Anguilla seems to be a bit of a secret. There are travellers, mostly American and of a certain age, who have been coming here for decades for the island's 33 gorgeous beaches and impossibly blue waters, but in much of the rest of the world the name doesn't even register a blip. I suspect the vast majority of Brits hadn't even heard of this British Overseas Territory located in the eastern Caribbean until it was added to the green travel list. In spite of the similarities between their names, it's not Angola, nor is it that other Caribbean island starting with an "A", Antigua (although there have been a fair few times in conversations about my trip that people have confused them). I too didn't know all that much about Anguilla until Four Seasons opened a resort there a few years back. I was working for the brand at the time, thought it looked like a perfectly lovely place, and also thought I'd probably never have any particular reason to go that far for a beach.
And then in early 2021, my partner Georgios was offered a job on the island, and I found myself becoming a part-time islander too. While I won't be making a permanent move, I will be spending quite a bit of time in Anguilla in the coming months, so I've set out to learn as much as I can about it, and to share some interesting facts that I certainly didn't know, and perhaps you don't know either.
1. It's pronounced An-gwi-lla
With my degree in Spanish, I have a habit of hispanicising words when I don't need to (I once asked for a "Siete-Up" in a restaurant in Spain, to guffaws from the rest of the table, and the waitress). Looking at the name Anguilla, I'd assumed it was pronounced like paella, with the double "l" becoming a "y" sound. It's not. I also assumed that the "u" was silent, and the "g" was hard, which would make it "An-gi-ya". But nope, it's pronounced as it's spelt. An. Gwi. La. The name is thought to have been coined by Christopher Columbus from the Italian anguilla referring to the island's eel-like shape. If you look at a map it's not particularly eel-shaped at all, but then again I suppose Columbus didn't have the benefit of Google Earth to refer to back then.
2. They drive on the left, but your steering wheel could be on either side
Being a British Overseas Territory, cars are driven on the same side of the road as they are in the UK. When I rented a car, I was asked if I wanted my steering wheel on the right or the left, which struck me as a bit of an odd question. I said it didn't really matter, and was delivered a Toyota Vitz imported from Japan, steering wheel on the right and 117,000 km on the clock, perfect for zipping around and well accustomed to the Anguillian capital's surprisingly bumpy roads. There are plenty of Japanese imports on the island, but there are lots of American imports too, meaning that it's a very mixed bag in terms of right-hand and left-hand drive. If you're asked which side you prefer the steering wheel on, the right side is the sensible option. That way, if you need to overtake, you don't have to bring the entire car out into the middle of the road to see what's coming.
3. The island has six traffic lights
Yes, that's right. There are six traffic lights on the island, and if you drive from west to east or vice versa you'll pass through all of them, which somehow feels monumental. Sometimes a few of them seem to be switched off, but since even at rush hour you're not exactly in high-speed traffic, you can safely navigate your way through. Only 15,000 people live on the island, so the roads are rarely busy.
4. You may have to relocate tortoises
Something else to get used to as you drive around the island is the fact that you will share the road with lots of different creatures. The national bird, the turtle dove, seems to enjoy hanging out on the warm tarmac, and doesn't appear to have a sense of urgency when it comes to getting out of the way. They have a habit of taking off slowly, and then just languidly flying along in front of your vehicle. Since I was pootling my way rather slowly around the island I was always able to avoid them, but there were certainly some who hadn't made it, victims of the few people zooming around far too fast with complete disregard for who or what might be in their path. You'll also see lizards sunning themselves, goats hunting for the tastiest grass, dogs out for a walk, even crabs crossing the street. But the most unusual creature that I encountered was the tortoise who was veeeeery sloooooooowly making his way from one side to the other. I had to get out of the car, pick him up, and move him safely out of harm's way. Tortoise life saved, and accident averted.
5. There are no chain restaurants
You won't be eating a Big Mac on Anguilla, nor will you be picking up your morning coffee from Starbucks. In fact, there are no chain restaurants at all on the island, which makes a refreshing change. Instead, when you need a fast food fix, you can pick up a passion fruit juice from a converted school bus, grab roadside barbecue and take it to the beach, or stop by the little yellow shack housing Uncle's Place, where Aunt Mona makes chicken patties, fish cakes and Johnny cakes that will tide you over until dinner time. And if you do want a burger, there are plenty of options all over the island. Roy's Bayside Grill does a good one (as well as a special lunchtime burger wrap for just USD 10 - a steal on this island), and if you like your burgers up-market and made of Wagyu, Bar Soleil at the Malliouhana hotel, perhaps the loveliest hotel on the island, does a great one too.
6. They use the Eastern Caribbean Dollar
Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of State of Anguilla, and her face graces the coins and notes that are used here. She looks considerably younger than she does on British pounds, so I'm assuming the Caribbean climate does wonders for her complexion. The Eastern Caribbean Dollar, or ECD, is used by all seven full members and one associate member of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States - Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. In practice, most people tend to use US Dollars (in spite of Anguilla's British connection, the pound doesn't get a look-in here), and the ECD is pegged to the USD at USD1 to ECD2.70. Supermarkets charge in ECD so you need to do a bit of mental arithmetic to work out how much your shopping is going to set you back (which in practice is fairly irrelevant since most supermarkets are fairly fluid on whether they actually put prices on things or not). Fortunately they'll convert it into USD for you at the checkout.
7. The Anguillian national bird is the turtle dove and the national animal is the ground lizard
As described above when referring to roadside hazards, Anguilla's national bird is the turtle dove, officially called the zenaida dove. It's referred to on the island as the turtle dove, but is not the same as its European cousin who appears at Christmas alongside three French hens and a partridge in a pear tree. The national animal is the pholidoscelis plei, more sensibly known as the ground lizard. While they may not be the fluffiest of national mascots I love lizards and am always excited to see them, putting the breaks on my Toyota Vitz to the test when I notice them scurrying across the road. I realise that not everyone likes to have lizards living in such close proximity, but as long as they eat the bugs, I consider them my friends. One of them took a particular interest in my toes as I sat at Gwen's Reggae Bar, and rather than be licked/nibbled, I moved my appetising appendages out of the way. These are not shy creatures and will often get as close as you'll allow them to. Perhaps too close for some.
8. Anguilla's national football team is officially joint worst in the world
According to the FIFA World Rankings, Anguilla's plucky little football (or soccer, should you prefer) team is officially the joint worst in the world, tied with San Marino for the 209th and 210th spots respectively (I suspect they don't feature at the bottom-bottom because "a" comes before "s" in the alphabet...). Don't expect to see them competing in the World Cup next year in Qatar - they have lost all four of their first round qualifying matches, conceding a total of 23 goals (including 13 to Panama) and scoring none. To be honest, no one seems too bothered about football on the island - the fact that Anguilla-born sprinter Zharnel Hughes will be competing in the Tokyo Olympics is much more exciting, and the entire island is behind him. But wouldn't it be great if Anguilla could slowly start climbing the football ranks too?
And there you have it, eight things I didn't know about Anguilla, and I consider myself a much richer person now for having this knowledge. There are plenty more facts where these came from, so if you're in the mood for any more Anguilla trivia, just let me know and I shall deliver.