A Labor of Love in Paradise
Melinda and Robert Blanchard, authors of A Trip to the Beach, have made every traveler's fantasy their reality. After a lifetime of sun-kissed vacations on the gorgeous Caribbean island of Anguilla, they decided to trade their life in snowy Vermont for an existence of sea breezes, sandy beaches, and spectacular sunsets.
But don't get too jealous of the Blanchards' move to paradise -- it wasn't all palm trees and trade winds. That's because the Blanchards' decision to move included a unique twist on the familiar tale of the couple that ditches the rat race for a more laid-back way of life. The Blanchards, lifelong gourmands, decided to move to Anguilla to open a restaurant.
Getting a restaurant up and running is backbreaking work no matter where you are. But when you're on an island where the national pastime is "limin' " (sitting in the shade watching life go by) and every piece of equipment for the kitchen and every ingredient for the menu must be procured by traversing international waters, opening a restaurant that will cater to the world's most discriminating palates is an unfathomable task. To say the least, the Blanchards had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
For the Blanchards, the successful proprietors of the Blanchard & Blanchard specialty food business, planning the look of the restaurant and the dishes on the menu came naturally. But for foreigners living and working on the island, navigating the local rules and regulations was a real challenge.
Anguilla operates on "island time," a far cry from the pace the Blanchards were used to. But the countless frustrations they faced were mitigated by their carefully cultivated friendships with a compelling cast of island natives. With lots of help from their friends, Melinda and Bob were able to create an award-winning restaurant and transform themselves into true islanders.
Melinda and Bob's experiences with building, opening, and running Blanchard's make for a delightfully delicious and entertaining read. Tales of navigating customs, shipping building supplies from a Home Depot in Miami and importing food
and wine from around the world are great comedies of errata, as are the amusing stories about pleasing discriminating diners and trying to serve a spectacular meal during a blackout.
The real highlights of the book are Melinda's mouthwatering recipes, taken directly from the restaurant's menu. If you can't get to the Caribbean anytime soon, try whipping up a crispy-crusted snapper with Thai citrus sauce with a side of the venerable Uncle Waddy's favorite corn bread. Thirsty? Try some rum punch, or the Blanchards' bartender's favorite drink, the banana cabana.
A Trip to the Beach is a wonderful a story of a labor of love that will make you want to hop the next flight down to Anguilla for a day on the island's gorgeous beaches and a night of fine dining at Blanchard's.
Emily Burg is a New York-based freelancer who burns, not tans.
Read an Excerpt
From the air Anguilla looked narrow, flat, and scrubby, but that was only part of the picture. In my mind, I saw the real Anguilla: sea grape and crimson flamboyant trees, women steadying pails of water on their heads, sand that might have been poured from a sack of sugar, the cool terra-cotta floors of the Hotel Malliouhana. The sunshine alone was enough to make me smile. Stepping off the plane, I felt the breeze from the east, scented by the hibiscus that grew alongside the terminal. Those cool currents made the sun seem unthreatening. Poor Bob, with his fair complexion, would be pink in a matter of minutes.
In Anguilla it is customary to greet everyone with a courtly "Good morning" or "Good afternoon." As we approached the young woman at the immigration counter, we were greedy enough to hope for more. We'd seen her many times on our visits to the island. We wanted to be recognized, to be told that we were different from mere touristsconnected.
"Good afternoon," the young woman said, smiling. "Welcome back." Anguilla had begun to cast its spell.
As our taxi made its way westwardslowing for potholes, speed bumps, people, goatsI counted the ways I loved this little island. Unlike its neighbors, Anguilla (rhymes with vanilla and pronounced Ann-gwilla) had no casinos, no duty-free shopping, and no cruise ships. Visitors here looked for less, not more. They tended to arrive one or two at a time and not in packs. Their intentions were simple: to walk on the beach, go snorkeling, read a good book, take a dip in the water. They'd found a place where handmade signs beckoned them to Easy Corner Villas,Sandy Hill, and Blowing Point. Drawn to this tiny British outpost only sixteen miles long, they appreciated the rhythm, the balmy pace. Little schoolgirls in handmade uniforms skipped along the road, holding hands.
The idyllic life on Anguilla isn't an illusion manufactured for tourists. The island's standard of living is higher than its neighbors'. No gambling means no gambling problems. Limited work permits for outsiders ensures plenty of jobs for locals. This is a country with no taxes, where a dollar earned is an actual dollar. There is no unemployment, and eighty-five-degree temperatures with sunshine almost every day. Life is good.
There are several world-class hotels on the island, all criminally luxurious. Over the years we had alternated between them, savoring their brands of exquisite tranquillity. One, Cap Juluca, boasts villas with Moroccan-style domes, and bathrooms so vast that they have their own gardens. Another, Malliouhana, was createdand is lovingly cared forby a retired English gentleman whose lifelong dream had been to preside over such a hideaway. Here life is serene, with white stucco arches, ceiling fans that seem to lull away one's cares, and a breathtaking view of the clear turquoise water from the top of a cliff.
Our taxi driver, Mac Pemberton, had driven us around the island many times, but that day was different. He had called us in Vermont with urgent news. We had spoken about opening a beach bar in Anguilla, and he had promised to help find us a spot. Now he had scheduled a meeting for us to meet Bennie, the landlord of an abandoned restaurant.
It wasn't a notion from the blue. Many years earlier, when Jesse was five, Bob and I had taken him to Barbados, where we'd spent a wonderful morning hunting conch shells and building an enormous sand castle complete with moat. By the time we finished we were ravenous, but there were no restaurants in sight. So we set off down the beach. We were all three healthy and brown with sun; even Bob had gotten past the sunburn stage. Jesse danced in and out of the surf, laughing at nothing and everything. I felt preposterously lucky. A good meal would complete the experience.
After about a mile we spotted a picnic table. A short distance away was a man leaning back in a beach chair, his feet propped up on a giant cooler, his head buried in a thick, tattered paperback. Above him was a small thatched roof with a blackboard sign.
BEER AND SODA$4.00
It was like finding a lemonade stand in the middle of the desert. We stood in front of the man and smiled expectantly, but he must have been intent on finishing his page, because it took him a minute to acknowledge us. When he was ready, he slowly swung his feet off the cooler and looked up.
Jesse was the first to respond. "Starving. What do you have?"
With his head, the man gestured at the menu on the blackboard. He seemed eager to get back to his book, which I saw now was Moby-Dick. After a hasty conference, we ordered three burgers, two Cokes, and a beer. We handed him a wad of bills and in return received our drinks, three raw hamburger patties, and a long pair of tongs. Then he motioned toward a fifty-five-gallon oil drum that had been cut in half lengthwise with a torch, propped up on several lengths of steel pipe, and filled with hot coals. We realized we were about to cook our own lunch.
"We just paid forty-two dollars for a lunch that must have cost that guy five bucks," said Bob, standing over the grill. "And we have to cook it ourselves." His grumbling was mixed with admiration.
One bite was all it took to change our mood. "This is the best hamburger I've ever had," Jesse declared. We all agreed.
I marveled at the ingenuity of the setup. A secluded spot, sand like flour, customers arriving in bathing suits. The guy barely lifted a finger, cleared at least $35, and gave us a lunch we'd remember foreveran experience that seemed to me to rival the best white-tablecloth meals we had eaten in Paris. The man reading Moby-Dick had sold us a frame of mind.