You may not think of Anguilla as a dive destination — but you should.

The 35-square-mile island of Anguilla, an 18-minute ferry ride away (or a 6-minute flight) from tourist hub St. Maarten, may just have it all when it comes to combining diving with topside diversions.

Topside Anguilla

First, topside: Anguilla is known for its 33 beaches, and they don’t disappoint. Twelve miles of silky sand wrap around the island like a blanket, and there’s one for everyone. For some of the Caribbean’s best beach bars, visit Sandy Ground spots like Johnno’s and Elvis,’ an upended boat-turned-bar. The quiet cove at Little Bay feels like a well-kept secret.

Scilly Cay, a tiny spit of sand a just offshore from Island Harbor, makes for a gloriously hazy afternoon. Here’s the deal: wave from the dock and a rickety speedboat picks you up and takes you to the cay. There’s no electricity — just an open-air bar, a band, a barbecue and some potent drinks. You order grilled lobster or chicken — or in my case, neither. Then you wait with one of Eudoxie Wallace’s famous rum punches. One was a good idea, two was a better idea and I think by the third I was professing undying love for my drinking companions, whom I’d just met. I’m not sure how we got back to our rooms at Anacaona Boutique Resort. I can only be sure we did, because the next thing I remember was the phone ringing to urge me to come downstairs for dinner.

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Local eats

Anguilla’s quite well known for its restaurants, from local favorites like casual Smokey’s at the Cove to upscale Jacala, which could be the single reason I return. The atmosphere was welcoming and the sautéed snapper with anise-braised vegetables was delicious. I spent the rest of the trip threatening to force our group to return for another dinner. Though I don’t think I would have had to use much force.

Diving in Anguilla

But enough about the glorious beaches and even better restaurants — what about the diving? Our first dive was with Shoal Bay Scuba, which has shops on the West End and at Roy’s Bayside Grill in Sandy Ground. We dove the wreck of the Sarah, Anguilla’s largest wreck at 232 feet long. Depths ranged from 30 to 83 feet and like other Anguilla shipwrecks, the boat was the victim of Hurricane Klaus in 1984. Six months after it sank, the government raised the boat and towed to its current location. Now it rests completely intact and upright on the sand. Though vis wasn’t great, we still spotted plenty of marine life like blue tangs, chromis and cowfish.

Our surface interval that first day was at the aforementioned Little Bay, where our dive boat, Lady Lou, floated quietly in a mostly deserted cove while we lounged in the sun. Next up was the Catheley H, which caught fire and sank in 1993. The 100-foot long wreck is only partially intact, but vis was a little better and we saw spiny lobsters and a few rays cruising the perimeter.

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We spent our second diving day on wrecks as well. First we visited the Meppel and then the Oosterdiep. Before arriving on Anguilla, I had no idea the wreck diving was so good. The purpose-sunk Meppel sits upright in about 80 feet of water and played a key role in the World War II battle at Dunkirk. The Oosterdiep drifted aground in 1990 and the Anguillan government deliberately sank it near Meads Bay. On both we saw plentiful reef life: green sea turtles, lobsters, southern stingrays and Atlantic spadefish.

We returned to the Oosterdiep that evening for one of the best night dives of my life. There were at least a dozen turtles on the wreck. Some finned by and some peeped out from inside the hold. A few rested on the bottom near the hull. I followed one lazy swimmer with my camera for 20 minutes before he tired of me and turned the other way.

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Our second day of Anguilla diving

We dove the next day with island native Douglas Carty and Special D Diving Charters. At our urging, the boat took our group out to Dog Island, a small, uninhabited island eight miles northwest of Anguilla. The crossing can be tricky and the currents can be strong, but on this day both cooperated. We dropped in on a gently tugging current and passed under some beautiful hard coral overhangs. The site had by far the most marine life we’d seen so far: turtles, blacktip reef sharks, rays and moray eels. The bumpy ride back was well worth it.

As the trip ended, I talked to Matthew Billington of Shoal Bay Scuba. He put it well when talking about Anguilla’s charms.

“Although at first glance you think of Anguilla as only having some of the world’s best beaches and 5-star hotels and restaurants, don’t overlook Anguilla’s true gem, its waters. We have reef dives, wreck dives and wall dives, so if you’re looking for your next Caribbean getaway, you will not be disappointed.”

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I couldn’t agree more. After five days of diving (and eating), our group wrapped it up with dinner at Tasty’s, famous for its Caribbean island-style food, such as Creole-style lobster and conch Creole. The company was fun; the drinks were strong; dinner was amazing. It was a great trip, but know this: I will be back, Anguilla. I’m coming for the diving and for you, Jacala.

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