Great Escapes

05.06.14

Celebrities, Take Note: Anguilla Is Back From the Brink

Before the great recession, Anguilla was a favorite for celebrities who wanted to disappear. Then the market crashed. Now the island is coming back, bigger and more luxurious than ever.

Although it lacks the swaying palms, lush hillsides, and dramatic peaks of other Caribbean getaways, Anguilla has that certain “nothing” boldfaced names crave. It’s Manhattan-sized and locals have that island’s same shoulder-shrugging attitude toward the athletes, authors, and actors who regularly visit, dining at casually elegant lunch spots clad in T-shirts and frolicking with loved ones in the baby blue bays.

While the island has been drawing A-listers for R and R for the past 30 years, the GR – Great Recession, as it’s known around the island—stopped the carnival cold. But there are hopeful signs—from new hotel developments to restaurant openings—that the island might be at last turning an economic corner.  

That Columbus named this scrubby island for a sleek shimmering reptile—Anguilla means eel—seems like a sort of centuries-old irony. It is tinder-box dry. Only its accommodations and eateries are slick. 

“St. Barth is where people go to be seen; Anguilla is where they go to hide,” explains Sue Ricketts, smiling slyly from beneath her tropical hat on the leaf-shaded porch of her clothing boutique, ZaZaa, on the island’s West End.  She should know, it’s not hyperbole to say she and her husband,  Robin, put Anguilla on the map in the late ’80s when they opened the island’s Grand Dame, Malliouhana, with partner Leon Roydon. The 55-room property on Meads Bay redefined Caribbean luxury, with a Michelin-starred restaurant where ingredients all had to be flown in, and one of the world’s best beaches that was unknown to all but the hotel’s visitors. Giorgio Armani was one of the first guests at their no-phones and no-TVs hideaway. Celebrities and executives have been streaming—and, once the airport runway was lengthened, Gulf Streaming—to the island ever since.

Yet when the worldwide economy capsized in late 2008, the ripples of recession arrived like a King Tide to the low-lying island. Visitor numbers fell by the tens of thousands, ambitious building projects stopped, fortunes were lost, investors sued, a major airline service left. There were enough cautionary tales on Anguilla to create an anthology, but the story was always the same: Anguilla’s economy plunged. Seasons came and went with rumors about hotel and restaurant closures and re-openings.

But lately there are bubbles on the surface—and hard numbers—hinting at a recovery from the depths. The most recent tourism statistics for February 2014 arrivals show the second-highest total ever for island visitors, the most since pre-bust 2007. Overnight stays for 2013 were up. There’s activity at construction sites again.

Locals are getting ready for the third annual Anguilla Golf Tournament on the newly refurbished, Greg Norman-designed golf course at the renamed CuisinArt Golf Resort & Spa.

Restaurateurs are firing up their stoves for new ventures, and a jet parking lot is half finished at Clayton J. Lloyd International Airport, welcome revenue even if it’s intended to serve the Lear jets that zip vacationers to nearby St. Barth.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Sue Ricketts says, adding that her properties—several clothing boutiques, the newly re-imagined Anacaona Hotel (formerly the Sirena), and a handful of the island’s most expensive luxury villas—have all had their best sales since Christmas 2009.

On Meads Bay, the shuttered Malliouhana is at last getting a makeover for its comeback as an Auberge Resort, just in time for winter holidays. On a recent visit, its famous archways were filled with yellow and orange—not fallen bougainvillea leaves, but of busy hard-hatted construction workers. Walls have been moved, the porte-cochere razed. New entryway plans look more Rodeo Drive than staid tropical hideaway.

“It’s clear that despite the big building plans and boldfaced names jetting in to disappear, the simple way of life Anguilla’s tourists have come to expect hasn’t vanished…at least not yet.”

Although returning guests will find the lobby repositioned and the pools’ rounded edges sharply squared, they needn't feel gutted—the pastel blue arch-framed views and some of the staffers, already hard at work, will remain unchanged. Those missing the fountains will still be able to wet their whistles at the popular Sunset Bar—now refreshed. As before, the rooms will be spacious, more than 700 square feet, with marble tubs all reflecting the brighter, white design aesthetic of our era, not the 1980s.

The vision for the waterfront restaurant (which has yet to name a chef) is boathouse-chic. Only the resort’s pint-sized guests may face disappointment: the new owners, alas, have metaphorically sunk the landlocked Pirate Ship playground.

Those missing the food at the old Malliouhana need only stroll down the beach, where former head chef Alain Laurent has been in the kitchen at the popular breezy ceiling fan-cooled Jacala, which opened (and closed and re-opened) since the downturn. Just a few steps away on an airy covered deck open to the wind and sea, the nearly two-year-old Ocean Echo’s menu has as many choices as the bay has shades of blue, from crayfish to rack of lamb.

Driving East out of Anguilla’s main town, The Valley, past postcard-pretty chattel houses and goats nibbling on patchy grass, the first sprouts of a recovery have already broken the surface in Crocus Bay.

There, on a quiet, calm cove overlooking simple fishing boats, the nearly five-year-old DaVida’s dark Guyanan woods and shadow box décor are chic enough for any city, but its walls are open to the beach.

Like its name (David + Vida, in honor of the brother-and-sister owners’ parents), it is two distinct culinary halves—tapas to the left, fine dining to the right.  Across the parking lot, the daytime Bayside’s palms, porch, and modern faux chattel house kitchen and bar feel like Gilligan’s Island gone upscale.  Swim or kayak to burn off the Johnny Cakes, veggie wraps, or fresh fish sandwiches on one of the island’s few palm-shaded beaches with comfy, modern chaises. It’s easy to arrive for lunch and end up staying all day.

Hanging off the hillside above, the new CeBlue villas opened to the public for nightly guests in January (it was a travel club for a year). Its private plunge pools, gourmet kitchens with retractable wall-doors, and egg-shaped bathtubs with unobstructed views blur the line between hotel room and treehouse, feeling like the tony beach communities of Australia or New Zealand; at rates starting at $1,600 per night for a three-room villa, the accommodations cost what a flight down under might, too. The hotel’s Blue Bar has the only wood-brick pizza oven on the island, set in a slim, airy space punctuated by colorful wall décor that looks like colored patches of dry grass blades all overlooking the sea.

As bright as the island’s future prospects—and the sea view—are, around the island there are stark reminders of darker days. On the road to Shoal Bay East, a condo complex’s cement carcass looms above a closed art gallery; freshly paved roads lead to nowhere. Fences block off projects that existed only on paper or in someone’s dreams. Some, though, were realized even during the height of the crisis.

Ani Villa estate, perched high on a cliff, with equally lofty prices, opened in 2010, offering 10 rooms spread across two villas for those who like everything about hotels except other people. Prices start where some annual salaries do and rise from there: $35,000 per week for a four-bedroom villa in low season and $100,000 for the full 10 bedrooms over the holidays. The rate comes with Beach Butler service, transfers from St. Martin, breakfasts, and beverages, including booze.

On a smaller scale in Little Harbour, it’s fitting that Robin Ogilvie’s year-and-a half-old Las EsQuinas boutique bed-and-breakfast looks like a modern art museum—every window, breezeway, and doorway has open-to-the-elements framed tropical views.

Honeymooners munch on complimentary snacks and cocktails, gazing over the pool, beyond the color-coordinated dusky green aloe and onto one of the island’s best snorkeling reefs. The gleaming white modern square—LasEsQuinas means corners in Spanish—has warm touches like Balinese wood tables, a giant cockerel sculpture and hefty castle-like doors made from Olgilvie’s native Canadian cedar.

Luxury rentals like these are experiencing the most growth, according to Jessica Bensley of Skyviews, the island’s map and business guide. She’s also seeing strong investments in local foods that island restaurants use.

That’s also the case at the newest incarnation of SandBar, a restaurant that just re-opened in January in Sandy Ground, once ground zero for Anguila’s salt industry, now peppered with dining and entertainment options on its mostly tree-less beach. Alicia and Damen Banks use locally sourced arugula, green onions, parsley, cilantro, basil, and dill to create Caribbean dishes with a Northern California foodie sensibility at their beachfront cafe. The Fra Diavolo sauce is unspeakably delicious, made by combining tomatoes from two local growers served on fresh-caught mahi mahi. "We work with a local organic farm. Fresh herbs are essential for flavor,” Alicia says.

On the water, new businesses are also booming. “Over Easter, we had to turn people away,” explains Deborah Vos, who, with her boyfriend, Laurie Gumbs, started Tradition Sailing Charters last March to take just 12 passengers at a time on their West Indian sloop, “Tradition,” built in Carriacou in the 1970s. It only sounds rustic. On their trips, they serve lobsters for lunch with champagne. (The cruises run six days a week, $150 for a sunset sail and $195 for the full-day sail to Prickly Pear Island, including food, drink and in daytime, snorkeling.)

There has only been one major setback; last month Winair, which had just added direct flights from San Juan in February—filling the gap left by American Eagle’s pull-out in 2011—suddenly threw plans into reverse, flying its last flight to the island last week. The rise in charter boats from St. Martin may seem like a silver lining, but not every guest wants to take a plane, taxi, then 20-minute boat to get to Anguilla.

Even the president of the Chamber of Commerce, Keithley F.T. Lake, acknowledges room for improvement. “We have a lot of capacity to do a lot more,” he says, adding that businesses should focus on the months, May to November, during which many of them close for hurricane season. Other islanders are concerned Anguilla isn’t living up to its full economic potential by focusing only on tourism. David Carty, a third-generation boat maker whose grandfather built schooners, points out tourism is still only 25 percent of the GDP and thinks the island should concentrate more of its efforts on other industries.  His handmade Rebel Marine powerboats are the island’s only major exports, fetching over $1 million apiece.

“Before tourism, all Anguilla had was a little bit of salt and boat building,” he says.  He sees a wake-up call in the recent economic dip. “We had to look back to how we used to survive and re-evaluate our value,” he said.

Driving in the warm twilight past fields of grazing horses, outside one of the most popular nightspots—the whitewashed Church of God of Prophesy at a bend in the road on the West End—it’s clear that despite the big building plans and boldfaced names jetting in to disappear, the simple way of life Anguilla’s tourists have come to expect hasn’t vanished…at least not yet.