Mark Palmer for The Mail on Sunday
The name Industry Bay is a misnomer if ever there was one. Three cottagey, whitewashed rooms sit on the beach next to a green tin-roofed building housing a bar and restaurant – and that’s about it.
Mind you, there is a smidgeon of industry going on at lunchtime when yachties come over from the other side of Bequia for a plate of rotis (curried fish in a pancake) and a swim in the turquoise sea.
‘If you had arrived an hour earlier, there would have been no electricity and there are times when the internet goes down across the whole of the island,’ says Emmet Pace proudly as he and his former Wall Street banker wife Heather greet us on Industry Bay’s Sugar Reef. Not a problem. Light the candles. Part of the charm.
Sea breeze: The yachties love to call in at calm Bequia
And then he explains that industry on this occasion means ‘industrious’ rather than ‘industrial’ – and we like the sound of the place even more. Bequia is a small island with a big heart. It’s a mere seven square miles, with a population of fewer than 5,000 and is part of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
There’s a proud history of ship-building (Bob Dylan had a boat made here) and whaling, and yachtsmen still drop anchor in the magnificent capital, Port Elizabeth, coming ashore to stock up on bread and bonhomie.
There’s lots of argument over how to pronounce it – ‘Beckway’ and ‘Bequi’ are wrong, ‘Beckwy’ is correct, apparently. It means the ‘island of the clouds’ and after a mere 24 hours I’m floating around, glassy-eyed, telling my wife about the great novel I shall write, the multi-million- dollar business I am about to start and how in my spare time I may even broker a peace deal in the Middle East.
And there’s something else. Once you get to Bequia (we flew with Virgin via Barbados) there’s really nothing much to spend your money on except eating and drinking – though somehow we manage to acquire several paintings from an American artist as a reminder of lazy mornings, sleepy afternoons and laid-back evenings when the big decision is whether to begin proceedings with a rum punch or punchy local lager.
Caribbean charm: Bequia is known for its friendly welcome
A company called Just Bequia takes care of most of the business from the UK – and we’re mighty impressed by its powers of organisation. Charming taxi driver Gideon picks us up at the tiny airport in his open-sided safari-style truck.
He gives us a mobile phone with his number plumbed in and says we should simply call him whenever we want to go somewhere. So, on our first morning, after fresh fruit and toasted banana bread at Sugar Reef, we dial his number and miraculously he appears a few minutes later and takes us on a grand tour.
We go up little tracks and down bumpy lanes, passing lots of brightly coloured wood shacks, tethered cows and wandering goats. From the island’s highest point, Mount Pleasant, we get to see St Vincent to the north, and Mustique, Canouan and Mayreau to the south.
That evening, we eat grilled fish with Emmet and Heather and that’s when we meet artist Julie Lea and her husband Doug, who used to be a speech writer in Washington for, among others, President Jimmy Carter. They sailed into Port Elizabeth for the first time in the late Seventies and now live here permanently.
On the crest of a wave: Bequia could soon be getting a bigger airport, but for now it’s small town charm remains
There’s a lot of chat about how the St Vincent government has sold off prime parcels of land in Bequia to pay for an airport on the big island, which is due to open in December 2014, but even if this happens there’s no guarantee the big boys will fly in and out.
Sugar Reef is on the Atlantic side of the island, but its bay is sheltered, so the swimming is easy. It’s a magnificent spot – like staying in your own villa, especially in the mornings when the beach is deserted.
Near to Sugar Reef but just back from the coast is Firefly, a sister hotel to the one the Middletons enjoy in Mustique. We have some wonderful creole there and afterwards we’re given a fascinating tour of the plantation. Highly recommended.
We also eat well at Papa’s, with its striking views of the harbour, and Fernando’s Hideaway, where there are no menus. Starter is ‘soup or soup,’ as the waitress puts it, and then you choose between chicken, fish and lamb – but everyone goes for fish because Nando, as he’s known, will have caught it that morning.
After three nights at Sugar Reef we move to the Bequia Beach Hotel on Friendship Bay, where a couple of years ago Swedish lawyer Bengt Mortstedt let his heart rule his head and built a 60-room resort that most people at the time thought was an act of folly. But guests are returning for a second or third year, staying in plush ocean-view rooms or in cottages spread around the eight-acre site. It’s the only big hotel on the island.
Local colour: Islanders and holidaymakers happily mix on this laid-back retreat
The two best beaches on Bequia are Princess Margaret Beach (she came over for a picnic once from Mustique) and Lower Bay, which is perfect in every way. At times, they remind us of Salcombe with the bay dotted by boats, at others they’re Cornwall on a balmy July afternoon.
Wandering along the shore, people acknowledge each other with little nods or waves. Locals and outsiders mingle. Everyone knows what a special place it is. Nothing is taken for granted.
Change may come to Bequia – but not yet. For the moment, here on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches you swim in a warm sea, eat fried fish in one of three little shacks and bask in your own good fortune. You can get to these beaches by water taxis with names such as No Complain, Blessings or (my favourite) Why worry.
Our best night out is at Devil’s Table, where on Fridays there’s a reggae band that attracts a big crowd – and not just tourists. My wife doesn’t like dancing, but shortly after midnight she’s wriggling with the best of them.
We pick up our paintings from Julie the night before we leave. She makes the point that Bequia is still ‘unfurnished’. Then she gives us a copy of her book, Bequia Reflections, in which she says the island is ‘a state of mind – that holds us in her spell, teaches us about life and beckons us always to return’. Precisely.