Re­vis­it­ing a love af­fair of far­away days

On a fam­ily sail­ing hol­i­day, Mariella Frostrup finds her pas­sion for Be­quia is undi­min­ished – and rides out the storm when the go­ing gets rough

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

There’s a unique sump­tu­ous­ness to a West In­dian morn­ing; wak­ing heavy with sleep, af­ter a night of vivid dream­ing, the trop­i­cal heat leav­ing a sheen of sweat on the skin. It felt de­li­ciously fa­mil­iar as I lay in tor­por, the fil­tered, sil­very sun­light re­flect­ing the palm fronds through shut­ters on to white sheets in my Be­quia Beach Ho­tel room. My first en­counter with these is­land nations was in my 20s and it’s a love af­fair that’s lasted much longer than any I em­barked on dur­ing those far­away ro­man­ti­cally ad­ven­tur­ing days. The pic­ture-post­card de­pic­tions of per­fect sandy beaches and co­conut palms tend to eclipse the raw, el­e­men­tal ap­peal of these trop­i­cal idylls. I love the heat, and the rain, the dra­matic changes of light on the wa­ter, the black out­line of is­lands on a moon­lit sea, the crazy 50 shades of azure that mark the sun-filled day­light hours, the soft white sand, the roti, goat curry and callaloo soup, the su­gary dough­nuts and even the headache-in­duc­ing rum punch. The mu­sic never fails to get me on the dance floor (helped by the punch) and though philistines dis­miss soca and ca­lypso as cruise boat tunes, they surely haven’t heard Ca­lypso Rose and Roar­ing Lion, David Rud­der and Ar­row, to name but a few mu­si­cal gi­ants.

This sum­mer I re­turned af­ter three decades to my old stamp­ing ground of Be­quia, in St Vin­cent and the Gre­nadines. I last fre­quented this an­cient whal­ing sta­tion, a his­tory proudly cel­e­brated in its graphic black and white flag, in the early Nineties. The sec­ond-largest in the chain of is­lands run­ning from St Vin­cent down to Union Is­land in the south, it has been favoured over the cen­turies for its shel­tered moor­ing. Per­haps thanks to the tran­si­tory na­ture of its nau­ti­cal vis­i­tors, Be­quia re­mains au­then­ti­cally Caribbean both in char­ac­ter and pace of life. Back in the Eight­ies when I first ar­rived, it was quite an ad­ven­ture to reach, in­volv­ing a flight to Bar­ba­dos, then to St Vin­cent and a two-hour sail on a lo­cally built schooner, the Friend­ship Rose. With only your lug­gage to sit on, you fought for deck space with chick­ens, goats and res­i­dents trans­port­ing their monthly gro­cery shop­ping in as­sorted car­rier bags and pan­niers. Since then an air­port has opened, but aside from a few lux­ury vil­las dot­ted around the eight-square mile is­land, and a cou­ple of small ho­tels, lit­tle has changed.

A ca­coph­ony of colour­ful build­ings, pink, lime-green, bright blue and yel­low, dot the har­bour front, with veg­etable carts piled high with plan­tains, man­goes, co­conuts and pineap­ples await­ing boats in need of re­stock­ing, par­tic­u­larly those with de­pleted larders af­ter the long At­lantic cross­ing. In high sea­son there’s a fes­tive spirit to this nat­u­ral har­bour and tiny bustling port, but when we vis­ited, at the height of sum­mer, tourists were thin on the ground and the world moved more slowly. Time even slipped back­wards as I walked the nar­row Bel­mont Walk­way weav­ing along the har­bour front, pass­ing old haunts such as Mac’s Pizza, the Gin­ger­bread House and the macabre Whale­boner Bar, its en­trance and bar it­self cre­ated from the epony­mous ocean gi­ant’s skele­ton.

It’s a lux­ury of mid­dle age to travel back, par­tic­u­larly in a world that re­lent­lessly projects us for­ward. I took a beer with Bob Sachs, the now-re­tired Amer­i­can owner of Dive Be­quia, who taught me how to scuba dive and whose hand-sig­nal for id­i­otic be­hav­iour (the sign of the turkey, so fa­mil­iar while I was his stu­dent), reap­peared within mo­ments of sit­ting down. The decades dis­ap­peared as we dis­cussed the drama of Christ­mas 1987 when our dive boat sank and, Dunkirk style, we had to be res­cued by a flotilla of tiny lo­cal ves­sels. On our sec­ond Hairoun beer came the too fa­mil­iar round-up of peo­ple who’d died, the chil­dren who had been born and the busi­nesses that had opened and closed. Later the two lo­cal boys who now run the dive shop took us back to the Wall, a dra­matic ver­tig­i­nous dive site just out­side the har­bour. There in 1985, suf­fer­ing ni­tro­gen nar­co­sis, I set off to find the wreck that lay at 300ft, to be saved from my mad­ness by Bob haul­ing me up from the depths. On this oc­ca­sion, school­ing mack­erel and a cu­ri­ous bar­racuda cir­cled us and al­though global warm­ing and pol­lu­tion have taken a toll on the soft co­rals and once abun­dant trop­i­cal fish, there re­mained the en­dur­ing thrill of swim­ming over the ledge to gaze down hun­dreds of feet into the big blue.

We stayed at the Be­quia Beach Ho­tel, a rel­a­tive new­comer, where we were among a mere scat­ter­ing of tourists in what’s con­sid­ered low sea­son, but seemed pretty per­fect to us. A se­ries of two-storey bun­ga­lows along the edge of the un­spoilt mile­long white sand of Friend­ship Bay, the ho­tel is a med­ley of Old Havana style, with rat­tan chairs, wooden beds and posters of vin­tage swimwear-clad cou­ples sip­ping cock­tails in Fiftiesstyle re­sorts. In the pool­side bar, a lively lo­cal band blasted out the rhythms of the is­lands, out­num­ber­ing their au­di­ence of four (our fam­ily), but per­form­ing as though to a full house in Ve­gas. Our en­er­getic ap­plause echoed across the empty dance floor, but the band thanked us ef­fu­sively be­fore an­nounc­ing with the­atri­cal aplomb “ladies and gen­tle­men, time for just one more be­fore the end of the night!”

IDYL­LICThe shores of Be­quia, main, and the nearby Be­quia Beach Ho­tel, left

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