On the beach in Bequia, under a spreading almond tree, is a little shack that is a café. Next door is a small, dusty gift shop selling shirts made from recycled flour sacks and a few dozen curling postcards. A hand-painted sign nailed to the tree says “visitors in the know stop here and buy local. Everything locally crafted”. It doesn’t look as if it does much business.
Under the almond tree as the sun reflects off the sea, dappling its large leaves, I meet a fellow Briton. She enthuses about Bequia, “so friendly and uncommercial and hardly any tourists”. Gill Attfield has been nearly everywhere else in the Caribbean. She has finally settled on Bequia and comes here every year. Proving her friendliness at least, she later asks me if I would like to attend her wedding that afternoon. She was married 33 years ago but she and her husband have never had a church wedding and now, here in their Caribbean winter home, they will be restating their vows. “In the church, this afternoon, at four o’clock,” she says.
Bequia is just seven square miles with less than 6,000 residents. It has a history as a ship-building island and is still a favourite among yachties, who enjoy its safe anchorage and laid-back beach bars and cafés serving fresh fruit juices, home-made gingerbread, rum punch and bottles of local Hairoun beer. There are no big hotels but there are a few guesthouses or properties to rent.
I wander along the seafront, past the Whaleboner, with its open-air bar made from a whale’s jaw bone and stools carved from its vertebrae. Controversially, whaling is still allowed in Bequia – two humpback whales a year can be harpooned and if and when they are, the whole community comes out to butcher the meat.
The main village on the island, Port Elizabeth, is a handful of shops and a market place straddling a tiny road. At the market, old men with grey dreadlocks greet me with their knuckles in a friendly fist and try to sell me home-made hot sauce. It is called Captain Phil’s Wrecked ’em fire.
Another Rastafarian is not happy when I take a picture of an old shingle house. “Don’t tak my piksa!” he shouts from a bush near the house. “I’m very sorry, I didn’t see you there,” I reply, explaining that it was the charming house I was photographing, not him. I try to wriggle out of my cultural faux pas and ask permission to photograph the house but it is not his and now he seems embarrassed that he has scuppered the island’s reputation for friendliness. He calms down and smiles. “Some tourists don’t even aks. I gets fed up wid it,” he harrumphs, as he signals for me to carry on snapping.
I hire a mountain bike from a place called Handy Andy’s, that doubles up as an internet café, and set off to explore. The cement roads are soon steep, climbing up out of the harbour into the surrounding jungle-covered hills. In the 17th century, the French deemed this little island too steep to cultivate but eventually it had a few sugar cane plantations, indigo and spices. Today, tourism is the mainstay but all supplies have to arrive by ship from St Vincent, nine miles away and the biggest island in the Grenadines with more than 100,000 residents.
I am soon panting up a more or less vertical incline to a viewpoint where I can see both shores of the island. On one side, I look out over an old coconut plantation and to a sea of many blues. Mustique, that bolt-hole for the super-rich, is perhaps the most famous island in this southern Caribbean group and Petit St Vincent with its luxury hotel, is another Grenadine watering hole for the wealthy but Bequia is far more down to earth than either.
I walk the bike downhill – the incline is so steep I am afraid the brakes might not be up to it – and, after a quick look around a ruined sugar mill that is now a pottery and artists’ studios, find myself at Industry Bay. Here there is no industry, just a small three-room guesthouse – Crescent Beach Inn, where the simple rooms cost from US$70 a night. I stop for a sandwich.
Next stop is Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary. By the seashore are tanks full of cute little hatchlings and young hawksbills up to five years old. The owner is a man in his 60s, Orton “Brother” King. The tourist guidebooks praise his work but I have never known turtle conservation that involves keeping the creatures captive until they are five and feeding them on tinned sardines. The young turtles seem desperate to eat the algae growing on the walls of their tank and I wonder what will happen to any migration instinct they may have but, despite this, “Brother” King is adamant he is helping the species survive. An islander I speak to later is more cynical. “He jus makin’ moni out o’ de tourists,” says Aaron Sam. “Dem turtles are meant to be free.”
And so I head back to “town”. School is out and I pass tall schoolboys in smart uniforms. “Hey, big man! Wat you doin’ ridin’ about in da hat son?” shouts one of them. “If I had a bike, it would be sweet,” he says as I smile back at him through the sweat.
It is four o’clock. At St Mary’s church, built of limestone and ballast bricks in 1829, Gill is dressed in peach. Her husband, Dan, and all their friends – a mix of other English people holidaying, some local Bequian families and people like me, that they have just met – sit in the straight-backed wooden pews. As afternoon sun streams in the little church, the all-female choir, dressed in gowns, sings “Oh happy day!” while swaying and clapping. The deacon leading the service wears Reeboks under his robes. It is an informal, very tropical occasion.
Afterwards we head to the little bars on the beachfront and, as cicadas chirrup, we drink rum cocktails and watch for the Green Flash (see panel). Dan, who owns go-kart racing tracks in England, can’t speak highly enough of the island, “It’s paradise. We couldn’t want for anything better,” he says. As I sit under the bougainvillea and the lights begin to twinkle on the handful of yachts in Admiralty Bay, I can see what he means.
Paul Miles was a guest of Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com), which flies to Barbados, from where there are daily afternoon flights to Bequia with SVG Air. UK operator Toad Hall has holiday lets in Bequia, www.toadhallcaribbean.com
The Green Flash
Much time is spent on holidays looking for the “Green Flash”. This is not a brand of running shoes but a phenomenon many claim can be observed at sunset. A second or two’s flash of green light, also known as the “green ray”, that can be seen just at the moment the sun sinks below the horizon. Some claim it can only be seen on the Equator and only at sea. However, websites devoted to this phenomenon reveal that “inferior-mirage” and “mock-mirage” flashes – atmospheric refraction of sunlight – can be seen from many latitudes. Jules Verne wrote about it in 1882 in a book titled, Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray). According to legend, those who see it won’t make poor choices in matters of love, perhaps another reason why it has become popular with sundowners.