28 June 2013

Vacation from a Vacation? Why Not!

When you're already in your favorite part of the world, doing your favorite things, what could possibly be more decadent than a vacation from your vacation?

If by "vacation from your vacation," you mean spending one night at a place like Las Esquinas, the answer is, not much.

Sunset seen from our balcony at Caribella
Let me start by staying that I am in no way displeased with Caribella. We love this place and its rhythms and its privacy, not to mention the good folks who take care of us here. But once I'd heard about this mythical place of beauty called Las Equinas and seen a trusted internet friend Cindy's account of her vacation there, I knew I wanted to check it out.

Suspecting that anybody who puts a Tolkien quotation on their website might be kindred spirit, I inquired with the owner of Las Esquinas to see if she might consider a slightly reduced rate for a one night stay, since I was already on the island and thus not inclined to pay the rack rate for a double booking on top of Caribella.  She graciously agreed to it and we settled that on Wednesday afternoon my husband and I would check in at Las Esquinas at 2:00 pm.

This is my half of our shared lunch
But how to while away the time until then?  Lunch at Geraud's, of course!  We packed up a small travel   bag with toiletries and clothes for dinner, plus our two beach bags and headed to South Hill.  Remembering how large the breakfast sandwiches were, we opted to split a lunch special: pastrami on a pumpernickel bagel, grilled panini-style and accompanied by a small Caesar salad.

We read for a little while and then strike up a conversation with two folks exiting who turn out to be the proprietors. We'd never met them before, so it was fun to talk with them about their great pastries, how much we enjoyed coming there, island life, our mutual love of large dogs (they have two mastiffs, we have one), and so on.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, we saw one of the ladies from Geraud's walking, so we stopped to give her a ride to the Valley, then double backed to the Jeremiah Gumbs Highway (that name still cracks me up, the idea of a HIGHWAY on Anguilla) to our golden grail of a destination. Robin's directions were easy to follow and before we knew it, JR was outside greeting us.  A computer guy by training, JR is the caretaker, gardener/landscaper, and general go-to guy for all things.

The courtyard, looking out to sea
He showed us to the beautiful Balinese suite--each of the four rooms is named for a different country or region that has had an impact on Robin's life--as we continued our ongoing "oohs" and "ahs" that started from the moment we got out of our car.

Fetch my my fainting couch, and quickly!
I have to say here, briefly, that I made most of the photos with my husband's camera, the connector cable of which somehow got left behind in the States, so the few photos I have here were made on lesser equipment on an overcast day.  I'll do a full-photo post once we're back home.

The place is, in one word, incredible. Thoughtfully designed, with an eye towards both comfort and beauty. To paraphrase Jane Austen, I'm not sure I've ever seen a place so thoughtfully situated. It's too bad we never saw it in full sun, the light dancing off the rolling breakers out by Cinnamon Reef, dappling the sea and the pool with myriad shades of blue. Not to mention that I counted three hammocks on the property. Give me a hammock, some shade, and a good book and I may never get up again.

Just when we thought our situation couldn't get any better, two things happened: a dog wandered up from the patio to investigate us, albeit with caution, and the yummiest toasty-goodness smells began emanating from the kitchen. The sun, though invisible, had clearly passed the yardarm, and JR brought us out some treats: cheese, crackers, grapes, and best of all, roasted coconut slices.  We'd had something similar years ago on St. Lucia--grilled coconut, tossed in a little salt--and it was amazing.  I don't know why it's not a more widely eaten snack food.  Pieces of this coconut were roasted a tad too vigorously into the realm of burnt coconut, but overall, it was heaven. Crunchy, salty, buttery goodness.

We lingered there until a squall came upon us, so we scurried to help JR put the cushions away, then watched the storm sock us in until the entire island of St. Martin was obscured from view. Then we read from our sheltered perches indoors until it was time to dress for dinner. Well, I took a brief swim first. Far be it from me to ignore a swimming pool when it's right there, or to object to swimming in the rain.
Pyrat, the very shy resident pooch
We'd never done dinner at DaVida before, only lunch a couple of years ago that was an experience so singularly unpleasant that we never wished to repeat it. However, as wiser people than I have pointed out, dinner is very different from lunch, so 7:00 found us heading out toward Crocus Bay for dinner. We figured we might as well eat there since the drive would be shorter than coming from the West End, and I'd been wanting to give the place another shot anyway.

Well, it was lovely.  In terms of ambience, it may be the loveliest on the island, in my eyes at least. It was also nicely breezy, thanks to the efforts of Mother Nature and the arsenal of ceiling fans hard at work. The beach was lit up beautifully, and for the first time, I realized that those people on the travel forums who say they want a beachfront restaurant at night might have a point...and best of all, it wasn't the least bit buggy.

The amuse bouche
Our service from various gentlemen was quite genial, and we were congratulating ourselves on discovering a new favorite.  Then the food arrived.  It varied along the "not good--okay--not bad--pretty good" spectrum, but not beyond that. The amuse-bouche was okay, but a little on the bland side. I ordered one entree, the blackened shrimp served with gingered spinach and fettucine.  It was pretty good. It wasn't actually blackened (or perhaps that means something else in Anguilla than it does in the States), but the shrimp were both flavorful and succulent.

My non-blackened blackened shrimp
DH ordered two small plates: the spring rolls, which were pretty good, and the dumplings, which he didn't like at all.  He barely managed to eat one. I tried one and thought it was okay, but I didn't like it enough to eat a whole one.

The maligned dumplings
I also ordered a DaVida variation on rum punch. Before ordering, I mentioned that I don't like very sweet rum punches.  Assured that theirs would be perfect for me, I tried it and didn't like it at all--plus it was absolutely covered in cinnamon on top, to the point where the first sips were almost sandy in texture.  I told them I didn't like it (and why) and then asked for a glass of white wine instead.  I didn't ask for it to be removed from our tab, but I hoped that it would be since it was (1) syrupy sweet and (2) drowning in cinnamon, which was not a listed ingredient. It was not removed.

We thought we'd give it one last go by ordering dessert, but the banana-caramel spring rolls were sold out. We ordered some rum & raisin ice cream since something cold sounded good, but it was very crystallized, as if being stored too long at the wrong temperature.

Still, the evening wasn't a total write-off.  The ambience was just lovely, and the live music was low-key.  I'd probably go back there for tapas instead of the full menu, though.

Just one of the many decorative and practical touches

Pool at night, lights of St. Martin in the distance.
We got back to Las Esquinas and slept very well.  One wall of the bedroom faced east to make the most of the breezes. We did run the a/c for a little while to cool down the room since it had been cooped up while we were out, as we couldn't figure out how to turn on the ceiling fan (turns out that there's a switch on the wall AND a remote), but we turned the a/c off after a few hours and slept with the windows open.  We had wifi in the room, so I tended to some work things and did some blogging before tumbling into the bed, which was a little too firm for comfort for a side- or stomach-sleeper like me.

First course: fresh fruit!  The bananas came from the garden
We awoke to further overcast skies, so I read outside on our balcony for a while, then we both went down to breakfast.  And what a breakfast it was!  Unlike our meal from the previous night, everything was excellent.  We also met Adria and JP, a couple from Texas, who were also staying there.  We had a great time chatting with them over breakfast, comparing impressions of the island and sharing some of our favorite experiences so far.  They'd asked us in passing the night before what our favorite restaurant on the island was, and we said, in unison, "Veya," so they tried it. Upon inquiring over breakfast, they said it was the best food they'd had on the island so far AND that JP's crayfish might have been one of the best things he's ever eaten in his life.  They were fun and interesting and friendly, and it reminded us that it's people like that who make the B&B experience that much more enjoyable over a resort experience.

While waiting for the main course at breakfast, we munched on the homemade banana bread and sipped some of the best and strongest coffee we've had on the island. Clemencia, the cook, presented us with a Spanish-style omelet/frittata with onions and potatoes, accompanied by some chicken & mushroom sausage (mildly delicious), and what for me was the piece de resistance: toasted bread with a tomato tapenade/marmalade spread. It was amazing and I probably could have eaten an entire platter of it.  Clemencia graciously shared her recipe with us, and then Robin emailed it to me later.  I can't wait to go home and try it!

We made a few more photos and bid adieu to the staff and fellow guests, sad to be leaving such a perfect place, but happy to have seen it for ourselves and be a part of it, if only for a short while. Once I'm back home, I will post lots of photos!

27 June 2013

Everything is AARF-tastic! (And other items...)

This is Dash, the sweet mascot at Sea Spray.
I never thought it would happen, but without making notes, the days (and our activities therein) seem to have started running together for me. Was it yesterday that we went to Sea Spray for smoothies and a visit with Pamela, or the day before? Did we go to Mango's for dessert after eating at home two nights ago or three? The dates on my digital photos could help me recreate the actual timeline, but that sounds too much like work to me!  Suffice it to say that we've done a good bit in the last three days and here it all is.

Smoothie menu at Sea Spray
After missing Pamela twice at Sea Spray, we drove out one morning determined to meet up with her.  She has lots of different smoothies on her menu, or you can also mix & match your own flavors.  We both did the Raspberry Peach Colada without the coconut and they were great.  We spent the next 45 minutes chatting with Pamela about news on the island, about her dog Dash who is now hers *officially*, thanks to the help from AARF, and life in general.  Pamela also has a nice little gift shop, where I bought a couple of things, including an AARF t-shirt. If you're ever on the island, I highly recommend that you stop in!

The whimsically painted Sea Spray
Later we went to AARF, the Anguilla Animal Rescue Foundation, to play with the puppies and kitties they have up for adoption and to make a donation.  We're already on AARF's email list, so we get regular updates on all of the adorable animals that come through, looking for a good home, but we wanted to stop in and visit again.  We had a great time loving on the animals, giving woogies and snuggles.  Tintin met us at the desk for our tour and facilitated a place for us to play for a little while.

This little guy is a lovey-lump.
The smallest of the pups we played with, a sandy colored little guy, was all smiles and licks and tail wags.  He's already well-socialized and would readily come to us, crawl in our laps, and be all puppy-wiggily-goodness. The other two, slightly older black pups, were a little warier at first, but they warmed up eventually. They were female litter mates and nearly identical, with one having a slightly longer white sock on her left forepaw.

It was almost impossible to get all three pups in the same photo

After the pups, we had to make sure the kitties got their fair share of attention.  AARF has an enclosure for the healthy kitties to share, so we stepped into there to cuddle them. (When cats or kitten are brought in, they are kept separated until a vet or vet tech has the chance to examine them--there was a lone black kitten that had been brought in that morning, for example, still in its own cage.)

In here, there was a tiny little black kitten, whom Tintin told us was only four weeks old.  While she showed no objections to being picked up, she had no discernible purr--whether she wasn't purring, or she was too tiny for us to feel it, I couldn't say.  The other kitty, though, was the most affectionate cat I've ever seen in a shelter.  She was older--probably a few months old--with long hair and the moment my hand reached for her, she started purring.  If I got distracted trying to take a photo or talk with my husband or Tintin, she'd let out a single, indignant meow to remind me of what my real calling was. When I picked her up, she burrowed her face in my neck and tried to nestle the rest of her body under my shirt, the entire time purring up a storm.

This is the affectionate one.
Sorry that our photos aren't better--the pups were running around too much to get non-blurry shots, and the room where the kitties were had fairly low light and I didn't want to use a flash in the darkened room that might hurt their eyes. When we left, it was with promises to return another afternoon to do more of the same. The only downside is that as we were leaving, I started breaking out into hives on my chest, throat, and chin.  The truth is that I have terrible animal allergies but to cats in particular. I usually take a daily antihistamine, but had been skipping it while on vacation.  The burning and itching were truly terrible, so we made a beeline for Shoal Bay, hoping that immersing in salt water would help. It did, but we also applied an antibiotic salve then calmed it down a good bit, too--at least enough until we went home later in the day, but my throat and chin still had low-grade itchiness for several hours and it was an act of supreme will power to keep my hands away from my face.

Our time at Shoal Bay was mostly a bust because of the rain, so we returned to Barnes Bay. I love rain on vacation, but only when I can get out of it and still read without getting my book wet.  In other words, when I'm on our porch and can read comfortably while looking out at the horizon, all grayed and fuzzy with storms. It cleared up in time for a pretty nice sunset, though, and then we went to Picante for dinner. Picante has become one of our favorite places to dine in Anguilla--totally low key and informal, moderately priced, and fun. We shared the guacamole & chips, then had the lime brick chicken (DH) and the Picante fish tacos (me), plus a passionfruit margarita. There was enough for us to take back home for leftovers the following night.

The following night we at our leftovers at home, then after dinner  we sauntered over to Mango's for dessert.  While this was rewarding, it also turned out to be a surprisingly pricey option. DH chose the banana split while I had the warm apple tart.  Both were good, but we also ordered water and one cocktail apiece, and that brought our total to $70. Wowzers!

The colorful, tropical banana split

My warm apple tart
Back home we played a round or two of Skip-Bo before tumbling in to bed. Wish we'd brought other games besides that and Bananagrams, but maybe we'll stop in town at Tackle Box/Baby world (no kidding--that's the full name) to see what they might have to offer.

Another Barnes Bay sunset

26 June 2013

Book Review: This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila

When I travel, I particularly enjoy reading books set in the part of the world that I'm visiting, so it's a real pity that Kristiana Kahakauwila didn't write this book five years ago when I visited Hawai'i. Still, it's a good substitute read for the Caribbean, which is one reason the book ended up in my bag. It's not that I think all tropical places are interchangeable--I just like to read books that evoke the same kind of steamy heat when I'm between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.  And as with any tourist destination, this book is a not-always-gentle reminder to readers that just because we may be on vacation, it doesn't mean the rest of the world, with all of its troubles, is.

Kahakauwila's collection of short stories is pretty fantastic. I was drawn in from the first one, which is arguably one of the darkest ones.  In the titular story, we get a group narrative that acts a little like a Greek chorus, where the working class women of Waikiki closely observe a tourist girl and debate whether to interfere with her poor, unsafe choices. They do too little, too late, to the detriment of all.

In another story called "Wanle," Kahakauwila explores the underworld of cockfighting, which makes this the second book I've read in recent years that deals with that bugaboo of subjects that the middle class would rather not talk about (the first one is this incredibly thought provoking and disturbing book).

In "Portrait of a Good Father," we get a girl dealing not only with her father's infidelity but her brother's  death. Both things change her understanding of the world and her parents in heartbreaking ways.

The life of privilege, of white (haole) culture, is in constant conflict in these stories with the non-white Hawaiians--there is talk of water rights, eminent domain, and the overall gentrification of the islands to the point where most people who were born in the islands can no longer afford to live there. This, if nothing else, remains pertinent to my Caribbean travels today.

Throughout all of them, though, Kahakauwila explores themes of belonging, displacement, family, and tradition. Her use of pidgin for much of the dialogue grounds her stories as much as anything, but still is easy to read. She gives us a backstage tour of a world that most tourist never get a glimpse of, and yet it was a world that was intensely familiar to me, both because of my obsessive research for my trip to Big Island in 2008 and because so much of what she wrote resonates with my research and more extensive experience in the Caribbean.  I recommend this book to anybody who values good short stories, but in particular to readers who live in or travel to tropical, tourist destinations.

NB: Hogarth publishes this book this month. I read an advance reading copy of it, provided at my request by my sales rep. 

25 June 2013

Anguilla: Rendezvous Bay & Other Adventures

Meads Bay, seen from Ocean Echo
I've compressed two days' worth of adventures here--largely because I forgot to write up our visit to Ocean Echo in my last post.  Not because it was a forgettable time, but because I forgot to take notes and I've been blogging in a hurry to make much of time.

Interior of Ocean Echo, looking back from our table at sand's edge.
The main reason that we stopped in here for lunch was because we heard that Andrea from Mango's worked there for lunch and we think she's great.  The place was pretty quiet--there was only one other table during our visit--but I cannot understand why. The menu was extensive and reasonably priced for lunch, the view was lovely, and the surroundings were serene.  It's a really nice place, but those folks walking the beach seemed to pass it right by on their way to Blanchards Beach Shack (a place I also like, but they're too different to really compare).

At Ocean Echo
We eventually settled on the club sandwich with egg (DH) and the fish burger (me) and tucked in, along with our iced teas. Both were excellent and of ample proportion:

After we finished eating, we asked Andrea if she had time to chat for a bit, so she regaled us with stories: about herself, her family, the island, and back in the days when she'd go to Bermuda for the summers to work during their high season.  She reads a lot, too, so we talked about books, which naturally makes my heart glad.

On Sunday we decided to have breakfast at Geraud's.  Since they open later on Sundays, we figured that getting there an hour after opening could still net us the choicest pastries.  We were wrong!  That's okay, though, as we decided to order off of their chalkboard menu.   I was feeling quite peckish, so I ordered the breakfast BLT with guacamole and DH ordered some poached eggs and English muffins, and we both ordered an iced decaf latte. His was about what we expected, but my order was huge!  At half its size, it would have been a good value at $6.50 (US), but now I had some leftovers to take home with me. It was really excellent, too. We sat and lingered there over our books and food for about an hour before packing up for the beach.
The shady oasis at Geraud's
Our iced lattes, complete with cup of extra ice for the heat--a very nice touch!
My breakfast BLT.  Look at those tomatoes!
We'd decided to spend the afternoon at Rendezvous Bay, a beach which didn't enthrall me on our first visit, but which has decidedly grown on me.  I'd love to stay there one day, but the kind of accommodations we like in a price bracket we're prepared to pay simply do not exist there at this time. We took our beach chairs, courtesy of Caribella, and set up under the palms in front of Anguilla Great House.  It was very breezy and comfortable there and I got a good chunk read in my book before a large catamaran from St. Martin motored in and brought everybody ashore. DH and I exchanged groans and contemplated moving our chairs, but they weren't the loud, boorish group that we'd been gritting our teeth against, so we stayed put for another couple of hours.
Looking east on Rendezvouz

Looking west on Rendezvous

Around 3:00 we packed up and drove to The Place, farther up the beach. Yes, we could have walked, but we couldn't tell from our spot in front of Anguilla Great House whether they were open or not, and we didn't want to waste time walk in the heat if were just going to have to turn around and head back to our chairs. We could see the yellow umbrellas and chairs set out on the beach, but since none of the umbrellas were open and we didn't see any people walking down to the water from there, we couldn't tell.

DH posing with the menu
Well, let me just say that after only one visit, I can safely make the claim that The Place might turn out to be my favorite spot on the island for spending an afternoon. Ample shade, good breeze, a simply gorgeous stretch of beach with beautiful views to St. Martin, comfortable chairs, and even a daybed or two. I was smitten.  I'm sure it had nothing at all to do with the charming and handsome Dave, who took great care of us that day.

My splendid banana drink
 We weren't at all hungry after our hearty breakfast at Geraud's, but boy, oh boy, were we ever thirsty. When I told him that I'd like something cold, rummy, and not too sweet, Dave created a rather refreshing frozen banana daiquiri with nothing but real banana, rum, Cointreau, and lime juice. One clearly wasn't enough, but the third one might have been a mistake, and it required DH to drive home.

Plenty o' shade
A group of five friends vacationing on St. Maarten arrived not long after we got our first drinks, so we chatted with them for a while.  They thought Anguilla was beautiful and were having a grand time on their day trip, but they concluded that Anguilla might not be the best fit for them for a longer vacation.
Next time we go to The Place, we're sitting right here!
I wandered around and made a few photographs, then went for a brief swim before heading out. I was disappointed to learn that during the slow season that The Place is closed Mon, Tues, and Wed, so now I will have to wait a few more days to go back.  

Coming up next: book reviews, trip to Picante, Shoal Bay East, and possibly a visit to AARF.

Beach in front of The Place, looking east