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Bequia - 2023


1-23 February



“Bequia isn’t the same”, warned a friend. “It’s all changing – restaurants closed, the Frangipani Hotel deserted”. All doom and gloom!


I’d heard all this before. Normally, you get warned that there are fewer boats in the harbour, and that tourists are staying away, etc, etc. In the past, I’ve failed to detect these things. But would it actually be true this time? What with the after-effects of all the lockdowns, looming inflation, people wondering if they can afford their heating bills, let alone afford expensive holidays.



What’s the answer?


It’s impossible to deny that the island suffered, not so much from the pandemic as from the travel restrictions. At least two years with hardly any tourists. Smaller businesses have closed. Some of the restaurants are no more. And some of the people we used to see are no longer around.


But let’s not overdo the gloom. Bequia definitely survives. Actually, it’s busier than I ever remember. Getting reservations at the better restaurants can require forward planning of a high order. And boats in the harbour – Oh dear, no problem! See my mini-rant below.



Arrival


I arrived as usual to the warm welcome of Sandra, the taxi driver, and then Keisha, the girl now in charge of the apartments where I stay.


Attentive readers will have spotted my use of the first person singular. I was indeed a solo traveller this time. Mary, shortly before we were leaving, decided that I should go, but that her conscience wouldn’t allow her to leave her granddaughter, then suffering from troubles – troubles beyond the scope of a mere travel journal. Sad, but these things happen.



People


Looking over my previous journals about Bequia, I see that I’ve always failed to say anything about one of the main reasons we go there - to see our friends. Not only the locals who we’ve got to know over the years, but also those intrepid travellers, getting more and more aged like ourselves, who brave the journey in order to enjoy a bit of February warmth and sunshine.


It used to be said that if you sat in Piccadilly Circus (very much in theory, particularly now!), you’d eventually meet all your friends. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is beginning to apply to Bequia. There I was, minding my own business, reading the paper on my iPad in one of the local cafes, and who should turn up but a dear friend and ex-colleague from Amsterdam.


The main contingent however, this year, was seemingly the entire population of north-west Norfolk, most of whom were members of the prestigious golf club at Brancaster. Other parts of the British countryside were also well-represented, including remote Scottish islands – and a group of lively ladies from Dorset.



Bequia, at least at this time of year, is a very sociable place.



Cruise ships



Moving on to visitors of a different stripe, I have to mention cruise ships, whose appearance gave rise to much consternation and debate.


Normally in the past we have tended to see about two a week – just bearable. My first experience this year was of a gigantic and monstrous version of the species run by what used to be Thomson Holidays and is now the German outfit called TUI. Not, actually, one of the very largest of these beasts: it contained a mere 1,900 punters plus some 1,000 staff. But considerable numbers of them, mostly British, emerged and wended their way onto Princess Margaret beach. Where, as a result, there was standing room only.


There was worse to come. A few days later, we had THREE monsters lined up at the entrance to the harbour. And I’m not sure that a day passed without one or more visitations.


There are two positive aspects. Although we, the (sort of) locals, feared endless overcrowding, on some occasions no one seemed to emerge from the ships. Where did they all go? Maybe they stayed on board enjoying the doubtless lavish facilities.


The other thing is that some say they bring money to the island. This is debatable. Local shops and those selling shells and souvenirs on the harbour-front say they don’t actually buy anything. They don’t go to the restaurants, being presumably well-fed on the boat. Although, to be fair, I did witness our friend Fay, with her stall on Princess Margaret beach, sell two (hopefully overpriced) T-shirts with a rather ferocious-looking bulldog depicted on the front.


The other source of money must be the fee that each cruise ship has to pay to be allowed in. But where does the money go? Poor little Bequia doesn’t seem to get much from the claws of the St Vincent government – hence the existence of Action Bequia, which I’ll come on to.


And even if the island does get some money, a big question is whether the profusion of cruise ships will tend to put off the likes of us, who visit Bequia because it isn’t the sort of place that attracts cruise ships. Let’s hope that someone can impose some kind of limit.




Village Apartments


I’m very keen that I shouldn’t bang on about the problems and disasters. Bequia is still a delight.



But the Village Apartments (see above), where we have stayed for the last many years, is – to put it politely – in a state of transition. Very sadly, the owner George Whitney died at the end of last year and his wife Val, who had been suffering from memory loss for a while, is now in a home. All was reasonably well this year. Run by the efficient Keisha, with Noel an English resident doing the bookings and the accounts. But what will happen? Who knows? Each of George and Val has/had a daughter, one living in Miami with no apparent intention of relocating, the other living somewhere else and probably wanting to sell the whole operation. Keisha and our old friend Clifford the gardener are not happy bunnies.



Frangipani


On to the other problem area: the Frangipani Hotel and, frankly, the other places owned by the late Sir James Mitchell, who died recently and whose properties are now in the hands of his daughters. The places seem to be being slowly killed. The latest demise is the delightful teashop attached to the Gingerbread Hotel, where for the last few decades people could meet for coffee during the morning and, even better, tea and home-made cakes in the afternoon. All now closed, allegedly because daughter Sabrina wants to open another teashop by the neighbouring Frangi. Best of luck! The bar at the Frangi, which used to be the social centre of the island, is often closed and so largely deserted. The evening rum punches are now served to the assembled crowds on the terrace of Mac’s Pizzeria, run by the enterprising Kevin.



Restaurants


Now onto the good news! Some restaurants may have closed, but there are plenty that haven’t. Two stand out. The most fun is Laura’s, run by Carlos, an Argentinian. On the waterfront; food good; music and dancing every Thursday.


The other is Cheri’s Rooftop Terrace, located a bit off the beaten track, in fact just above the local cemetery, which sounds bad but actually isn’t, particularly after dark when you can’t see what it’s above. The food is probably the best on the island.


And there is still the redoubtable Nando’s (aka Fernando’s Hideaway) serving traditional cuisine, including roast lamb with gravy and mint sauce, as it has for many decades. And his grilled fish was the best and tastiest I had anywhere.



Otherwise, there is Mac’s Pizzeria and Kitchen, the name correctly

indicating that it isn’t just a pizzeria. The food is good and even the pizzas are excellent – and I speak as a hesitant pizza connoisseur.


Also, the Plantation House. This is a “colonial-style” hotel – if that isn’t a hopelessly derogatory term these days. When we first came to Bequia, it was in semi-ruins, owned by assorted Italians, some or all of whom were said to be in prison. It has been much revived a few years ago by a New Zealander (I think) Kelly Glass. It has a lovely open position on the waterfront and the restaurant is good.


And there is the curiously named Provisions, run by a bearded Bostonian.


It’s always said that you don’t go to the Caribbean for the food and there is a truth lurking there. But you can do pretty well in Bequia.



Jack’s Bar


Jack’s Bar deserves an entry of its own. It’s on Princess Margaret Beach and is essentially a great lunch place, although it does do a knees-up on Tuesday evenings.



It was originally founded some years ago, shortly after we started coming, by two Swedes, Lars and Margarete. It was then taken over by Bengt Mortstedt, another Swede, the creator and owner of the high-class Bequia Beach Hotel on the south end of the island.


It’s good. I’m keen on the classic chicken caesar salad – perfect for lunch. But the conch (pronounced konk) fritters are great.


There was some excitement on one of the days. A couple on the next table lent over to us and pointed out a yacht on the horizon. I persuaded myself I could see it. Our new friends said it was the famous Black Pearl, the biggest sailing yacht in the world, owned by the family of the deceased Russian billionaire Oleg Burlakov. Our new (very attractive) friends were German, he a banker, she a pharmacist, both from Frankfurt, already in love with Bequia.



McCarthy


We need, sadly, an obituary of dear McCarthy. He died quite recently. He had been for countless decades a water taxi man, also having a sideline selling fresh bread to the yachts moored in the harbour.


We had been introduced to McCarthy by Professor Harold Kuhn of Princeton, one of the developers of game theory – with John Nash, played by Russell Crow in the film, The Beautiful Mind. Harold and his wife Estelle had been using McCarthy’s water taxi since McCarthy was a young lad. We became regular customers, particularly before the building of the walkway to Princess Margaret Beach.


There are two particular memories I have. The first is that McCarthy was a firm enemy of Action Bequia’s project to build the walkway. He reckoned that it would ruin his business. I reassured him – don’t worry, Mary will always prefer the taxi to the climb on the walkway. Reader, I have to tell you that McCarthy was dead right. We probably never used his taxi again.


The other memory is of a conversation Mary had with him about Elton John (not quite sure how the subject arose). McCarthy was a devout and traditional Christian. He was shocked to hear that his hero was gay. He was then even more shocked, to the point of disbelief, to hear that he was married and had children. Probably, a case of too much information.




Industry


I and friends made a very short visit of exploration to Industry Bay, the place with the most misleading name of anywhere in the world. I dread to think what the industry may have been back in the day when it got its name. There ain’t no industry now.



Industry used to be the location of a lovely restaurant cum hotel called Sugar Reef, but it’s been closed since the lockdowns, probably only partly due to the lockdowns. It lies on the wilder side of the island, facing the Atlantic and the prevailing winds. And it gets beset by the dreaded Sargasso weed, a nasty, prolific, brown, smelly weed that originates I suppose in the Sargasso Sea., and lands up in large quantities on the beach at Industry. When Sugar Reef was open, I remember teams of men with wheelbarrows trying, only semi-successfully, to get rid of the stuff away from the restaurant and its beach. I guess that the owner, Emmet, felt he was fighting a losing battle.


It’s all very closed up now. The weed continues to pile up. But the place has a certain wild attraction as the wind blows and the palm trees sway. I’m sure that there’ll be someone brave enough to open it up again.


Investigating (closed) Sugar Reef



Disasters


As I arrived, I was told of two nasty events that had occurred a few weeks before.


Bequia is a peaceful island, but some sort of family quarrel had caused the brother of a man who ran a shop on the island to hire an assassin to kill him. Which he did, shooting him in the head, to the shock and dismay, understandably, of the locals, definitely including our taxi driver Sandra, who could hardly talk about it.


The other disaster occurred when the wife of the man who runs a salt processing business (which we visited some years ago) accidentally drove off the side of a road and killed herself.



Action Bequia


Turning to some good news, Action Bequia goes from strength to strength. This is the charity founded some years ago by our friend Richard Roxburgh to do things on the island that the government should be doing but doesn’t – building and repairing the walkways; recycling: responding to endless cries for help from the local people.


Richard is a master at raising serious amounts of money from generous charitable foundations, many in the States. We are always happy to go to the annual fundraising event in February. This year it took place in the most amazing house, the Sail House, at the kind invitation of its owners and creators, Mikey Wilkie and Nicola Cornwell. It was basically an auction and it raised over US$50,000. Congratulations to Richard and Action Bequia.



And finally . . .



One of Action Bequia’s first tasks had been to build the walkway – or rather trail – around the headland leading to Princess Margaret beach – the project that McCarthy hated. Last year there was a landslide that did some damage. Actually, there didn’t seem to be a lot of damage, but caution took over. Signs were put up saying the trail was CLOSED. Such is the bravery of the Bequia visitors – or perhaps their wearied familiarity with silly signs - that no one has taken the slightest bit of notice of them. I guess we all detect the work of lawyers carefully protecting someone’s backside.










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