Deep in the Southern Caribbean is a tiny green island, just seven miles square, once known as "Island in the Clouds." 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 SeaDream Yacht Club, Island Windjammers, 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 in the Clouds" 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 1700s 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. The island was particularly prominent in the whaling industry for a time, though today's 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 become welcome friends while they're here.
Port Elizabeth encompasses only a few streets and a pretty harbor area. Shops and restaurants border the waterfront path known as the Belmont Walkway. There is also an open-air market in town as well as Bequia Technology Center (Front Street; 784-458-3045) for Internet access. Princess Margaret Beach is a 30-minute walk (or quick cab ride) from Port Elizabeth. From town, the Belmont Walk joins the newer Princess Margaret Walk, which meanders along the rocky coastline in spectacular fashion. Even if you're not interested in going to the beach, this is a lovely walk.
Admiralty Bay: 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 small 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; they offer handmade model boats that reflect Bequia's seafaring past.
Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary: A great stop for families is the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary (Belmont Road), 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 to make an appointment. (784-458-3245; open 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., November through April, with shorter hours during the offseason)
Hamilton Fort: There's virtually nothing left of the 18th-century Hamilton Fort, save for a few French and British cannons propped against a low stone wall. But this hilltop site overlooking Admiralty Bay is worth the visit for the spectacular views of the bay and beyond.
Scuba Diving or Snorkeling: Go scuba diving or snorkeling in Bequia's crystal-clear waters. Both Dive Bequia (784-458-3504) and Bequia Dive Adventures (784-458-3826) operate snorkeling and diving excursions out of Port Elizabeth's Belmont Walkway.
Friendship Rose: Set sail aboard the schooner Friendship Rose (784-457-3888) for a day trip to Mustique. If you've ever wanted a glimpse into the lifestyles 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 per week to rent. 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. ship. 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.
Excursions to Mustique alternate with longer trips to the more-distant Tobago Cays, so check the schedule in advance. Trips to Mustique leave from Port Elizabeth at 8 a.m. and return around 5 p.m.
On Foot: Port Elizabeth is very small and easily walkable, with Princess Margaret Beach 20 or 30 minutes away on foot, depending on distractions along the way.
By Taxi: Open-backed taxis can be found in Port Elizabeth -- usually "under the almond trees" near the harbor. Rates are fixed by the Bequia Tourism Association Office. You can pick up a rate card at the BTA's office in Port Elizabeth. Most cab drivers will be happy to give you a personalized tour of the island for about $30 U.S. per hour for up to four people, and $7 per person per hour for five or more. A typical short itinerary would include a trip to Fort Hamilton, perched above Port Elizabeth, as well as visits to the turtle sanctuary and the whaling museum.
Water taxis are also available from the Belmont Walkway and can drop you off at Lower Bay or Princess Margaret; the typical rate is $7 for several people in a boat.
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 40 cents per ride. This is the cheapest and most informal way of getting around Bequia, but from Port Elizabeth, they only travel south along the main road as far as the village of Paget Farm.
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 you need a snack or a restroom, 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: Frangipani is one of the island's most popular hangouts, serving up excellent seafood and local favorites in a friendly waterfront bar within the Frangipani Hotel. 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. (Port Elizabeth; 784-458-3255; open daily 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.)
Mac's Pizzeria: Mac's Pizzeria is famous for its lobster pizza, but don't worry if you're not a seafood fan -- there are 18 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. (Belmont; 784-458-3474; open 11 a.m.to 10 p.m.)
De Reef: De Reef 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. (Lower Bay; 784-458-3958; open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., closed Sunday)
Basil's Bar: Basil's Bar 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 such as soups and sandwiches, but the pricier seafood dishes including grilled lobster and curried conch are worth the splurge. (Mustique; 784-488-8350; open from 8 a.m.)
Ships anchor in Admiralty Bay and passengers tender to Port Elizabeth, the island's only real town.
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. Also beware of the Manchineel tree (some of which are planted near the Belmont Walkway); the fruit is poisonous and you can get a rash from touching the bark.
The local currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar, valued at about $2.70 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 two banks with ATMs in Port Elizabeth: Bank of St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and RBTT (Royal Bank of Trinidad and Tobago).
English is the language spoken in Bequia.
Handmade model boats from Mauvin's or Sargeant Brothers Model Boat Shop, both in Port Elizabeth, are excellent mementos that reflect Bequia's seafaring past.
While rum punch mixed with locally made Sparrow's Premium Rum is ubiquitous across Bequia, head to Frangipani Restaurant to try one of their original concoctions, such as the Frangi Fever -- made with rum, orange juice, ginger ale, angostura bitters and cinnamon.
On the Web: St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ministry of Tourism and Culture
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The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Travel Guide
--By Sarah Schlichter, Senior Editor at IndependentTraveler.com; updated by Jayne Clark, Cruise Critic contributor