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
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