We love Anguilla's limestone and scrub interior, its roaming goats, salt ponds teeming with birds, and the wildflowers that spring up after rain showers. Still, let's face it, it's the beaches that bring us here. Superb beaches are what put Anguilla on the tourist map. There are some 33 of them, plus another handful of idyllic offshore islets, like Sandy Island and Prickly Pear. As new roads are built, fewer beaches are reached via the bone-jarring dirt paths that make some of us nostalgic for the old days of, well, 10 or 20 years ago. For now, keep in mind that all beaches -- even those of the fanciest resorts -- are open to the public. (That said, many locals and old-timers are increasingly unhappy at how many beaches are becoming the de facto preserve of new resorts.)
Most of the best beaches (Barnes, Maundays, Meads, Rendezvous Bay, Shoal Bay West) are on the island's West End, site of the most expensive hotels. Rendezvous Bay is a long, curving ribbon of satiny, pale gold sand that stretches along the bay for 4km (2 1/2 miles). For now, you will probably have to enter the beach from the public access near the Anguilla Great House or Bankie Banx's Dune Preserve -- and pray that future construction does not ruin this beach forever. Meads Bay is lined with a number of resorts and beachside restaurants -- Malliouhana, Frangipani, Carimar, the Viceroy, Blanchards, Jacala -- but it never feels crowded. We've been here on May mornings when fishermen in colorful wooden skiffs with boat bottoms filled with bonito are the only souls on the beach. This is one sweet stretch of beach, with surprisingly good snorkeling off the beach around the rocks of Malliouhana.
In the northeast, 3km (2-mile) Shoal Bay is Anguilla's most popular beach, a Caribbean classic, with silver-white, powder-soft sands and a backdrop of sea-grapes. This beach is often called Shoal Bay East to distinguish it from Shoal Bay West . The waters are luminous, brilliantly blue, and populated by enough fish to make most casual snorkelers happy. At noon the sands are blindingly white, but at sunrise and sunset they turn a pink to rival any beach in Bermuda. Rental umbrellas, beach chairs, and other equipment are available just behind Uncle Ernie's at the long-established, amazingly helpful Skyline Beach Rentals (tel. 264/497-8644) from brothers Calvin, Raymond, and Solomon. And, no trip to Anguilla is really complete without at least one order of ribs (washed down with a Ting or a Red Stripe) at Uncle Ernie's.
Shoal Bay West has pristine white sands tinged with pink opening onto the southwest coast. Visitors find deluxe accommodations, including Covecastles, and superior snorkeling at its western tip. Adjoining it is 1.5km-long (1-mile), white-sand Maundays Bay, site of Cap Juluca and justifiably one of the island's most popular shorelines, with gentle surf for good snorkeling and swimming. Though the waters are luminescent and usually calm, sometimes the wind blows enough to attract windsurfers and sailboats. Most days, you see St. Martin across the way; some days, you see the pointy peak of Saba in the distance.
The northwest coast has a number of other beaches worth seeking out, notably the glittering white stretch of Barnes Bay beneath a bullying bluff. You can admire the offshore islands silhouetted against the horizon or join the windsurfers and snorkelers.
Little Bay Beach lies at the foot of Anguilla's steepest cliffs. The sands are not the characteristic Anguillan white but, well, sandy. That said, none of us who have been there, including serious bird-watchers, snorkelers, and scuba divers, seems to mind. (We do mind when day-trippers from St. Martin come over and occupy the beach.) You can get a boat here most days from about 9am to 4pm from Crocus Bay for around $10 round-trip. You can also climb down (and back up) the cliff at Little Bay, holding onto a knotted rope that is bolted into the cliff. The little cove is a terrific spot for snorkeling; thousands of silver jacks have been spotted swirling about the rocks. The restaurant and beach bar Da'Vida is set on the beach here.
Sandy Ground (aka Road Bay), also on the northwest coast, paints an idyllic old-time Caribbean scene, right down to meandering goats, spectacular sunsets, and clear blue waters, often dotted with yachts coming from St. Martin and beyond. You can watch fishermen and lobstermen set out in fishing boats as brightly colored as children's finger paints. Johnno's is arguably the archetypal beach bar, serving burgers and grilled fish and rocking at night. Indeed, many of the weathered wooden Antillean houses around here, shaded by turpentine trees and oleander, hold casual bars, making Sandy Ground Party Central on Friday nights. Island Harbor is still a working fishing port, with island-made boats bobbing by the pier. For centuries Anguillans have set out from these shores to haul in spiny lobster, which are still cooked up here at Smitty's (tel. 264/497-4300). It was Smitty who set up generators and started the tradition of live music and grilled lobster at his toes-in-the-water restaurant back in the 1970s before Anguilla had electricity. Islanders of a certain age remember walking for hours to get to Smitty's on the weekend to hear the music -- and then walking back home after dark by the light of the moon.
Savannah Bay (aka Junk's Hole) offers a long stretch of uncrowded white sand and offshore reefs full of eels, squid, and manta rays. The only attraction here is Nat Richardson's Palm Grove Bar & Grill (and seemingly the only building for miles), with its perfectly boiled or grilled lobster, crayfish, or shrimp and barbecued ribs. Chances are you'll have Captain's Bay all to yourself. Here's why: There's no shade and the undertow is very dangerous. The rock formations are starkly beautiful, but this is a spot for a stroll, not a swim.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.