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Unspoilt beauty

A bountiful beauty

A decade ago, the little Caribbean island of Bequia was set to be the next big thing - and Nick Redman reports it's mission accomplished

The turbo-prop banks through pink clouds, revealing the island below: bottle-green hills, thumbnail crescents of sand, jade Caribbean shallows, wooden shacks and homes. And a crinkly coastline.

Bequia, half an hour by air from Barbados, is a prized dot in the archipelago nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines, which includes billionaire hideaway Canouan and celebrity magnet Mustique.

Our plane hits the cricket-pitch airstrip with a 'Whoa!' from the white-knuckled on board. The winding south-coast road to the hotel is steep and bumpy. People wave from bus stops, waysides are grazed by goats and the air smells of hibiscus.

Bequia Beach Hotel

When I last came, eight or so years ago, Caribbean old hands were already proclaiming Bequia ('bek-wy') the next big thing in the Windies. So I'm a little nervous. Has it changed? Or is it still unspoilt, unhurried and unassuming?
Thankfully, I am delighted to find the boutique Bequia Beach Hotel, with its sea-view balcony suites and cottages, still convivial and family-run.

Owner Bengt Mortstedt welcomes new arrivals

Genial Swedish owner Bengt Mortstedt greets arrivals, aided either by his daughter or son and daughter-in-law. The gardens are busy with palms and paintbox-bright flowers, while the guests — mostly happy returnees — are never too old to gyrate to the DJ's calypso sounds. After a dip in Friendship Bay and a dusk rum punch, I dine on jerk chicken and barbecued amberjack at Bagatelle, the hotel restaurant, overlooking the swell.

Mortstedt pulls up a chair and as the wine flows, so does the chat, from discussion about the island's precious rainwater reserves to the rise of its super-villas.

CASE in point: Grenadine Hills, a trio of brand new palatial piles north along the sands and part of the hotel. With tourmaline-blue private pools, elegant hardwood fittings from St Vincent and alfresco dining, at upwards of £2,020 a night for ten guests, they are worthy of Mustique — and much more affordable.

Mortstedt says Bequia will never be mass-market. 'There's the lack of space, water and airlift. I can't see any money coming to build a longer runway, although they've already resurfaced the international airport on St Vincent, which opened six years ago.'

Relations with the mainland — home of PM Ralph Gonsalves — are a Bequia talking point.

Raising a local eyebrow or two, his son, real-estate entrepreneur Storm, has netted land for a big development, including 50 luxury villas and a 100-room hotel in the little east-coast community of Spring. Billed as the world's first bitcoin community, it made international headlines when it was unveiled in 2021, but construction had yet to begin.

The capital Port Elizabeth

Next morning I visit the capital, Port Elizabeth, using Gideon's Taxi Service, which obligingly bills your room, picking up and dropping off anywhere. The cab is open-sided, the journey breezy and villages whiz by as bright as Dolly Mixtures.

Port Elizabeth is a blast of colour, with a brilliant white and blue Anglican church, St Mary's, and market stalls of rainbow fruit. There are views over yachts and catamarans, reminders of Bequia's maritime heritage: sailing, boat-building, fishing and even whaling — officially capped at four a year.
It's a wonderful place to wander. In a backstreet, I discover Threadworks, which makes beautiful sustainable island fashions and oozes initiative.
'We're still feeling the repercussions of Covid,' says Jessica, the store manager. 'It highlighted the fragility of our economy and the need to diversify our offerings.'

For more local flavour, Jessica steers me to nearby Cheri's Rooftop Terrace, a current island favourite among expats and locals, with shabby-chic taverna decor and moreish 'West Indian tapas', as Cheri calls them.

I eat small plates of guava chicken, conch fritters with mango sour and poached lobster with chutney while Cheri tells me how she built her restaurant on the roof of her house as renting was too pricey.

Gathering rainwater, cultivating food — Bequians are super-resourceful. I also eat well at Jack's Beach Bar, which is pale and trendy, like something from St Tropez.

Local food outlets are still thriving

AS I snack on coconut prawns and conch croquettes, I notice BBC chef Matt Tebbutt (Saturday Kitchen) is there.
To find it, follow the atmospheric walkway from Port Elizabeth south along the boardwalk and around the headland to Princess Margaret Beach.

It's named after an apocryphal visit from the royal during her honeymoon — and it's the best beach on the island, with millpond-smooth waters. Actually I lie: Lower Bay, farther south, is more beautiful still. It's effortlessly laid-back, tree-shaded and loved by locals and visitors alike.

The new place to meet islanders at Lower Bay is Provision, which works magic with local produce.

I get talking to Chris and Lou, from Manchester, who relocated to Bequia to open a bijou B&B, The Lookout, on a hill above the sea.

We share Asian-flavoured treats including irresistible cold noodles with chicken skewers and they insist that I must return for next year's Bequia Music Fest ('a riot of reggae, soca and soul'), which happens during the last week of January.

Bequia doesn't need to be the next big thing any longer. It is what it is and those who know it return again and again.

First published in the Daily Mail - January 2023

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