Inside Bequia, the Caribbean’s Best-Kept Secret

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A report by Emma O’Kelly for the Condé Nast Traveler.

The Caribbean island of Bequia isn’t especially luxurious, happening, or jet-set. And that’s exactly what brings its die-hard loyalists back every year.

My husband discovered Bequia 25 years ago by accident. He had traveled to St. Vincent to dive and, disappointed by the black sand beaches, hopped aboard a local ferry in search of a prettier shoreline. Over his many return visits to the tiny Caribbean island, its hold on him shifted from affection to infatuation, eventually extending its reach to our three children and me.

Stretching across seven square miles, Bequia (pronounced Bekway) is one of 32 islands that make up the former British colonies of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, only nine of which are inhabited: If privately owned Mustique is the beauty, and raw, volcanic St. Vincent the beast, then Bequia, with its unfussy charm, is the pretty parlor maid hidden in the shadows.

Not much has changed since Mark first arrived all those years ago. Many of the same hotels, bars, and guesthouses have acquired little more than a fresh lick of paint and Wi-Fi. Although there has been a minimal creep of holiday villas up the hillsides around Port Elizabeth, the yachts in the harbor are bigger and sleeker, and there are more vendors selling sarongs and coconut-shell boats than there used to be.

Since there are no resort hotels, or other towns, on Bequia, Port Elizabeth is the island’s heartbeat. Ferries from the neighboring islands chug in and out, depositing animals, food, and passengers, who dissolve into dollar buses and truck taxis. There are few paved roads and few cars, so you always end up with mud between your flip-flops as you navigate potholed trails, accompanied by the chatter of birdsong.

But the island’s variety belies its size. Bequia is shaped like a lightning bolt, with a spine of hills running its length. Its windward bay beaches such as Hope, Spring, and Industry are strewn with fallen coconut palms and driftwood rather than holiday homes and sun loungers, while on its gentle leeward side, mangoes drop from the trees and the sun sets into flat, clear waters. One year, we stayed in a hillside villa above Hope and watched turtles lay their eggs in the sand, only to be dismayed when poachers came and dug them up. We took long hikes through woods of papaya and almond trees, inhaling the sweet scent of frangipani while iguanas and tortoises ambled past us. Each time we ventured into the giant waves, our five heads were the only ones bobbing in the surf.

Usually, though, we stay in Lower Bay, the main beach on the leeward shore. All our children learned to snorkel along the bay’s “starter” reef (for fish and humans both), home to baby manta rays, tiny clown fish, and timid moray eels. Local kids learn to swim here, too, before shyly recruiting tourist playmates for games of beach soccer and cricket.

Most of our memories inevitably involve the beach at Lower Bay and its bar, De Reef. Owners Joan and Sylvester Simmons are island royalty; there’s nothing they don’t know. Tourists and locals hang out together here and gossip, fueled by a fiercely strong rum punch. Fishermen embellish tales of galleons filled with cocaine, apocalyptic storms, and shipwrecks as they sell their catch of the day—kingfish, red snapper, and tuna. Local mothers recount endless dramas with the ferry crossings. (Some schoolchildren commute 30 minutes each way to St. Vincent, and the hulking vessels often break down.) And what about the international airport on St. Vincent, nearly a decade in the making—can you believe it finally opened? Bequia has its own one-strip airport with security controls that make Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion look lax. Until recently, on departure, all luggage was unpacked by security officer Silma Duncan, who doubles as the island’s celebrity poet (you can usually find her presiding under the almond tree in Port Elizabeth).

It’s hard to tear ourselves away from De Reef ’s local soap operas, but there’s always a party going on somewhere. In high season, the restaurants take turns hosting musicians for “jump ups,” while on Fridays at Penthouse Bar in Port Elizabeth the reggae spills into the street. A sundown boat trip to Moonhole, a utopia built in the 1960s by the New York advertising couple Thomas and Gladys Johnston, is magical. Its Flintstones-like tumble of houses were made from wood and whalebone and had no running water or electricity. (Though it’s now part of a private compound, you can view it from the sea.) The Johnstons were not the only ones to migrate to Bequia for an off-the-grid life- style. Hang out in one of the island’s bars long enough and you’ll encounter any number of expat sea dogs who’ve been living in the hills for years.

We always visit the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary, a slightly ramshackle outpost on the northeastern side of the island. Since 1995, its founder, Orton King, has rescued and nurtured Hawksbill turtles of every age, keeping them in seawater pools where you can touch them. A retired fisherman, King supposedly set up the sanctuary after being shipwrecked for 12 days and then hauled from the sea unconscious, his skin peeling off. Bequian tales rarely disappoint.

In 2010, when the Icelandic volcano eruption brought global aviation to a standstill, we were stranded in Bequia for an extra two weeks. We made a donation to Paradise Primary School in Lower Bay and sent our two oldest children to class. They felt awkward and foreign, and struggled with the patois, but came home each day raving about PE on the beach and their crash course in colonialism (Bequia was granted independence from the U.K. in 1979). Their 1950s-style textbooks, filled with ticks and crosses, were delightfully old school. Even in the classroom, life in Bequia runs with the clock set to a time when life was slower, sweeter, and a lot less complicated.

Bequia Basics

Getting Settled
Barbados is the gateway. Many visitors to the region are happy to stay put there, rather than go those extra 100-some (costly) miles to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Local airline SVG Air offers two daily flights to Bequia starting at $210 one way. Planes can’t land on Bequia after dark, so you may find yourself rerouted to St. Vincent for the night. (You can also fly LIAT to St. Vincent.) From there, we take a ferry the next morning to Bequia. It’s a great way to go local and slip into island pace.

When you arrive in Port Elizabeth, it’s a good idea to stock up on food and drink. Neither is cheap since there are no chains or superstores on Bequia and almost everything is imported. Locals go to Knights Trading, where basics like sugar and flour are sold in small plastic bags, but those wanting Italian olive oil or fresh basil need to head to Doris’ Fresh Food & Yacht ProvisioningGingerbread café on the Belmont Walkway sells fine coffee and cakes, and Maranne’s next door has the island’s best homemade ice cream and yogurt. The bellow of a conch shell signals the arrival of the fishermen with that day’s catch, which is sold straight from buckets near the vegetable market.

Many high-end villas provide chefs who’ll shop for you. Jamaican expat Patrick Hepburn has been head chef at various local restaurants, and caters for guests at villas such as Cassava, Hope Lodge, and Old Fort.

Where to Stay
The reopening of Bequia Plantation Hotel was 2016’s big news. Closed for more than a decade, it was the island’s most sophisticated hub when Mark first went years ago. Bequia has a meager celebrity count compared to other islands in the Caribbean, but the few boldfaced names that did go would generally stay here. The refurbishment of the main house, along with the design of the new cottages and beach bar, were done by German-born Thomas Dehen, a local architect who has created many houses on Mustique and is bringing equally high levels of design to Bequia.

Friends have stayed happily in the Bequia Beach Hotel, but we always hire a villa. Usually it’s Cassava, conceived by Dehen with a sumptuous terrace overlooking Lower Bay that’s big enough for parties. Here, we read, play games, and watch boats glide past. Grenadine Escape and Grenadine Island Villas manage the island’s best properties.

Twenty-two years ago, Brit Fernanda Mayne diverted to Bequia after tiring of “the Surrey-on-Sea vibe of Barbados.” Her Spice House, finally completed in summer 2016 in the community of the Bequia Estate, has an infinity pool with views of Admiral Bay. “There has been more building, especially in the ‘Hollywood Hills’ above Spring, and this has changed how the island looks when you arrive by sea,” Mayne says. “But Bequia’s special flavor has stayed just the same.”

Places to Eat
Eating out is about the location as much as the food. Our kids’ favorite is Jack’s Beach Bar on Princess Margaret Beach, which has caves to explore at one end and a jetty to jump on at the other. It’s a popular hangout with boaters, and its generous fruit punches and burgers are the best. Nowhere beats Fernando’s Hideaway for fine home cooking, which fisherman-chef Fernando rustles up on his tiny front-room terrace in the hills of Lower Bay. Other favorites are the restaurant at Sugar Reef, a boutique hotel set on a 65-acre coconut plantation at Crescent Beach, and the Old Fort. The latter is a former 18th-century plantation located at Mount Pleasant, the island’s highest point; we like to go for lunch, then spend the afternoon lounging in the pool and maxing out on the panoramic views.

The Rest is All About the Water
Mark and two of our children have done their PADI training at Dive Bequia and spend many afternoons diving the fertile reefs and shipwrecks. On his first trip, my son swam down the funnel of a sunken tug where giant lobsters lurked. With notice, Dive Bequia will arrange a trip to the leeward coast of St. Vincent with a beach lunch and a snorkel or dive at Bat Cave.

We always book a voyage on the Friendship Rose, a wooden schooner that runs day trips to Mustique, Canouan, and Tobago Cays. There’s nothing like lolling on its deck, listening to its canvas sails flapping as you scan the sea for dolphins, whales, and turtles. Tobago Cays is disappointingly busy (but Orton King and his Old Hegg turtle sanctuary is still worth a visit), and Mustique, with its white picket fences, ponies, and manicured lawns, is buttoned up compared with Bequia.

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