Instagram needs a new filter to turn any picture into a Caribbean island paradise. They should call it "Anguilla." I'm here for a few days to explore its dive sites, and learn a little about this understated, off-radar island that attracts celebrities, honeymooners and urban escapees with opulent villas, lavish resorts, and 13,500 inhabitants who are so laid back even their trigger fish are uncoiled.
Westjet flies direct from Toronto to San Maarten, and it's a short 20-minute boat ride to the British Overseas Territory of Anguilla. The tax haven is only 26km long by 5km wide, with one main road running through the middle. There are no mountains, and hardly any traffic. What it does have is 33 mind blowing beaches, dreamy tropical weather, fat mangos and proudly, no chain hotels, burger joints or coffee shops.
"This is what everyone wants the Caribbean to be," says Patrick Lynch, who owns Roy's Bayside Grill. "White sands with nobody on it."
The sentiment is echoed by Jim, a television director who's been visiting the island with his family for 15 years. Celebrities love the island's lack of pretentiousness and relative privacy, which explains why actress Annie Potts gave me her sunscreen. A strong summer sun was baking my back onboard Dougie's boat, returning from our incredible couple dive at Dog Island. Every dive delivered the goods, be it the 200ft wreck of the MV Sarah, the dozen turtles who played with us on the 75ft Oosterdiep wreck, or the lobster, barracuda and countless fish feeding off the MV Commerce. The island's three dive companies - Shoal Bay Scuba, Special D and Vigilint - were knowledgeable, professional and fun to hang out with. Like other locals I met, these guys love what they do, and love where they live. Dive sites, including a half dozen amazing wrecks, were easy to get to, and ideal for recreational divers like me.
Anguilla has three, pricey five-star resorts that are extraordinary: The Viceroy, Cap Juluca, and the sprawling CuisinArt, owned by the same chap behind the appliances. Picture infinity pools, white brushed villas, expensive cocktails and swept powder beaches. I stayed at the more affordable Anacoana Boutique Hotel, centrally located, comfortable and rather less flashy. Their packages are worth checking out.
I'm not exactly sure how Anguilla came to be a foodie island because I spent too much time eating to find out. Standout meals were at the Straw Hut, Jacala (my new friend and fabulous underwater photographer Nadia Aly swears their mahi-mahi is the best thing she's ever had), CuisinArt's Le Bistro (the lobster was sensational) Roy's Bayside Grill, Smokey's and the Firefly. Deep fried Johnny cakes, fresh fish, peas and rice and that sweet hot Caribbean sauce...no wonder locals are always smiling.
I found myself swimming under the stars, and scuba diving with bioluminescence under a bright supermoon. At the exotic Birds of Paradise villa, I lived like the 1%, for a couple hours at least. I also found great companionship, true local characters, a new appreciation for air conditioning, and late night fun with banana rum. Each photo I posted to Twitter or Instagram screamed: Don't you wish you were here? No photoshopping, just a little something I call the Anguilla filter.
The float plane took off as I held my cup of piping hot coffee. According to Scott, an editor at Outdoor Canada, that's the typical cliche opening for any remote fishing lodge story, so I thought I'd stick with it. Only there was no piping hot coffee, and I was rocketing a Ford F-150 at 160 km/hr across the flat Manitoban prairies. Through fate and circumstance I was invited to Eagles Nest, a fly-in fishing lodge located on the Winnipeg River. My fishing experience:
Jason, one of the bronze leathered fishing guides, says there are only two things you need to pack when you go fishing: a raincoat and sunglasses. When it rains, water whips across the boat. In the sun, skin quickly sizzles. Rain or shine, mosquitoes and horse flies take their pound of flesh.
In the capable hands of fishing guides and far more experienced fishing buddies, it takes no time before I catch my first wall-eye. Sport fishing is strictly catch and release, but we keep the right size wall-eye for the shore lunch. Pike's flesh is not as desirable, so we throw them back, even the ones that can feed a small family. I learn to jig, cast and troll. Demetri Martin is right: fishing should be called tricking and killing. Or tricking and letting go. There's a healthy respect here for the fish: barbs are pinched to minimize damage, the biggest catch is gently handled, and always released to give future anglers a similar thrill. My trophy is a 31-inch pike, and in one session I haul all the species above save for sturgeon, including a healthy sized smallmouth bass.
We gather on an island for lunch, the guides making short work filleting the fish, which are rubbed in spice, or dunked in flour and cornflakes, served with deep-fried or fire roasted potatoes. Fish has never tasted better, or fresher.
In one of the world's largest flowing rivers (by volume), Winnipeg River boasts abundance. Abundance of water, clean enough for hardier anglers to drink, and warm enough for late afternoon dips. Eagles fly overhead, mink, bear and deer roam the shores. Casting with new friends at sunset, I share Fred's sentiment that fishing is just an activity, something to keep you busy while you ponder life, staring over calm lapping waters under a big prairie sky.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.