Friday, April 10, 2009

Birthday on Bequia

A view of Bequia from an English writer.

April 10, 2009
A big Caribbean birthday for a small price
Want the trip of a lifetime without the prohibitive costs? The solution is Bequia, a carefree island next to Mustique
Bequia, Admiralty Bay
Will Hide

I couldn't possibly tell you how old my mum was on her very significant birthday this year, but Carol Vorderman might say that she was 50 times 4 divided by 2 minus 30.

To celebrate, Team Hide - Mum, Dad, sister Lizzie and me - had been advised by my Bajan uncle Michael that an absolute “once-in-a-lifetime” experience was to go sailing in the Grenadines.

Having investigated yacht-hire prices in the Caribbean (several thousand pounds and up) the Yorkshire branch of Team Hide decided that, although he may well be right, at those prices it certainly wouldn't be this lifetime.

So we took the (much) less expensive option - an inexpensive deal on a flight to Barbados, an onward hop booked over the internet to St Vincent, a one-hour ferry south to the island of Bequia and a word-of-mouth-recommended £50-a-night hotel.

Through the magic of Google we also found an affordable day-sail on an old clipper with lunch and snorkelling thrown in.

Bequia appeals because it takes laid-back to the extreme and seems permanently stuck at 3pm - much like the clock on the island's customs house. Boats vastly outnumber cars, there are only a few miles of road, fans are the norm rather than air-con and there are no carbuncle hotels. While its neighbour Mustique has gone for exclusivity, and price tags to match, Bequia remains surprisingly affordable, certainly when compared with glitzier, but increasingly could-be-anywhere, Caribbean islands.

Our ferry docked in the turquoise waters of Port Elizabeth, Bequia's quaint port. We disembarked and carried our bags along a wooden boardwalk by the shore for the five-minute stroll to our hotel, the Frangipani, past a few shops and stalls and taxi drivers snoozing in the shade.

The hotel itself is a pretty collection of low-rise buildings by the water's edge, owned by the family of Sir James Mitchell, the former Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines. Next to the reception desk was a small restaurant and bar, inhabited by a collection of well-heeled salty sea dogs.

Our rooms were simply but very adequately furnished with plenty of wardrobe space and a clean and functional bathroom. There was no artificial air-conditioning, but something much better - doors that folded open on to a balcony that caught the breezes coming in off the sea, about 30m away down a gently sloping hill.

Our days on the island quickly assumed a pattern. After a leisurely breakfast - it takes a special Caribbean effort to make the art of ordering and then waiting for two poached eggs into a 45-minute process, but watching hummingbirds on the patio helped to pass the time - we would hop into one of the water taxis that congregated at the Frangipani's small wooden pier. The tiny motorboats have names such as Phat Shag and No Complain, and for £3 will drop you off farther down the island at one of the beaches such as Princess Margaret, where the water isn't far off bath temperature, and inquisitive little fish dart up to your feet to see who has invaded their territory. T-shirt sellers gathered in the shade of palm trees but didn't do anything as vulgar as pester us to actually buy something. At one end was a beach bar, Jack's, which looked great from a distance but on our visits seemed to have half its menu unavailable - and what did arrive was uninspiring.

Watching the evening sun go down over the sea was a Frangipani speciality, either with a rum punch or a banana cow (rum milkshake) to sip. Blackbirds on the wall seem to call out “Bequia, sweet Bequia” as they too waited for the “Green Flash”, the moment the sun dropped below the horizon.

At the table next to us a chic French family looked as if they had stepped out of one of those glossy magazine adverts for polo shirts - tall and tanned, with an impossibly good-looking maman et papa with designer kids and designer nanny. To our left a mature, avuncular gent was talking quietly into his mobile phone about Cuban politics. The man certainly seemed to have a good grasp of his subject, something confirmed by one of the front-desk staff, who pointed out that it was Sir James himself. I'm not sure if Gordon Brown has any plans to open a B&B in Troon but I can't imagine him being this relaxed if he did.

We could have gone on an hour-long taxi tour of the island but never quite managed it, our overwhelming desire being to do absolutely nothing apart from slap on some factor 15, hop in Phat Shag, catch up on the various novels that had been gathering dust at home and let the fish nibble our toes.

We did do the sailing we had promised ourselves, if only for a day, on a lovely old schooner. The Friendship Rose, which used to be the inter-island ferry, now takes guests south past la-di-dah Mustique and Canouan to Tobago Quays, a scattering of islets just north of Grenada. There we snorkelled with rays and turtles, ate chicken curry and salad on deck, and chatted to the 30 or so other passengers, mostly Britons and Americans, who seem to make up most of Bequia's non-yachting visitors.

If stumbling back from a club at 3am is a must for holiday success, Bequia would be wrong for you, although there is the Thursday evening “Jump-Up” at the Frangipani, where a steel band had party-goers dancing like their dad at a wedding into the wee small hours. Other than that most people just eat out at the small range of restaurants clustered around the harbour, then retire early, lulled into deep slumber by the chorus of cicadas.

We liked L'Auberge des Grenadines in Admiralty Bay with its outdoor patio, and Mac's Pizzeria for its informality. People spoke highly of the Swedish team behind the Devil's Table, but we never got to try it, situated as it was a good mile from our hotel, across the bay. After a few days on the island, this seemed like an expedition to the Moon.

“I loved the informality,” Mum said towards the end of our stay, looking incredibly relaxed, although that could have been the rum punch. “Just being able to hail a water taxi in front of the hotel to take us to the different beaches, wandering along the boardwalk at night - it was a total chill-out.”

Leaving Bequia felt like we were casting off a particularly warm security blanket. We would have to face this horrible place called “the real world”. A place where you couldn't wear flip-flops every day, where you didn't hop in a boat to get from A to B and where drinking a rum punch at 3 in the afternoon is, apparently, just plain wrong.

Maybe I should simply set my watch permanently to 3o'clock and not worry about meetings and appointments or train times. At least I'd be in sync twice a day.

Need to know

Getting there

Virgin Atlantic (0870 3802007, flies to Barbados from £542.50 return. From there either take an LIAT flight ( to St Vincent, then a ferry to Bequia (www.admiralty-, or SVG Airlines ( flies Barbados-Bequia direct. Room-only doubles at the Frangipani (001 784 458 3255, ) start at £52pn, although it's worth taking a Garden Room (such as Will Hide and family had), which start at £100pn.