Escape to the slowgoing Caribbean island of Bequia with no chain hotels, no mega resorts, just beaches and coconuts.
I just wanted to make a dinner reservation. But the restaurant owner had other uses for me.
It was my first morning on the sleepy Caribbean island of Bequia, and I had wandered into the Fig Tree, a harbor-side bistro known for its sunset views. A woman with waist-length dreadlocks introduced herself as Miss J and said she’d be delighted to grill some lobster, or whatever fresh fish she was getting in later that day. Then her phone rang.
Wrist-deep in a bowlful of unpeeled bananas, she nodded at me.
“You’ll have to get that.”
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I did not pick up much through the heavy West Indian accent on the other end. I heard “coconuts” and maybe something about a truck.
“Coconuts?” I repeated, which prompted a heavy sigh followed by a sucking noise, a sound I recognized as the universal Caribbean utterance for lost patience.
I cupped my hand over the receiver and called toward Miss J, who was making steady progress through the pile of bananas.
“Something about the coconuts,” I said.
“Oh!” she chirped, her mouth turning upward in a toothy grin of recognition. “Tell her I’ll pick them up.”
It was a uniquely Caribbean moment. There I was, standing under a canopy of palms looking out at the sparkling harbor. A tropical breeze was blowing. And I had just brokered a coconut sale.
As much as the Caribbean is known for its don’t-worry ethos and “island time” rules, many of us only experience it mega-resort-style, isolated inside hotel compounds where we can eat the way we do back home and commune with, if not our neighbors, then people who could just as well be our neighbors.
Even for me, someone who spent two years living in the Caribbean as a reporter, my encounter with Miss J was a surprisingly novel experience. And so, as I would learn over the course of the next five days, was Bequia itself.
The largest of the Grenadines — that necklace of 32 islands west of Barbados that unfurls south from St. Vincent — Bequia (pronounced BECK-way) is only about 7 square miles. It’s not so tiny that you find yourself eating at the same restaurant every night, but it’s manageable enough that you can get just about anywhere you need to go in less than 15 minutes by taxi.
It has a variety of locally owned small hotels and inns, some high-end boutiques and modest guesthouses. But no major chains, no supersaver deals popping up on Expedia. The locals are friendly and approachable, swimming at the same beaches tourists do, drinking with them at the same bars at the end of the day. Dogs roam freely. Goats tend to be tethered to trees.
The only drawback (although also a plus, as it keeps out the riffraff) is that getting there requires a bit of effort, patience and expense. First you need to get to Barbados. From there it is about 45 minutes by small prop plane; you may end up stopping at a couple of neighboring Grenadines to drop off and pick up passengers on the way.
About 5,000 people live on Bequia full time, and Port Elizabeth is their hub of activity, home to the bank, government offices and the main market square. Ferries deposit and pick up passengers shuttling between St. Vincent and the other islands of the Grenadines. Women amble down the main street, balancing large baskets of laundry on their heads with seemingly little effort. Local vendors sit at card tables in the shade, selling handmade baskets and jewelry.
I decided to spend my first three nights at Bequia Beachfront Villas, about 15 minutes away on the other side of the island in the old whaling village on Friendship Bay, primarily because hotels there have beach access, which many in and around Port Elizabeth don’t.
There’s no central square or commercial center near Friendship Bay, just a crescent-shaped beach where the water is calm and shallow enough that you can swim out a good distance and survey the surrounding hillsides.
On the easternmost end of the bay, a grassy peninsula juts out into the cyan-colored water and then curls back in toward the shore like a comma. If you scan the hills all the way to the westernmost end, you’ll see a small concrete bunker used as a whale lookout.
But it’s not as innocent as it sounds. Locals use it to spot breaching humpbacks during whaling season. (The tradition runs deep on Bequia, where many locals take pride in the annual harpooning expeditions that are permitted in their waters under international regulations.)
My villa, a clean and simple one-bedroom, was a decent bargain at around $200 a night. Given what I’d paid for and experienced on other Caribbean islands, a large wraparound deck just steps from the water was a nice surprise.
Every morning I would sip coffee, listen to the surf and watch the sun come up over the bay. Sometimes I’d take a stroll up the beach and chat up one of the fishermen; many will take you for a sightseeing ride in their boats for a modest and negotiable fee.
Eventually, I would make my way into town, to Port Elizabeth. Its market, a series of open-air stalls on the edge of the harbor, teems with Rastafarian farmers selling bananas, okra and breadfruit. Even if you’re not in need of fresh produce, it’s worth a visit just to watch the eager farmers swarm their prey: the sailors and yachters who’ve come in off their boats looking to restock.
The town is nestled inside one of the Caribbean’s most scenic natural harbors, the westward-facing Admiralty Bay, which looks as if it’s been scooped out of the center of the island’s verdant interior, leaving steep virgin hillsides that slope into the Caribbean.
Many of the restaurants and bars in Port Elizabeth are about a five-minute walk from the center of town along a waterfront path called the Belmont Walkway, a name that suggests a purpose and continuity that is slightly overstated. The concrete path, shaded by palm and sea grape trees, skirts the shore and is in such a charming state of crumbling disrepair — in some cases completely collapsed into the harbor — that I found myself making excuses to take it whenever possible. The sea laps gently sometimes over the path.
For my final two nights on the island, curious about how Bequia might do “boutique,” I stayed at the Firefly, a full-service, luxury hotel in the remote northeast end.
“Welcome to a getaway from the getaway,” the clerk announced when I arrived. And it was true; the place managed to slow Bequia down almost into reverse. The hotel has just four rooms along with a family-size cottage set on 30 acres of banana trees, coconut groves and herb gardens.
With floor-to-ceiling glass double doors, they all have sweeping views of the surrounding plantation grounds and the sea about a half mile in the distance.
You could be perfectly content lounging all day in the canopied sun beds around the pool, where you would probably encounter only one or two other guests. If you want to head to a nearby beach like the secluded Industry Bay, which has choppier water than the beaches on the Port Elizabeth side of the island, the staff at the Firefly will be happy to fix you a picnic lunch, complete with papayas, bananas and a green salad all grown right on the plantation.
You might even find yourself with some new friends along the walk. Firefly has several resident dogs who kept me company during my stay. They were what the locals call “island dogs,” a mix of various breeds and defined by an uncanny ability to suddenly materialize whenever food is unwrapped. And thanks to them, even $500-a-night rooms with 250-thread-count Italian linens cannot quite gloss over Bequia’s Caribbean core.