Bougainvillea blossoms lie scattered like confetti on the paths, and lush foliage trims the wide arches that frame the ocean's many shades of blue. A frosty, apricot-colored fruit drink is perfect punctuation for a sun-warmed day.
Life at Malliouhana on the West Indian island of Anguilla is, quite simply, sensational. This, the Caribbean's most spectacular resort, nests on a bluff separating Long Bay from Mead's Bay, each with white sand as soft as talcum powder.
The hotel is classy, unmistakably sensual and unquestionably expensive. If it has faults, they are the occasionally imperious staff and the tortoise-slow service. For example, we had planned to enjoy a serendipitous pool-side meal of seafood salads and chilled white wine. After waiting almost an hour and still not having placed the order, we headed down to the dining terrace to determine whether we could get service there before the sun went down. We couldn't and returned to wait pool-side for what eventually added up to a three-hour luncheon interlude.
British-born Leon Roydon built Malliouhana, and while he declines to talk numbers about his investment, it's safe to say that it cost several million dollars. Roydon's wife, Annette, and son, Nigel, are part of a hotel team that includes a clique of Frenchmen in the kitchen and nearly 200 Anguillians, most of whom had never seen anything like this before 1982, when Malliouhana began to grow on the island's northwest shore.
Malliouhana was largely responsible for yanking tiny Anguilla--35 square miles with a population of only 6,500--into the conversation of Caribbean cognoscenti and onto the holiday itineraries of the world's rich and famous. In fact, the parched and almost-flat island (named after the Spanish and French word for eel) now has prestige unclaimed since Arawak Indians knew it as "Malliouhana" and used its caves to worship their gods.
These days, sybarites worship the sun and the good life, perhaps enjoying a bottle of Chateau Petrus '85 at $445 or French cheeses flown in on same-day service from Nice. Not much produce grows on the island, and a hotel that serves Bourse de Saumon Fume (rolled smoked salmon) and Aiguilettes de Canette de Bresse au Vinaigre de Framboise (thin slices of duck with raspberry vinegar sauce) must fly in most of the ingredients. These go first to Saint Martin, then by seven-minute flight to Anguilla's small airport for the 20-minute drive on the single road that runs along the backbone of the fish-shaped island.
Most guests follow that same route after arriving from Saint Martin or Puerto Rico, the pivot points for small-plane flights to Anguilla. The flight from San Juan, P.R. takes about half an hour.
Malliouhana's aura reaches far beyond Anguilla. The property has set new standards for Caribbean luxury--this in a place where all construction materials except sand for cement had to be imported--as the guests must be also.
Malliouhana has its own pace and style, and that does not set well with everyone. One New York publishing mogul, accustomed to fawning staff and jumping minions, was enraged to learn that "no one (at the hotel) knows who I am," and no special services had been laid on for his arrival. The fact is that Malliouhana regards all its guests as special, so none should expect preferential treatment.
"We don't want bodyguards; it spoils the atmosphere," says Leon Roydon, indicating that atmosphere is clearly more important than the princes, presidents and potentates who travel only with entourage. "And we don't give out names. We assure privacy, and we respect anonymity." He did go so far as to say that 90% of Malliouhana's guests come from North America and Europe, with a smattering of visitors from South America and other places where the top echelon can afford to claim a place on the hotel's patios and in its palatial suites.
The resort is built in the style of a Mediterranean estate, with buildings bearing such names as Jasmine, Periwinkle, Orchid, Frangipani, Tamarind and Hibiscus hiding amid verdant foliage in a casual semicircle around the Main House on the bluff. Patios and terraces offer an assortment of sea views. Each building has a variety of accommodations. The main building, for example, features 20 double rooms, six junior suites, seven one-bedroom units, and two two-bedroom apartments.
Many of the rooms have balconies; some have bougainvillea cascading near the patio, and all are spacious, airy and fresh.
"I thought this was the most beautiful beach I'd ever seen," says Roydon of his first glimpse of Mead's Bay in February, 1980. "It took my breath away. It was a mile of pristine sand. And when I went in swimming? No rocks."
The "rocks" came later, in the buying, building and operating process that Roydon admits was "a bit of a trauma." The land was (and is) owned by four Anguillian families--the Flemmings, Richardsons, Hugheses and Hodgeses. Roydon holds a 99-year lease, with an escalating rental that includes a portion of any profits from the elegant enclave, where double-occupancy rates this winter range from $420 to $650 per day, room only. Your Dom Perignon, caviar, meals and all water sports are additional, along with an 8% government tax and a 10% service charge, which is divided among all the staff.
Guests do not need to tip anything extra, although many do for special services. They are prodded, I suspect, by guilt when they learn that a room maid takes home $120 to $150 a week. That's considered a good wage for novice staff members who learn on the job--the island has no hotel school--and is actually a bit higher than comparable jobs pay elsewhere in the Caribbean.
A few high-level Anguillian staff members, however, take home $30,000 to $40,000 a year, a salary unheard of on the island before the opening the first two villas--the beachside Tamarind and Hibiscus--for the winter of 1982.
Before that, fishing and boat-building had been the livelihood for Anguillians who remained on the island; those who sought work abroad sent back wages to support their relatives. The village of Long Bay, source of most of the hotel's work force, did not have electricity, or telephones, or any comprehension of the resort that would forever change their life style. But "Anguillians are very versatile," Roydon notes, adding that many islanders who were involved in the building of the resort have since joined the hotel staff--as waiters, cooks, maids and office workers.
Roydon's background "in the construction business, in England, Portugal and other countries" stood him in good stead, he claims, when he first dug into Anguillian soil. A now-retired British architect made the first plans, "but we've modified a lot in the building process," Roydon says.
The bluff-top Main House, the core of the resort, opened in November, 1986. It was not without its problems. Hurricane Klaus roared through to greet the fledgling resort. Also, part of Roydon's construction team moved to another of Anguilla's eye-blinking, white sand beaches to build and open Cap Juluca, a Moorish-style resort whose owners hope will upstage Malliouhana.
To design the interior, Roydon called upon Larry Peabody, whose successes with the now-closed hedonistic Haitian resort Habitation Leclerc made it the darling of the early jet set. Peabody came up with a decor featuring plants, cushions, comfortable homelike furnishings, and fabrics in cool-and-soothing Caribbean blues, greens, corals and other limpid colors. He prepared the stage for lavish living. His daughter, Annette, meanwhile, worked on the landscaping--and became Roydon's wife.
Fantasies of getting into the restaurant business led Roydon 15 years ago to an auction in Grasse, France, where a nearby inn was up for sale. He lost the bidding to Jo Rostang, now well-known to food-loving Francophiles as owner-chef of La Bonne Table in Antibes. But a friendship ensued, and la bonne table appeared at Malliouhana, where Rostang is both a frequent visitor and dining consultant. (He plays a similar role at New York's Plaza Anthenee.)
Whether or not your visit coincides with Jo Rostang's "two weeks in November," when he oversees the start-up for the season, or his frequent winter visits, holidays here are not a time to diet. The kitchen is firmly in the hands of Rostang-trained chef Alain Laurent, aided by a team of five other French chefs and 20 Anguillians.
The menu for the recent season included such hors d'oeuvres as Crayfish en Gaspacho, $28, Petits Artichauts Antiboise a l'Anchoiade (baby artichokes with an anchovy sauce), $16, and, of course, Beluga caviar, $60. To follow, consider Curry de Crayfish Pommes Mousseline (sauteed crayfish in a light curry sauce with pureed potatoes), $30, or Turbot Roti a l'Arete, Crepe Parmentier (roast turbot with potato pancake), $30.
Breezes sweep across the alfresco dining deck, where you'll dine on imported French china and drink fine wines from long-stem crystal goblets (with a breakage factor that is rumored to be about 5,000 pieces a season). Silver service is the policy, especially during winter months. (From April through August, life at Malliouhana is somewhat more casual--and less expensive, relatively speaking. The resort closes in September and October and opens for the season on Nov. 1.)
Guests at other hotels on the island should not expect to be welcomed with open arms. At mealtimes, even when properly attired, you may be greeted by a disdainful French maitre d'hotel who will look askance and pointedly advise that "house guests have priority. They cannot be rushed--and there are no places"--even after 1 p.m. for lunch. This season's addition of a dining deck with 40 additional places may change that policy, but it is essential to make a reservation, preferably well in advance.
Unless you arrive in a chartered seaplane, there is no way to get to Malliouhana without seeing the tackier side of island life. Although it has many of the Caribbean's most beautiful beaches, Anguilla is not a pretty island. Its almost flat landscape is sun-baked, and there is no real town. Instead, houses are scattered on private land. In the midlands a stubble of concrete- block buildings bristle, in punk-hairdo style, with rusted steel struts, waiting for funds that will allow the next story to be built.
Goats graze near the roadside, which is often littered, and ponds that were cultivated as recently as the 1960s for their crop of salt now lie shallow, like open sores, with a stench from sun-baked algae.
Roads often dissolve into dirt tracks, even when leading to the dramatically luxurious properties under construction at some of the beaches, and although rental cars are plentiful, well-kept and often new, you can't hire a limousine. There isn't one on the island. Not to worry; the hotels will pick you up if you don't drive.
The liveliest entertainment on the island is the frenetic "jump-up" at Johnno's beachside bar, a favorite spot. Otherwise, you can play tennis at one of Malliouhana's four courts or dance to music played by an Anguillian band at your hotel.
Sumptuous as Malliouhana is, part of Anguilla's charm is its atmosphere of reverse chic, well known to those who are savvy about Caribbean island life.