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Deep in the Southern Caribbean is a tiny green island, just seven miles square, once known as "Island of the Cloud." Life moves slowly here; days are long, languid, leisurely. Most visitors arrive not by cruise ship but by sailboat, anchoring alongside fishing boats in natural bays fringed by white beaches and tangled foliage. Like their ancestors, many islanders still make their living from the sea -- fishing, lobster diving, boat building, and working on yachts and cargo ships -- and live in small, sustainable homes with no running water. Shops offer not duty-free goods but genuine local handicrafts, from pottery to scrimshaw (etchings made in whale bone).
Where is this idyllic hideaway? It's not some Caribbean island of decades ago, before the onslaught of mass tourism and mega-ships; this is modern-day Bequia (pronounced BECK-way), the second-largest island in the nation known as St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Bequia does welcome some cruise visitors, but only from the likes of Windjammer, Silversea, Windstar and Star Clippers, all lines with ships small enough to anchor alongside the yachts in Admiralty Bay and tender passengers to shore. With the construction of a small airport in 1992, the island is now more accessible to visitors than it was in the past, but it remains refreshingly unspoiled, just the way locals -- and visitors -- like it.
Bequia's "Island of the Cloud" moniker comes from its original Carib name, Becouya. The Caribs were the native tribe in control of the island when the French arrived in 1664, and they put up a fierce resistance to European colonization. But by the 1700's the French (and later the English) had gained control and set up a number of thriving sugar plantations. Today there are few remaining signs of Bequia's sugar-growing past; the trade largely died out in the mid-19th century and gave way to the marine industries that remain Bequia's main livelihood today. The island was particularly prominent in the whaling industry for a time, though today environmental regulations mean that Bequians are only allowed to harpoon two whales a year (an affair accompanied by great festivities throughout the island).
Bequian life remains inextricably tied to the sea -- from the fresh-caught fish and lobster of its restaurants to the revolving mix of sailors and cruise visitors who, while they're here, become welcome friends.
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Other Southern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Antigua • Aruba • Barbados • Bequia • Bonaire • Curacao • Dominica • Grenada • Guadeloupe • Martinique • Nevis • Port of Spain, Trinidad • San Juan • St. Barth's • St. Kitts • St. Lucia • St. Vincent
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar, valued at about $2.67 E.C. to $1 U.S. You can use American dollars around the island, though you'll receive change in the local currency. There are a few banks with ATM's in Port Elizabeth.
Try one of the original drink concoctions at the Frangipani Restaurant, such as the Frangi Fever -- rum, orange juice, ginger ale, angostura bitters and cinnamon.
Handmade model boats from Sargeant Brothers Model Boat Shop in Port Elizabeth.
Watch Out For
If you decide to use the local public transportation system, be aware that vans may sit and wait to depart until they're full, and that schedules may be erratic. Be sure you know how you're going to get back to the ship at the end of the day if your van stops running.
Where You're Docked
Ships anchor in Admiralty Bay and passengers tender to Port Elizabeth, the island's only real town.
Port Elizabeth encompasses only a few streets and a pretty waterfront area. Shops and restaurants border the waterfront path known as the Belmont Walkway. There is also an open-air market in town. Princess Margaret Beach is a 30-minute walk from Port Elizabeth along rocky coastline -- or a quick cab ride.
On Foot: Port Elizabeth is very small and easily walkable, with Princess Margaret Beach 30 minutes away on foot.
By Taxi: Open-backed taxis can be found in Port Elizabeth -- usually "under the almond trees" near the harbor. They're not metered, so be sure to agree on a price (and which currency you'll be using) before you leave. Most cab drivers will be happy to give you a personalized tour of the island for about $20 per hour.
Water taxis are also available from the Belmont Walkway, and can drop you off at Lower Bay or Princess Margaret for about $5.50.
By Rental Car: Several local companies offer car and 4x4 rentals, starting at about $55 a day. Try Bequia Jeep Rentals or Challenger Car Rentals. If you don't have an international driver's license, you'll need to purchase a temporary local permit (about $28) at the Revenue Office in Port Elizabeth. Note that Bequians drive on the left.
By Van: Bequia's public transportation system consists of "Dollar Vans" that shuttle folks around the island from as little as about $0.40 per ride. This is the cheapest and most informal way of getting around Bequia -- consult the Tourist Office in Port Elizabeth, or simply tell a local or van driver where you'd like to go, and he or she will help you find the van you need.
The small, colorful town of Port Elizabeth overlooks Admiralty Bay, where dozens of yachts come and go throughout the day. Go souvenir-hunting or enjoy a meal along the Belmont Walkway, a lively waterfront path with restaurants, bars and shops. At the opposite end of town is an open-air market that's worth a browse. Nearby are Sargeant Brothers Model Boat Shop and Mauvin's Model Boat Shop, both on Front Street, offering handmade model boats that reflect Bequia's seafaring past.
A great stop for families is the Oldhegg Turtle Sanctuary, where kids (and adults) can see conservation in action. The founder, Orton "Brother" King, has dedicated himself to saving hawksbill turtles from extinction by collecting hatchlings and caring for them until they are three years old, at which point he releases them into the wild. Call ahead (784-458-3245) to make an appointment.
Often likened to "Flintstones" houses, the unique open-air dwellings on the peninsula of Moonhole were built by an American ex-pat named Tom Johnston, who came to Bequia with his wife in 1961 as an escape from a high-powered advertising career in the U.S. The houses at Moonhole (named after a rock arch through which the moon shines during the equinoxes) meld naturally into the craggy peninsula, made of local stone and other readily available materials, and designed around the existing geography. The houses now serve mostly as vacation homes. Call ahead for an appointment (784-458-3068) or take your ship's shore excursion.
At Spring Pottery & Studio (784-457-3757), located in a former sugar mill near Spring Bay, you can tour a working pottery and browse a gallery filled with colorful ceramics, paintings and local crafts (these make great souvenirs!).
Been There, Done That
Go scuba diving or snorkeling in Bequia's crystal-clear waters. Both Dive Bequia and Bequia Dive Adventures operate snorkeling and diving excursions out of Port Elizabeth's Belmont Walkway.
Take a cab or rental car to the Banana Patch Studio (784-458-3865) at Paget Farm to see the paintings and crafts of local artist Sam McDowell. McDowell is known for his scrimshaw, or etchings made in whale bone. His wife's shell handicrafts are also on display. Visits are by appointment only, so call ahead.
Set sail aboard the schooner Friendship Rose for a day trip to Mustique. If you've ever wanted a glimpse into the lifestyle of the rich and famous, you can get it here -- Mustique's spacious private villas, many perched atop promontories overlooking glittering seas and blinding white beaches, can cost as much as $45,000 to rent for a week. Once you arrive after the two-hour sail from Port Elizabeth, you'll have time to tour the island, go snorkeling, and eat lunch aboard the 100-ft. Friendship Rose. Note: The sea can sometimes be choppy as you sail from island to island, so you'll want to bring your remedy of choice if you're prone to motion sickness.
Best Beach for a Half-Day Visit: You can walk to Princess Margaret Beach from Port Elizabeth's Belmont Walkway in about 30 minutes, or take a quick cab or water taxi ride. This serene stretch of sand is a good place to sunbathe, swim or snorkel. Bring a picnic with you or head back to the restaurants along the Belmont Walkway for lunch.
Best Beach for Families: Families can swim, kayak, snorkel or build sandcastles at Lower Bay, one of the island's broadest and loveliest beaches. There are several bars and restaurants there in case anyone needs a snack or a potty, and water sports equipment can also be rented nearby.
Best Beach for Scenery and Seclusion: If you really want to get away from it all, head to Hope Bay along the island's eastern coast. You'll need to take a cab and then hike about a mile down to the beach (don't forget that you'll have to hike back up that mile as well!). It's worth the trek for a wide stretch of white sand that you may have completely to yourself -- just remember to bring a picnic (there are no facilities) and to arrange to have your cab return for you at the end of the day.
Bequia's small restaurant scene focuses mostly on West Indian cuisine with an emphasis on fresh-caught local seafood. Many of the best eateries can be found along the Belmont Walkway in Port Elizabeth.
Frangipani (Port Elizabeth, lunch 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.) is one of the island's most popular hangouts, serving up excellent seafood and local favorites in a friendly waterfront bar. It's well known for its Thursday night barbecue buffets, complete with dancing to a steel band -- if you have a late port call that day, don't miss it!
Mac's Pizzeria (Port Elizabeth, 784-458-3474, from 11 a.m.) is famous for its lobster pizza, but don't worry if you're not a seafood fan -- there are 16 other types of pizza to choose from, plus sandwiches, quiches, samosas and more. You'll find Mac's near the end of the busy Belmont Walkway.
De Reef (Lower Bay, 784-458-3958, from 7 a.m.) is a laid-back beach bar overlooking Lower Bay. Lunch options, all reasonably priced, include seafood, homemade breads, sandwiches and a fabulous mutton curry. The restaurant also rents out kayaks.
Moskito Bar & Grill (Friendship Bay, 784-458-3222, from 11 a.m.) literally offers a rockin' good time -- since the bar has wooden swings instead of stools. Located right on the beach at Friendship Bay, Moskito offers up pasta, jerk chicken and seafood to be enjoyed with a lovely view of the water.
Basil's Bar (Mustique, 784-488-8350, from 8 a.m., is the place to see and be seen (and eat and drink, of course!) on the ultra-posh island of Mustique. Housed in a casual wooden building that stretches out over the water, it's a prime gathering spot for sailors, folks staying in the island's seaside villas, and even the occasional visiting celebrity. The lunch menu includes light fare like soups and sandwiches, but the pricier seafood dishes like grilled lobster and curried conch are worth the splurge.
Best Overall Tour: Take an "island highlights" tour to see some of the loveliest of Bequia's attractions, beaches and bays. The tour itineraries vary by cruise line, but often include a photo op at Hamilton Fort, a visit to the Oldhegg Turtle Sanctuary and a stop in a local model boat shop or pottery studio. One and a half to three hours, depending on cruise line.
Best for Water Sports Enthusiasts: Spend a day on the water aboard the Passion, a 60-ft. catamaran. There will be at least one stop for snorkeling, and anglers can borrow one of the onboard reels to test their skills at deep-sea fishing. The less ambitious can just sit back and enjoy the sail -- along with complimentary tropical drinks. Five hours.
Best for Those Who've Seen It All: Take your ship's guided tour of Moonhole -- we bet you haven't seen anything quite like these open-air houses that seem to emerge organically from their rocky surroundings. The tour will give you some background on how the site developed and the materials that make up these unique, electricity-free homes. Two to three hours, depending on cruise line.
Staying in Touch
Sunset Internet Cafe, on Main Street in Port Elizabeth, offers Internet service. (Elsewhere in the building you can also rent a car or bike, or charter a yacht.)
For More Information
St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ministry of Tourism and Culture
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Caribbean
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Bargains and Features
--by Sarah Schlichter, Editor for Cruise Critic's sister Web site, IndependentTraveler.com.
Photos are courtesy of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ministry of Tourism and Culture