While St. Maarten is known for its international airport and bustling marinas, Anguilla is renowned for its solitary harbors and marine parks. If you are looking to cruise off the beaten course in the Leeward Islands, then Anguilla, at their northern tip, just may be ideal as your next waypoint.
The British territory known as Anguilla actually comprises several islands. There’s the main one, which is the best known, along with smaller nearby islands: Anguillita, Dog Island, the Prickly Pear Cays, Sandy Island, Scrub Island, Scilly Cay, Seal Island, and Sombrero, which the locals call “Hat Island.”
Three of those—Dog Island, Sandy Island, and the Prickly Pear Cays—are among the five areas designated as part of the protected Marine Park System. The other two protected areas are Shoal Bay and Little Bay on the big island (if you consider a 16-mile-long-by-3-mile-wide island “big”). Within these protected areas, boaters must use the permanent moorings. Dropping an anchor is illegal, as doing so can damage the coral reefs and fish habitats.
You’ll see both red mooring buoys and white mooring buoys in Anguilla’s Marine Park System. The red buoys are for dive boats, while the whites are for recreational boaters who have gotten a usage permit from the Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources at Marine Base in Road Bay. If your boat is more than 55 feet LOA, the office may give you permission to anchor in a designated area.
Each of the Marine Park areas offers something different to see and do, and they’re all to the northern side of the big island, which makes navigation easy. If your idea of a great cruise includes swimming, snorkeling, and a handful of beach bars, then a week of cruising within Anguilla’s Marine Park System is ideal.
If you start at the Marine Base in Road Bay you can cruise west to Dog Island, which is the farthest from the big island. The current tends to be strong here, so be aware of it whether you are anchoring or snorkeling. Even experienced snorkelers and divers tend to stay close to shore, but nobody really minds, what with all of the sea turtles, tiger sharks, and reef fish to be seen. There are a few white, sandy beaches on Dog Island as well as some inland trails created by the local goats. Bring a good pair of hiking shoes along with your snorkel and fins and you’ll be just fine.
From Dog Island, the Prickly Pear Cays are just about due east. Listen to the VHF traffic to learn the schedule for the local day-trippers arriving at the two cays from St. Maarten, and then you’ll be able to avoid them if you go ashore to one of the two restaurants available to visitors. Swimming and snorkeling are good here, and the diving can be excellent, with depths at Prickly Pear Reef ranging from 40 to 70 feet and a couple of shipwrecks nearby to explore.
Sandy Island is south of the Prickly Pears and is within spitting distance of the big island. Sandy Island is well named, for sure—when seen from above, it looks like nothing more than a mass of smooth sand with a few green shrubs plopped in the middle. The local hut (you’d be hard-pressed to call it a full-scale restaurant) serves fresh lobster and rum cocktails that entice shell collectors, sunbathers, and snorkelers alike.
From Sandy Island, you can cruise along the big island’s northern shore, stopping first at Little Bay and then at Shoal Bay.
Little Bay is a great place to watch wildlife. It was designated part of the park system because of its extensive seagrass bed, which attracts countless sea turtles, fish, and of course the pelicans that feed on those fish. If you want an afternoon out of the sun just watching nature from your aft deck, this is a great spot.
Shoal Bay is to the east of Little Bay, right around the corner from the Island Harbour fishing village. Shoal Bay’s beach is more than a mile long and has made several appearances on “best beaches in the world” lists in various magazines. The reef system in this area is extensive for snorkeling, and the views of the Atlantic Ocean literally do not stop—unless, of course, your eyesight is good enough to see all the way to Africa.