So, you know those "grocery grab" contests where contestants get, say, 3 minutes inside a grocery store to stuff as many items into their carts as they possibly can? They sprint through the store like maniacs, feverishly yanking items off the shelves and shoving them into their carts; when time's up, whatever they've managed to pile into their carts is theirs to keep, for free. Given the time constraints, the contestants usually come up with a pre-grab plan to maximize their time -- "Run straight for the Twinkies!" -- and then completely lose their minds the minute they're set loose in the store, never making it past the produce section. In the end, they're always amazed at how quickly the time flew by, and even though they ended up with nothing more than a cart full of green peppers and some turnips, they're just happy to have had the opportunity.
That was our Thanksgiving trip to Anguilla.
Given how short our visit was, I have decided against recounting it chronologically, as it would probably take you five minutes to read it and five days to berate me for being such a tease. Instead, I've structured this report as something of a "Best Of" list, the only contenders being the handful of people/places/nibbles we managed to squeeze in during this particular visit. And so, without further ado, I hereby present the Best Of Our "Blink-and-You'll-Miss-It" Trip to Anguilla. Read slooooooowly.
Best Way to Scare the Living Daylights Out of Me (Part 1)
On our first full day we decided to have lunch at Smokey's, not so much for the food as for the free lounge chairs.
Now, Angel and I have this thing where we will both look at a menu and, almost simultaneously, decide to have the exact same thing, from the appetizers down to what we'd like to drink. Often we will even order it prepared the exact same way, with the addition or omission of some ingredient, or sauteed instead of grilled, or with a different dressing than the one listed on the menu. (Yes, we are those people . . . which is why we tip well.) The server will take my order a la "When Harry Met Sally," then turn to Angel, who will simply hold up two fingers and say, "Two, please." As soon as the strangeness of this sinks in and becomes apparent on the server's face, we defuse the tension by joking, "See? That's why we got married." Like I said, we're those people.
Lately, however, in the interest of having more than just photos of identical entrees and look-alike cocktails on this blog, I've been encouraging Angel to get out of my brain and order something different. So you can imagine how annoying it was when, after studying Smokey's menu, I announced, "I'm having the chicken roti" . . . at the exact same moment that Angel made the very same announcement. When the winner could not be determined after a short bout of thumb-wrestling, I decided to be the bigger person and change my order to something that I knew he'd want a few bites of, thereby leveraging myself into half a roti. He may be the muscle, but I'm the brains.
We had just settled in with our matching set of rum punches when I saw this:
No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That is a boat filled with tens, no, hundreds of kids. Or so it seemed in my ensuing panic. As soon as the boat dropped anchor, the children began to disembark one by one, like Popes tumbling out of a Volkswagen.
Don't get me wrong. I don't dislike kids. The problem is actually how much they like me. You know how cats will home in on the one person in the room who's allergic and then spend the entire afternoon sleeping on that person's head? That's me and kids. Recent case in point: In the airport on our way home from Anguilla, I was standing at the end of the security screening, waiting for Angel to put his shoes back on and load the $412 in quarters that he carries around back into his pockets, when a little girl I'd never seen before wandered up to me, gently tapped me on the arm, and, apropos of nothing, asked, "You wanna come to my house?" Oh, sure, sweetie, I laughed, my eyes darting around nervously for the nearest exit. She immediately ran back to her mother and yelled, "Mama! Her said YES! Her is coming to my HOUSE!" She proceeded to jump up and down with giddy delight, still yelling "But her's coming ooover!" as her mother dragged her away. This is the inexplicable effect I have on children. So you can surely understand that when that floating day care rolled up on the beach, I was immediately besieged by images of children tugging on my arms and nuzzling their heads under my armpits and yelling, "Tracey, look at meeeeee!!" . . . and before you know it my food is cold and my rum punch is watered down and, as Bill Cosby would say, it is time for the beatings to begin.
After lunch we used every trick we'd ever learned about how to escape a grizzly bear attack (don't look them in the eye, don't leave food lying around) in order to outwit the children and sneak away unnoticed. We moved quickly down the beach to set up camp.
We were minding our own business when it arrived. One minute St. Martin was there in the distance, and the next it was swallowed up in a cloud so large that you'd have thought the Rapture was finally here and they really did just get the date wrong.
We watched for a while, fascinated, as the mammoth cloud sucked up all of St. Martin, then slowly spread its evil tentacles toward Anguilla. Finally, with the rain imminent, we could wait no longer and decided to beat feet out of there.
Quite literally in my case.
Best Place to Beat the Stuffing Out of Someone
After weeks of perusing menus in an attempt to find the perfect place to celebrate Thanksgiving, we eventually settled on Koal Keel, which won our vote because they were serving both a three-course Thanksgiving dinner and their entire regular menu. (Not that I was planning to order both, but it certainly couldn't be ruled out.) We received a very warm welcome and were given the choice of a private corner table or a table right next to two large parties of 8 to 10 people each. What kind of people, I wonder, choose the latter? Presumably the same people who will plop down right next to you on an otherwise empty beach, or take the seat right next to you on a completely empty train car and start chatting you up. I think the word you're looking for is Midwesterners.
People love free stuff, especially when that free stuff is vodka, and Koal Keel therefore started off on the right foot by offering us these cute little shooters before we'd even placed our orders.
Just when I thought things couldn't get any better, out came this free meatball.
After this delightfully boozy, beefy beginning, we decided to try the scallops with leek fondue and truffle cream for me, and the spring roll with tamarind dipping sauce for Angel.
Everything was delicious, but the scallops were really the standout (though at $22 for 3 scallops, those suckers should have serenaded me before dinner, too). They were plump, perfectly seasoned, and beautifully cooked, and in the spirit of Thanksgiving I even let Angel have a bite.
Our entrees, however, were a somewhat different story. Angel ordered the blackened jumbo shrimp with mango-ginger sauce and rice n' peas, while I decided to try the crispy snapper with leek stuffing and caramelized shallot reduction -- an entree I ordered specifically for the leek stuffing, as everyone knows that you can't have Thanksgiving (or any holiday, really) without stuffing.
Our expectations had been raised thanks to those extraordinary scallops, and the fact that the entrees took an inordinately long time to arrive sent our hunger pangs expectations soaring even higher. And so, when our entrees finally arrived, I couldn't wait to pierce the crispy skin of my snapper and have a go at that leek stuffing. So imagine my surprise when I received this instead:
Do you see that green thing on the right? That is one of two matchbook-sized pieces of leek on the plate, which were supposed to have been chopped up and sauteed in butter and made completely irresistible and then stuffed inside my fish. Instead, the poor leeks just sat there limply, the way a lowly sprig of parsley might be thrown on the plate as an afterthought. Now, I will say that while this fish was clearly some sort of stuffingless imposter, and rather overpriced for what amounted to a piece of fried fish, it was quite tasty -- the breading was flavorful and crisp and the fish was moist and flaky. But in general, if you promise me stuffing and I don't get any, I'm going to be pretty disappointed. But if you promise me stuffing on Thanksgiving and I don't get any . . . somebody's not making it to Christmas.
Because the wait for our entrees had been about an hour, we were offered an after-dinner drink on the house. Considering that we’d already had two cocktails apiece, a third drink was the last thing either of us wanted, so Angel ordered a coffee.
So the coffee arrives, and it’s . . . not hot. Some time later the waiter returns with a hot one, and it’s been sloshed all over the saucer. Not a big deal, of course, but the server noticed it, too, because a few minutes later he returned with a clean saucer and attempted to transfer the coffee to that one . . . and then sloshed the coffee all over the clean saucer, too. We really felt for the poor guy. But if he thought he was having a bad night, he obviously has no idea what it's like to go home stuffingless on Thanksgiving.
Best Use of Ground Beef (Non-Meatball Division)
On this trip we decided to stay at the Ferryboat Inn.
Now, I know that FBI, what with its lack of Guerlain bath products and Frette linens and locking doors, may not be some folks' cup of tea. And to those people I might say that the inn's gentle prices mean more money for splurges at Pimm's and Spice, or that Marjorie's warm hospitality could never be replicated at a larger hotel like the Viceroy, or that Christian's addictive rum punches best even the much-touted frozen mojitos at CuisinArt.
But the truth is . . . I really just like being close to the cheeseburgers.
If (and I cannot understand this) cheeseburgers aren't your thing, perhaps Christian is.
FBI's resident bartender is tall, nice-looking, and has the straightest teeth you're likely to see outside of a toothpaste commercial. More importantly, he lives near the cheeseburgers, which means that if Angel ever croaks, you'll know where to find me.
In the four days for which we were on the island at lunchtime, we had the cheeseburgers at FBI twice. You might have already read my stirring, heartfelt Ode to the Ferryboat Cheeseburger, so I won't repeat myself here, except to say that I am certain that this time around, I invented a whole new lexicon of strung-together curse words, groans of pleasure, and takings of the Lord's name in vain while enjoying my cheeseburgers, which I repeated over and over while marveling at their juicy, cheesy stupendousness, thoroughly embarrassing Angel.
The poor guy. His wife is the Linda Lovelace of FBI cheeseburgers.
On our first visit we were feeling ambitious, so we decided to start with a few appetizers before the main event. Besides rum punch and cheeseburgers, FBI is also known for its thick, cheesy French onion soup.
They're less known for their garden salads, but there was no way I was going to waste precious stomach space on soup when I was this close to cheesy nirvana.
I don't mean to be impatient, but . . . maybe the dingo ate my burger?
Oh, you think I left a little piece of bun there, unable to finish it? Don't be silly - that's for the dog.
That's right: Just when you thought there was no better reason to stay at FBI than to be near the cheeseburgers, you discover the inn's resident dogs, Angie and Shadow. These dogs are almost sweet enough to make me want to share my burger. Almost.
Unfortunately I lost focus at our second Cheeseburger Chomp-Down, when I was suddenly struck by a craving for Marjorie's excellent chicken marsala. That was the very first dish I ever ate on Anguilla, lo those many years ago, and I can still taste it like it was yesterday.
And so, when Christian came to take our order, I asked, "You won't tell anyone if I order a cheeseburger and the chicken marsala, will you?" To which he replied without missing a beat, "No . . . but you might."
Indeed I might.
Best Place to Get Sloshed, Go Broke, Suffer a Food Coma, and Still Find Yourself Thanking Them at the End of the Night
One of the things we were most looking forward to on this trip was dinner at Veya, which bills itself as "Cuisine of the Sun." I love anything having to do with the sun (except for sunburn, sun spots, sun poisoning, sunstroke . . . perhaps this statement needs a bit of fine-tuning), and I was especially excited to try someplace that so many before me have raved about.
Given Veya's location in the woods and its proximity to the salt pond, we filled the bathtub with Mosquito Milk and let Angel, a shining beacon of hope for hungry mosquitos everywhere, have a good long soak before heading out. That he has gone 44 years without contracting malaria is a miracle that cannot be explained by modern medical science.
Although we originally planned to order a bottle of wine, the cocktail list, with its Anguilla-inspired drink names, beckoned. I decided to try the Sandy Ground, with Ruby Red vodka, raspberry liqueur, and lime, while Angel went with the Savannah, made with Mount Gay, Patron Citronage, lime, and guava.
While we were enjoying our cocktails, an amuse-bouche arrived: a tiny, deceptively spicy, altogether perfect conch fritter. I have to assume that these tasty little nuggets are not on the regular menu because they would sell out in the first 10 minutes every night, and the resulting riots wouldn't be good for anyone.
For my appetizer, I decided to try the yellow pea soup with Indian spices, while Angel went with the justly-famous Moroccan shrimp cigars with roasted tomato. The cigars disappeared so quickly that before I could even get a picture, Angel had already started licking his plate and asking me if I was going to finish my soup.
By this time everything we'd tried had been so delicious that Angel decided to try the tuna, a dish he rarely orders in Anguilla because there are so many other local fish to choose from. But at Veya, the tuna is grilled with jerk spices and a rum-coffee glaze and served with caramelized pineapples and fried plantains, which means that the only way Angel could have been any happier is if it came with a side of Deep Woods OFF!.
I went with the sweet corn hush puppies, which came with some grilled shrimp and snap peas and oh who the hell cares there were sweet corn hush puppies!!
Although the desserts sounded wonderful, particularly the chocolate hazelnut mousse bars with chocolate malt ice cream, sometimes you should quit while you are ahead.
But only sometimes.
Most Unlikely Celebrity Sighting
Anguilla has long been known as an under-the-radar haven for celebrities looking to get away from it all, and if you visit often enough, you'll certainly see your share: Brad Pitt, Beyonce & Jay-Z, Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Kevin Bacon, Liam Neeson, and Uma Thurman are all frequent visitors. But this celebrity is not your typical starlet. She's never had any plastic surgery, she's certainly not anorexic, and her hair stylist ought to be shot. She flies commercial -- in coach, no less -- and after this latest trip to Anguilla, it's rumored that she might be nearly broke. She's a terrible actress, and her singing voice has been compared, generously, to a cross between someone skinning a cat and a kid with his head caught between some banisters.
So, just who is this elusive celebrity who's been spotted all over Anguilla?
Apparently, it's me.
Thanks to the loyal readers of this blog, as well as my nonstop blathering about cheeseburgers and meatballs and compotes on Trip Advisor, I was recognized roughly once a day while on Anguilla (and, impressively, twice by name over the phone and email), resulting in a number of lovely introductions, enjoyable conversations, and a net haul of 4 free rum punches, 2 free after-dinner drinks, and a free bowl of duck pappardelle. Forget the usual trappings of celebrity, like couture gowns and diamond tiaras and bags full of swag: I'll take the booze and pasta any day of the week.
And I'm not even going to mention that nice couple from Las Vegas who recognized Angel first, seeing as how it went straight to his head. Next thing you know he'll be writing a tell-all book about how insufferable it was to be my camera caddy, and I really can't afford that. You know how hard it is to find good help these days.
Best Way to Scare the Living Daylights Out of Me (Part 2)
It is no secret that I am obsessed with a dish served at Oliver's Seaside Grill called Oliver's Seafood Compote. The restaurant's web site describes it as "a selection of fresh local seafood cooked in a lobster sauce, enhanced with fresh coconut milk and served with a spinach polenta pancake," but all I heard just now was, "Blah blah blah lobster sauce blah blah crack cocaine blah blah blah polenta pancake." We'd called ahead to make sure that Oliver's would be open and that they'd have the coveted Compote, and were assured that everything was a go.
We settled in with our menus, which did not need the usual studying since we knew exactly what we were getting, times two (insert eye roll here). But of course I had to look anyway, which is when I discovered OH GOOD GOD THE HORROR! It was a prix-fixe menu, and there was no Compote in sight! Trembling with fear at the thought of leaving Anguilla without his beloved Compote, Angel staggered to his feet to find the waitress and ask her what happened to it. Before he could reach her, however, Oliver quickly stepped in and told us that they'd just reopened for the season, hence the abbreviated prix-fixe menu. He explained that the regular menu would be available the next evening, but we could have anything we wanted from it tonight. He then proceeded to describe nearly the entire menu, making it clear that our wish was his command. Although I tried to listen to the descriptions of the other dishes, all I heard was, "Yadda yadda yadda fish yadda yadda steak yadda yadda COMPOTE," so two orders it was, with an order of the lobster cakes to start. We tried to order our usual bottle of Sancerre but it was unavailable, so we went with two glasses of rose Sancerre instead, which was icy and tart and perfect.
The lobster cakes were delicious, but I would be lying if I told you that either one of us could have given two cents about them when a Compote was so close at hand. Finally it arrived and OH GOOD GOD THE HORROR . . . again. It was not the Compote. It was the snapper with lime balsamic sauce and, I have to admit, it smelled heavenly. The vinegar had caramelized into a sticky-sweet sauce and the fish was charred a bit on the ends the way I like it and finally I had to sit on my hands to keep from digging into this plate of non-Compotey goodness. We quickly sent the fish back, begging them to make sure that someone would eat it since it looked and smelled so amazing (I of course volunteered to eat both the fish and the Compote, just to be sure). A few minutes later a waiter came by and explained that the waitress had made a mistake conveying our order to the chef. But the damage had already been done: Those few minutes of heart-pounding terror at seeing the wrong entree had already shaved at least 5 years off my expected life span.
Finally, the real Compote appeared, and it was divine.
Perhaps because the restaurant had just reopened, the Compote was a little different than usual -- two spinach-polenta cakes instead of one, with the addition of spinach and collard greens and the omission of scallops -- but it was still loaded with shrimp and fish and everything nice. The chef even came upstairs to personally ensure that we liked it, at which point I jumped out of my seat, hugged him tight, and offered to have his babies.
And I don't even like babies.
Best Hand-Me-Down Souvenir From a Stranger's Garage
One of our favorite shops on the island is Irie Life, where we buy all sorts of AXA-branded gear to take home, then refuse to tell anyone what "AXA" stands for. It's all part of our two-man plan called Operation Save Anguilla From "The Bachelor"-hood.
We decided on an assortment of t-shirts, beach coverups, stickers, and magnets, and as we were checking out I pointed out the display of Anguilla license plates to Angel. Of course, they are not real license plates, but souvenir ones that look similar to the "new" blue ones Anguilla issued in 2006. Angel started telling the cashier, Pamela, about how I'd once found one of the old black-and-white "A" license plates online and gave it to him as a gift, and that he keeps it on his desk at work. "How much you pay for that?" she demanded. I told her, and she clucked her tongue. "I think I have a few of those in my garage. I don' need 'em. Come back tomorrow - you can have 'em!"
And if you're still wondering why we love Anguilla, well . . . I guess you already have all the used license plates you need.