.com, Nori Evoy’s invaluable resource on Anguilla travel, and in it hope for someone traveling on a budget.
The Anguilla Idea became Anguilla Reality 2014. A Trip of a Lifetime.
Part 1B: Um… We’re Here
We are in a movie, the set of which is the top deck of a boat rushing toward Anguilla, wind streaming through our hair, the sea a wash of every shade of blue. Except it is not a movie, and this really is us in the flesh, March of 2014, on the ferry from St Martin to Anguilla. Neither the weather nor the airlines, which are obviously in league with one another, have succeeded in keeping us from our destination. I am supposed to be filling out customs forms, but that’s a lot to ask of a girl who’s about to be reunited with one of the great loves of her life.
The island becomes more defined as we get closer, and I can start to make out features. Is that Cap Jaluca to the west? It’s been so long, I can’t remember where everything is. Will it have changed much?
My family is looking eagerly, happily toward shore. I think they are just excited that they may get to enjoy a relaxing vacation for a change. We could walk from one end of the island to the other, just for old time’s sake, I suggested. My family suspected I was only half joking. Just ask them sometime about the Touris’ 2012 Chicago Lakefront Death March.
We draw closer and closer to the island, the water turning from a deep navy blue to royal to a warm turquoise. Then suddenly, and finally, we arrive at shore; the ferry operators are securing the boat to the dock, porters are piling up luggage, and we gather our miscellaneous belongings and step with shaky sea legs onto the dock at Blowing Point.
After snapping that obligatory photo of the kids in front of the “Welcome to Anguilla” sign, we step inside to get the customs thing over with and get on with our vacation.
Perhaps that’s when the tiny knots start to gather in my stomach. What I remember from our previous trip was an island of warm, friendly people, a notion only reinforced by everything I had read in recent months. But the face behind the customs desk is anything but warm, especially since I seem to have messed up the forms. Instead, that face is brisk and unsmiling, as are those of the policeman outside and of the taxi drivers waiting for riders. I try to shake it off; everything will be fine once we get to the hotel and get our toes in the sand.
My children, meanwhile, are surveying the scene with increasingly skeptical eyes, and look on dubiously as an ancient minivan with tinny-sounding doors pulls up to drive us to paradise. The looks become even more skeptical as they take in the scenery on the road leading out of Blowing Point: the cinderblock buildings, the rusted tin roofs, trash littering the sides of the road and scrub covering the land. Tropical paradise? Looks more like the ghetto on the east side of our town.
Do I detect the taxi driver doing a double take when we tell him our destination of Sandy Ground? I am now growing slightly anxious. I have reserved a duplex in a hotel there, and while I am in no way expecting luxury, I am also just praying it’s not a complete bust. The reviews of it are solid, but you never know. My husband is hosting a bit of anxiety himself, as our most recent emails reconfirming our arrival had not been answered. Island time, I assure him. No worries.
Our driver pulls us up to the front of the hotel, and it’s true, it’s certainly not a luxury resort. But good things await beyond those walls, I am certain.
A woman with the air of proprietress greets us at the entrance. “Hello. How many rooms do you wish?”
“We are the Tourises,” I say, noting that it sounds much like “tourists”. Still. “We have reservations for the duplex for the next week.”
I am so excited. This woman and I are going to be good friends, I know. Lifelong friends, when I succeed in moving to this island for good.
“Ah, yes, the duplex.” The proprietress shifts on her feet, looks out across the street where the beach awaits us. “Yes, well… the people in the duplex decided to stay a few extra days. What could I do? Kick them out?”
There is a long silence as my husband, the proprietress, the taxi driver and I all shift from foot to foot, like members of a boy band. There’s a slight ringing in my ears, and I’m suddenly very, very hot.
“One moment,” says the proprietress, who then disappears into the hotel. She reemerges a minute later with keys in hand and hops in a pickup truck. We gather we are to follow in the taxi. I’m avoiding eye contact with my husband at this point, while smiling in what I hope is an encouraging manner to my children. Island time. No worries.
Down the main road of Sandy Ground we drive. Out of the town, past the barge pier, beyond the salt pond. We turn onto a dirt road, which we follow until at last we come to a padlocked double gate with a “No Trespassing” sign, where we turn right onto a long driveway, pass a dilapidated tennis court and pavilion, and stop finally in front of a white, two-story villa.
We hesitantly step out of the taxi, then follow the proprietress to the padlocked gate of a front door. She unlocks it and leads us inside. “How many rooms you need?”
“I don’t know,” I say. The place seems huge. “We might be fine with two.” My mind is racing. How much is this all going to cost? I have vague recollections of an email months ago mentioning a villa maybe twice the price of the duplex.
My husband gives voice to my trepidation. “How much is this place a night?” he asks.
“We talk about that later,” she says, and hands him the keys.
We wrap up things with the taxi driver, who has been watching the proceedings with bemused interest. I can’t tell if the fee he charges us is normally so small, or if he just feels bad for the poor schmucks he has just deposited at land’s end.
The proprietress offers to return in a bit to drive us back to Sandy Ground for dinner. “Is it possible to walk down the beach from here to there?” we ask. “Yes, but it is rather far,” she says.
At this point I just need space to regroup. Well, that, and a stiff drink. We decide we will make our own way back, and decline her kind offer. “Very well,” she says, and with an offer of further help should we need it gets back in her truck and drives away.
We stand for a moment in stunned silence.
I can sense my children watching us for clues on how to proceed, and realize I must snap out of this sudden funk. This is our dream vacation, after all! I begin to explore the place.
It is by no means luxurious. But it’s not bad either. Something along the line of the beach houses we have rented in North Carolina. It is, however, in need of a thorough cleaning. Deep and thorough.
The sun, I suddenly notice, is starting to set, and I remember how quickly darkness falls here after the sun goes down. I hustle my family along before we find ourselves stranded in the dark.
We head down to the beach, which we find almost literally out our back door. A short walk takes us to the pier, which is surrounded by a tall wire fence. We contemplate how to get to the other side. Go around? Not convenient. We decide to try our luck going under it, and after crouching and scuttling, find ourselves on the other side, the beach of Sandy Ground stretched out before us.
We have arrived on a Sunday. Our plans for dinner are undefined. This is so unlike me: I usually have that sort of thing mapped out long before we leave home. This is to be a different sort of vacation though, more “relaxed.” The plan loosely is to find some beach bbq, then head down to Elvis’ for his full moon party.
However, there is no beach bbq to be found. Oops. We decide to head straight to Elvis’ and dive headlong into the “Lunasea” party.
But when we arrive at Elvis’ we find no party. Actually it looks more like the hungover remnants of LAST night’s party, with a decided lack of energy and people. A quick glance at the menu shows nothing we really feel like eating either, so after a quick drink we head back down the beach.
At this point I decide that some good, comforting pub food is what we need, something that reminds everyone of home for a smidgen. “Let’s try Ripples,” I suggest.
So it’s agreed, and we walk down the main road to Ripples. The full moon has risen, and I feel a surge of optimism.
That optimism fades quickly once we enter Ripples.
While the restaurant is open, it is also dead quiet, and I am wondering if maybe they are closing soon. There are two other people in the restaurant, who, together with the person behind the bar, look at us blankly, and I like we are interrupting something. We tentatively ask for a seat.
The menu at Ripples is our first introduction to Anguilla dining prices. We order two fish and chips and one coconut shrimp and grilled fillet of snapper dinners, as well as some calamari. None of it, while not bad, is particularly good, and the bill, which included a few drinks, is around $150, plus tax and tip. We leave with full bellies but rather empty spirits, and on that note decide to return to the “villa” and call it a day.
And what a day this has been. Everybody is out of sorts, and I feel responsible. “Oh my,” I think. What have I gotten us into?