Monday, November 10, 2008

Mustique: Paradise Found

We had heard Mustique was beyond exclusive. But it wasn’t until we went through customs, (after boarding a tiny prop plane to the island from nearby Barbados), that we found out just what exclusive really means. The officials weren’t examining our bags for weapons or forbidden foods. So what’s verboten here? Fancy camera equipment in general, and powerful zoom lenses in particular.

After all, those who frequent this sybaritic Caribbean island retreat, just 45 minutes by boat from St. Vincent in the Grenadines, are ultra high-wattage celebrities—or, at the very least, unreasonably wealthy. It’s the St. Bart’s set taking a break from St. Bart’s; so when you’re introduced to Eileen, you’re not supposed to acknowledge you know that her stage name is Shania and that, yes, her last name is Twain. It follows that snapping pics of her with a high-powered Nikon is, alas, pretty much out of bounds.

That’s how it’s been since 1960, when the ultimate British trendsetter, Princess Margaret, first arrived here. Two years earlier, the Scottish Lord Colin Tennant had purchased the entire island for a meager $67,500; but when he gifted a 10-acre parcel of land to Princess Margaret for her birthday, she quickly began Mustique’s transformation into an over-the-top haven for the well bred and well heeled. Tennant’s financial woes caused him to sell the island in 1976, and now the entire island, down to the beaches and villa rentals, is managed by Mustique Company

Still, once the puddle-jumper—which even stars like Eileen have to take, since the Mustique runway is too short to accommodate a private jet—swooped down over turquoise waters to deposit plain old ordinary us on this speck of lush vegetation and white sand, we couldn’t help but feel like celebrities ourselves. It was apparent from the second we stepped off the plane that personalized service is the number one priority here.

Mustique is most famous for its spectacular villas; we, however, checked in at the Cotton House, one of only two hotels here. Yet we felt less like paying customers and more like guests at a secluded private estate.

When we arrived, we were ushered to lounge chairs overlooking the ocean and served chilled lime crushes while hotel staff not only brought our bags to our suite, but unpacked and pressed our clothing as well. Our airy two-story villa was comfortably elegant: Caribbean décor as refinement, not kitsch. Instead, there were cool tiled floors, a plush canopy bed, a private plunge pool, balconies overlooking both sides of the island and panoramic sunset views.

As we soon discovered, the primary pastime on Mustique is relaxing—it’s practically a competitive sport. (As proof, consider the beaches, several of which are available exclusively by reservation: as soon as our allotted time on stunning Macaroni Beach was over, we were shooed away by Tommy Hilfiger’s staff, who arrived not only to lay out color-coordinated chaise lounges, crisp linens and a picnic on fine china for the designer and his family, but to rake the beach free of our unsightly footprints.)
Visitors like Hilfiger, of course, weren’t staying at our hotel. Rather, they own or rent some of the most stunning villas we’ve ever seen: The 1,400-acre island is home to 72 of them. Most are available for rent (yes, even Mick Jagger’s—but expect an extremely stringent background check) and each is unique, from a zen-inspired Japanese-style retreat for 18 to a two-bedroom Balinese pavilion you can keep all to yourself. Mustique’s villas have been an ultra hot destination for British VIPs for years, but the word is just now getting out stateside.

The exclusive setup generates an intoxicating cocktail of privacy and intimacy in this tiny community, where estate owners like David Bowie and publishing magnate Felix Dennis can join visitors like Prince William and Brad Pitt for a sunset dinner at the Firefly Restaurant, or for drinks, jazz and impromptu rock star karaoke at Basil’s, the two hottest (and only) nightspots on the island.

After all, it’s the ultimate romantic escape. It’s also the only place you can feed table scraps to Jagger’s dog, Star—while pretending, naturally, not to notice that he’s a celebrity at all.