Bequia: Getting Away From the Getaways
By JEREMY W. PETERS November 11, 2011
I JUST wanted to make a dinner reservation. But the restaurant owner had other uses for me.
It was my first morning on the sleepy Caribbean island of Bequia, and I had wandered into the Fig Tree, a harbor-side bistro known for its sunset views. A woman with waist-length dreadlocks introduced herself as Miss J and said she’d be delighted to grill some lobster, or whatever fresh fish she was getting in later that day. Then her phone rang.
Wrist-deep in a bowlful of unpeeled bananas, she nodded at me. “You’ll have to get that.”
I did not pick up much through the heavy West Indian accent on the other end. I heard “coconuts” and maybe something about a truck. “Coconuts?” I repeated, which prompted a heavy sigh followed by a sucking noise, a sound I recognized as the universal Caribbean utterance for lost patience. I cupped my hand over the receiver and called toward Miss J, who was making steady progress through the pile of bananas.
“Something about the coconuts,” I said.
“Oh!” she chirped, her mouth turning upward in a toothy grin of recognition. “Tell her I’ll pick them up.”
It was a uniquely Caribbean moment. There I was, standing under a canopy of palms looking out at the sparkling harbor. I could hear the buzz of a dinghy’s motor in the distance. A stiff tropical breeze was blowing.
￼And I had just brokered a coconut sale.
As much as the Caribbean is known for its don’t-worry ethos and “island time” rules, many of us only experience it Atlantis-style, isolated inside compounds where we can eat the way we do back home and commune with, if not our neighbors, then people who could just as well be our neighbors. Even for me, someone who spent two years living in the Caribbean as a reporter, my encounter with Miss J was a surprisingly novel experience. And so, as I would learn over the course of the next five days, was Bequia itself.
The largest of the Grenadines — that necklace of 32 islands west of Barbados that unfurls south from St. Vincent — Bequia (pronounced BECK- way) is only about seven square miles, around a third the size of Manhattan. It’s not so tiny that you find yourself eating at the same restaurant every night, but it’s manageable enough that you can get just about anywhere you need to go in less than 15 minutes by taxi.
It has a variety of locally owned small hotels and inns, some high-end boutiques and modest guest houses. But no major chains, no super-saver deals popping up on Expedia. The locals are friendly and approachable, swimming at the same beaches tourists do, drinking with them at the same bars at the end of the day. Dogs roam freely. Goats tend to be tethered to trees.
The only drawback (though also a plus, as it keeps out the riffraff) is that getting there requires a bit of effort, patience and expense. First you need to get to Barbados. From there it is about 45 minutes by small prop plane; you may end up stopping at a couple of neighboring Grenadines to drop off and pick up passengers on the way. I left New York at 8 a.m. and didn’t slide the key into my hotel room door until 5:30 that evening.
ABOUT 5,000 people live on Bequia full time, and Port Elizabeth is their hub of activity, home to the bank, government offices and the main market square. Ferries deposit and pick up passengers shuttling between St. Vincent and the other islands of the Grenadines. Women amble down the main street, balancing large baskets of laundry on their heads with seemingly little effort. Local vendors sit at card tables in the shade, selling handmade baskets and jewelry.
￼I decided to spend my first three nights at Bequia Beachfront Villas, about 15 minutes away on the other side of the island in the old whaling village on Friendship Bay, primarily because hotels there have beach access, which many in and around Port Elizabeth don’t. There’s no central square or commercial center near Friendship Bay, just a crescent-shaped beach where the water is calm and shallow enough that you can swim out a good distance from the shore and survey the surrounding hillsides.
On the easternmost end of the bay, a grassy peninsula juts out into the cyan-colored water and then curls back in toward the shore like a comma. If you scan the hills all the way to the westernmost end, you’ll see a small concrete bunker used as a whale lookout. But it’s not as innocent as it sounds. Locals use it to spot breaching humpbacks during whaling season. (The tradition runs deep on Bequia, where many locals take pride in the annual harpooning expeditions that are permitted in their waters under international regulations.)
My villa, a clean and simple one-bedroom, was a decent bargain at around $200 a night. Given what I’d paid for and experienced on other Caribbean islands, a large wrap-around deck just steps from the water was a nice surprise. Every morning I would sip coffee (instant because the local supermarket was out of regular), listen to the surf and watch the sun come up over the bay. Sometimes I’d take a leisurely stroll up the beach and chat up one of the fishermen; many will take you for a sightseeing ride in their boats for a modest and negotiable fee.
Eventually, I would make my way into town. The island is so small that you can get wherever you need to go fairly quickly either by taxi or the island’s primary mode of public transportation for locals, the dollar van. Keep in mind, though, that you get what you pay for, which on the dollar vans can mean extremely close quarters. I counted 15 passengers in our Toyota minivan at one point during a stifling, whipsaw ride from the villa into town. And that “dollar” designation is a rather elastic one; the vans cost 1.50 Eastern Caribbean, or E.C., dollars for a one-way ride. (A taxi would be about 30 E.C. dollars.)
Port Elizabeth is a hive of activity from early morning through midafternoon. The market, a series of open-air stalls on the edge of the harbor, teems with Rastafarian farmers selling bananas, okra and
￼breadfruit. Even if you’re not in need of fresh produce, it’s worth a visit just to watch the eager farmers swarm their prey: the sailors and yachters who’ve come in off their boats looking to restock.
If you jump in to make some purchases of your own, don’t be surprised by what can seem a very arbitrary exchange rate; about 2.70 Eastern Caribbean dollars equal one U.S. dollar. But sometimes the price I was quoted was 2:1, other times 3:1. It all seemed to even out somehow by the end.
The town is nestled deep inside one of the Caribbean’s most scenic natural harbors, the westward-facing Admiralty Bay, which looks as if it’s been scooped out of the center of the island’s verdant interior, leaving steep virgin hillsides that slope into the Caribbean. In the mornings and early afternoon, the sea appears cobalt with patches of teal; when the sun sets it takes on a silver glaze. You could pass a day gazing at the view from various angles and feel that it was time well spent.
Many of the restaurants and bars in Port Elizabeth are about a five-minute walk from the center of town along a waterfront path called the Belmont Walkway, a name that suggests a purpose and continuity that is slightly overstated. The concrete path, shaded by palm and sea grape trees, skirts the shore of Admiralty Bay and is in such a charming state of crumbling disrepair — in some cases it has completely collapsed into the harbor — that I found myself making excuses to take it whenever possible. The sea laps gently up to and sometimes over the path; the waves gurgle and bubble as they wash in and out.
Though many travelers make their way to the bars along the walkway around cocktail hour, I would recommend an afternoon visit, which will allow you to eat lunch outside and soak in the views.
The lobster pizza at Mac’s is an island institution. Just a bit farther down the walk is the Fig Tree, where, whenever you go, chances are Miss J will be holding court. “Is that Jeremy?” she would call out as I walked in. If she wasn’t busy making a local breadfruit dish for the men doing renovation work on the restaurant, she might be playing Scrabble with local schoolgirls.
There is a wide variety of grilled options. I opted for the lobster, charred on
￼an open flame, along with fried fish cakes and Miss J’s creamy callaloo, a green vegetable soup that is a staple of the Caribbean diet.
If you’re up for a bit more of an adventure, head to Jack’s, just around a small, rocky peninsula from the Fig Tree. Tucked away in one corner of Princess Margaret Beach — a long, wide stretch of soft sand bordered by a dense grove of palms — the place exists in its own Eden. It’s the only structure on the beach, and you can get there in one of two ways: by sea (dinghy) or by land (a steep, narrow staircase that zigzags down from the main road).
I got there by sea one afternoon when Dede, a proactive water taxi driver, suggested I might benefit from a ride. About two minutes later and 30 E.C. dollars lighter (aggressive entrepreneurialism isn’t entirely absent from Bequia) I was there, one of just a handful of people on the beach. I took a swim, then presented myself at Jack’s, where the bartender and owner, a Swede named Lars, poured me a rum punch.
Lars had been in Bequia more than 20 years, moving there with his family after giving up a real estate career in Gothenburg. Why not? As he put it: “You live a little, you sleep a little, you eat a little. And you work as little as you need to.”
FOR my final two nights on the island, curious about how Bequia might do “boutique,” I stayed at the Firefly, a full-service, luxury hotel in the remote northeast end.
“Welcome to a getaway from the getaway,” the clerk announced when I arrived. And it was true; the place managed to slow Bequia down almost into reverse. The hotel has just four rooms along with a family-size cottage set on 30 acres of banana trees, coconut groves and herb gardens. With floor-to-ceiling glass double doors, they all have sweeping views of the surrounding plantation grounds and the sea about a half mile in the distance.
You could be perfectly content lounging all day in the canopied sun beds around the pool, where you would probably encounter only one or two other guests. If you want to head to a nearby beach like the secluded Industry Bay, which has choppier water than the beaches on the Port ￼Elizabeth side of the island, the staff at the Firefly will be happy to fix you a picnic lunch, complete with papayas, bananas and a green salad all with ingredients grown right on the plantation.
You might even find yourself with some new friends along the walk. Firefly has three resident dogs: Anna, Judy and Mango, who made it their business to keep me company during my stay. They escorted me to my door every evening after dinner. And when I came down for breakfast in the morning, they would wait outside the restaurant, hopeful that I might reward their patience with a leftover piece of French toast. They were what the locals call “island dogs,” a mix of various breeds, and defined by an uncanny ability to suddenly materialize whenever food is unwrapped.
And thanks to them, even $500-a-night rooms with 250-thread-count Italian linens cannot quite gloss over Bequia’s Caribbean core.
EXPLORING THE GRENADINES
Once you get to Bequia, you probably won’t find yourself in much of a hurry to do anything, least of all leave. But failing to explore the other Grenadines would be a mistake. Since the Grenadines are served by small local airlines only, they have remained elusive to most people without sailboats. But from Bequia you can hop on a fast ferry for 60 Eastern Caribbean dollars, or about $22.30 at 2.70 E.C. dollars to the U.S. dollar round trip, and head south toward Mayreau or the Tobago Cays. And if you are looking to see how the other half vacations, a 20-minute boat ride from Bequia gets you to Mustique.
MAYREAU A few vital statistics will help you get acquainted. Population: approximately 250. Electricity first introduced: 2003. Size: one and a half square miles.
This tiny spit of land has some of the longest, prettiest stretches of beach in the Grenadines. After a ferry deposits you at the dock in Mayreau’s port, hire a water taxi and ask the captain to take you to Saltwhistle Bay, a horseshoe-shaped cove with a pair of beach bars on one end and a palm- tree-lined isthmus at the other. Park yourself there for a few hours and then have the water taxi take you to Saline Bay on your way back to the dock. You can squeeze in a few more precious moments of beach time￼while you wait for the ferry.
TOBAGO CAYS Any number of day-trip tour operators can take you straight from Bequia to this marine park about an hour by sea to the south (tobagocays.org). A fee of 10 Eastern Caribbean dollars gets you access to the park, home to abundant coral and tropical fish. Among the small islands to explore is Petit Tabac, essentially just a sand bar with grass and a few palm trees running along its spine. Another, Baradal, is a haven for sea turtles.
MUSTIQUE Don’t let the $50,000-a-week villas deter you. Or the fact that the island is privately owned and patrolled by guards who drive around in four-wheelers that look like a golf cart-A.T.V. hybrid. All the beaches are public, and Basil’s Bar (basilsbar.com) is always pouring stiff drinks and serving sandwiches (if you can stomach the $55 price tag).
Getting to Mustique can be a bit more difficult than getting to the other Grenadines, as the ferry service from Bequia is irregular. But you can arrange a trip through a private charter. Some of the day sail operators like the Friendship Rose (friendshiprose.com) make trips that depart from Port Elizabeth.
NO MAJOR CHAINS, NO SUPER SAVERS GETTING THERE
SVG Airways (svgair.com) makes at least one flight a day to Bequia from Barbados, which is the main gateway for travelers getting to the other Grenadines by air. A round-trip ticket is likely to cost you as much as the flight to Barbados, around $400 from New York. And the flight is not always nonstop. Be prepared to drop off other passengers on the nearby island of Canouan before reaching Bequia. There are other options, like flying to St. Vincent and taking a ferry from there. But air travel to St. Vincent generally requires at least one transfer, adding to what is already a long trip.
WHERE TO STAY
Bequia Beachfront Villas, Friendship Bay, (800) 367-8455,
￼fortrecoverybequia.com. This small collection of comfortable and clean apartments is situated at the edge of a bay dotted with brightly colored fishing boats. The apartments range from one to four bedrooms, each with a full kitchen, living room and private deck overlooking the water. Rates start at around $300 in the high season, not including a 7 percent tax and 10 percent service charge.
Firefly, Spring Bay, (784) 458-3414, fireflybequia.com. Tell people on Bequia that you are staying at the Firefly, and they will probably respond with an impressed “Ohhh.” Its four plush guest rooms face the sea from a magnificent perch overlooking plantation grounds. Doubles start at $395 in high season, taxes and service charges not included.
WHERE TO EAT
Jack’s, Princess Margaret Beach, (784) 457-3762. The only establishment on a secluded stretch of golden sand just over a hill from downtown Port Elizabeth, Jack’s is perfect for a sunset rum punch or a dinner of linguine with lobster cream sauce.
Fig Tree, Belmont Walkway, (784) 457-3008. With exceptionally gracious service, Miss J serves up fresh grilled lobster and a rich, creamy callaloo with a kick.
JEREMY W. PETERS is a media reporter for The New York Times.
Thank you, Cheryl King, for calling my attention. I would have missed this.
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