The name, apparently, means “island of clouds”. And certainly, as the little blue twin-propeller plane rises from Barbados heading for Bequia, we fly through a towering forest of mighty cumulus formations, fluffy white, grey, occasionally ominous black, above the glittering blue Caribbean far beneath us.
Such planes are perhaps not for nervous flyers, but when I climb into the nine-seater the glimpse into the open cockpit of a slender arm circled with an elegantly plain gold bracelet gives me a lurch of relief: the pilot is a woman, with a calm voice, and all will be well. After a short hour, she expertly turns the plane to land vertiginously on the tiny runway on Bequia, an S-shaped squiggle of land in the Grenadines, south of St Vincent, north of Mustique. The sun is setting and the multicoloured houses dotted across the hillside seem to dance in the evening light. Once through the single room of the airport, our taxi to the Bequia Beach hotel is an opensided truck with benches, as are all the taxis on the island.
Bequia (say: Beck-way) is, I’m told, the quiet island. Not Mustique-starry, nor mass market Barbados sceney, there is a sense of the old Caribbean — working fishing boats along the waterfront in the capital Port Elizabeth, women walking their fruit to market, neat uniformed schoolchildren, churches, goats in the road. It’s already the end of January, but the annual Christmas lights competition, tightly contested between different villages, doesn’t seem to be over. Even the pleasure boats that spread across the wide natural harbour at Port Elizabeth speak of serious sailing rather than social show-yachting.
At the Bequia Beach hotel, Swedish owner Bengt Mortstedt — something of a local celeb, he is known everywhere as Mister-Bengt — has decided to emphasise the old-Caribbean feel. Perched on its own round smooth bay, where vigorous Atlantic waves form the soundtrack to a night’s sleep and by day provide keen swimmers with just the right degree of challenge, the place is low-built in dark wood, calm, relaxed, spread around lush gardens. There are rooms with wide balconies overlooking a long beach that is studded with palms, oleander and jackfruit trees. There are small self-contained cabanas, and luxe cottages with their own pool higher up the steep hill that rises from the bay. The main restaurant, right on the beach, offers local lobster with live music, and bright, greedy breakfasts almost in the spray of the waves.
The old-world tone is set in the reception, where a Reading Room has deep sofas, books, rattan fans gently swirling, all decorated with period leather luggage evoking a bygone era. The cabanas around the pool are jauntily coloured, with hand-hewn wooden fretwork. Rooms have high four-posters draped with filmy white mosquito curtains, quirky antique furniture and objets, old maps on the walls: Caribbean history is all around. With some 50 rooms across the whole estate, this is the largest hotel in St Vincent and the Grenadines yet still feels homey and it’s full of entertaining touches. At the bottom of the outside stair leading up to my room, a soft brush hangs on a peg — for dusting the sand off your toes.
But along with the carefully curated period feel, Mortstedt and his son Philip believe in cherry-picking the 21st century. A gleaming yacht, moored at the far end of the bay, whisks us on a trip to Mustique, just a couple of hours to the south. The family has recently launched their own small air service, Bequia Air, using a chartered nine-seater Beechcraft King Air B200 for transfers to and from Barbados, cutting the flight time to as little as 25 minutes. And on the hillside not far away, a set of fabulously luxurious villas are almost complete, boasting every possible contemporary comfort (infinity pool with startling view, wine cellar, gleaming bathrooms galore), all set in the kind of deep, flower-bordered seclusion that only a great deal of money can buy. From this November, when the first is set to open, privacy-seeking celebs and the super-rich will surely be discovering the quiet island.
Another 21st-century issue is central to the place. Mortstedt’s ecological concerns go far beyond lip-service, and for a practical reason: there’s no natural water on Bequia. Brackish well water irrigates crops and gardens, but all the rest is rainwater capture. Or else water has to be brought in on boats from St Vincent. The entire hotel, and now the new villas, are built on top of giant water tanks holding millions of litres. It may be this, I find myself thinking, or perhaps hoping, that’ll ensure this island never sees large-scale tourist development.
There’s more to this growing empire. Over on the Caribbean side of the narrow island, Jack’s Beach Bar has recently been refurbished by the Mortstedts and does just what it promises in its name: rum cocktails, fresh fish and spicy chicken, a relaxed atmosphere and a beach for those who like a calmer sea.
And what of the rest of this island? There seems to be blissfully little to do. A laid-back shopping trip to Port Elizabeth — up Front Street, then down Back Street — reveals tiny, brilliantly coloured stores and cheerful roadside stalls: the highlight was an amiably stoned vendor who thrust a coconut into my hands saying: “Coconut! Natural Viagra! For your man …!”
As for sightseeing? There is, once again, delightfully little of that. After a visit to the low shacks of a turtle farm where “Brother” — 81, almost toothless — single-handedly nurtures hundreds of these endangered sea creatures from hatchlings to six-year-olds before releasing them into the sea, I now know a lot, an awful lot, about turtles. Brother has an instinct for where the wild turtles like to lay their eggs (though he’s not telling), and despite his age he will wait all night after the 60-day incubation for the miracle to happen, as the tiny creatures fight their way out of the sand and head blindly for the ocean. Their chances of surviving seabirds, sharks and other predators is about one in a thousand. Instead, he scoops them up and takes them off to the relative safety of his rough concrete tanks.
Brother was a late convert to the naturalist cause: most of his life, he tells me, he was a diver, destroying thousands of these magnificent creatures whose delicately beautiful shells were so highly prized. I give him another five dollars (there’s no official support for his mission) and he turns away with a crooked grin, whistling, to feed the cartoon-like babies, flapping like absurd wind-up toys in their low pool, another can of tuna.
There’s a further sea-creature-related visit I’m curious to make. Here’s a strange Wiki-fact: Bequia is one of just a handful of places in the world where whaling is still permitted. The regulations are strict: not more than four humpbacks can be killed each year, using only small traditional open boats and hand-thrown harpoons. Apparently that number is rarely met these days, but beyond that I couldn’t find anyone to tell me much about it. Even Brother, whose youth on these seas might surely have included experiences on the whaling boats, would only say: “You can’t take the lady ones if they have calves. Can’t do that. And they have to be the big ones. No good if they smaller than the boats. I can’t really remember . . . ”
It’s understandable if there’s some embarrassment around the subject — criticism from the wider world and action groups, I discover, centres on the awkward fact that while this special permission is granted for “indigenous” whaling, Bequia’s whaling was actually begun in the mid-19th century by an entrepreneurial Scotsman.
I decide to visit the Boat Museum to learn more, eventually finding it down a rutted side road high above the sea. It’s closed, of course, but that hardly matters: not much larger than the average suburban garage, it has glass on all four sides so you can just peer in. The two or three dusty wooden canoe-style boats on display seem impossibly flimsy to pit against a mighty sea mammal; the handcrafted wooden harpoons with their rusty tips look about as dangerous as toothpicks. I begin to think of the almost incredible courage and skill of the men who did this work — until the truly sickening realities emerge when I spot a hoop of viciously sharpened metal, a needle used to sew the whale’s mouth shut.
A walk back along the palm-fringed beach restores a sense of the deep, quiet loveliness of this place, banishing thoughts of the bloody battles, both natural and man-made, that take place in these fabulous seas. And the sudden sight of a turtle’s head, strangely duck-like, surfacing for breath not far away on my evening swim, makes all seem right in this dreamy island.
Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor
Jan Dalley was a guest of the Bequia Beach hotel. Double rooms from $300 per night, including breakfast. Return flights from Barbados with Bequia Air cost from $649, including ground transfers.
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our culture podcast, Culture Call, where editors Gris and Lilah dig into the trends shaping life in the 2020s, interview the people breaking new ground and bring you behind the scenes of FT Life & Arts journalism. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited . All rights reserved. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.