"You musta think I dumb, diddy diddy dumb dumb/You can run around and then when ya wan’ done/Just give me a call expecting to run come.” The sweet, lilted words breezed past my balcony at CuisinArt Resort, where the day’s balminess and dwindling bits of sunshine traded places with crisp air brought on by the full moon and Rendezvous Bay waves. The refrain continued, this time with the oohs and aahs of background singers filling in the honeyed undertones of "Dumb," Anguillian artist Natty AXA's single, one of the first songs Moonsplash Festival attendees would hear over the three-day period. Sound check, aka a free concert, was almost over and the beginning of the sprinkle of gems Anguilla had to offer was just beginning.
I came to the British territory—a 35-mile landmass sharing nautical space with cruise stop Saint-Martin and celeb getaway St. Baarth’s—to take in the sounds of Bankie Banx Moonsplash, a two and a half day celebration of the more relaxed offerings of Caribbean music. But I left with not only a Serene piece of mind, full belly, a golden glow and a new roster of artists to put in my SoundCloud rotation, but a yearning to come back before I even stepped foot on the plane back to New York.
Moonsplash was unlike any other fest I've been to before. Hosted at Anguillian legend Bankie Banx’s Dune Preserve property, it's the farthest thing from extravagant in the best way possible. For 26 years, Banx & Co. have been curating lineups of Caribbean artists both native and from just across the clear cerulean waters. This year brought out the likes of Iba Mahr, Tony Rebel, Queen Ifrica, British Dependency, Natty AXA, Mighty Mystic, Connis, Charlie B, True Intentions and Banks' own offspring Omari and Tahirah Banks. In addition to himself, that is. Banx is the primary headliner, but only by so much.
Last year, Justin Bieber happened to be staying close to the Dune and popped up on stage for a jam session. A few years before that, John Mayer blessed the mic in the same spontaneous, easygoing fashion. At Moonsplash, when the artists finished their sets, each of which would include anywhere from 5-10 full songs (lengthy for non-headliners by U.S. festival standards), they'd grab a drink, spliff or snack and roam around the crowd, chilling. No fan swarms followed. Just communal exchanges, hugs and a few cell phone snapshots.
This easygoing atmosphere is applicable to nearly all the goings on of Anguilla. Noel Mignott, President of Portfolio Marketing Group and Anguilla frequenter, said it best: “Anguilla is not for the tourist. It is for the traveler.” The seasoned traveler at that. There aren't any all-inclusive hotels or evidence of mass-marketing tourism. This is not where you come for noise and street curb belligerence or for jet skis, parasailing and other obnoxious water sports. You do not come here clutching purses and looking over your shoulders or expecting get your hair braided on the beach. This is not the place for anything remotely close to fast food or other signifiers of constantly living in a hurry (Subway sandwiches was the only American chain restaurant on the island, and according to a notable chef on the island, it won't be there too long). Here, tucked at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, is where luxury, comfort and culture meet.
The island's residents and those curious to escape their own lives to slip away into the Anguillian scenery mix in a refreshing way when it comes to upscale getaway spots. Resorts are like CuisinArt Resort and Spa and The Viceroy are top notch with immaculate grounds, but the people manning the grounds feel more like family than employees. Beggars and hustlers are as uncommon as any sort of attitudes or sass from those offering the hospitality. The same places outsiders go to get away from it all—Sandy Island and Little Bay are absolute must-sees—are the same places everybody else on the island frequent. Natives aren't shut out; visitors don't stay boxed in.
For my five days traipsing from Sandy Ground to The Valley to Scilly Cay, everything felt like a dream. Although I’m grateful for all that I have back in the States, I can’t say that I’m accustomed to “the finer things in life.” Anguilla gave me just the taste I needed. Here’s a breakdown of all the things that made the country demand a second trip out of me.
Moonsplash provided a new knowledge and prompted a deeper appreciation for local Caribbean artists.
It's not always about snatching up the biggest names you can get for a festival; it's about getting the best ones for the appropriate vibe. As a Caribbean-American, I can't say that I was too familiar with Natty AXA, Mighty Mystic, Omari Banks or even Bankie Banx prior to Moonsplash, but when I saw them all hit the stage, the groove I fell into was instant. The energy was palpable. The people swaying their bodies around Bankie Banx's Dune Preserve—high off life and tree, alike—genuinely feel connected to these artists, not stanning out and screaming like attendees at American fests do.
Whether Omari Banks was performing singles like "Me & You" and "No Point to Prove," or paying tribute to the newly fallen Prince via his iconic "Purple Rain," the front of the stage was always occupied by attendees with outstretched arms, bobbing heads and full spirits. Jamaica-born Mystic literally braved a downpour like a rockstar, keeping people from retreating with "Cali Green" and "Revolution." Anguillan duo British Dependancy's reggae/rock fusion gave the crowd a taste of something different, while Queen Ifrica kept the dedicated dancing in the dark all night long.
Anguillian food is something to brag far and wide about.
On the day I arrived to Sandy Ground on the west end of the island, I was on day 21 of a self-assigned 30 day vegan challenge (doing quite well at that). That all came to a halt the second I sat down for my first real meal. Sure, 10 percent of that was due to slim vegan pickings on menus, but really it was because the food was entirely too good to stare at while others indulged across the dinner table. Anguillan food is the stuff of pure delight.
I decided to respect my stomach and stick with mostly seafood, which just so happens to be the isle's specialty. From Veya's sautéed red snapper and Blanchards' delectable Mahi-Mahi to a roll out of family-style dishes at Tasty's and grilled lobster on Sandy Island, Anguillian chefs truly have a gift when it comes to their culinary offerings. Even the lobster rolls and cassava chips paired with bottomless mimosas on-board Tradition Sailing's boat was top-notch.
The water's so good you have to explore it up close and personal, not just admire it from the beach.
You can't go to an island and not properly explore the waters that surround it on all sides. In Anguilla, the soft white sand beaches are as heavenly as one could imagine, but it's imperative that you step away from the beach towel and out further into the sea. One of the most magnificent experiences was my venture to Sandy Island, a small offshore cay right off the coast of Sandy Ground. After a quick 10 minute catamaran ride—there's no "dock," so you must slip off your shoes and hop into shallow waters to make your way onto the island from the boat—pristine azure waters, strong rum-punches, beach beds and delicious seafood are yours for the afternoon.
If you'd like to venture out a little further and up your adventure meter, Tradition Sailing is the way to go. Leaving from the same dock as the boat to Sandy Island, passengers are transferred to an authentic sailboat, where the captains man the vessel and give guests a view of Anguilla from out the water.
The next stop is Little Bay—a small, secluded beach accessed only by boat or by climbing down a rope—where the boat anchors and all who wish to can get off and snorkel around the area. If not, the unlimited mimosas and other beverages (both non- and alcoholic) will continue to flow before returning back to Sandy Ground.
The shops from local artisans are worth more than a passing glance.
The souvenir shopping experience gets a major upgrade when moseying around some of the local craft shops. At Devonish Art Gallery, the work of Courtney Devonish lines The Valley locale from wall-to-wall and counter-to-counter. From wooden hearts and mahogany sculptures, to antique maps to paintings, there are plenty originals to take back as decor for your home. The man behind the craft is always on-hand to chat up about his goods and about the place he calls home.
Directly across the street, Cheddie Richardson's Carving Studio is another treasure trove of talent. Richardson turns jagged driftwood into remarkable works of art, fusing them with paints, patience and precision. The self-taught artist keeps his originals, but makes replicas in bronze for admirers to take home.
On off days from sand and sea, Anguilla's Heritage Trail offers schooling on the island's history.
There's something for everyone in Anguilla, including the history buffs. Enter the Heritage Trail snaking from tip to tip of the island via George Hill Road. After driving from the Sandy Ground Outlook to the discontinued salt ponds in East End, a remarkable sight to see along the way is St. Gerard's Roman Catholic Church. It's Anguilla's only Roman Catholic church and one of the oldest on the island. The photograph below is of the new St. Gerard's building actually used to hold service, directly beside the much smaller original.
Wallblake House is said to be the oldest structure on the island and is rooted in history. The rustic building, which dates back to 1787, was the site of an old plantation run by sugar planter Valentin Blake. Walking through the old quarters elicits immediate nostalgia (maybe not in the best way) and visitors get an opportunity to peer deep into cooling chambers for the sugar.
Above all else, Anguilla's biggest charm is it's people.
No matter where I visited on the island and in whatever setting, I never felt less than extended family. Over at The Sunshine Shack, the owner and resident bartender, Garvey, juggled mixed drinks and hearty conversation. He never seemed overwhelmed by the multitasking because the overall vibe of the afternoon was easygoing.
As Garvey and his assistant manned the libation station, Mighty Mystic, who took the Moonsplash Stage the night before, entertained the crowd with the chill sounds of his catalogue.
The people you meet at events like this or in passing don't feel like strangers. On the ride back to shore from Sandy Island, I met Mitchelle Lake and some of his mentees over at the Anguilla Tennis Academy. The non-profit organization is dedicated to furthering knowledge of the sport and providing academic opportunities to youth in Anguilla and surrounding Caribbean countries. You could see not only his passion, but the love he had for his former students and friends sitting on either side of him.
That very moment—enhanced by the gleeful bumps and splashes of the catamaran—encapsulated to spirit of Anguilla. The familial mixed with the cultural, luxury mixed with the local. Every bit of a reason for me to come right back.