Do you remember when golfer Tiger Woods was married to the gorgeous Nordic goddess Elin Nordegren? She was stunning in her perfection, all tawny skin and baby-blonde hair and centerfold-worthy beach body. She bore him two equally stunning children, and even feigned interest in a sport so boring the players hire caddies to walk around with them and keep them awake. And then Woods cheated on her with a troupe of tramps sporting too little clothing and too much silicone, and everyone was left scratching their heads. What on earth was he thinking???
That's the best analogy I can come up with to explain why, after first discovering the island paradise of Anguilla back in 1997, we didn't just quit while we were ahead. We didn't accept perfection when it landed in our laps and, instead, like a fool who trades in a Rolls-Royce for a Ford Pinto, we flitted off to other islands, sure that something even better must be just another flight or ferry ride away.
What we found instead were islands with so-so food, spotty electricity, and plastic wine glasses. What they lacked in modern conveniences, they made up for in spiders.
Some of them didn't even have ironing boards, for God's sake.
Anguilla, I'm sorry I cheated on you. You are Armani couture in a sea of saggy sweatpants; Dame Helen Mirren in a crowd of Kardashians. You are a Ferryboat cheeseburger in a passel of pink slimes. You are my everything.
Our long-awaited reunion began during the 10-minute flight from St. Maarten. We cleared the island's lush green hills, then spent a few jumpy minutes over open water before Anguilla came into view. Flat, scrubby, and brown in spots . . . it was as breathtakingly beautiful as we remembered.
Anguilla is known for its luxury hotels, and on past visits we've stayed everywhere from the oceanfront suites at Cap Juluca and Frangipani to the villas at Arawak and Rendezvous Bay Hotel, with stops at Ferryboat and Carimar in between. On this visit, though, we decided to forego the hotel altogether and rent a villa.
Our first indication that we were going to love Sweet Return was the road leading up to it: An old-school dirt path so rocky and rut-filled that it prompted Ronnie Bryan to ask if perhaps there was another way up to the house, since the car we'd rented from him had just been painted.
There was, but that path was even worse. And so the car rattled, our heads bobbled as if on springs, and our luggage took a beating . . . but there was no wiping the silly grins off our faces as we bounced along through the underbrush.
Perched high on Isaac's Hill, Sweet Return was bright and open, with a gentle breeze flowing through the numerous windows positioned to catch the cooling trade winds. The stylish main house consisted of a combined living and dining area overlooking the pool, bookended by two spacious master suites with enormous stone baths. (I am not even going to mention the fact that those bathrooms were bigger than our kitchen in NYC. Then again, I use my oven for shoe storage, so who am I to complain?)
You noticed that ultra-luxurious household appliance on the right, yes? That's how we knew we were back where we belonged.
In fact, that kind of attention to detail turned out to be our favorite thing about Sweet Return. Umbrellas conveniently lined up right next to the front door. Baskets filled with towels handily placed right next to the pool. Bins full of sunscreen, bug spray, and first aid items all neatly organized and labeled. (With typed labels. Swoon.) They even labeled the light switches. Light switches! Forget the pool and the view: You had me at the dimmer switch.
How to top all of these thoughtful touches? With a kitchen map, that's how. Sure, it was nice not having to haul my own iron and ironing board to Anguilla, but knowing that someone took the time to make a map of the kitchen so I didn't have to open five different cabinets to find a drinking glass? That is the stuff OCDreams are made of.
The house even had a small, detached studio apartment, which would provide the perfect escape if you happen to be traveling with the kind of people who do not appreciate a good kitchen map.
Best of all, the property manager at Sweet Return, a lovely woman named Catherine, confessed to being a longtime reader of this blog, and as a welcome gift she went out of her way to track down a favorite wine that I'd previously written about.
Oh, and a cheese platter so generously Tracey-sized that we knew the wine couldn't have been just a lucky guess.
It had been a long morning of travel, and the beach was just a stone's throw away. The sparkling pool beckoned. We'd traveled in our swimsuits to avoid missing a single minute of sunshine. But that cheese plate wasn't going to eat itself, so we slid into chairs at the dining table and gobbled up half a pound of goat cheese instead.
Soon we were thirsty, and it was no accident that the villa was just across the street from CuisinArt. Nothing beats makeup sex when you patch things up with a lost love, but makeup mojitos run a close second.
The afternoon slipped into that golden hour when the beach has emptied but the sun still lingers, and we embraced it like a friend we hadn't seen in a long while.
Okay, fine, we almost squeezed it to death. Like I said, it had been waayyy too long.
We were scheduled to spend nine nights on the island, but had approximately 42 restaurants on our list. If we were to make any headway, we were obviously going to have to double up. And so that evening, we set off for SandBar . . . and Dolce Vita. You know, in the interest of economy.
We arrived at SandBar just in time for sunset, settled in at a waterside table, and kicked things off with a round of SandBar's eponymous mango and rum concoctions.
We knew we'd be indulging in the divine pastas at Dolce Vita, so we stuck to the protein offerings at SandBar, sharing an order of the chicken satay with peanut sauce, along with the spicy pork tenderloin with chili-tamarind sauce.
Once the sun had set, we walked the short distance down the beach to Dolce Vita.
Dolce Vita, however, is not the kind of place where you can just show up. Preparations must be made. First, menus must be studied, past meals analyzed, and stomach capacity evaluated. Proper attire must be carefully chosen; billowy dresses for women and elastic-waist pants for men are preferred (potato sacks may be substituted in cooler weather). On the big day, breakfast is skipped and lunch entrees are kept on the light side to avoid spoiling dinner. (Hence, only half a pound of that goat cheese back at the villa.) You may whet the appetite with, say, some chicken skewers or spicy pork tenderloin, but anything more and you run the risk of having to leave behind an errant gnocchi or bite of lasagna.
And you know Abbi checks.
We settled in to our "usual" corner table near the sand and ordered up two glasses of wine and Dolce Vita's heavenly tuna tartare.
Then it was on to the melty, light-as-air homemade lasagna for me, and the evening's pasta special -- Anguillian lobster and shimp in a fragrant, garlicky white wine, butter, and lemon sauce -- for Angel.
Abbi was his usual charming self, and after a few glasses of wine it seemed like a good idea to pose for a silly photo, sticking our bellies out in homage to the incredible meal we'd just enjoyed.
Well, at least Abbi stuck his out. Ours just look like that.
After dinner, we bumped along the road back to Sweet Return, a star-scattered sky lighting our way.
The hour was late, and it had been a long day of travel, but we somehow found the energy for a quick dip in the secluded pool before bed.
We'd been back on island less than 12 hours, and already we'd enjoyed frosty drinks, delicious tapas, and a log of goat cheese. We'd been welcomed like old friends at Sweet Return and Dolce Vita, and stuffed ourselves silly with lasagna and lobster. Now, as we sunk our travel-weary bodies into the water, we plotted the next day's adventures: Lunch at Ferryboat Inn, an afternoon swim at Rendezous Bay, and tacos and tequila at Picante.
And then, at long last, we fell into bed, as visions of cheeseburgers danced in our heads.
Click here to read Part 2!