A report by James Brown for London’s Telegraph.
Iwas hanging around the check-in area at Bequia airport, touching fingers through a window by the passport desk with my little boy who was flying back to England with his mum while I stayed on for a few weeks more to write my book, when an older gentleman joined me to wave goodbye to his daughter and granddaughter. We stood side by side and chatted, our temporary companionship preventing tears, and after they’d taken off in a small plane for connections at Barbados we turned back to the car park. Seeing I had no car, he offered me a lift back to the Bequia Beach Hotel where I was staying. Bequians are friendly, but this was the first time I’d ever been driven away from an airport by the man whose name was on the front of it.
As we headed up the spine of the island, the former prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Sir James Mitchell, who held that post for 16 years, tells me he had to convince the whole of the Caribbean to back the project to bring planes to Bequia.
Before the airport, of course, people travelled to Bequia by boat. The bay is the largest and deepest in the area; Nelson, Drake and Henry Morgan all took shelter and supplies here. Bob Dylan had a boat built here, the same size as the Friendship Rose that takes day trippers to nearby Mustique. My favourite historic visitor is Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard the pirate, who used it as a base.
You can’t spend a minute on the island and not notice white sails, even when you’re on land. In the harbour town of Port Elizabeth, the Sargeant’s Model Boat Shop does good business selling its wares to wealthy tourists, and you can wander through its workshop, with hulls dipped in varnish hanging from the ceiling.
A taxi ride away you’ll find a boat museum in Friendship Bay. Whaling, too, was a serious business, back when it was done with hand-held harpoons rather than ships. The island’s logo is a whale, and it’s still legally allowed to catch up to four a year.
Just as with most destinations in the Caribbean, Bequia is all about the water, the beaches, the people and the sky. But there’s something about this island of the clouds that is special. International flights can bring you from Europe or America to the big Caribbean destinations, but the connecting flight to Bequia means it’s popular without being overrun.
The original settlers, the Arawaks, first came by canoe, exploring what became known as the Grenadines; they in turn were followed by the Caribs. Later still, Scots washed up here after a shipwreck and, tossing the coin between attempting to get back to the harsh Highlands or living in these warm lush green islands, understandably decided on the latter. They noticed the quality and quantity of wood in the forests and began a handmade boatbuilding industry. Their influence is still visible genetically in some of the light-skinned, red-headed islanders, and there are still Bequians with names straight out a Robert Louis Stevenson novel: you’ll find a Caldwell McIntosh at the excellent Tante Pearl, a hilltop restaurant overlooking Admiralty Bay.
In the past I’ve arrived and left this pretty Caribbean island by yacht and fisherman’s speedboat. They were very different experiences – and I wouldn’t recommend the latter. It was done out of necessity rather than desire.
I first came across Bequia at the turn of the century when I was staying at the home of the late magazine publisher Felix Dennis on neighbouring island Mustique. He’d just invested half a million pounds in my fledgling publishing company and at the end of the deal he invited me out to his place describing it as the “best free hotel in the world”. It wasn’t until I got there and was wandering around the Japanese water gardens that he mentioned he’d bought it from David Bowie. One day Felix packed us off for sailing and we put in at what looked like a cooler place than Mustique. That was Bequia and a decade later I started visiting it regularly.
Whether you arrive by sea or air, you will be impressed. From the bays on the west it looks like a huge sleeping dinosaur. There are enough people living here to give it real atmosphere, but more than enough corners and mysterious lanes where you find yourself alone, looking at a broken-down old truck smothered in vines or a disused tennis court covered in fallen coconuts. You think you know the place and then you follow a road no bigger than a drive and find it stretching on and on past an occasional cottage or villa. There is no ring road around the island so you set off out of Port Elizabeth on routes that look like a handful of broken fingers. You can drive about the island but going by foot or jumping a lift in a dollar bus, taxi or water taxi will give you a more interesting pace and views.
This year I arrived via the Bequia Beach Hotel plane. It’s faster than the usual service, has aircon, a bottle of water and nice leather seats. All welcome after a long, noisy transatlantic flight. The hotel itself is the dream development of a 56-year-old Swede, Bengt Mortstedt. Like me, he discovered the island by sea.
“I came here in the early Nineties while I was sailing with my brother and liked it. There was no airport then so the only way you could arrive was on your own sailboat or from St Vincent on the Friendship Rose. A decade later I was wanting to buy a warm family home – and Europe isn’t warm in the winter – so I came back out here. I couldn’t find anywhere in Barbados I liked and we were doing the same sailing route so we looked in, and I took a taxi to Friendship Bay and found the Bequia Beach Club. It had been repossessed by the bank and there was just a number on a wood board. This was for the bank. I bought it and decided to take it on as a retirement project. It was an almost impossible project but I gave it ago.”
He has developed an interest in the maritime history of the island: “The descendants of Scottish whalers live at the top of Mount Pleasant,” he says, “and they run the two shipping companies here. And whaling has always been a thing here since those first settlers. There’s a beautiful whaling boat with all the details and ropes and axes and pins used for manoeuvring the boat and being able to release the ropes if needed.
“The whales come in between Friendship Bay and the islands there just off the headland and the lookouts would see them in the channel and signal to each other using mirrors. Now of course they use mobile phones and they still go out to get one very occasionally. They aren’t allowed to sell it, just to eat and use themselves, so that mainly stays down at the southern tip of the island.”
The hotel is the best on Bequia. When I’ve stayed there previously, the Beatles biographer Hunter Davies has been delivering talks and slide shows about people he has interviewed or ghostwritten books for.
On a Sunday lunchtime, with church behind them, everyone heads to the beaches and the bays. Watercraft zip across Admiralty Bay, perhaps practising for the Easter Regatta. Solo sailers hang stiff over the sea at right angles to the mast. Wealthy St Vincentians cruise for a day in the sister islands. A huge, three-mast ship in the style of a schooner dispenses its passengers into small, orange and white, lozenge-shaped landing craft. Another catamaran glides into the sanctuary of Admiralty Bay. There’s a litter of them strung across the seas.
The boats turn their backs on you with the tide, masts bobbing side to side like sedated metronomes. Look beyond and you see distant craft like paper darts stuck in the horizon. There’s a putter of an outboard engine and Phat Shag, the popular taxi-boat man, flies past topless with his kids on board and one lifejacketed junior holding on for dear life as he drags behind on a rope and boogie board. Sundays on Bequia always feel like family day, and every other day just feels like Sunday.