Enjoy the Relaxed Pace of Anguilla, Island of Spectacular Beaches

Leave your watch behind, and get to know this land's delightful people and striking character

FLAT as a pancake, eel-shaped, and covered with scrubby brush, Anguilla looks rather underwhelming from 2,000 feet.

But a one-week stay on the island, the northernmost of the Leeward Islands in the eastern Caribbean, proved that aerial views can be misleading. First of all, the island's 35 beaches are its jewels. They are beyond spectacular. Anguilla is a coral reef, not a volcanic island, so the sand is white, not black - and it's so fine you hardly need to brush it off.

Called ''tranquillity wrapped in blue'' by the locals, the island is only 16 miles long and 3-1/2 miles wide, but vast in character.

It is peopled by charming, churchgoing folks who live simply. They are honest, friendly to tourists, and rarely seem in a rush. They walk everywhere. They wave back when you wave at them. And they'll maybe fix what's broken - tomorrow.

The island was invaded by the British in l969 to put down a rebellion that - it turned out - never existed.

The Anguillans welcomed the surprised Brits ashore, served them tea, and then begged them to let them become a British protectorate so they could at last be rid of paying taxes to St. Kitts or Nevis. So while the island rests formally under the British crown, it is self-governing, stands apart from its neighbors, and feels a little colonial and a lot third-world.

The toughest decision

Many of the island's coconut palms blew down in hurricane Luis last September, and there's still a lot of trash around, but no matter. Tomorrow they'll plant more, and clean up the storm's debris. Or maybe the day after.

If you go to Anguilla, don't plan to do much. Start by putting your watch in a drawer. You won't need it.

A friend who returns to Anguilla year after year told me and my husband: ''Your toughest decision each day will be choosing a beach.'' How right he was.

About the only thing to do is kick back on the beach du jour (our favorites were Rendezvous and Shoal Bay West) and read Donald Westlake's wonderfully satirical book about the island. When you land, go to the tiny airport gift shop and buy a copy. It's called ''Under an English Heaven,'' and you can get it for about EC$32 (US$12). Don't judge this happy book by its silly cover.

A small pair of binoculars is great to have along if you want to see pelicans, frigate birds, and herons up close, or wonder who's on that yacht - one seems to be anchored off every beach you visit.

If you go diving or snorkeling, don't expect much. The coral reefs were devastated by the hurricane and are all broken up and covered with sand. There are a few colorful fish and lots of vacant conch shells, but it's not the dazzling underworld that looks so alluring in the brochures.

If you want a good day trip to nowhere, go to the dive shop (owned by an ex-Wall Streeter) and charter a power boat to Prickly Pear Cays, about six miles out. The captain will rent you snorkeling gear for $2, but again, there's not much to see. The excursion will get you out onto the water and transport you to yet another gorgeous beach. Wear a big hat, and slather on lots of suntan lotion.

There may be others out there, too: Some of the resorts and tour boats take day trips to Prickly Pear, but you can easily walk away from the hordes and be totally, utterly alone.

The best entertainment on Anguilla is not the evening event rigged up by the resorts to impress their guests, but a real-life look at the island's strong character and remarkable people.

The Anguillans will make you look differently at your I-gotta-achieve-something pace. They've perfected a lovely lifestyle sitting on the front steps of their tiny houses, many now without roofs because of the hurricane, and doing absolutely nothing. Or they walk to town. And back.

We gave a ride to three chambermaids from a local hotel who were slowly walking home, which lay about four miles down a busy road. They were delighted to climb aboard, bags hanging off both shoulders, and talk about their island with first-timers.

The chattiest one quickly moved from small talk to big subjects: She shared her philosophy of parenting, marriage, and religion.

''My husband and I go to different churches,'' she said. ''He likes that one down the road where they whoop and holler ... y'know, real lively. But no matter, it's all one God.''

Make sure the car works

The younger Anguillans drive around, radios blaring, taking time to polish their cars between runarounds until they've saved enough money to buy another tank of gasoline.

Rent a car and drive around, too. Go slowly. Make sure the car works before driving it - especially the lights, front and back (maintenance seems to be casual on Anguilla), then remember to stay to the left.

You may want to stop for a cold drink and light bite at Uncle Ernie's, a casual beachfront spot at Shoal Bay East that's always hopping. For more local color, try another happening beach spot: Johnno's, rumored to be a favorite haunt of Michael J. Fox when he visits the island.

There are a handful of good restaurants on Anguilla, among them Roy's, Hibernia, Paradise Cafe, and Koalkeel. The last one was our choice for a big night out. They serve Caribbean cuisine in a romantic old plantation house. If you go, make a reservation for an early dinner (it fills up fast), and order local - either the pumpkin or pea soup for starters and snapper or grouper for an entree. It's a tad pricey, but worth it for a memorable evening.

If you have access to a kitchen, as we did, you may want to do all your main shopping at the IGA supermarket and only visit the more expensive convenience shops for milk runs. The IGA is near the airport and post office in Anguilla's government center, which is called The Valley.

For an intimate look at the island culture, you may want to visit one of the many churches on Sunday morning. The churchgoers will greet you, seat you, and share their Bibles. And don't be surprised if some of them ask for a ride home afterward.

They often walk miles to get to their place of worship, reverently dressed up in patent leather, ribbons, and lace.

An earnest young boy with a fresh haircut and starched shirt asked us for a lift, and within seconds had corralled 14 friends and family members who piled into our rented van, settled onto various laps, and thanked us shyly.

Signs of the storm

Although rebuilding efforts are progressing steadily, you will probably still see the results of Hurricane Luis's 200-m.p.h. winds: roofs blown off, beaches washed away, many boats still on the shore, pieces of tin roofs and debris scattered everywhere. The storm was truly a traumatic event for everyone there.

But after adjusting to the island's irresistibly gentle pace, you won't mind these flaws. You might even be tempted to buy one of the many beached (and unlooted!) yachts, send away for a fiberglass patch kit, and think about staying there forever.

By the time you get around to considering that, you will have forgotten you even own a watch and become accustomed to doing nothing. Who knows, maybe you'll write that book. Tomorrow, if you can just find that pen....

* For more information on Anguilla and an update on post-hurricane rebuilding efforts, contact the Anguilla Tourist Information Office: 775 Park Ave., Huntington, NY, 11743. tel.: 800-553-4939 or (516) 271-2600.

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