On first impression, the new CuisinArt Resort & Spa on Anguilla seems both strikingly beautiful and very, very odd. Its mile-long crescent of beach resembles frothed cream, and the water is that brilliant, mesmerizing Caribbean blue. But above the sand hover whitewashed villas capped by cerulean blue domes. Why does this place look as if it were stolen in the dead of night from the island of Santorini? Why Aegean architecture on a Caribbean island, where the prevailing style is pastel-painted wood cottages?
Well, once you find out that Anguilla's two other high-end resorts adhere to a Moorish style, the answer is, Why not? Anyway, if the CuisinArt stuck purely to indigenous offerings, guests would be left without any tomatoes, lettuce or eggplant. Instead, the Mediterranean-Caribbean cuisine, like the aromatic Arabian jasmine planted around the hotel and the fountain outside my room, sets out to improve on nature, creating a sense of gorgeous artificiality.
Nature, for instance, never intended for tomato vines to grow 20 feet tall. Dr. Howard Resh, a stoop-shouldered, bespectacled man, talks with zeal about the hydroponic garden in the resort's 18,000-square-foot greenhouse. Resh says things like "automatic irrigation with solenoid valves." I have no idea what he's talking about, only that these vegetables are grown not in soil but in water enriched with nutrients. Upon tasting a ripe cherry tomato plucked from a vine, I'm staggered by its sweetness. And like a typical convert, I now believe that every island resort should have its own hydroponic garden.
I also believe that every resort should have sprawling marble bathrooms with light filtered through a wall of glass brick. My room is large, with a boldly colored (hardly Caribbean) bedspread and a lemon-yellow futon couch. Granted, there's a truly horrible palette-knife painting of Portofino over the couch. But glass doors open onto a delightful covered patio, where breakfast is set up on a yellow tablecloth over a blue wrought-iron dining set.
The nearby spa has a gym with the usual cardio machines and weights, and trainers are on hand. I join a yoga class on the top-floor terrace, with views of the gardens and the turquoise sea. Even the treatment rooms have picture windows so that one is never deprived of the extraordinary Caribbean light. I spend an hour having a four-layer facial and come out feeling healthy and glowing.
This is CuisinArt owner Leandro Rizzuto's first venture into resort ownership, on land he originally purchased to build a vacation home. The resort is managed by Rockresorts, but Rizzuto's touch is everywhere. He has stocked the place with goods from the companies he owns, from CuisinArt kitchen equipment to Conair hair driers and Rusk shampoo. It was Rizzuto who decided that the cuisine would be Mediterranean-Caribbean. That might seem like a natural choice on this sun-drenched island, but fresh vegetables are at the core of Mediterranean cuisines, and Anguilla has such thin, sandy soil that next to nothing grows in it.
It's common practice at resorts on small islands to import everything, but that has never been completely satisfactory when it comes to fresh produce. Vegetables that are picked green for shipping never fully develop their flavors, so that even the best chef falls short. CuisinArt's hydroponic garden is an expensive but brilliant solution. It produces vegetables in such stupefying abundance that nothing ever has to be picked before it's fully ripe, and the greenhouse allows seasonal vegetables to grow year-round.
This is brought home to me at one of the resort's twice-weekly cooking classes, held in the fine-dining restaurant, Santorini. Assistant chef Raymond Cheung demonstrates the preparation of CuisinArt's yellow-tomato gazpacho, served with a dollop of red-tomato ice. Each ingredient has a full, sweet flavor that can come only from ripening on the vine. The resort imports everything that's not grown on the farm, such as carrots, potatoes and onions, as well as cheeses, foie gras and meat, most of which comes from France. Of course, the local fish are fantastic. Long ago Anguillans realized that agriculture was out of the question, and they turned to the sea for bonito tuna, red snapper, crayfish and spiny lobster.
French-born, Lyon-trained executive chef Denis Jaricot brought two senior staffers from the Four Seasons in Toronto, where his Truffles restaurant was consistently rated the city's best. At Santorini, Jaricot's dinner menu concentrates on coastal French and Italian dishes spiked with Caribbean spices. He serves spiny lobster or the local crayfish in a curry glaze with lemon basmati rice, roasted banana and a citrus-ginger dipping sauce. And though his bouillabaisse has a classic broth prepared with Mediterranean conger and monkfish, the rest of the stew is strictly local catch.
Eventually, everyone finds the path to the greenhouse, and to the luncheon buffet at the hydroponic garden. The plates are large, and it's easy to devour the salads and grilled and roasted vegetables with exotic names like Nairobi orange pepper. There are six varieties of lettuce alone. "Greenhouse growing will always be more expensive than field production," Resh says. "But these vegetables are tastier and nutritionally better because they fully synthesize all their vitamins, minerals and sugars."
Amen, I think, as I sample the grilled eggplant and peppers. Let's hear it for vitamins, minerals and sugars. And for automatic irrigation with solenoid valves, and gorgeous artificiality. (800-943-3210; www.cuisinartresort. Or reserve through Rockresorts: 264-498-2000.)
Laurel Delp is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.