A Week Well Spent on Bequia: St. Vincent & the Grenadines

Wednesday, January 16, 2008 | Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (map)

Sea turtles grazed on underwater grasses throughout the Tobago Cays.
In my first Caribbean experience, from January 4 through 14 I traveled to St. Vincent and the Grenadines with my girlfriend Jacqueline and her family—just a vacation this time, nothing more. Our home for those ten days was the Park Bay House on the island of Bequia (pronounced beck-way), the largest of the Grenadines chain.

Formerly a British colony famous for its sugar production, whaling fleets, and shipbuilding prowess, SV&G is today an independent nation whose residents are more distinguished for their copious consumption of dancehall reggae and rum.

Bequia hasn't produced one of its traditional hand-hewn sailboats in decades, and the island's whaling trade is capped at four catches per year (though this makes its residents, who claim indigenous rights, one of the last people on earth permitted by international law to hunt whales).

Today, most residents either cater to the growing (but to date still limited) tourism industry or scrape out a living fishing or farming. Outside of the small tourist district, Bequia's capital of Port Elizabeth and principal settlement of Paget Farm are little more than sprawling, vibrantly colored shanty towns. The island's schoolchildren face an hour-long commute by ferry to the nearest schools, on St. Vincent.

On Bequia, St. Vincent—itself an island, of course—is known as "the mainland." The irony of this misnomer, apparently lost on the locals, only increases the sense of seclusion that one feels as a visitor to this tropical backwater.

Though once heavily farmed, much of Bequia itself has been reclaimed by the forest, making for great hiking in what feels like remote wilderness. The forest steams, and buzzes with mosquitoes, while orchids and other brilliant epiphytes clog the canopy. Hermit crabs, tortoises, green and brown anole lizards, tree snakes, and iguanas inhabit the forest. One principal tree found throughout is the "tourist tree," so named by a witty local for its bark's propensity to turn red and peel off in excessive direct sunlight.

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Surrounding the island are turquoise waters and rich coral reefs, populated by large schools of brightly colored fish and other sea creatures. In my quest to capture these fish, I employed innumerable rod and lure combinations at various hours of the day and night, even briefly testing my spear-hunting skills with a tent pole topped with a tapered bone head. (Unfortunately, the single fish I managed to strike with the crude weapon didn’t even move, and didn’t bother swimming off until my repeated jabs caused the brittle spearhead to crumble.)

Traditional methods proved more successful. Fishing at dusk one evening, I managed to hook and wrestle to shore a nearly 2-foot jack fish, though only after a 30-minute struggle. Many thanks to my Uncle Bob for the new fly rod, and to Jacqueline for her flashlight- and net-wielding expertise.

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Bequia's southern tip is occupied by a peculiar, upper crust utopian getaway called Moonhole. Its elitist inhabitants—who live in window-less, door-less homes of rock and whale bone molded to the cliffs overlooking the sea—want nothing more than to live out their allegedly "green", Gatsby-esque fantasy lives in isolation, only grudgingly and only occasionally submitting to the practical necessity of bringing in paying tourists to fund their utopia.

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Our daily routines of sunning, hiking, eating, card-playing, swimming, reading, fishing, drinking, and dining out were punctuated by two trips on the Friendship Rose, a touring schooner built by its captain and his brothers decades earlier.

At our first destination, the posh island of Mustique, we ogled at the private mansions of Tommy Hilfiger, Michel Lacoste, Mick Jagger, and others, swam at Macaroni Beach, and downed cocktails seaside at the iconic Basil’s Beach Bar.

The highlight of our second sail, to the Tobago Cays, was snorkeling with sea turtles, whose grace appeared to me unparalleled by any creature on land.

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