Trip Report: Thanksgiving and Early December 2016
I hesitated even doing a full-length trip report this time as we didn’t venture out much compared to other trips, but I sure love reading other trip reports in between our travels, so here we go…
Our flights were on Delta into SXM on arrival and out of SJU on the way home. Arrival flights were all on time and unremarkable; we connected to the island via Anguilla Air Services.
Since this was my first Thanksgiving with strict food restrictions, we decided to take advantage of the cheaper airfare that day and spend the day in flight instead of around a table of temptation. I never was much of a turkey and stuffing gal, so having dinner at Veya that night was probably the best food I’ve ever had on Thanksgiving! (Don't tell my dear grandma.) Veya became a staple rotation for us this trip as Chef Carrie’s skill in the kitchen means I like anything I am served there, and the kitchen is flexible to accommodate so I can order in confidence. I don’t remember what I had that night, but it was probably either the local leafy greens salad with pumpkin vinaigrette and the calamari or the steak lettuce wraps. We sit up at the bar since we have a great experience with Eli, Ambo, and Al; it is fun to watch the bartenders at work and the Cove cocktail is still a favorite.
Early to bed as it was a long travel day... takes us about twelve hours door-to-door even though we live in Florida now, but worth it every time.
Stayed the first five nights on Meads Bay at Turtle’s Nest in a ground floor one-bedroom unit. I won’t repeat earlier trip reports, as many things are the same - nice staff, consistent experience, good value. All of these things have kept us coming back. Though this time we may have caught the unit just before a deep clean as housekeeping wasn’t as flawless as in previous trips… for example, the tile and grout in the shower had orange and dark blue/black stains that needed a deep scrub (did mention this to the housekeeper). The lights outside this unit are bright at night. Even when unscrewing several bulbs just outside the door, light still pours in the room with the curtains closed, so guests might want an eye pillow if being in a dark room to sleep is important and you are on the ground floor, building two, west-side. Building two has some new balcony railings that help considerably to make the building more attractive than its previous state. Umbrellas seem to have been modified in some way as the chain clanging was absent this time - a nice upgrade of the equipment. The one thing that was more noticeable to us this trip was the lack of screens. Not sure why I didn’t notice this previously, perhaps because we usually spend the day outside, and the weather brought us inside this time. I prefer not to use a/c unless absolutely necessary, and I missed the option to open the doors for breezes here and mosquitos were too much in attendance outside to leave the doors and windows open without screens. This would be a great enhancement to the property. (On a re-read, just realized this paragraph may sound more negative than intended, but I did want to point out the caveats to adjust guest expectations. Despite such details, it is still an enjoyable stay and strong value.)
Friday we woke and spent the morning on Meads Bay before moving over to Jacala for several hours. Love lunch here. Great people watching as people come in off boats, nice staff (Eli from Veya is here too), and consistently delicious food. Started with the mixed salad, which isn’t on the menu, but is my island favorite for a fresh lunch salad as it is full of vegetables - carrots, red cabbage, cucumber, radish, tomatoes, tossed in a light vinaigrette. Greens vary - mostly leafy green lettuce, sometimes arugula. Always fresh, always delicious. Followed it up with the whole snapper, which was the freshest snapper of the trip. And if you like iced tea, their version is elevated with the addition of mint during the brew.
Friday evening we went back to Veya. Rinse and repeat with the leafy green salad and calamari. Next stop: the Sunset Lounge at Four Seasons to hear Omali 360 perform. So interesting the difference a crowd makes, as this night was much more lively and electric than when guests gathered a week later. We were quite impressed at the subtle changes to the property. The check-in area has a wall blown out (if my memory serves) and the stone is softened with curtains and seating updates. On this night, the Sunset Lounge was packed and it was nearly impossible to get a seat aside from up at the bar. Instead of it being first-come, first-serve like before, this time they were seating people intentionally from a hostess desk like a stand-alone restaurant. Numerous times we observed people sitting down and then being approached by staff to move as certain seats were reserved for the future. The drinks we had were excellent - especially the mojito, which was served with crushed ice and bitters. The one food dish we ordered later in the night was a real disappointment, it tasted like standard meh hotel fare… hopefully an anomaly. Overall service seemed better at the bar when compared to last June. Great performance (as usual) by Omalie - always love listening to him.
Saturday we booked a half-day snorkel on Tradition Sail. We thoroughly enjoyed the sunset sail experience last summer and thought it would nice to try it during the day. Wow, didn’t think it was possible, but this day was even better than last time! Loved it. Can’t say enough about Deb, Captain Laurie, and Thomas… they are all so fun to be with on the boat. And the boat experience itself was exhilarating! The sea was a little rougher this time and I loved it as the boat cuts adeptly through the water (without the motion of motor boats). This change in conditions meant we at times sailed while at a slight angle and when watching the water at this angle, I could see mini rainbows every time the surf approached the edge. Such beautiful, peaceful moments. We sailed over to Little Bay where everyone disembarked to snorkel for an hour or two. Our first time on Little Bay. (No cliff jumping for us, but enjoyable to watch.) Saw a few fish and a sea turtle - will include a video at the end of the trip report.
Lunch was served on deck… delicious! Really top-notch. I had expected to just eat a big breakfast before we left, but Deb thoughtfully came up with a few modifications so I could eat onboard. The lobster salad was memorable, very fresh. We also had Greek salads and I probably ate my weight in her homemade cassava chips, she could market those! Drinks were free flowing and Deb even brings a travel microplane on board to grate fresh nutmeg over the rum punch. Love such attention to detail. It was a magical day, and I look forward to being back on that beautiful boat. The booking process was super simple - this time we just made the reservation directly on the website.
Sunday we had another great lunch at Jacala and then went to Crocus Bay for an afternoon of cocktails and live music at DaVida. That night we went to Picante, it is the only Mexican restaurant we’ve been to that makes gluten-free chips by request, so it’s a real treat to eat out there.
The weather up until Monday was spectacular. Bright blue skies, white puffy clouds that moved through quickly, and plenty of warm sunshine. There were times it actually felt warmer to us that last June (great with me, even Florida makes me cold in December), but I think it was just because we didn’t have the same breeze as we had on the south-side of the island in June. With such perfect weather, it was hard to get too finicky on Monday when we woke to rain, as we’d been spoiled up until that point. On other trips to the island, rain fronts pass through in a few hours or don’t affect all beaches at the same time, but this day was different. The whole day was a rain out, but that just gave us an excuse to go explore. We headed to CuisinArt’s new The Reef hotel to take a look around…
We took a tour, and the gentleman who showed us around was a nice and friendly ambassador. Everything was shiny and new, however like most new developments, there could be a love/hate divide among its visitors given the appearance… the height in person was surprising. The impression on approach was somewhat like an office building and did not feel like typical island accommodations. The guest rooms lacked balconies or windows that open, so for someone like me who loves nature and breezes, it felt like any sterile hotel room in any city. We looked at two rooms in the main building and the "golf view" room we saw overlooked the parking lot. On the positive side, the bathrooms and closets were spacious, the latter finished with built-ins. Given the interior design akin to a standard hotel room, it seemed designed to cater to groups. The interior surfaces did seem luxurious, and included a beautiful soaking tub. However, it is hard to imagine booking a room in the main building given its distance from the beach and closed-in feeling. However, for those who love a/c and the amenities of a hotel, it could be a great fit.
The Reef’s smaller buildings near the water had many of the same positive features (huge walk-in closets with built-in drawers, nice bathrooms) but also had the welcome addition of sliding doors and patios. Beach chairs throughout the hotel are nicely padded, but the strange shape of the lounger could be an issue for some guests. The staff were so welcoming that when we took a look around the hotel’s beachfront restaurant, Breezes, we decided to stay for lunch. The salad was above average and tasted quite fresh thanks to their hydroponic garden vegetables; husband's burger was okay, and at this price point I'm surprised they haven't upgraded the fries to fresh-cut. The patio out by the water as part of the Breezes restaurant was a stunning location... this could be a premiere setting on the island for evenings with live music.
From a physical facility standpoint, at times it looked like The Reef had been pre-maturely opened and someone forgot to walk through with a punch sheet to ensure construction was finished - i.e. stickers still on restaurant bathroom toilet, door that didn't fit the opening so you had to manually hold it closed, etc. The fine details of the build seemed lacking in some areas, but we have observed this in several places on the island, so it could just be a difference in the culture of construction. Staff throughout the hotel were great; everyone we encountered seemed eager to please and excited about the opening.
Since it was still raining after our lunch ended, we decided to continue exploring and set out for Shoal Bay East to take a look around Zemi Beach and Manoah. We arrived at Zemi Beach first and it was like someone took the strengths and weaknesses of The Reef and inverted them… At Zemi, the details in physical construction seemed better executed, and the interior design felt like it had more soul or personality. The standard room we looked at was set back a good bit from the beach, but it did have a balcony and view of water. The landscaping was beautiful and overall the property greatly exceeded my expectations. First impressions with staff were not quite as welcoming or helpful as those we met at The Reef, however I did hear they have a new chef and general manager. Lots of potential here.
Next stop: Manoah. Which still looked like a construction site on approach with workers scurrying about the property, presumably to get it ready for the holiday crowds. We were told we couldn’t look at a room, and that the restaurant was closed… I questioned the restaurant closure as I wasn’t sure if the person we spoke with in the parking lot was a staff member or part of the construction team, and I had read repeatedly online about the restaurant being open, but he repeated it again. (We were in the entrance lot, so could not see the restaurant or the beach.) We had planned to spend Friday renting chairs and having lunch at Manoah, so we scratched that off our plan and look forward to checking it out next year.
During our day around the island we also stopped by Savannah Gallery, where we keep dreaming about the wooden art pieces by Jean Pierre Straub, and we were able to see the new Blossom 2 Centre that is supported by the Arijah Foundation. Up until Renuka’s work through this foundation, the island did not have classrooms for children with special needs. Blossom 2 is the brand new middle school setting for those who graduate from the elementary school. As it is a new classroom, there are of course new needs, so if you are coming to the island and want to pack some donations, consider contacting Renuka for a list of school supplies and sensory items for the children. (http://arijah.org)
On the way to Veya's bar for appetizers that night (for more of the same greatness), we stopped at Malliouhana for drinks as the rain stopped just in time for sunset. We navigated a goat crossing during the drive home, which always makes us smile. Also had a quick detour stop at Cap Juluca in order to catch the end of Omalie's set.
Tuesday was switch day for us, so we packed up that morning and headed to our new home for the rest of the trip: Covecastles. In 2010, part of our very first Anguilla trip was here - thanks, Penny, for the recommendation! And so last month when we saw that they had a “pre-season” special posted on Facebook (still valid through December 15th), we decided to book it and go back. This time we were upgraded to a villa, which was nothing short of heaven given our travel preferences… We love fresh breezes with plenty of screens, louvered doors, great views, being steps from the beach, and privacy. And the kitchen was unbelievably well-stocked with some of the exact cookware I have at home and our favorite knife; it was by far the most equipped kitchen for real cooking among the places we have stayed (Solaire a close second). In all of these ways it was perfection. Now there are a few things another guest may not appreciate as fully, but I actually like that the only a/c is upstairs in the bedroom (no martial discord about thermostats!), and I appreciate the villa's time-worn character. The only caveat I’d mention regarding Covecastles - at least the unit we stayed in - is that some deferred maintenance causes puddles and room leaks during all-day rain. We woke one morning to a ledge of wet clothes as water had somehow seeped in below closed windows and onto the cabinets in the bathroom. The drawers inside had a strange odor on arrival so we did not put our clothes inside, and based on the rain coming in that exact place, I suspect the smell is likely some mildew or related moisture damage. One of the extra bedrooms had a good bit of water around the floor that looked to have happened before as the wicker at the base of that bed had changed color and looked water damaged, and the other bedroom had water coming down a wall - perhaps from some windows above that were closed. The good news is that the units breathe well with the louvered doors so any room odors can dissipate and the staff are willing to help with anything - our wet clothes were washed, dried, pressed and delivered back in mere hours. I mention all that to say that if you want shiny and new, then this isn’t for you. But if you can overlook aging aspects, then the entire experience at Covecastles is downright blissful. We loved it.
Back to the staff… love them! Right from the very first moment we arrived and were warmly greeted by Patricia, everyone we met was nice and willing to help with anything you asked. We especially enjoyed the option of having breakfast and/or lunch delivered instead of going down to the restaurant. Judy’s eggs are delicious and she perfectly cooked the bacon we brought with us. (In fact, I need to email CC and find out her secret, as it tasted better than how we prepare bacon back home.) Prices were extremely reasonable and we felt spoiled to have a tasty hot breakfast on the patio each morning. You can also make special requests, for example I asked for a banana each morning, and it was delivered with the food. (I used it to throw in with the frozen smoothie ingredients I brought from home since I wasn’t sure about the availability of some items on island.) And on the day before departure, I asked if it would be possible to have some fresh coconut cut up and toasted so I could take it on the plane as a snack - wowza, Judy sure delivered! It was a tasty coconut, perfectly roasted and a real treat to eat on the way home.
On the outset I should admit my bias to this location. During the first few days, there was a good bit of sea grass and cloudy water, but it still had my heart, and it quickly morphed back to its clear-blue-self. Staying at Covecastles was part of our very first trip to Anguilla, and since then Shoal Bay West has been special to me despite its changing beauty... About six months after that initial stay in 2010, my health began a downturn and during the experience I was given an audio CD of a visual meditation to listen to when going into surgery that I also used for any negative procedures and tests over the years. The place that my imagination went to in those guided meditations was the section of Shoal Bay West down by Covecastles, since it was deserted most of the time so I remembered it as an undisturbed private beach. So for years it has mentally been a “happy place” that I have revisited in my mind in the midst of suffering. And while we had been back to Shoal Bay West over the last six years, we had never been back down to the stretch of beach in front of Covecastles that I visualized, as I couldn’t walk that far. Fast forward to the present, and for the first time in all these intervening years, my health has finally been improving… so to be back on that exact beach, with my feet in the sand after all those years of picturing it… well, no words can communicate what a transcendent experience it was to be in the exact place that I visualized in hopes and dreams for peace and healing. Suffice it to say it felt otherworldly and even spiritual in many ways. (So if you saw a woman jamming to music in the surf first thing in the morning or just before sunset, now you know why.)
After we checked-in on Tuesday, we had lunch at Trattoria Tramonto. We love the staff there who make us feel at home, and it is always such a joy to catch up with Alan, Johnny, Magda, Debbie, Rena… and usually Kim, who was out on maternity leave this time, and we missed Chantal too since we didn't make it for dinner this time.
Spent the rest of the day enjoying SBW and then went back to Veya's bar for dinner. Creatures of habit at this point… why change for the sake of change when you have a good thing going? Most of the trip we ordered our favorite appetizers - the previously mentioned leafy green salad, calamari, steak lettuce wraps (why do avocados taste so much better here than at home?), husband’s shrimp cigars. One evening we had the crayfish special which was delicious, as usual. Best crayfish of the trip.
Wednesday woke to another glorious day. I had a wonderful routine down each morning during the stay… woke to the beauty out the sliding doors at the foot of the bed, went downstairs and turned on a morning playlist (there is a big boom box in the living area, but we brought a portable iPod dock), opened all the doors to the screens and felt the sun and breeze coming inside, opened all the kitchen louvers and loaded up the blender while taking in the beautiful view. Then had breakfast and spent the morning on the beach. Watched the few walkers go by - the beach was actually more “busy” than we’ve seen in years past, but still deserted by any beach comparison - under ten people passed by all morning. And we only saw one other couple staying at Covecastles all week.
After lunch we spent some time in the water on Meads (calmer than earlier in the trip), and then back to SBW where hubby kayaked with Covecastles' complimentary equipment. Cooked at “home” that night as it was Survivor night - the one time we turned on the television!
Thursday was another all day rain-out. Instead of feeling the need to get out and explore this time, because we had the view and screens at Covecastles, we just spent the day reading with the relaxing sound of the rain outside. What a difference having such a close view of the water and screens made to transform a rainy day from potentially disappointing to calm and peaceful! Drove down to Trattoria for lunch to get out a bit. And even though we’ve never had rain all-day long on other trips, this time we had the most amazing weather on every other day, so having two wash-outs was a small price to pay for such bright blue skies and sun throughout the rest of the trip. Also the rain gave way for beautiful sunsets, and full cisterns make for happy locals! (fyi - One caveat to the all day rain is that you have cold showers at CC since the hot water is solar powered - just shower quick.)
Friday we spent most of the day on Shoal Bay West, and took a break in the morning to go back to the original Blossom Center at the West-End Elementary. If you are a OT/PT/SLP or just love kids, contact Renuka to learn more about it and schedule a visit. Those sweet kids will steal your heart. For example, while OT husband was steering a few walker laps with one kiddo, it became time for the class lunch, and the child’s quick response was an emphatic, “Not me!” … not wanting the laps to end. So adorable. Of course in life’s strange economy, those kids somehow give intangibly more than receive, as we leave with more inside than when we arrived.
We had a low key dinner at home and then back to the Sunset Lounge at Four Seasons for Omalie’s weekly performance. This was the most interesting people watching of the trip… this week’s crowd was a completely different size and energy from the Friday prior. For the band, it must be so interesting as a musician and talent to have crowds “feel” different from one week to the next. On this night, selfie taking seemed to be at a whole new level in the crowd... If you find yourself in attendance on a night when self-obsession is in full force, if someone asks you to take their photo, unlike normal times when you shoot for strangers on their iPhone, don’t be surprised this time to receive detailed instructions on how you are to compose the shot for them (lightening, getting the statue in, etc.)… you might even overhear them later critique the twenty shots you took for them on their phone, and watch them wrangle another guest to “reshoot”… I have no words. Or maybe I do… hire a photographer! :) In the end we found it quite humorous. We love watching Omalie perform, wouldn’t miss it. (Thanks, Ellen, for telling us about him.)
Saturday back to Jacala. Meads water was gorgeous, but Shoal Bay West was beckoning us, so we spent the day at “home” before later going back to Four Seasons for drinks to hear Omalie at Bamboo. Bamboo has a fantastic frozen mojito that is made with fresh ingredients, no oasis mixers in site. (This trip we also discovered Veya has a blended/frozen option that was all fresh too.) The island is putting out some delicious mojitos! I always sub gin so don’t know if that changes the outcome (or not) for purists.
Sunday morning we meant to go to St. Gerard, but couldn’t take myself off Shoal Bay West, so worshipped in another way… with feet in the surf, I tried to send love and good vibes to several on the TripAdvisor Anguilla forum who I have heard are having a particularly hard year… however that works (it's mystery to me), I hope it reached you.
It was another glorious day on the island. Back to Jacala for lunch (I know… please, don’t judge… this was the last opportunity since they are closed on Mondays). Meads was spectacular, calm and clear. After lunch we moved on down to Ocean Echo for cocktails and Omalie. The set that day didn’t have as much reggae as earlier in the year (song choice seemed more similar this trip across venues but more instruments some places), which I only mention for the Sunday reggae traditionalists… we thoroughly enjoy his voice, so happily listen to him sing any genre. The day ended at Picante for dinner, where Kharmali makes a top mojito too!
Monday was our last full day, so we stayed at “home” on Shoal Bay West. Had lunch delivered for the first time from the CC kitchen. Wish we had done this sooner. They were out of crayfish, so Judy modified a version of the shrimp salad to include grilled snapper. It came with two types of dressing, and I used them both on the salad - delicious combination. It was a memorable lunch and the least expensive lunch of the trip (perhaps helped by having our own water on hand).
That night we met up with a few TripAdvisor friends for dinner, which was a real highlight of our week. Great company, enjoyed the conversation thoroughly. I don’t know what it is about Anguilla, but it attracts good people, and it is always a pleasure to cross paths and learn from others.
We reluctantly packed up that night so we could enjoy one last blissful early morning. The sunrise early Tuesday was spectacular. I couldn’t open the screens upstairs to get a clear shot without them, and was going back to bed so didn’t venture down on the sand, but it was more beautiful than the iPhone can do justice.
Soaked it all up as much as we could in an hour on the beach, and then headed to the airport for the flight to SJU with Tradition Aviation. Surprisingly we were the only passengers aside from the pilots, so it felt like being on a private plane. (Or at least what I assume it would feel like to be on a private plane.) This was only our second time flying Tradewind and it is definitely the best island connection experience we’ve had. Great pilots and staff. Their ground crew member, Nelson, was hospitality personified; that airport is too big for me to walk and he patiently provided wheelchair assistance through customs, and he was helpful when I had a small hiccup coming through customs. I had a packed lunch for the flight home that caused problems when I declared it. Completely my fault since I didn't research this ahead of time; it is usually no problem in SXM as I am transferring and don’t go through U.S. Customs until we connect in Atlanta. In SJU, I had to beg the officer to let me go ahead and consume my lunch right there before they threw it in the trash. Apparently you can take cooked chicken through, but not beef - even though it was U.S. in origin as it was brought from home. We had no problem bringing a cooler full of frozen food into Anguilla on arrival, so the rules are more lax in that direction. The SJU customs process itself was amazing in that there were NO lines whatsoever, so the speed through would have been identical even if we didn’t have Global Entry. Connecting flights were unremarkable, and we were back home that evening with another heavenly trip to Anguilla in the books. Each trip is special in its own way and it never gets old - even when you don’t venture as far and you repeat the same restaurants over and over!
The only remedy I know to the reverse homesickness that strikes is to start dreaming about the next trip… so continued thanks to the TripAdvisor Anguilla forum for all the posts that keep me dreaming and inspired in between getaways!
Trip Video Clips
November 26th: Tradition Sailing
November 27th: Crocus Bay
November 28th: The Reef Hotel Tour (excuse the shaky cam!)
November 29th Sunset
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