Bequia: Finding the Real Caribbean
"The tourist dollar alone, unrestricted, is not worth the devastation of my people. A country where people have lost their soul is no longer worth visiting." -- Prime Minister J.F. Mitchell
By Nicholas J. Klenske
Somewhere out there exists the real Caribbean -- a hidden land pleasantly lacking foreign-owned, all-inclusive resorts that gate guests in and keep the island out.
On this island, expats, sailors, guests and locals merge into a unique blend of camaraderie shared over cold beers while serenaded by the rhythms of reggae and steel drums. Here one falls asleep to the cry of the neighbor’s pet goat and wakes up to the alarm of the resident rooster.
This secret land, although hard to get to, is well worth the visit, or perhaps even an extended stay. Whether you fly, sail or swim, in order to meet the real Caribbean face to face, one must get to Bequia (pronounced 'bekway'), the crown jewel of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The island, only nine miles south of St. Vincent (known as the “Mainland” to locals) was first settled by the Arwak people. The Arwarks were eventually eliminated by the Caribs, a warlike race who took over the island and named it “Becouya,” meaning “Island of Clouds.”
The long period of European colonization began in 1664 when the French claimed Bequia, although permanent settlements were not established until 1719. Between 1763 and 1783, the English and French flip-flopped control of the Grenadine islands until the Treaty of Versailles gave ultimate control to England.
Under English rule, agriculture, particularly sugar, was promoted throughout the island. When the sugar trade declined, the people of Bequia turned towards the sea and began a culture of fishing, whaling and boat building.
The whaling industry attracted Scots, and even today their lingering influence is felt. Because whaling is considered an indigenous tradition, the country is allowed to catch two whales per year under international treaty.
In 1979 St. Vincent and the Grenadines attained independence but remained part of the British Commonwealth. Due to its off-the-beaten-path location, Bequia, and the country as a whole, has focused on local, authentically Caribbean tourism that appeals to yachters and adventure travelers.
In a large part, the lack of mass-tourism is a direct result of the stringent policies of beloved Prime Minister J.F. Mitchell, who once said:
"The tourist dollar alone, unrestricted, is not worth the devastation of my people. A country where people have lost their soul is no longer worth visiting. We will encourage only small numbers of visitors whose idea of a holiday is not heaven or paradise, but participation in a different experience.
"We shall try to avoid the fate of some of our Caribbean neighbors who have ridden the tiger of tourism only to wind up being devoured by it.
"Large super-luxury hotels with imported management, materials, and values bring false prosperity with the negative side effects of soaring land prices that kill agriculture, polluted beaches, traffic jams, high-rise construction that ravages hillsides and scalds the eyeballs - the very problems that the visitors want to forget."
When to Go
Although Bequia’s tropical climate makes it an ideal year-round destination, the best time to go is during the dry months. The dry season runs from approximately January to May and the rainy season from June through December, with July being the wettest. From September to November hurricanes are always a potentially dangerous occurrence.
How to Get There
This remote island is reached by air or sea. Flights can be booked directly into Bequia’s small, J.F. Mitchell Airport via Barbados on LIAT, Mustique Air, SVG Air or TIA. The more common route is to fly into St. Vincent and then ferry to Bequia’s Admiralty Bay. Ferries run a half a dozen times a day and take approximately one hour, dock to dock.
By far the most popular mode of transportation is via private yacht. Long a yachtie's paradise, Admiralty Bay serves as a watery parking lot for these sometimes luxurious carriers of both the rich and famous and those who just enjoy taking to the sea. Customs is located directly opposite the ferry dock in Port Elizabeth.
Being only a mere seven square miles in size, the entire island can be taken in with a leisurely stroll. Other options include dollar buses, taxis (pick-up trucks with canvas awnings over the cabs) and water taxis for beach hopping. Taxis can be picked up at The Almond Tree in central Port Elizabeth, which is literally just an almond tree where the taxi drivers sit in the shade and wait for business. Fares should be negotiated prior to the trip.
Bequia is not a destination full of marquee attractions since the real attraction here is its laid back local tempo. In fact, a popular answer to the question of “What’s there to do?” is a simple. "Nothing." Which is exactly the beauty of the island. Be sure to pack lots of paperbacks, crosswords and playing cards. However, when you’re not busy "doing nothing," here are some things to occupy your free time:
Bequia’s mountainous terrain blesses it with several secluded harbors lined with long stretches of peaceful sands. All beaches are public, but it's rare you’ll see more than a handful of people at any given time.
The closest beach to Port Elizabeth is Princess Margaret Beach. The beach is lined by a tropical forest of shady palms and overlooks the turquoise waters of Admiralty Bay and its mooring of bobbing yachts. Princess Margaret is assessable by foot; just follow the Belmont Walkway.
Lower Bay Beach, located around the corner from Princess Margaret, is also accessible by a footpath located at the far end of Princess Margaret Beach. Lower Bay is a white sand beach with tranquil waters perfect for snorkeling and swimming. Along its rocky tips, sea turtles and octopuses abound.
The village located along the main road has several options for food and drinks. Dawn’s Beach Café is a popular place for sandwiches and beers whereas Keegans is known for its evening beachside barbecues.
Friendship Bay plays hosts to the third of the island’s accessible beaches and is best reached via taxi. Located on the windward side of the island, facing the Atlantic, the waters here tend to be less clear and rougher. However, the pristine scenery of mist-shrouded islands floating along the horizon, its isolation and lack of boats blocking the view easily make up for any shortcomings. Further, the complimentary beach chairs are worth the trip in themselves.
The Moskito Bar, an open-terraced beachside bar and restaurant, mixes up a wide array of tempting tropical drinks which can be enjoyed either on the sand or in a bar side swing. Live bands often play well into the night. (784-458-3222).
To Spring and Sea Turtles
Bequia’s number one bonafide tourist attraction is the unique Oldhegg Turtle Sanctuary, located in the remote Industry Bay region. The most rewarding way to reach the site is to walk there and take a taxi back. The walk, which can be steep and several hours long, will give you a true perspective of the island.
Begin by taking a right at the road running next to the New York Bar in Port Elizabeth. At first the hike is nothing but an unimpressive trek straight up the hillside. However, once you reach the crest be sure to turn around for a panoramic view of Admiralty Bay.
Continue down the hill, past the foul-smelling island landfill, and into the remote community known as Spring. Here you will pass Spring Pottery, located in the ruin of an old sugar plantation. The shop sells handmade, local crafts and artwork, along with being an operating pottery kiln open for tours. (784-457-3757). Up the hill from here is Spring on Bequia, a boutique hotel famous for both its views and Sunday afternoon curry buffets. (784-458-3800)
As you continue on you will pass the desolate Spring Bay, with its towering palm trees and old stone aqueducts. From here it's back up the hill, at the top of which you are greeted by past-the-horizon views of the Grenadine islands and gently seductive Caribbean Sea. From this vantage point you also can get a good feel of the shape and sounds of Bequia.
At the foot of the hill is Industry Bay, home of the oldest home on the island, which is still locally owned. From the Bay it is just a short walk to the humble Oldhegg Turtle Sanctuary. Founded by former sailor, Orton “Brother” King, the sanctuary nurses and breeds hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles in an effort to replenish the Southern Caribbean’s rapidly disappearing turtle population.
Mr. King started the project when he was camping on the beach now located adjacent to the site. While sleeping under the stars he was awakened by the unsettling feeling that someone was throwing sand at him. As he cautiously came out of his slumber he saw at his feet a mother sea turtle laying her eggs. Fascinated by this creature, he built his home here so he would be around to watch the turtles hatch.
Inspired by this miracle of nature, Mr. King went on to start the sanctuary program and to date has raised and released thousands throughout the surrounding islands. Admission is a $20.00EC donation. (784-458-3245, email)
Port Elizabeth is the only real "city" on the island. However, a place that has two streets, efficiently named Front Street and Back Street, can hardly be considered a city. Yet it is here where all of the island’s energy converges.
Besides being the starting point for the hotel- and restaurant-lined Belmont Walkway, the city proper has its fair share of attractions. At the very least, a stroll down harbor-lined Front Street and back on neighborly Back Street gives you a glimpse of day-to-day Bequian life.
Along the way, be sure to poke your head into one of the handful of churches along the road. Oftentimes all you have to do to find them is listen for the energetic and beautiful gospel singing radiating from their walls.
The main draw of Port Elizabeth is its boutique craft, clothing, art and grocery shops. For a selection of colorful local crafts and clothing, start at Local Color. Located on the Belmont side of Port Elizabeth in the upper story of a dive grocery store, Local Color specializes in tropical inspired women’s clothing and basic island souvenirs.
Noah’s Arkade, adjacent to the Frangipani, also sells an excellent collection of homemade crafts, postcards, antique replica maps and clothing. (784-458-3424, email).
For local books, along with a good selection of mass-paperback fictions for beach reading, the Bequia Bookshop is your place. (784-458-3905)
Historically, Port Elizabeth was a place of boat building. However, as the carriages of the sea transformed from wood to steel, the town adapted by taking the same skills and craftsmanship and applying them to building model boats.
Throughout the streets of Bequia small boat building shops can be found. Here visitors can both buy model boats, some costing as much as a real boat, but also watch the artist practice their time-honed trade. The best places to catch boat building in action are Withfield Sails, Mauvin’s and Sargeant Bothers’, all located on the far end of Port Elizabeth.
One cannot be a traveler without taking the time to visit the town’s local market. Bequia is no exception to this golden rule of travel. Unlike other international farmer’s markets, the farmer’s market in Bequia is known as the Rasta Market. It is held daily in a government-founded structure given to the local Rastafarians to sell their produce of pineapple, passion fruits, mangos and guava. The market is open 7am to 6pm Monday through Saturday and from 7 am to 4 pm on Sundays.
Other Notable Sites
Hamilton Fort, located on the far side of Admiralty Bay, is a colonial style 18th-century fort guarded by sea-worn cannons. It provides a scenic and quiet place for an afternoon picnic retreat. Both Cinnamon Garden and Mount Pleasant offer shade and secluded gardens with panoramic, natural views. Paget Farm, a small fishing community and home to the lovely Banana Patch Studio, is another worthwhile destination.
Best Unusual Attraction: Moonhole
A magical, if not eerie, a mix of Frank Lloyd Wright’s taste for the natural and Gaudi’s aptitude for the abstract, Moonhole is a collection of over twenty free-form homes melting from the rocky crags of the island’s rugged sea cliffs.
The original settlement was built by Tom Johnston, an American architect, and developer. The concept was to create homes that were purely natural and thus are built without windows or doors.
The entire place is part of nature, with tree branches snaking their way through bedrooms and lizards scampering across mud-packed kitchen floors. None of the walls or ceilings are even close to being conventional as all are curving or sloping in a way that is reminiscent of the eroding mud of the cliff’s the homes are built from.
Today about half of these unique treasures have been restored and serve as a resort, of sorts. There is no electricity, but lamps are provided and some have solar panels. All showers are cold. Tours are available but must be booked in advance by calling 458-3068.
Out and About: Sailing to the Tobago Cays
As the Grenadines have historically been reserved for those of the sailing type, one cannot pass up an opportunity to see the islands from aboard a classic Caribbean schooner. The Friendship Rose, a wooden ship built in Bequia’s Friendship Bay, offers daily sailing excursions departing from Admiralty Bay.
Launched in 1967, The Friendship Rose was originally commissioned to carry fertilizer between the islands, before becoming the Grenadines official mail boat and later serving as the ferry between Bequia and St. Vincent. Today its sole responsibility is to usher tourist to and from Bequia and such romantic Grenadine destinations as Mustique, Caanouan and the Tobago Cays.
If there is only time for one sailing excursion, then it must be to the reef-ringed and white sand-swept Tobago Cays. The collection of four uninhabited and completely natural islands that comprise the National Maritime Park is the perfect place to find a water-themed adventure.
Once here you can spend their day exploring the underwater treasures of Horseshoe Reef, where the movie Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed, or enjoy a relaxing rest on one of the numerous desert island beaches.
Regardless of how you spend your day, nothing beats swaying in the canvas crew hammocks strung between the ship’s towering wooden masts, digesting your gourmet lunch and enjoying the collision of the pure blue sky with a blue tie-dyed sea. This is the essence of the Grenadines’ splendor. (friendshiprose.com, 784-495-0886)
Other Island Activities and Entertainment
If Bequia seems laid back and tranquil during the day, it transforms itself into an all-island beach party by night. On any given night of the week there is live music under the stars playing somewhere; all you have to do is follow your ears.
The biggest party on the island is the weekly Thursday Night Jump Up at the Frangipani. Starting with a three-course dinner of char-broiled steaks, shrimp, pastas, tropical fruits and the most delectable deserts in the Caribbean, this all night party quickly becomes a mass of drinking and dancing to steel drum music on the soft sands of the dance floor.
Other popular places to catch music include The Pirates Table (784-458-3900), The Whaleboner and L’Auberge des Grenadines (784-458-3201).
Bequia would not be a Caribbean island if it didn’t have its own slew of action packed festivals. Each year things get kicked off right with the Old Year’s Night party, full of music, dancing, food, and fireworks being shot off from the yachts and ferries. Every Easter Bequia plays host to the Bequia Easter Regatta, with yacht races in the day, cultural events during the evening, and partying all night.
For upscale gourmet dining under the stars, there’s no better place than the Frangipani (784-458-3255). Expect to feast from a diverse menu of chicken, steaks, seafood and plenty of pastas, rice, citrus fruits and fresh produce to accompany your main course. Don’t forget to save room for dessert: lime meringue and French silk pie, chocolate mousse and creamy cakes will tantalize your sweet tooth. The banana pancakes at breakfast are a Bequian must.
Mac’s Pizza cooks up the best lobster pizza, a Bequia original, on their brick ovens. Surprisingly, curry is a popular spice on the island (785-458-3474).
For a fusion of the best of Indian food with a splash of the Caribbean, try the chicken curry garnished with mango salsa and Nan at the Gingerbread (784-458-3800).
For ethnic eats, the Plantation House Restaurant is owned and operated by Italians and thus serves up the best pasta dishes this side of Italy.
For Mexican fare, Tommy Cantina on the Belmont side of Port Elizabeth is an excellent choice for spicy fish tacos (and their margarita menu is not to be missed).
Where to Sleep
The Gingerbread Hotel, located on Admiralty Bay along the seaside Belmont Walkway, an architecturally impressive hotel, is perfect for those looking for simple seclusion yet still staying close to the central action of the island. The hotel is built in the popular gingerbread tradition found throughout the island, with intricate hand cut fretwork enhancing the façade of the dining rooms and guest rooms. Both luxury and budget rooms are available (784-458-3800).
On Bequia's windward side, at the end of a narrow, bumpy road, a 10-minute drive south of Port, The Friendship Bay Resort sparkles with a bright, new personality thanks to its resourceful Swedish proprietor.
This cheery and brightly colored sea cliff hotel is tastefully set into its natural surroundings and provides all guest stellar Caribbean views. The property consists of the main building atop a hill, a cluster of cottages below, and a thatched bar and restaurant facing two kilometers of windswept beach (784-458-3222).
Amid a tangle of tropical foliage, in town midway along the busy waterfront promenade, the small, classic West Indies-styled Frangipani is steeped in local history. Once home to Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell and still owned by his family, this appealing property centers on a building that resembles a New England whaler's home with its cedar shake and pale blue shutters.
Not only is “The Frangi” one of the most popular hangouts for travelers, it is also highly regarded as the place to be by the locals, giving it a uniquely blended, homey personality. The cabanas on the hill are luxurious suites, but the five simple guest rooms on the second floor of the main house are a steal (784-458-3255).
The peach-color colonial house with pastel blue accents, huge verandas on three sides, and a palm-studded lawn of a former Caribbean plantation is now under Italian management as the Plantation House Hotel. The hotel sprawls along the oceanside Belmont Walkway and is lined with the plantation’s original stone fence. Guests have easy access to Port Elizabeth's shops and restaurants and fine views of the bustling harbor (784-458-3425).
Perched on a hill on the windward side of the island, Spring on Bequia overlooks Spring Bay from the ruins of a 200-year-old sugar mill set among coco palms and a tropical pasture populated by cows, sheep and large land crabs. This small, isolated, award-winning yet understated property does not focus on the beach. Rather, it is an ideal place for those seeking peace, quiet, and delicious West Indian food in informal, aesthetically pleasing surroundings (784-458-3414).
For Your Safety
Bequia takes pride in its relatively crime-free existence. Although whiffs of marijuana can be smelled regularly, the sale of it is rather undercover. The greatest risks to your safety and well-being are from the manchineel trees located along the beaches. If touched they may cause an aggravating skin rash.
At the time of writing, there were several reports of an armed robbery occurring along the wooded paths leading to Princess Margaret Beach and Lower Bay Beach. It is best to use precaution and walk in groups or take a water taxi. At the very least, ask your hotel on the status of the trails.
Nicholas J. Klenske is a freelance writer and practicing attorney. He is based somewhere in the cornfields of Iowa, where, at last count, the pigs greatly outnumber the people. Visit his website.
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