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The island, only nine miles south of St. Vincent (known as the "Mainland" to locals) was first settled by the Arwak people. The Arwarks were eventually eliminated by the Caribs, a warlike race who took over the island and named it "Becouya", meaning "Island of Clouds". The long period of European colonization began in 1664 when the French claimed Bequia, although permanent settlements were not established until 1719. Between 1763 and 1783, the English and French flip flopped control of the Grenadine islands until the Treaty of Versailles gave ultimate control to England.
Under English rule, agriculture, particularly sugar, was promoted throughout the island. When the sugar trade declined, the people of Bequia turned towards the sea and began a culture of fishing, whaling and boat building. The whaling industry attracted Scots and even today their lingering influence is felt. Because whaling is considered an indigenous tradition, the country is allowed to catch two whales per year under international treaty.
In 1979 St. Vincent and the Grenadines attained independence but remained part of the British Commonwealth. Due to its off-the-beaten-path location, Bequia, and the country as a whole, has focused on local, authentically Caribbean tourism that appeals to yachters and adventure travelers. In a large part, the lack of mass-tourism is a direct result of the stringent policies of beloved Prime Minister J.F. Mitchell, who once said:
"The tourist dollar alone, unrestricted, is not worth the devastation of my people. A country where people have lost their soul is no longer worth visiting. We will encourage only small numbers of visitors whose idea of a holiday is not heaven or paradise, but participation in a different experience. We shall try to avoid the fate of some of our Caribbean neighbors who have ridden the tiger of tourism only to wind up being devoured by it. Large super-luxury hotels with imported management, materials, and values bring false prosperity with the negative side effects of soaring land prices that kill agriculture, polluted beaches, traffic jams, high rise construction that ravages hillsides and scalds the eyeballs - the very problems that the visitors want to forget."
When to Go
Although Bequia's tropical climate makes it an ideal year-round destination, the best time to go is during the dry months. The dry season runs from approximately January to May and the rainy season from June through December, with July being the wettest. From September to November hurricanes are always a potentially dangerous occurrence.
How to Get There
This remote island is reached by air or sea. Flights can be booked directly into Bequia's small, J.F. Mitchell airport via Barbados on LIAT, Mustique Air, SVG Air or TIA. The more common route is to fly into St. Vincent and then ferry to Bequia's Admiralty Bay. Ferries run a half a dozen times a day and take approximately one hour, dock to dock.
By far the most popular mode of transportation is via private yacht. Long a yachties paradise, Admiralty Bay serves as a watery parking lot for these sometimes luxurious carriers of both the rich and famous and those who just enjoy taking to the sea. Customs is located directly opposite the ferry dock in Port Elizabeth.
Being only a mere seven square miles in size, the entire island can be taken in with a leisurely stroll. Other options include dollar buses, taxis (pick-up trucks with canvass awnings over the cabs) and water taxis for beach hopping. Taxis can be picked up at The Almond Tree in central Port Elizabeth, which is literally just an almond tree where the taxi drivers sit in the shade and wait for business. Fares should be negotiated prior to the trip.
Bequia is not a destination full of marquee attractions since the real attraction here is its laid back local tempo. In fact, a popular answer to the question of "What's there to do?" is a simple, "Nothing", which is exactly the beauty of the island. Be sure to pack lots of paperbacks, crosswords and playing cards. However, when you're not busy "doing nothing", here's some things to occupy your free time:
Bequia's mountainous terrain blesses it with several secluded harbors lined with long stretches of peaceful sands. All beaches are public, but its rare you'll see more than a handful of people at any given time. The closest beach to Port Elizabeth is Princess Margaret Beach. The beach is lined by a tropical forest of shady palms and overlooks the turquoise waters of Admiralty Bay and its mooring of bobbing yachts. Princess Margaret is assessable by foot; just follow the Belmont Walkway.
Lower Bay Beach, located around the corner from Princess Margaret, is also accessible by a footpath located at the far end of Princess Margaret Beach. Lower Bay is a white sand beach with tranquil waters perfect for snorkeling and swimming. Along its rocky tips, sea turtles and octopuses abound. The village located along the main road has several options for food and drinks. Dawn's Beach Café is a popular place for sandwiches and beers whereas Keegans is known for its evening beachside barbeques.
Friendship Bay plays hosts to the third of the island's accessible beaches and is best reached via taxi. Located on the windward side of the island, facing the Atlantic, the waters here tend to be less clear and rougher. However, the pristine scenery of mist-shrouded islands floating along the horizon, its isolation and lack of boats blocking the view easily make up for any shortcomings. Further, the complimentary beach chairs are worth the trip themselves. The Moskito Bar, an open-terraced beachside bar and restaurant, mixes up a wide array of tempting tropical drinks which can be enjoyed either on the sand or in a bar side swing. Live bands often play well into the night.
To Spring and Sea Turtles
Bequia's number one bonafide tourist attraction is the unique Oldhegg Turtle Sanctuary, located in the remote Industry Bay region. The most rewarding way to reach the site is to walk there and take a taxi back. The walk, which can be steep and several hours long, will give you a true perspective of the island.
Begin by taking a right at the road running next to the New York Bar in Port Elizabeth. At first the hike is nothing but an unimpressive trek straight up the hillside. However, once you reach the crest be sure to turn around for a panoramic view of Admiralty Bay. Continue down the hill, past the foul smelling island landfill, and into the remote community known as Spring. Here you will pass Spring Pottery, located in the ruin of an old sugar plantation. The shop sells handmade, local crafts and artwork, along with being an operating pottery kiln open for tours. Up the hill from here is Spring on Bequia, a boutique hotel famous for both its views and Sunday afternoon curry buffets.
As you continue on you will pass the desolate Spring Bay, with its towering palm trees and old stone aqueducts. From here it is back up the hill, at the top of which you are greeted by past-the-horizon views of the Grenadine islands and gently seductive Caribbean Sea. From this vantage point you also can get a good feel of the shape and sounds of Bequia.
At the foot of the hill is Industry Bay, home of the oldest home on the island, which is still locally owned. From the Bay it is just a short walk to the humble Oldhegg Turtle Sanctuary. Founded by former sailor, Orton "Brother" King, the sanctuary nurses and breeds hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles in an effort to replenish the Southern Caribbean's rapidly disappearing turtle population. Mr. King started the project when he was camping on the beach now located adjacent to the site. While sleeping under the stars he was awakened by the unsettling feeling that someone was throwing sand at him. As he cautiously came out of his slumber he saw at his feet a mother sea turtle laying her eggs. Fascinated by this creature, he built his home here so he would be around to watch the turtles hatch. Inspired by this miracle of nature, Mr. King went on to start the sanctuary program and to date has raised and released thousands throughout the surrounding islands. Admission is a $20.00EC donation.
Port Elizabeth is the only real "city" on the island. However, a place that has two streets, efficiently named Front Street and Back Street, can hardly be considered a city. Yet it is here where all of the island's energy converges. Besides being the starting point for the hotel and restaurant lined Belmont Walkway, the city proper has its fair share of attractions. At the very least, a stroll down harbor lined Front Street and back on neighborly Back Street gives you a glimpse of day-to-day Bequian life.
Along the way, be sure to poke your head into one of the handful of churches along the road. Often times all you have to do to find them is listen for the energetic and beautiful gospel signing radiating from their walls.
The main draw of Port Elizabeth is its boutique craft, clothing, art and grocery shops. For a selection of colorful local crafts and clothing, start at Local Color. Located on the Belmont side of Port Elizabeth in the upper story of a dive grocery store, Local Color specializes in tropical inspired women's clothing and basic island souvenirs. Noah's Arkade, adjacent to the Frangipani, also sells an excellent collection of homemade crafts, postcards, antique replica maps and clothing. For local books, along with a good selection of mass-paperback fictions for beach reading, the Bequia Bookshop is your place.
Historically, Port Elizabeth was a place of boat building. However, as the carriages of the sea transformed from wood to steel, the town adapted by taking the same skills and craftsmanship and applying them to building model boats. Throughout the streets of Bequia small boat building shops can be found. Here visitors can both buy model boats, some costing as much as a real boat, but also watch the artist practice their time-honed trade. The best places to catch boat building in action are Withfield Sails, Mauvin's and Sargeant Bothers', all located on the far end of Port Elizabeth.