A CARIBBEAN WITHOUT THE CROWDS: Bequia

About 10 years ago I spent a lovely day walking aimlessly around Bequia while my travel companions (a boat-load of Vassar College alums) went snorkeling. I spent hours watching villagers preparing their boats for their traditional annual whale hunt and being taught how to paint the exquisitely-made model boats that are the pride of the island. I fell most painfully in love with the place. In this travel article for The New York Times, Jeremy W. Peters captures some of the charm of this tiny island full of warm and talented people.  I have edited out most of the touristy details. For those–and for a slide show–you can follow the link below.

I JUST wanted to make a dinner reservation. But the restaurant owner had other uses for me.

It was my first morning on the sleepy Caribbean island of Bequia, and I had wandered into the Fig Tree, a harbor-side bistro known for its sunset views. A woman with waist-length dreadlocks introduced herself as Miss J and said she’d be delighted to grill some lobster, or whatever fresh fish she was getting in later that day. Then her phone rang.

Wrist-deep in a bowlful of unpeeled bananas, she nodded at me. “You’ll have to get that.”

I did not pick up much through the heavy West Indian accent on the other end. I heard “coconuts” and maybe something about a truck. “Coconuts?” I repeated, which prompted a heavy sigh followed by a sucking noise, a sound I recognized as the universal Caribbean utterance for lost patience. I cupped my hand over the receiver and called toward Miss J, who was making steady progress through the pile of bananas.

“Something about the coconuts,” I said.

“Oh!” she chirped, her mouth turning upward in a toothy grin of recognition. “Tell her I’ll pick them up.”

It was a uniquely Caribbean moment. There I was, standing under a canopy of palms looking out at the sparkling harbor. I could hear the buzz of a dinghy’s motor in the distance. A stiff tropical breeze was blowing.

And I had just brokered a coconut sale.

As much as the Caribbean is known for its don’t-worry ethos and “island time” rules, many of us only experience it Atlantis-style, isolated inside compounds where we can eat the way we do back home and commune with, if not our neighbors, then people who could just as well be our neighbors. Even for me, someone who spent two years living in the Caribbean as a reporter, my encounter with Miss J was a surprisingly novel experience. And so, as I would learn over the course of the next five days, was Bequia itself.

The largest of the Grenadines — that necklace of 32 islands west of Barbados that unfurls south from St. Vincent — Bequia (pronounced BECK-way) is only about seven square miles, around a third the size of Manhattan. It’s not so tiny that you find yourself eating at the same restaurant every night, but it’s manageable enough that you can get just about anywhere you need to go in less than 15 minutes by taxi.

It has a variety of locally owned small hotels and inns, some high-end boutiques and modest guest houses. But no major chains, no super-saver deals popping up on Expedia. The locals are friendly and approachable, swimming at the same beaches tourists do, drinking with them at the same bars at the end of the day. Dogs roam freely. Goats tend to be tethered to trees.

. . .

ABOUT 5,000 people live on Bequia full time, and Port Elizabeth is their hub of activity, home to the bank, government offices and the main market square. Ferries deposit and pick up passengers shuttling between St. Vincent and the other islands of the Grenadines. Women amble down the main street, balancing large baskets of laundry on their heads with seemingly little effort. Local vendors sit at card tables in the shade, selling handmade baskets and jewelry.

. . .

On the easternmost end of the bay, a grassy peninsula juts out into the cyan-colored water and then curls back in toward the shore like a comma. If you scan the hills all the way to the westernmost end, you’ll see a small concrete bunker used as a whale lookout. But it’s not as innocent as it sounds. Locals use it to spot breaching humpbacks during whaling season. (The tradition runs deep on Bequia, where many locals take pride in the annual harpooning expeditions that are permitted in their waters under international regulations.)

. . .

The island is so small that you can get wherever you need to go fairly quickly either by taxi or the island’s primary mode of public transportation for locals, the dollar van. Keep in mind, though, that you get what you pay for, which on the dollar vans can mean extremely close quarters. I counted 15 passengers in our Toyota minivan at one point during a stifling, whipsaw ride from the villa into town. And that “dollar” designation is a rather elastic one; the vans cost 1.50 Eastern Caribbean, or E.C., dollars for a one-way ride. (A taxi would be about 30 E.C. dollars.)

Port Elizabeth is a hive of activity from early morning through midafternoon. The market, a series of  open-air stalls on the edge of the harbor, teems with Rastafarian farmers selling bananas, okra and breadfruit. Even if you’re not in need of fresh produce, it’s worth a visit just to watch the eager farmers swarm their prey: the sailors and yachters who’ve come in off their boats looking to restock.

. . .

The town is nestled deep inside one of the Caribbean’s most scenic natural harbors, the westward-facing Admiralty Bay, which looks as if it’s been scooped out of the center of the island’s verdant interior, leaving steep virgin hillsides that slope into the Caribbean. In the mornings and early afternoon, the sea appears cobalt with patches of teal; when the sun sets it takes on a silver glaze. You could pass a day gazing at the view from various angles and feel that it was time well spent.

Many of the restaurants and bars in Port Elizabeth are about a five-minute walk from the center of town along a waterfront path called the Belmont Walkway, a name that suggests a purpose and continuity that is slightly overstated. The concrete path, shaded by palm and sea grape trees, skirts the shore of Admiralty Bay and is in such a charming state of crumbling disrepair — in some cases it has completely collapsed into the harbor — that I found myself making excuses to take it whenever possible. The sea laps gently up to and sometimes over the path; the waves gurgle and bubble as they wash in and out.

. . .

For the original report go to http://travel.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/travel/bequia-a-caribbean-getaway-from-the-getaways.html

8 thoughts on “A CARIBBEAN WITHOUT THE CROWDS: Bequia

  1. For the first time I actually allowed an entity such as WordPress to access my Fb data (unheard of for me, spamophobe), just to post here. I am somewhat reluctant to tell the world about my favorite retreat, and would keep it to myself, except that my friends there need some support in the form of good networking. Princess Margaret Beach is my favorite place in all the Caribbean, and I have ‘studied’ a Vincy Gyal for a decade, and spent maybe 60 weeks in SVG (saint Vincent and the Grenadines). and am a resident of Saint Croix.. I have had the exclusive use of the Governour General’s, (representative to the Queen) Sir doctor Freddie Ballantyne’s beach cottage and private off shore bar, on Young Island, where my money is “no good”, and next to nothing lodging on Union Island with ‘King’ Mitchell. a dear dear freind, but “Bequia Bekons”. (wow! I need to pitch that one to Glen Beache, a friend as well, Tourism Minister to the SVG government, seriously!). It simply embodies everything a tourist would like, a beach with only perhaps a few dozen people a day, a good smattering of amenites, including some terrific local beach bar/restuarants. It is a very unique thing about Bequia, when you take a taxi to the beach, and try to pay the driver, he asks what ferry you wil return on, and won’t take payment til he returns you to the boat. Ok, clever marketing we jaded travelers think, but if you get drinks or food from the beach bar/restaurants, they insist you run a tab and just clear it before you leave. There is no formal inclusive or organized effort here simply the trust you find everywhere on this unique slice of paradise.
    The powdery white sand is some of the finest in the world, and the snokeling on the reef is very good. There is, if you are lucky, and hook up with the Rasta ‘Skylark’ whose beach shack is open as he sees fit, a chance to meet the boat builders of Bequia firsthand, and their boats are the finest in all the Caribbean. Last visit the ne plus ultra of Caribbean boat building we encountered on the beach, mending handmade nets, very expansive nets, by hand, with a whalebone needle and handtwisted twine.
    Bequia has one of the only legitimate whaling permits in the world, I think 5 per annum, the Blackfish and Right Whales frequent it’s watera. The natives take them in traditional small boat fashion, and a distribution plan for the meat, and blubber doles out the catch. Whale meat, and I hesitate to say so, for fear of being misunderstood ( I am a Greenpeace member, but this is very carefully controlled cultural whaling, almost a zero impact on the population) is very dark, somewhat black in color and rather strong in flavor. You might be offered some if a whale was caught during your visit, so don’t think you are barbaric to try it.
    Overall, Bequia offers the finest beaches and visitor experience in the entire Caribbean. Bequia Bekons!

  2. That was a beautiful, heartfelt observation of Bequia. My co-blogger Lisa is in love with Bequia, and after reading this post and your comments, Bequia beckons indeed! Thanks for sharing. IR

  3. Nice post. However, living one mile from the Atlantic I am not fond of the ocean or anything related to it except for the vegetation and fauna.

    Regarding crowds in noisy Puerto Rico, the best way to avoid them is in the south…Guanica, a desert like town with thirty inches of rain anually. Most islanders can not stand the heat..

    I LOVE IT.

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