Return to the Islands
In November 1717, the notorious pirate Edward Teach attacked and took the French merchant and slave ship Concorde, sailing it out of the rough passage between the islands of St Vincent and Bequia and into the safety of the natural harbour of the latter. Once there, he set about re-armouring the French ship, moving the canon from his own smaller vessel, retaining key staff and taking on people who wanted to be pirates rather than slaves. He left the crew and rest of the human cargo of the Concorde on the beach in Bequia, with sloops to row themselves up the Leeward Islands to Martinique.
While we now recognise Teach as the legendary Blackbeard, the island of Bequia remains less well known. It’s pronounced Bek-way, incidentally, and those who do know about it, generally return each year. Situated between the ‘mainland’ of St Vincent and the billionaires’ paradise of Mustique, Bequia offers an escape for those looking for a mixture of luxury, laidback street life and natural beauty.
That it isn’t better known is surprising, given the amount of column inches written about it. Travel writers love to visit the island and novelists Paul Auster and Margaret Atwood have both set books here. Perhaps it’s the getting there that’s the issue. From big American cities such as San Francisco or Chicago, it can take 13 hours (involving stop-overs and changes at Miami, and finally the notoriously choppy ferry from St Vincent). If flying from Europe or the Middle East, you’re in luck – you fly straight to Barbados or St Lucia and then again on a local carrier or private jet. But here’s the thing – if anything, those travel demands have helped maintain an atmosphere on the island that is most commonly described as “old-style Caribbean”. It’s a big draw.
The island itself looks like a long thin ink spill, all squiggly bays and hills and small roads winding through lush green scenery. Around 3000 people live here and there’s a clear mix of residents, workers and visitors. There’s a real homely feel, too. I first holidayed in Bequia 12 years ago and rented a car from a local taxi man called Rali. On my first weekend here last winter, I was walking down a dark sandy lane at the far end of Lower Bay when a pair of headlights stopped in front of me, waiting until I’d drawn up alongside. As I did, Rali stuck his head out the window to laughingly say, “Hey!”
To be clear: this is a long way from the society page glamour of St Barts, but the lack of paparazzi is what makes Bequia a genuine draw for A-listers in search of privacy. In 2004, Tiger Woods honeymooned here, while the late food guru Anthony Bourdain was a regular and even had his own chair at lobster restaurant, The Auberge. It’s not a celebrity hang-out by any means – for that they can sail to Mustique and stay with Jagger or Hilfiger – it’s the slowly evolving quiet charm of Bequia that attracts, not the bright lights.
When looking for a room for the night, you can book villas on the island, maxing at about $20,000 per week or, at the other end of the scale, try a guest house for $25 a night. Those looking to dip in and out should try A Night Ashore. This ensuite room in a beautiful private villa overlooking Princess Margaret Bay is aimed at people on yachts who might fancy a nice night ashore without the swell. It’s clean, sophisticated and stylish.
Credit: Bequia Plantation Hotel
If you’d rather do as little as possible, then positioned nicely between the hustle of Port Elizabeth and the popular Princess Margaret Beach, you’ll find Plantation Hotel. It’s within walking distance of everything you need, but step inside its grounds and discover a gentle tranquillity. Even when it’s full, it feels like you have the place to yourself. Large white wooden cabins with high roofs, spacious stone showers and day beds inside and out provide
uncluttered peace of mind that quickly helps you relax. Generous green leaf planting gives each residence a sense of privacy, overriding their close proximity to each other, while the grounds have stuck to the classics: neat lawn and tall swaying palm trees.
The success of the Plantation is an interesting story in itself, involving an Italian owner on the run from authorities. Five years ago there were people sleeping rough on the bar top, the pool was empty and the cottages run down. Eventually, despairing at such a waste, a local investor – Kiwi businessman Kelly Glass – worked with the SVG government to clear the legal issues and in 2016, relaunched the hotel, bringing in Scottish hotelier chain ICMI to run it effectively.
I first came across the relaunched version when taking shelter from a squall, finding myself in the bar watching the 2018 Super Bowl. The pizzas they served – chicken and cranberry, as I recall – were the sort you think about ordering again immediately. I arrived in the rain in my trunks and towel, changed and spent the whole night there, vowing to return.
Stellar pizza aside, the food across the island ranges from fancy plates in hotels, to the delicious and cheap street food in Suzie’s, Colombo or Sweety Bird. These places might not look like much, but their fish and chicken meals are amazing. Auberge is, sadly, no longer here, but it’s been replaced by another cool, imaginative restaurant. At the foot of Lower Bay you can find Kudu, selling fish tacos, tuna poke bowl and papaya salad – if it’s open, it’s full.
At the day’s close, head to the Gingerbread Café, grab some tea and cake and watch the sun edge down over West Quay. You’ll surely struggle to recall a more beautiful location. The whole scene is fittingly mellow. It’s a place that helps you clear the head and make decisions. Once, the waiter here told me that he wished he had a metal detector to search the beaches for gold. I’m not so sure. Personally speaking, I think the real treasure is the island itself.