Pelicans silently waft past my terrace as I recline on a well-padded chaise longue. The birds bank before turning to glide with the wind. Spying fish, they plunge 30 feet to the sea and come up gulping.
I am savoring a cigar and a glass of Champagne on the lower of two terraces attached to my room at the Malliouhana resort on the Caribbean island of Anguilla. The terraces, jutting over limestone and coral cliffs, occupy more space than many hotel suites. Foliage blocks the view of adjacent balconies, creating a sense of splendid isolation. On the azure horizon, layers of puffy clouds turn from gold to bronze.
Most Americans luxuriating at Malliouhana focus their attention on the sand and sea. The scrubby desert island behind them is not much to look at otherwise. On a map, the coral and limestone outcropping, 16 miles long and three miles wide, looks like a long, wriggling eel. Anguilla is a British corruption of anguille, the French word for eel, or possibly the Spanish word anguila, also meaning eel. The native Arawaks called it Malliouhana.
Whatever you call it, the frowsy island has a heart that beats a little differently from its neighbors'. Colonized in 1650 by European settlers arriving via St. Kitts, the Anguillians seem a little friendlier, a little more welcoming than their neighbors perhaps because slavery never took hold here as it did on other Caribbean islands. Little grows on the island because of poor soil, and there wasn't enough work to keep full-time slaves. The slaves left the island to seek their fortunes overseas. Many returned as free men and received small plots of land once owned by planation owners. Here they raised goats, chickens and whatever they could grow for themselves. Today, most of Anguilla is divided into small plots with concrete blockhouses in various states of construction as families raise enough money to complete them.
Unsightly as that is, it bespeaks the strong streak of pragmatism and independence that runs through Anguillian culture. In the 1960s, when small colonies were battling the British empire for independence, Anguilla struggled to break away from its unhappy alliance with St. Kitts and Nevis, the nearest British islands, and become its own dependent British territory. Hearing of the rebellion, the British, misunderstanding the reasons, sent in armed forces to quell it, only to find the populace lining the beaches waving the Union Jack in welcome. The forces stayed, built roads and installed electricity, which opened the door to tourism.
Until recently, most of the tiny country's economy came from industrious Anguillians sending money home from jobs abroad. Tourism is rapidly overtaking those efforts, focusing on the reef-protected beaches that ring virtually the entire north side of the island. Today, Anguilla is home to several of the finest luxury resorts in the Caribbean.
Malliouhana was the first, opening its doors in 1984, and it remains the standard bearer. With its Mediterranean arches, terra-cotta roof tiles against white stucco exteriors and elevated terraces, Malliouhana's architecture evokes a seaside villa in Provence. The resort boasts one of the Caribbean's finest restaurants, a knockout wine cellar and a decent humidor. Owner Leon Roydon and his son Nigel run the resort with an aplomb rare in the Caribbean: they welcome guests and then leave them alone, making sure the staff tends to every need.
Malliouhana sits near Meads Bay, which gleams in various shades of blue. The delicate grainy tan sand slopes steeply into the warm water. Though several other widely spaced resorts share the mile-long beach, it never feels crowded. Turtle Cove, the beach on the other side of the property, is usually deserted because it can be reached only by stone staircases from the resort or from the sea.
Malliouhana's showcase accommodations are the outsized suites in the two-story Villa Bougainvillea, which spills over the cliff's edge at the far end of the property. The double rooms in the main building, bigger than suites in some hotels, feature white-tiled terraces with soaring views, marble bathrooms and rattan furniture, including some with four-poster beds. One-bedroom suites have large corner terraces.
The six junior suites feature vast white-tiled bedrooms, gorgeous views through arched doors and king-size platform beds and glass-and-rattan dining and conversation groupings. Closets with dark wood-louvered doors line an entire wall. Three steps up, each entrance area has a conversation setting and a bathroom with a huge L-shaped sink area, tub and shower in golden marble. A covered terrace has two lounge chairs, a breakfast table and a ceiling fan, and down more steps is another terrace with two lounge chairs, a sun umbrella and a view of Turtle Cove beach.
Two beach villas on Meads Bay have been recently refurbished and are ideal for families with children. Adjacent to the villas is a separate swimming pool for families as well as a casual open-air bistro. A waterfall separates the two levels of the main pool, which is located just off the lobby. Four all-weather tennis courts are across from the gatehouse and a beachside boathouse has water sports equipment. The next project the Roydons are considering is a luxury spa; plans were set aside after the resort was closed for one month last winter to clean up after Hurricane Lenny.
Food has always been one of Malliouhana's strong points. Though he is seldom in residence, French chef Michel Rostang is responsible for the kitchen. Rostang, whose Paris restaurant has two Michelin stars and a Wine Spectator Grand Award, assigns key staff from his family's one-star Bonne Auberge restaurant in the south of France, including chef Alain Laurent. Roofed but open to the elements, the Grand Award-winning restaurant commands a panoramic ocean view framed by cascades of flowering vines. Resolutely French, the menu focuses on such dishes as duck with turnips and olive juice, rack of lamb with shallots, and red snapper with saffron potatoes, but also makes use of Caribbean ingredients, as in broiled triggerfish Provençal-style, or crayfish salad with mango, sugarcane vinegar and vanilla dressing.
The food ranks at the very top of the list in the Caribbean. Laurent takes full advantage of the air connections between neighboring Saint Martin and France. Fresh ingredients from Rungis, the big commercial food market adjacent to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, arrive the same day and can be on the table at Malliouhana at dinner.
Such a menu cries out for wine, and Malliouhana delivers from its 25,000-bottle cellar carved into the coral and limestone cliff. Rows of bins hold more than 1,000 choices. Sommelier Albert Lake had to devise a clever mapping system for waiters to find specific bottles quickly. To ensure freshness, the resort's vintages are bought in France and shipped directly by refrigerated container late each autumn.
The resort's wine list would be impressive anywhere, but in the Caribbean it seems impossible. Local distribution of fine wine is spotty at best, and the hot climate conspires with the high cost of cooling a cellar to keep most wine lists modest in scope. Malliouhana manages to offer 350 white Burgundies--more than 100 from the excellent 1996 vintage--almost as many red Burgundies, and first-growth Bordeaux at prices comparable to many U.S. restaurants.
The wine selection focuses on mostly recent, if not current, vintages. The oldest are from the 1980s. Rather than fill a cellar with very mature wines few guests want to drink in the balmy tropics, Malliouhana goes for breadth of choice over deep verticals. The French selection brims with top names, not just first- and second-growth Bordeaux. It has such gems as Château L'Evangile 1988 ($260) and Mongeard-Mugneret Grands Echezaux 1993 ($189). The smaller range of non-French wines reflects a knowing palate, including the likes of Gaja Barbaresco 1989 ($145) and Hanzell Chardonnay 1989 ($76). Value-conscious diners can find plenty of good wines in the $20 to $40 range such as Hess Chardonnay Select 1997 ($27) and Pighan Pinot Grigio Grave Del Friuli 1998 ($25).
American guests appreciate the Eurocentric menu and wine choices. Lounging by the pool, one visitor from Connecticut said she looks forward to the week that she and her husband spend at Malliouhana every year not only for the beach time, but also for the chance to explore new wine territory. "We drink mostly California wine at home," she said. "Here, we tell the sommelier what American wines we like, and he brings us a French wine that's similar. We love it."
If you can tear yourself away from these indulgences--many of the resorts' guests never do--it's worth renting a car to explore the rest of the Caribbean island. Driving around and listening to the local radio station, with its calypso and reggae music tinged with the froth of local politics, has its merits. Or check out Shoal Bay East, a stunning vista of white sand and blue water and remarkably fine snorkeling. In fact, the island is virtually ringed with beaches with no surf--just the pure white sand only coral can make.
Or take a peek at some of the other resorts clustered at the west end near Malliouhana, including the Moroccan fantasy of Cap Juluca, the gleaming modern villas of Covecastles and the Greek Island look of CuisinArt, which opened last December. For dining out, try Mango's, an open-air dining room on a quiet beach where waves lapping the shore accompany your grilled wahoo. Blanchard's, just a few yards from Malliouhana, is a bit more upscale, and its wine list has received Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence. Or zoom up to Sandy Ground, a casual yacht harbor with a couple of popular bars, and hoist a few at the Pump House, with a younger, noisier clientele and simpler food.
An island favorite is Johnno's, a ramshackle structure at Sandy Ground that serves succulent local lobster and snapper in as laid-back a Caribbean atmosphere as you can imagine. The menu also has barbecued ribs, hamburgers and hot dogs. Dinner at Johnno's ranges from $12 for the basics to $27 for the lobster. At night, the place becomes a jumping bar, with a calypso band on Friday nights. By day it's an airy spot on a warm beach where you can sip a Caribe beer, savor a lobster and listen to the ka-ching of the sailboats' rigging.
After all that activity, settling back into the chaise longue at Malliouhana and watching the pelicans dive ends the day on one further, but absolutely perfect, note of indulgence.
Harvey Steiman is the Editor-at-Large for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.
P.O.Box 173, Meads Bay Anguilla, British West Indies
Tel. 800/835-0796 or 264/497-6111
Room rates: from $255 to $815, suites from $420 to $2,510.