BEQUIA, St. Vincent and the Grenadines — If the American Psychological Association is on the lookout for a new disorder, I have one to offer. It’s called Travel Superiority Complex.
The symptoms are easy to spot. Tell someone with TSC that you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica, Germany, or Vietnam, and they haughtily inform you that they’ve already been there. Furthermore, they know the best restaurant in the entire country, which likely has no sign or is situated on a far-flung, nameless street. They tell you — unprompted, of course — about the best beach to see rare birds or a market where they bought a spice that can only be found growing beneath the South African quiver tree.
But this year I found a way to silence those afflicted with Travel Superiority Complex. I started talking about Bequia. With stunned expressions, they humbly asked, “Where’s that?”
Truth be told, I also had no idea about Bequia (pronounced BECK-way) when I first heard the name. It’s the second-largest island in the string of 32 islands that make up St. Vincent and the Grenadines. With a population just over 5,000, it’s an unpretentious place where flights can’t land at night because the tiny airport has no runway lights and the narrow, winding roads have ruts on the sides large enough to swallow up cows. (No cows were harmed in the writing of this story.) There are no big-chain hotels or over-the-top resorts to be found. There isn’t even a Starbucks. There is one ATM machine on the entire island.
I don’t know if I dare say it, but Bequia is the Caribbean the way the Caribbean used to be. Wait, that sounds like a cornball marketing slogan. Let’s try this: Bequia is an actual escape in an age where it feels as if there are few true escapes remaining on the planet. From Boston it’s a direct flight on JetBlue to Barbados and then a short hop on a turbo-prop plane. Some areas of the island can feel a bit rough around the edges, but that’s my perception of the Caribbean of yore. However, I don’t suffer from Travel Superiority Complex, so please let me know if my assumption is incorrect.
I snorkeled, plunged into the aquamarine water at Princess Margaret Beach, and took a small boat to a floating bar in a harbor for some of the island’s famous 86 proof rum, which I was told is more plentiful here than water. There are a few key restaurants that everyone visits, including Mac’s Pizza & Kitchen, where the lobster pizza is a local institution, and Fernando’s Hideaway. Makeshift beach bars set up by locals selling cheap beer are almost as common as pink, sunburnt noses. The island is filled with an unlikely collection of local fishermen, yachters, vacationing families, and stray dogs, but not necessarily in that order.
I strategically arrived in Bequia just as the northeastern corner of the United States descended into its first arctic freeze, and I counted my Lucky Charms that I was in the Lesser Antilles watching a purple sunset rather than watching my lips turn purple. My first night was spent at a boutique hotel called the Liming, Bequia. Liming is Caribbean slang for lazing about and doing nothing. I’m quite good at lazing about and doing nothing, so it seemed like an ideal match. Even if you opt not to stay here, I recommend the hotel’s restaurant both for its food and its views.
There’s lots of liming going on in Bequia. This isn’t a place you visit if you’re looking to parasail, jet ski, or engage in whatever water sport the strapping youth of today are attempting to perfect. The pace is strictly paddle board. Bequia is that rare breed of island where you don’t feel pressure to race about and see the sights, because the sights are the beach, snorkeling, and the beach again. Oh, there’s also a turtle sanctuary and a small town center.
I cannot write a travel story about basting myself with Coppertone and lying in the sand re-reading “Valley of the Dolls," (trust me, I’ve tried), so instead I put together an itinerary that allowed for a basic education of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. This is relatively simple because you can get around on ferries or charter a boat between islands without filing for Chapter 11 by the end of your trip. On our second day on the island, my husband and I took a three-hour sailboat ride from Bequia to the Tobago Cays to snorkel in a very popular marine park with giant turtles. It may have been raining at the surface, but beneath, in the clear water, the passing showers went unnoticed by both us and the turtles.
While the Tobago Cays satisfied my need to get into the water, the nearby island of Mustique satisfied my need to see how the other half vacations. This is an island that was put on the map by the late Princess Margaret. It’s where she honeymooned (and was gifted 10 acres of land). It’s also where she was infamously photographed enjoying the company of a much younger man in the 1970s when her marriage to Lord Anthony Snowden hit the skids. The royals still come to Mustique to vacation. St. Vincent and the Grenadines were under British rule until 1969, which explains why Mick Jagger has a house here, although it doesn’t explain why Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and American designer Tommy Hilfiger have homes here as well.
For a true taste of Mustique, you can rent the late Princess’s villa, called Les Jolies Eaux, for about $30,000 a week. You can also rent Mick Jagger’s Stargroves villa, which comes with a household staff of seven. Or, you can take a boat over for the day, go to the stunning Macaroni Beach, and then linger at the Beach Cafe at the Cotton House and save yourself about $29,700. We rented a couple of lounge chairs at the club after lunch and later found ourselves at Basil’s Bar getting slightly pie-eyed before boarding the boat and heading back to the decidedly less posh shores of Bequia.
To experience another part of Bequia we switched hotels from the remote Liming to the Plantation Hotel, which is in the main town of Port Elizabeth. Despite the small shops and stalls selling fruit and bric-a-brac, Port Elizabeth is a sleepy place. At least in the off-season there was no discernible party scene. From our hotel we could walk a path along the water called the Belmont walkway and look at the stars, or giggle like fifth-graders at a restaurant called the Whale Boner.
The restaurant’s name is not meant to simply elicit chortles. Noncommercial whaling is still allowed in Bequia with the same tools that have been used for more than a century. Locals can catch no more than four whales per year. The quota is seldom met, and some years no whales are killed. The Whale Boner welcomes diners with an entry made of two ribs from a humpback whale and the bar’s seats are made of whale vertebrae. Despite the whale theme, don’t look for whale on the menu.
To the north of Bequia is the island of St. Vincent, which acts as the urban center of the islands. There are beach resorts here, but honestly, if you’ve got beach on the brain, head to the Grenadines. On the morning we went to St. Vincent we skipped Kingstown, which is generally where most cruise ships deposit their passengers, and headed north to the lush, green hills of the island that are often overlooked. You can hike the island’s volcano, called Soufrière, but we didn’t fly to the Caribbean to hike. So instead we explored the black sand beaches and ate an obscenely long lunch of home-cooked chicken at Ferdie’s Footsteps in St. George.
This may sound hard to believe — so please try to muster up some fake sympathy — but running around an archipelago of Caribbean islands at a slow-to-medium pace can really take a lot out of a guy. By the end of the week I was ready to give the Bequia beaches a proper testing, and by proper testing, I mean do absolutely nothing in the sun. On the last full day of the trip, I walked over to Princess Margaret Beach, which was named for her after she visited Bequia in the 1950s. There were more boats anchored in the harbor than people sitting on the white sand. After a thorough slathering of sunscreen, I unfurled my towel and dropped with a yawn.
This is where the true indulgence begins. I can’t remember the last time I actually fell asleep on a beach. There’s usually indistinct chatter or someone playing music through a Bluetooth speaker keeping me awake. But in Bequia, in the sun-warmed sand, I felt as if I was truly away from it all and dozed off without a care. That, my friends, is what a Caribbean escape should feel like.