This unspoilt island has seduced the likes of Bob Dylan and privacy-seeking billionaires. Dan Gledhill can see the appeal in this article for London’s Independent.
As the flight to Bequia nears its destination, an alarming question occurs to me: where the hell are we going to land? The tiny Caribbean island, a 45-minute hop from Barbados, is a paltry seven miles in length and less in width. The interior is in parts vertiginous, reaching a maximum height of 866ft, and ascends sharply from the shore. Not ideal landing territory. As it happens, the pilot of our 14-seater aircraft takes a sharp turn to the right to reveal one of the shortest runways I’ve ever seen, slows down almost to a hovering halt, and executes a perfect grounding. What was I worried about?
When Bengt Morstedt, a Swedish lawyer, first set foot in Bequia in 1991, he came by boat – the airport was still to come. He and his wife saw in the New Year here (including a traditional 22-verse rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” to an accelerating beat) and fell in love with the place. He returned in 2004 and decided this was where he would realise his dream of opening a hotel (the airport had been built by then). The result was Bequia Beach Hotel, my home for the week.
Bengt’s baby is now a sophisticated but charming mini-resort with restaurant, bar, swimming pool, gym and spa tucked into one of the island’s prettiest stretches of coastline, Friendship Bay. So far, so typically Caribbean. But Bequia is far more than just a beautiful island in the sun.
A little history first. Bequia (pronounced bek-way) and its fellow Grenadine islands were formerly part of Grenada, which was colonised by the French in the mid-17th century. Bequia was settled from around 1720 by a handful of French families who joined the island’s small population of Caribs. They produced lime, hunted turtles, grew indigo, cotton and, later, sugar – and fought off marauding British frigates in search of lumber and water.
The end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 saw Grenada and its Grenadines ceded by the French to the British, while the previously neutral island of St Vincent, home to thousands of indigenous Caribs, also ended up under British rule. Getting rich quick from sugar was still the order of the day, and from 1763 onwards, sugar plantations sprang up in St Vincent, Bequia and the other Grenadine islands, leading to a rapid burst of settlement and development; for Bequia and the smaller islands though, prosperity was brief, and only for the few.
Today, the British legacy is still palpable. Princess Margaret Beach, perhaps the best on the island, is named after the Queen’s late sister who bathed here after taking a short boat ride from her villa on neighbouring Mustique. Anthony Eden retired from the stresses of the Suez Crisis to a house next door to where the Bequia Beach Hotel now stands.
However, it is more specifically the Scots whose influence can be felt, since their descendants are the most numerous on Bequia. A group of impecunious settlers, whose prospects had dried up elsewhere in the British West Indies, were granted land in Bequia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Scions of these families are still clustered on Mount Pleasant, on the east coast.
After the sugar plantations failed, the people of Bequia looked to the sea for their living. And so, in the late-1800s, began a thriving whaling industry that sustained the island for the best part of a century. It is chronicled now by a maritime museum on the road west from the capital, Port Elizabeth, to Hamilton, which exhibits boat-building tools, fully equipped original whaleboats and tales of derring-do from the days when the population would watch from the shore as the whalers, at no little personal risk, struck their prey. Happily, tourism has long since replaced blubber as the dominant industry.
Alongside the Scots-descended Wallace family on Bequia, the French-descended Ollivierres were probably the most lauded whalers, and it was a descendant of that family, Garvin, who took me for a tour of the island. We started at the top of Mount Pleasant for a spectacular view south to Mustique, the privately owned island with a colourful history where Mick Jagger and Bryan Adams are among the current homeowners.
On we went north, along pot-holed roads through former sugar plantations, to the Sugar Reef hotel for a lunch of lobster soup overlooking magnificent Industry Bay. Crustaceans are cheap and plentiful on Bequia, with a sweeter taste than you’ll get in many other lobster hot-spots. Further north at Park Bay, we stopped off at the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary – the pet project of Bequian Orton King, a retired deep-sea diver who despairs at the reptiles’ dwindling numbers. He nurtures them from birth until they are strong enough to find their own way in the wild. Expect a heartfelt lecture on the iniquity of local politics too at no extra charge.
A giddy climb up through the old Spring sugar estate took us to a perfect lookout with sweeping views across the nine miles of sea to Bequia’s largest neighbour, the capital island of St Vincent (known in Bequia as “the mainland”), its majestic Soufrière volcano dominating the skyline.
Port Elizabeth, our next stop, stands on the magnificent natural harbour of Admiralty Bay. Fishing vessels jockey for position in the waters with visiting boats and the occasional super-yacht. Roman Abramovich is reported to visit regularly and Larry Ellison delights in strolling ashore incognito, which says something of Bequia’s off-the-radar appeal.
What stands out, you eventually realise, is the absence of billboards for Coca-Cola and the like. Bequia has resisted the Americanisation that blights much of the Caribbean. Port Elizabeth is more bohemian than bling. You can close your eyes and imagine the time Bob Dylan spent here 30 years ago watching his 70ft schooner, Water Pearl, being built by the best of Bequia’s shipwrights. He often sailed it around the island but it eventually sank after hitting a reef off the coast of Panama. (If you want to still feel that vibe, visit at the end of January for the annual music festival, and you may even catch Robert Plant jamming in the Bequia Beach Hotel bar.)
Port Elizabeth hasn’t changed much since. There are no high-rises. No American brands. Minimal traffic. But there is one innovation: the Belmont Walkway, which allows you to get to blissful Princess Margaret Beach on foot. It’s hard work in the heat – even with the soothing winds that make Bequia’s climate more tolerable to the fair-skinned than the rest of the Caribbean – and best not tackled after a drink, but worth the effort.
There’s an eclectic mix of places to eat in Port Elizabeth, such as Jack’s Bar and Mac’s Pizzeria, but I tended to dine back at the hotel in the charming Bagatelle restaurant overlooking the sea. The freshly caught lobsters and fish are a treat. The menu is Caribbean with a Swedish twist – the bread is baked to a Scandinavian recipe, and the best I’ve tasted outside France.
My room was a luxurious but not overstated beachside suite, although accommodation comes in all shapes and sizes. The sea – gently shelving and gloriously warm – is never more than a minute’s walk away.
It’s hard to believe that only 10 years ago, when Bengt began the Bequia Beach Hotel, all he had to work with was an old B&B and surrounding swampland. Even now, when you turn on the taps, you get rainwater channelled via the roofs in the traditional Caribbean style. Bequia has no piped water system, but that simply adds to the appeal of an island where mass tourism has yet to leave its mark.
Before I leave the island, Bengt explains to me: “Bequia is one of the few true old-style Caribbean islands left, not commercialised and sparsely developed. Has it changed since I came here? Maybe there are fewer old sailors in the bars. But not much besides.”
For the original report and practical travel information go to http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/americas/bequia-the-caribbeans-bestkept-secret-9953272.html