ANGUILLA, West Indies — Anguilla's the sort of island where no one is a stranger.
Stay here a couple of days and you meet almost everybody. It has 7,000 residents, and beds for only 500 visitors.
People are outgoing and love to chat. "I've been here for five days, and already I know half the island gossip," said a woman from Scarsdale, N.Y. We bumped into her almost every night of our stay, always by chance.
This small-town atmosphere, combined with the quiet vistas of beach and sea, creates a rare feeling of tranquillity. "We're all more or less like family here," explained Nashville Webster, an opposition member of Parliament. I met Nashville down at Smitty's in Island Harbour. He was waiting for the snapper boat to come in, and we were waiting to take a picture of it.
Anguilla (35 square miles) is a British territory by choice, just north of St. Martin in the northeast corner of the Caribbean. Among the few who know the island, it is famous for two things: beautiful, empty beaches and friendly people. Not a bad reputation, and one it still lives up to.
"This place has spirit and character," explained Stephanie Sawyer, who traveled the entire Caribbean basin for the British Tourism Authority and built her Mariners Hotel in Anguilla. "The people here are different than on all the other Caribbean Islands."
You feel it in the way people along the road wave and smile, the way the waiter invites you to a big picnic at Shoal Bay, the way the chambermaid stops to chat about the stars and the fireflies.
And the beaches? They really are extraordinary. From the air, Anguilla's coastline is scalloped with coves. Each cove is a beach, and most of the beaches are empty.
Each beach is different: crashing surf and scenic rocks at Limestone Bay; a long semicircle of white sand and tranquil turquoise water at Maundays Bay and Rendezvous Bay; palm-fringed shores at Savanna Bay and Cove Bay; reflected waves and brilliant colors at Meads Bay; miles of powder-white reef at Shoal Bay--and 24 more beaches, according to one count.
Exploring a new beach every day is a favorite activity on Anguilla, and for this you need a rental car. Driving is on the left side of the road--surprisingly easy to get used to in a place where no one drives badly or too fast, and there's no way to get very lost.
After all, things here are pretty simple. Just look at the map: The Valley, The Village, the traffic light; no need to be more specific when there's only one of each.
Don't expect lush tropical scenery. This is a rocky island of scrubby bush, cactus and dry grass bleached gold and bent flat to the ground by the wind. "I paint Anguilla because I hate picturesque islands," says New York artist Anne Poor, a yearly visitor.
The lush scenery is underwater, a bright tapestry of coral and fish that delights even the demanding diver or snorkeler. Scuba diving finally arrived on Anguilla last year, when Iain Grummitt, a meticulous Scotsman, opened his thoroughly professional operation.
The island is known for having little night life. "Anguilla isn't for everyone," says travel agent Miriam Johnson, who specializes in Anguilla housekeeping vacations. "If someone asks me where the action is, I don't send them there."
True, there are no casinos. "But it's not as if there's nothing to do," said Grummitt. "You can go out and hear music almost every night." Anguilla's own reggae recording star, Bankie Banx, performs at Cul de Sac, and each of the other restaurants has its special entertainment or dance night.
Every Saturday there's disco at Smitty's on Island Harbour, where the dancing sometimes spills out onto the sand. By day, Smitty's is the place where people wait for the fishing boats to come in.
Abundance of Restaurants
My favorite night life is trying new restaurants, and for this Anguilla is perfect. Lobster, one of the principal exports, is fresh and plentiful; so are crayfish and snapper. The creole-style Anguillian cooking is tasty, and good French cuisine is everywhere. "One nice thing about Anguilla," said a woman from New York, "everywhere you eat, the food is good."
Some of the best food is served along with a view. Over late lunch at the Fish Trap you watch the lobster boat come in. At Cinnamon Reef you watch the moon rise over a tranquil bay. Lucy's Harbour View is above the vivid blue of Road Bay, the island's main port, and The Mariners' gingerbread-trimmed porch is right on Road Bay's silvery beach.
Each serves a different style of French and continental food for about $40-$60 a couple for dinner without wine; Lucy's also has Anguillian food, and Cinnamon Reef has great burgers at lunch. Good wine is available, even by the glass.
The island's new Malliouhana Hotel, opened last November, serves French food rich enough to satisfy Escoffier. Good restaurants elsewhere are Barrel Stave, Riviera, Pepperpot and Palm, serving West Indian meals for under $10.