Flung some 15km south of the island of St Vincent, deep in the Windward Islands, sits Bequia, a tiny seven-mile stretch of land, moulded with prehistoric-looking, verdant hills. It’s one of the rare Caribbean islands which retains an untouched, barefoot feel about it.
Pronounced ‘Beck-way’, the island’s name translates as ‘Island of the Clouds’, lyrically named by the ancient Arawaks, who were the island’s first people. You understand why when you come into land on the island’s grassy runway – which from the sky looks perilously short. As you hold your breath, you cut through lilac and pink-fringed puffs of cloud, beams of sunlight escaping, causing an almost-spiritual halo effect in the golden hour and a fleeting moment of awe – if not a silent thanks to the gods – among the passengers.
Sundown is, in fact, the perfect time to arrive in Bequia. As you bump along the south coast road, past conch-pink houses and sky-blue fruit stands, you’ll catch the thump of a reggae tune’s deep baseline in the air. Stallholders and sailors, packing up for the day, wave their hands in desultory greeting. Meanwhile, the dying sun gives the tangerine hibiscus a lazy nudge so it slowly gasps its heady scent on to the breeze. It’s the ultimate Caribbean welcome.
Unlike its more glitzy neighbour of Barbados, found 120 miles away to the west, there are no large resorts on Bequia. Sure, there’s a smattering of faded guest houses and shuttered villas to rent, but Bequia Beach Hotel is the main place to stay on the island. Charmingly low-key, you are greeted with a fiery rum punch in the lobby lounge – which, with its twirling rattan fans, vintage suitcases and low-slung armchairs made of lacquered bamboo – oozes an old-school, 1940s’ appeal.
Just after the heavens open, and a one-minute downpour cascades from the skies, you are shown to your room, padding along in the dusk as tree frogs bounce out of the way and cicadas offer you a cacophonous lullaby to say good night.
Dinner brings skewers of barbecued amberjack, jerk chicken and rice n peas, while calypso is played in the background. You could be tempted to ‘whine ya waist’, but, mostly, it’s an early night for new arrivals. But, then again, every night is one which sees lights out before midnight for most holidaymakers here. And that’s the way Bequians like it – most people are up early to face another kaleidoscopic day – turquoise seas, cobalt skies and violet bougainvillea have that effect – and jobs need to be done before the midday’s heat turns up a notch.
Your mornings at Bequia Beach Hotel quickly take on a new routine. The hotel is set dreamily on the horse-shoe-shaped Friendship Bay. First there’s a dip in the sea, and then a stroll along the impossibly pretty shoreline, collecting polished sea glass as you dry off. Breakfast is a laid-back affair – a platter of pineapple, a glass of soursop and a mushroom omelette, with a side of fried plantain, always does the trick. Eat it slowly, you’ll not be rushed here.
As you gaze out from the terrace, Mustique – the outpost of royals and rock-stars; aristocrats and autocrats – glimmers in the distance. The enclave of the rich and famous is like a private members’ club on sea, with its super-yachts and mega-villas, including Les Jolies Eaux, the house famously belonging to Princess Margaret. It’s a fun place to see, even if it’s for half a day. Luckily Bequia Beach Hotel has its own 35-metre Benetti yacht, The Star of the Seas, to take you. So you’ll arrive in style, if not a little green around the gills, due to the Atlantic swell on the crossing. It’s quickly fixed by heading to Basil’s Bar for a margarita and – once you feel steady again – a grilled Mahi burger.
While Mustique is renowned for its glitzy residents – you can’t move for A-listers (Mick Jagger, Tommy Hilfiger and Bryan Adams are just a few of the names who own pastel-hued mansions on the island) – Bequia couldn’t be more different.
You could argue that all the Caribbean is about the sea. Let’s face it, you’re never far from the shore on an island. But in Bequia, the maritime connection goes deeper. This is still a place where fishing offers a main source of income and, as you poodle around the archipelago, you realise how connected the people are to the ocean. Along the coastline, you’ll spot fishermen gutting their catches on the rocks – squawking, black seabirds a sure sign of the barracuda, tuna and snapper being bought out of the waves.
In Admiralty Bay, on the south-west of the island, the sparkling waters are dotted with the crisp white sails of catamarans and yachts of all sizes. The sheltered bay has long attracted seaman and explorers, pirates and buccaneers, including the infamous Blackbeard who landed here in 1717.
Bequians are known are some of the finest shipwrights in the world, and in the harbour town of Port Elizabeth, this skill is materialised in miniature form at the Sargeant Brother’s Model Boat Shop. Here, intricate models of ships and sailing boats are meticulously crafted by hand by the two Sargeant siblings. Their talent is spread by word of mouth among the sailing community, with many yachties having commissioned intricate models of their own boats over the years – the tiny versions taking months to make with some costing upwards of £10,000.
Bequia is also one of the few places in the world where, controversially, whaling is still allowed once a year. It was introduced by ‘Yankee’ whalers in the mid-19th century, who taught local sailors how to catch whales. Nowadays, no more than four whales are allowed to be landed each year. In reality, very few of the mammals are caught, although the whale symbol is seen everywhere around the island – painted on walls and signs and is even the unofficial logo of the land.
“When the alarm goes to signify that a whale has been caught, everyone downs tools and heads to the south,” says Maria, a local tour guide. “It’s like a carnival atmosphere. But it is important to understand – we do not catch them for profit, and no part of the whale is wasted. There’s respect. This is part of our culture and our tradition.”
Bequia Beach Hotel also has its roots in the sea. It was discovered by its Swedish owner, Bengt Mortstedt ,while he was sailing around the Grenadines, arriving with his family on New Year’s Eve back in 1992. Transfixed by its sleepy nature “much like a vintage postcard from the Caribbean”, he continued to return to the island over the years, until he spotted a closed B&B up for sale. With a vision of languid family holidays in mind, he slowly set about transforming the dilapidated property, buying up adjoining land in the process. “Initially I just wanted a low-key place for all the family to stay,” he says. Instead, what was going to be a villa gradually grew into a hotel, opening in 2009, symbolically on New Year’s Eve.
Bequia Beach Hotel is like an insider’s secret address – a place where, once discovered, people return to year after year. “We have a couple who have been coming for the past ten years,” says Bengt. “And another guest who stayed for 66 days.”
With its naïve, hand-written signs, pineapple prints and colonial-style four poster beds, the hotel has an old-time cosiness to it and is gloriously unpretentious. You can stay in a range of accommodation – from beachfront suites to cute garden cottages. The décor is similar wherever you lay your head, with kitsch parrot lamps, retro travel posters and palm-print textiles adding a touch of fun as well as pops of colour to the pastel backdrop.
By day, you can laze by the saltwater infinity pool, wandering what to choose for lunch at Bagatelle. Maybe, later on, you’ll head to Blue Tropic for an Italian-style dinner. You can even take a transfer to Jack’s Bar, on the northern side of the island, also owned by Bengt. Don’t miss the conch croquettes and lobster mac & cheese, which you’ll chow down while rubbing shoulders with young crew members, local sea dogs and celebrities, alike.
While nothing seems to change much at Bequia Beach Hotel – and that’s decidedly its charm – in fact, Bengt – who describes himself as an “accidental hotelier” – has continuously made tweaks and improvements over the years.
His newest project – Grenadine Hills – will set the bar higher on the island when it comes to places to stay. The new collection of ultra-luxury villas was launched last year with two properties now available to rent. Villa One – a six bedroom home has its own infinity pool, wine cellar and gardens studded with passion-fruit trees. Coral Hill, meanwhile, has five bedrooms and sweeping views over the southern Grenadines. A sprawling living area, gym, games room and pool mean this is the perfect space for extended family holidays.
Next spring, a third villa – an eight-bedroom house – will be launched with locally-influenced architecture and Caribbean design touches. Named Rock Villa, it will be snazzy enough to beckon in marauding rock stars who might have lost their way from Mustique. But that’s not the intent. Bequia – with its shell-encrusted homes, low-fi watering holes and breezy churches, which call in congregations in their Sunday best each week – is too real for anything too fancy.
“Maybe there are a few more cars, but Bequia has barely changed since I first arrived here,” says Bengt. “The only thing that truly surprises you is the sunset.”
Talking of which, the west of the island, by the old fort, is the best place to watch the sun go down. Each dusk brings a changing vision – golden rays cast across the sky, sometimes crimson, other times amber – celestial skies as if taken from a Tiepolo painting. It’s the only thing that really changes here.