ONE OF THE HAPPIER fringe benefits of a Caribbean holiday is that, whether you spend a lot of money or not very much, you can always use your trip as a status symbol. If you’re rich, the object of the game is to find the most swinishly overpriced resort in the entire western hemisphere, and then come home to marvel loudly to your friends about the prices. But if you’re on a small budget, the status game can be played just as effectively — only now your objective is to discover the smallest, cheapest, most squalid, most obscure island available, and then come back and tell your friends how “unspoiled” it is.
As low-budget travelers, we chose the second option. Like most vacationers, inverse status wasn’t our primary concern; we needed a holiday, we didn’t have much money, and we couldn’t see ourselves at the kind of resort that’s patronized by rich old ladies in bikinis and rhinestone sunglasses.
So we chose carefully. After a month of map-reading, consulting friends and travel brochures, we decided to go to a place you probably haven't heard of,
For an offbeat Caribbean vacation, why not visit a revolution? We found a quiet one on the gorgeous island of Anguilla, and a little-known tourist paradise five miles away
but should. It’s called St. Maarten/St. Martin — the alternate spelling is used because the island, roughly 200 miles due east of Puerto Rico, is half-Dutch and half-French. The two colonial administrations have split the island neatly down the middle, but you don’t need any papers to pass from one side to the other. The island, I was told by somebody I met at a party, is a nice blend of simplicity and low-key luxury; you can sleep on the beach and live off wild papayas if you’re so disposed, or you can blow several hundred dollars a night in the air-conditioned casino.
That sounded about right for us, but St. Maarten (I’m going to use the Dutch spelling, because we spent most of our time in the Dutch sector) has an additional advantage: it’s only five miles from the former British colony of Anguilla, an even tinier island, which, you’ll recall, was the si^e of an especially charming mini-revolution in 1967. The combination seemed perfect: the beachcombing-snorkeling
scene, high life if we wanted it and, as a sort of antidote to all that sybaritic
living, a glimpse of the aftermath of a genuine tropical revolution.
The trip down was a breeze. You fly via Air Canada from Montreal to Antigua, then spend a night at a first-class hotel (ours had an outdoor bar with an ornamental waterfall and steel band) as part of the fare. In the morning you board a Leeward Islands Air Transport or Caribair aircraft for the leisurely, island-hopping northward flight to St. Maarten. And it’s only now, on this morning flight, that the beautiful realization dawns: you're not in Canada any more. Belov/ you the ocean is a luscious blue-green, the color of a backyard swimming pool. Islands you’ll never know the names of float slowly past your window: long, flat islands; volcanic islands twisted into tortured, rearing shapes; islands with red-roofed settlements tucked inside sloping valleys and islands as small and sweet and empty as God made them, looking from the air like floating icebergs covered with bright-green moss.
Finally, St. Maarten: tidy little
Dutch airport, Queen Juliana’s portrait on the walls, a young immigration officer who stamps your passport and who, you later learn, moonlights at night as a very competent calypso-shouter in one of the bands downtown.
Downtown consists of two narrow, mile-long streets strung out along a sandbar between two green hills. This is Philipsburg, capital of the Dutch sector. And now I must depart from the ancient traditions of travel writing to report that Philipsburg is emphatically not a City of Contrasts. In fact, there’s a delicious, lazy unity about the place that made me wonder who really lives in an underdeveloped country: the islanders with their languid lifestyle, or the weekly visitations of tourists from Manhattan and the Bronx who swarm off the cruise ships and engulf the shops like flocks of greedy birds.
Alone, you can walk down Front Street on a February evening that feels like soft July, and know you’re a welcome guest in someone else’s home town. The street is dark, but the moon is usually bright enough to reveal wild goats browsing in the old cemetery at the edge of town, or families sitting on the tiny front porches of candy-cane houses that line the streets. People nod or say, “Good evening,” as you pass. Sometimes, through open windows, you can peer into someone else’s life: a mother with a child in her lap, sitting quietly in a candlelit room; or a family sitting around a table, the very old and the very young, just talking. Am I guilty of romanticizing poverty? Maybe so. Twenty-five dollars a week is an excellent wage here, and the prices of staples aren’t noticeably lower than at home. But is it wholly reactionary to
St. Maarten: half Dutch, half French, totally Caribbean. The casino stays open late, the best Scotch costs two dollars a bottle. One of the great undiscovered pleasure islands
Anguilla: a tidy little revolution, fantastic beaches• but for tourists it's a little too unspoiled
suggest that the sense of community I felt in this place, and the sheer physical beauty of almost everything, offers some kind of compensation?
If Philipsburg so far sounds like a sharecropper settlement in Appalachia, that’s because we haven’t got to the centre of town yet. It must be one of the most civilized thoroughfares on earth. The shops! The restaurants! The beer gardens! For about three blocks there are nothing but tasteful little establishments selling everything from French cuisine to Bermuda shorts, all without a hint of hustle or hard-sell. St. Maarten is a duty-free port, so the prices of most luxury items are comically low. A bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label costs about two dollars. Swiss watches that would fetch $75 in Canada retail at Spritzer and Furhmann for around $22.
Now a word on the economics of accommodations. Nearly all hotels include three meals a day in the rates they quote, and there seems to be a basic price (around $20 a day double) below which no hotel, not even the crummiest one you can find, will go. This means that it’s false economy to stay at a second-rate hotel in St. Maarten, because staying at a really great hotel will cost you only a little more. We stayed at one of the "mediumpriced” hotels downtown, for $24 per day. The rooms were clean and comfortable, but they charged extra for airconditioning, and the food had a certain British Railways monotony to it. So we moved to Little Bay Beach Hotel, about a mile out of town, a fantastic pleasure-dome where the staff seemed to outnumber the guests, the cuisine never descended below the level of a first-class restaurant in Montreal, and if you tired of snorkeling off the mile-long beach in front of the hotel, there were always the swimming pool, the casino, the rum punch and the steel band in the bar. The price: $28 a day for two, meals included. An extra four dollars a day, in other words, lifted us from near-squalor to near-opulence.
But even the charms of sun and rum and filet mignon begin to pall after a week or so, and we decided it was time to visit the other island on our itinerary: Anguilla, where there’d been an authentic bloodless revolution in 1967.
Anguilla (35 square miles) is roughly one third the size of Oakville, Ontario. At any given time, several hundred of its 6,000 inhabitants are away working on nearby islands. So the 1967 revolution—which consisted mainly of loading 17 policemen at gunpoint into a chartered plane and flying them to the neighboring island of St. Kitt’s — was treated by most of the world’s press as strictly a comic-opera affair. But the issues were still fairly serious. The
Anguillans have always detested the domination of the central government on St. Kitt’s. And after Britain gave local self-government to the Nevis-St. Kitt’sAnguilla federation early in 1967, this resentment grew to the point where bloodshed became a distinct possibility.
Events since then have been either comical or creepy, but they’ve never been clear-cut. Shortly after Anguilla broke away from the federation, the British sent a warship to investigate. As local legend tells it, it must have been one of the weirdest visitations in the history of gunboat diplomacy: the Royal Navy’s landing party distributed candy to children on the beach, and then retired to the sound of God Save the Queen played by the local band. Armed vigilantes are said to patrol the beaches, ready to repel an invasion from St. Kitt’s. Arson is a popular outdoor sport; the doctor’s house was burned down a year ago. A few days before we arrived, someone set fire to a light plane belonging to an American resident.
Despite the trappings of semi-independence — Anguillan stamps, a national flag designed by an American company, a president named Ronald Webster, an Anguillan branch of the Bank of America — politics in a place this small resembles a delicately interlocking assortment of family feuds.
It took about five minutes after we came ashore to discover that Anguilla is a very uptight little place. Nothing you could put a finger on, you understand: just creepy undertones that made you suspect that half the people on the island knew, or wanted to know, exactly where you went and what you were up to. I’d planned to write a story about the revolution, and talked to enough people to confuse me thoroughly. One young man sidled up while I was waiting outside the police station to interview President Webster, and tried to sell information concerning the burning of the plane. Someone else I met hinted darkly at Communist in-
volvement, and Beatrice Gumbs, a member of the local power-structure and manager of the Rendezvous Bay where we stayed, suggested that we'd be well advised to enjoy the beaches and leave politics to the islanders. President Webster, who scurries around the island in a black Volkswagen, dropping a word here, a cautionary murmur there, a press statement somewhere else, wasn’t able to clarify the situation. He spoke vaguely of plans for foreign investment, told me he hoped I’d write about the magnificent beaches, and assumed I wouldn’t mention the burned aircraft, since the whole thing was very complicated, “involving certain people.”
For a while I was beginning to feel, in my paranoiac way, like a participant in a grade-B spy film. But one piece of news helped restore my sense of proportion. While I was waiting to interview Webster, he was closeted for several hours with officials of the Bank of America. What was going on? I wondered. A balance-of-payments crisis? Secret handouts via the CIA? Foreignaid negotiations? Later, I found out. The bank wanted to install a new door on its tiny building; and the purpose of the meeting was President Webster’s insistence that Anguillan labor be used.
Heaven knows what will happen down there. The Anguillans are a proud, highly independent breed, and they’re united in their hatred of the St. Kitt’s government of Robert Bradshaw. For more than a year, London’s Whitehall has been attempting to guide Anguilla’s government toward some form of peaceful settlement. But now this interim period is nearly over. And Webster late last year was telling visiting reporters that he’d probably be issuing a unilateral declaration of independence early in January. So by the time you read this, it's entirely possible that Anguilla’s comic-opera revolution will have escalated into a nasty little conflict, fought with real bullets.
Let’s hope not. Instead, I propose to heed Webster’s counsel and tell you about the beaches, which are indeed magnificent. We walked barefoot for four hours one day along a stretch of sand that felt like warm Cream of Wheat. We met no one, we saw no building. Conch shells of mottled brown and milky pink were strewn on the beach like flowers. The sea was the color of poster paint and as warm as wine. Offshore we could see gardens of coral jutting out of the shallow water. And once we saw a large, evil-looking manta ray skimming through the shallows, its black fins flapping like the wings of a prehistoric bird — an unforgettable sight, and perhaps a reminder that in paradise, even in a backwater paradise like Anguilla, you're always going to find serpents. □
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