I was on a ferry sailing from St. Martin to Anguilla the first time I saw him. Right away, I knew he was no ordinary guy. Dreadlocks, salt-and-pepper beard, worn leather hat and a distinctive bronze whistle tied around his neck.
As the boat pounded the waves, I watched this charismatic, dreadlocked man greet people like a Caribbean potentate. He shared high fives with some; he hugged others.
Once ashore, he was welcomed by a small mob chanting, “Bankie, Bankie.”
That’s when it hit me. I had been riding the ferry with one of Anguilla’s biggest celebrities. This was the Bankie Banx, internationally acclaimed reggae star and the driving force behind Moonsplash, an annual music festival featuring some of the best island bands around—and the reason I’d booked a trip to Anguilla in the first place.
Two nights later, I saw him again, this time performing on a stage built out of a sailboat hull at a beach bar called Dune Preserve—home of the Moonsplash festival and a wildly unique, rambling establishment that was, I’d learned, owned and operated by Bankie himself.
It was the final night of Moonsplash, and, as Bankie blew into his harmonica, laying out a soporific tune for the swaying, appreciative crowd, a full moon bathed everything in a silver sheen that made the whole scene feel, well, magical.
I promised myself I would visit again someday.
Fast-forward five years. CNN has recently named Bankie Banx’ Dune Preserve the No. 1 beach bar in the world, and I take this as my cue to go back to Anguilla for more music, more Bankie and a closer look at the story behind his beloved bar.
The first thing I realize when I walk into Dune Preserve again: best beach bar doesn’t necessarily mean prettiest.
Dune Preserve looks like a combination between a downed tree house and a post-hurricane lee shore: weathered planks for floors, the shore-side bar built from a wooden skiff, driftwood laid helter-skelter, red and yellow and green spotlights aimed every which way. A banjo and a bass dangle from rafters sheltering a warped plywood table. Decks are cantilevered over the sand—some at ground level, some supported on stilts—joined by serpentine boardwalks. A rickety staircase descends to the beach on Anguilla’s Rendezvous Bay.
The decor of Dune Preserve is a reflection of Bankie’s general business philosophy, which can best be described as ad hoc. “I am a beach-comber,” he tells me. “Always collecting stuff; a nice piece of driftwood, something washed up on shore. [It all] usually finds its way into the bar.”
Indeed, Dune Preserve has spread out and evolved a great deal since Bankie began building it a couple of decades ago—a decision borne out of a desire to create a place where he could jam with his friends.
“I had a band in New York and came home [to Anguilla] every year around Christmas,” he says. “I’d get back to New York, and the guys in the band [would be off playing] other gigs.”
In 1991, he and his friend, Sheriff Bob Saidenberg, decided to hold an annual music festival that would lure fellow reggae artists out to the Caribbean so they could play together again. For the first few years, Moonsplash took place in different locations but always during a full moon. “I am a man of the moon, and the moon told me when to hold [it],” Bankie says.
When Bankie moved back to Anguilla for good in 1994, he started building Dune Preserve on family land—first a stage, then the roofs and tables. It became the festival’s permanent home in 1995.
Over the years, musical luminaries including Rita Marley, Burning Spear and even Jimmy Buffet have graced the Moonsplash stage, and countless other local artists perform at Dune Preserve throughout the rest of the year. Live performances take place most nights of the week, with Bankie himself often getting up to play.
Even when there isn’t live music to draw a crowd, Dune Preserve, with its ramshackle decor and carefree vibe, is a popular spot. In the early days, Bankie served only juices and hosted the occasional barbecue. But the place gradually morphed into an actual bar, and then into a full-service restaurant. The spot’s signature drink, “duneshine,” comes from those early juice days. “We were doing a juice with ginger in it and it got left on the bar for a few days. Fermented. Someone tasted it and it turned out to be good,” says Bankie.
Good, and downright dangerous. But all part of the allure—a potent drink consumed in a laid-back atmosphere. “Want the world’s best beach bar?” Bankie says to me when I ask him the secret behind Dune Preserve’s success. “Don’t try too hard.”
A few minutes later, the night’s first band breaks into its opening number, pumping out bass grooves that move through my body.
I sip my duneshine and take in the view of St. Martin across the water. Scintillating lights line the shore, the perfect foil for the full moon that burnishes the Caribbean waters.
Reaching Anguilla: Take the 25-minute ferry crossing from St. Martin. Ferries run daily 8:15 a.m. to 6:15 p.m.
Getting There: WestJet flies to St. Martin four times a week from Toronto and Montreal.