Thursday, 20 December 2012

Bequia Travel Report -December 2012

Where and what is Bequia and why have so few people heard of it? The simple answer is that it is one of the Grenadine islands in the Caribbean just south of St Vincent, a little north of Grenada and about 35 minutes flight west of Barbados. It is quite small but remarkably full of all the pleasures and amenities people look for on holiday. Why have so few people heard of it? It is probably because it has a small airport and nowhere for cruise ships to dock. It is literally an unspoilt gem of a place.
We first found it about 3 years ago. The attractions of Barbados, Antigua, Tobago and St Lucia were beginning to fade as their popularity grew so we set out to find places that still reflect the charm of the Caribbean. Somewhere that did not have mass tourism but was still civilised, welcoming and reasonably easy to get to. Previously we discovered Anguilla that fits the bill perfectly but now we wanted to see if there were any more out there. Our ‘must have’ list was not huge but important to us and included the following: A secure place with nice welcoming people. We did not want to be robbed, abused or snarled at on holiday. A scenically pretty island with plenty of beaches and picturesque countryside.In other words a place that is welcoming to the eye. We like to eat out on holidays so we searched for a place that had a diversity of restaurants from local bars to fine dining. Accommodation to be comfortable in. We did not want crowds so we looked for something more boutique in size with air conditioning, a nice pool and alongside a beach. Somewhere you could really chill out in comfort. Our first visit to Bequia those few years ago met all these criteria except for accommodation. The island is full of reasonably priced villas to rent and small hotels with basic amenities but we wanted to spoil ourselves. We moved into a hotel that was clearly perfect for us but unfortunately we did not listen to the owners when they said it was still being developed.
We lasted only three days but vowed to return when it was finished and this is what we have just done. So here is the story of our trip to what we hoped would be paradise. I think most will agree when I say there is a lot to know when you visit somewhere for the first time so I will pack my story with lots of detail which you can choose to absorb or ignore! Obviously getting there is the first part. We flew from Gatwick to Barbados on Virgin in their Upper Class cabin. We chose them because they leave slightly earlier (1030) than British Airways and we had booked a connection separately on SVG airlines. I am glad we did because it gave us the necessary time buffer in Barbados and also BA have been cancelling and delaying their services to Bridgetown recently. The flight was rather nice. Having got over the strange feeling of sitting 45 degrees to the direction of travel we enjoyed the service. The staff were good, the seats comfortable to sit in, there were plenty of drinks and they had been discreet in the way they had upgraded people into the cabin. Every airline I know overbooks their economy cabin to holiday destinations as there is simply not enough business folk or higher fare payers to fill the front cabins. There is no way they can alter cabin size or seat types on big jets so they overbook and leave it to the day of departure to sort out. Who gets upgraded can be a bit of a lottery and often staff are assigned the task to walk around the gate area and choose likely folk. If you want an upgrade I suggest you dress smartly and make smiling eye contact with any staff that seem to be looking for someone! Other times the staff are likely to upgrade their friends and other airline staff. In my experience this happens a lot with BA at Gatwick. The flight left bang on schedule and arrived early. In Bridgetown you walk off the aircraft and, as you are about to enter the building, you will be met by a representative of SVG (St Vincent and Grenadine Air Alliance) who will be holding a placard with names on it and taken to their transfer desk. There they will process your transfer and guide you to the departure lounge. You will need to have completed a Barbados landing card even if you are in transit. They will also get your bag for you and put it on their aircraft. It will help enormously if you make your bags easily identifiable. I tied a yellow ribbon on bag handles (SVG colours are yellow) and took a picture of them to give to the transfer guy.
It worked like a dream and they were the first found. If you are getting hot and thirsty by this time then either bring some EC$ (East Caribbean Dollars) or US$ as the stalls there accept both. The connection flight will go on time. It has to because the smaller island airports do not have landing lights and shut around 1730. They usually operate De Haveland Twin Otter aircraft which are sturdy and safe but rather noisy. As we taxied out we saw the delayed BA flight landing which meant all their connecting passengers would waste a night of their holiday in Barbados. The flight was scenic and uneventful and 35 minutes later we were approaching Bequia airport. A word of warning here. Not only do these island airports have no lights but they can be subject to crosswinds and Bequia is no exception. You land right next to some hills and often the wind hits the hill and bounces back. Do not worry! This is normal and the pilots are entirely ready for it even if you might not be! So there we were. A seamless hassle free pair of flights and safely in Bequia. So what was it like? Well it is not huge. In fact it is probably about 6/8 square miles in total and less than 5000 people live there. They all seem to know or be related to each other in some way which helps keep community spirit high and crime low. Anyway, I am starting to digress! Immigration and customs at the tiny airport are probably more thorough than Gatwick or Bridgetown. They take their job very seriously and do it thoroughly. Make sure you have filled in your arrival form; smile and you should get through without too much hassle. After all, if you had a job where you hung around all day for a very few small flights you would want to do it thoroughly to prevent terminal boredom. The transport was waiting. It consisted of a man who was grinning from ear to ear and a canvas covered pick-up truck. We piled into the back and weaved down the road to our hotel. A hire car had been delivered to the hotel for us. If you send them a print of your license in advance they will queue up and get your local permit for EC$50. Do it as otherwise standing in line yourself is a pain. Did we really need a car? No. If we took taxis every time we needed them it would be cheaper than paying for your own vehicle to sit in the hotel parking lot. It is convenient though!
The Bequia Beach Hotel was everything we hoped it would be. What had been a building site is now a small but immaculate hotel resort with free form pool, spa, and beach restaurant. Everything seems new and clean including the pool and beach chairs and I admit we were very impressed…and not a little relieved. The food was good and so was the limited entertainment they provide. Everything is low key, relaxed and high quality, in fact very Swedish. The GM is a beautiful (in every sense of the word!) Swedish lady called Carina Peterssen and she was always around to take care of her guests. You want something? Just phone reception and a cheerful lady will get it for you.
They have a range of rooms there. We stayed in a beachfront suite which was exactly that. The room faced the sea which was no more than 30 feet away. We chose the first floor so that it was both quiet and perfect for sundown balcony drinks. Other rooms are all comfortable and they also have three villas you can hire as well. All plugs there are British three pin and the current is 220 volts so no adapters needed for the Brits. Those that do need them can borrow some from reception. Bottled water is best and you get free bottles to start you off when you arrive.
We were too lazy to try the spa and immersed ourselves in our Kindles instead. There are plenty of sun shades around the pool and trees next to the beach to shelter under if you wish. The bar is close by and they occasionally check to see that you do not dehydrate! The local beer is Hairoun which tastes better every time you try one. WE had an unforgettable time there and made lots of new friends. OK there is no room service but, if you need it, pick up the phone and it will come. There are no real water sports but hey, do you really want to jet- ski and they will lend you flippers?
There is no TV in most of the rooms but to me that was an asset! The best description of the place would be that you are a 5 star house guest of some very nice friends The best part was the people. Apart from the lovely Carina there were the guys and girls in the bar and restaurants. So thanks Ozan, Colin Garvey ,Bridget, Daria and all of you for an unforgettable stay. By the end I even had the barmen buying me drinks. You don’t get better than that!
We ate in the hotel a lot, not just because we were staying in the hotel but because the food and service were so very good. They seem to have imported some very good chefs which combined with a very promising local lady turn out exceptional meals. We probably had 12 breakfasts, 8 lunches and 6 dinners here and not one was poor. The lunch menu stays near the same with at least a couple of daily specials like pasta and fajitas. Otherwise they have burgers that make you drool and all sorts of club, bookmaker and fish ‘sandwiches’. Do not be fooled, they are not sandwiches in the traditional sense but tasty variations on a theme.
Evening meals were different each night and you can eat all kinds of fish, meat and salads. They were all good. And the desserts?! Wow, they were great. They have both a lobster and a barbeque night. Lobster was on Saturday and cost EC$116 (UK£26.50 each) for two courses. They are fresh because we saw the fishermen delivering them when we sat by the pool! The barbecue night was not that expensive and you have a choice of beautifully marinated steak, fish and chicken. Average lunch courses cost EC$55 (UK£12.59). Continental Breakfast EC$30 (UK£6.87) and cooked breakfast would increase this to about EC$50 (UK£11.45).
We also tried quite a few local restaurants which were very good considering the size of the island. Most were concentrated around the ‘capital’ Port Elizabeth. The ‘city’ has two main roads imaginatively called front street and back street with a few intersecting streets. The main supermarket for the island is called Knights and you can get most things there. Knight’s is on the corner of Back Street and the main intersecting lane. Further up is the Pharmacy, Hospital, Police Station and Doctor. We had to see the Doctor with ear infections and he prescribed antibiotics that would stop a charging Rhino in its tracks. It fixed us but boy the toilet visits were ‘interesting. Many of the bars and restaurants are on the Belmont Walkway.
This is a five foot wide strip of a path that creeps between the harbour itself and the mainland. It fell apart in a storm but has now been rebuilt and is better than ever. Here are some that we ate at: Tommy’s Cantina – A nice reasonably priced place to eat You can find Tommy’s right at the entrance to the Belmont Walkway. It is nothing pretentious and can get quite busy. We sat next to the rail overlooking the sea in wooden seats (no cushions) and watched the world go by. Do not expect gourmet food here but if you want something basic but tasty and not as pricey as some it is worth a try. The service was friendly and helpful and they will give you food to go. We had 4 beers, Goats Cheese Salad and Grilled Chicken for EC$98 or UK£22.44 Macs Pizza - Didn't want to go but glad I did
This is nuts. I don’t go to pizza restaurants, hell I don’t even like cheese! Nevertheless we went, mainly because of its good reviews and I am very glad we did. These pizzas are VERY well cooked and come in three sizes (9”,13” and 15”) and they will even do a delicious creation without cheese if you ask. There were a huge choice of fillings as well as wraps and sandwiches and, if you cannot finish (you won’t) then take it away in a box. The place is nearly at the end of the Belmont walkway and is charming to look at and sit in. You can stop on the road high up behind it and go down some special steps to collect a takeaway. If eating there I recommend you sit at the upper level of the restaurant as it catches more of any breeze. It is also a good place to meet local people and we enjoyed a pleasant evening next to our hotel security guard and his wife and child. Cost for 3 rum punches and a 9” and 13” pizza was EC$160 or UK£36.64 Papas Bar – Best bar on the island
This place is sometimes billed as a ‘sports’ bar which I am sure will put as many people off as it attracts but it is much more than that. Yes they do show all sorts of sport from cricket to rugby to NFL to Baseball but mainly on request and only in one area. The rest of the place has panoramic views, good service and decent well priced food. It is perched overlooking the harbour on the left hand side of the road passing the ferry docking pier. You can sit and eat indoors or al fresco on its large balcony.
We sat outside watching a children’s dinghy race, drinking rum punches and enjoying some burgers and salad.
When we left they charged us $110 which I thought was pretty steep but, as I left, the waitress chased after me saying that I had paid far too many US$ as the price was in EC$. Nice and honest and well appreciated. A great place. Jacks Place – Very pretty and relaxing
If you want an interesting picture postcard type of place you will not be disappointed. It is very well laid out and overlooks one of the best beaches on the island. They will let you use their beach sun loungers if you eat there which is a nice touch and it is owned by the group who operate Papas and Devils Table. We had Barracuda and chips as well as pork loin. To be frank the pork loin was rather bland and dry but the fish was very tasty. For some reason many places in the island tend to overcook their meat. So the food was adequate, it was scenically stunning and the people were nice.
You need to take a narrow steep track down the hill to it and parking is a little limited. Probably a taxi might be best. Devils Table - A difficult one to critique
This is a hard one because I met one of the management while having a drink in Papas Bar (they run it too). He was telling me how unfair some of the criticism was about the Devils Table and how he suspected some of it was malicious and possibly local. I told him we would eat there and give an honest personal view and here it is. This place is visually sumptuous and fun to the eye. It looks like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean which we enjoyed. The setting is perfect too as it seems built into the side of the rocks and has all sorts of nooks and crannies. It is a place to sit back and relax and, unless you take yourself very seriously, a place to chill and enjoy. So that is the best part. The less special part was the food and I urge them to look harder at this aspect of their service. My wife had baby ribs and I had rib-eye steak. Both were not really up to standard compared with the rest of the island. My steak was dry and poor quality and the ribs were inedible. Sorry Mr Owner sir but they were. They were cooked to dryness and smothered in a dry burnt pepper crust which was not nice. As a contrast the chips and Christophine gratin was spot on. Yet there was a kind of macaroni pie that was truly horrid in a dehydrated sort of way. The price for our evening which included the two mains and 5 rum punches (we became very thirsty) was EC$233 (UK£ 53.36) so it was not exactly cheap. So my verdict was that the place was great and has fabulous potential and I wish I was there sipping yet another rum punch. I would however recommend that you should monitor your meals more closely before they go out. I would also suggest you allow more space between tables. Finally, how about putting a sign by the road showing where you are. I bet many like me did not realise you are up that side road between Coco’s and the beach and you have parking available.
p.s. your expat locals do seem to scorn island visitors but I expect there is not much you can do about that! Whaleboner – Thar she blows!
Now this is an interesting place and something I have never seen before. It is about half way along the Belmont Walkway and entered through what looks like an arch made up from whale ribs. The bar itself has another ‘rib’ built into it and the bar stools are made from what appears are whale vertebrae.
The rum punches are wicked and the place becomes hard to leave if you settle there! The drinks are very nice, bar staff charming and it is positioned next to a dinghy park which is wonderful for late evening ‘entertainment’ as yachties return to their crafts. It is both open air and sheltered and has a boutique and restaurant attached We did not eat as the menu was frankly pretty average. A great place to chill and relax. Good luck getting home! L’Auberge Des Grenadines – Not much changes
The last time we went to this restaurant was about 3/4 years ago and I was looking forward to see how it had developed since then. The answer was not at all. The menu was the same as was the d├ęcor. Even the owner appeared the same as he sat in his corner bar stool looking cool, French, and not very visitor friendly. There was a jazz trio with a good guitarist a most adequate lady saxophonist and a distinctly strange keyboard vocalist that looked just like Zoot in the Muppet Show. They actually were rather good except for some laden remarks from ‘Zoot’ if we did not applaud loud enough! It was not crowded so we had to do a lot of clapping to keep him happy.
The starters were excellent and we had the same as our first visit which was Calalou soup and Onion soup and they were first class. We began to relax so ordered wine and water and two lobster mains fresh from the tank. My wife had to hide her eyes as a struggling lobster was plucked from its pool. Sadly it might have died in vain as. Like a lot of things on the island it was a bit dry but I enjoyed mine at least. By this time the owner’ regular drinkers turned up to join him at the bar. I am sure I recognised some from last time! We certainly started to feel like outsiders at a private party as the bar got louder and louder with much posturing and teasing going on. In fact we paid our bill and slunk off without a farewell from good old Jacques but EC$410 lighter (£93.89). For that price a mere acknowledgement of existence would have been appreciated! All in all it was great to have so many different places to eat and we barely scratched the surface. There is a place called Fernando we never got to. This is like the front porch of a house where this guy Fernando goes fishing in the morning and cooks it for ‘house guests’ in the evenings. Absolutely brilliant apparently but we never made it. Coco’s is another fun relaxing place that we missed. Many are hard to find so just ask anyone and they will tell you. You will love it I promise. I hope we have identified that you will not starve on this island. But what about activities? What is there to do and see? Perhaps unsurprisingly there is not a vast amount apart from greenery and beautiful beaches. By the way the best beaches are Lower Bay, Princess Margaret’s Bay, Friendship Bay (where our hotel was) and Industry Bay. If you want something different visit The Old Heg Turtle Sanctuary. This is a place at the furthest tip of the island run by a guy called Brother King. He both rescues and breeds turtles to a point where they are ready to release back into the sea. This guy must talk about it thousands of times but you can still feel the passion and dedication in him. The island used to be a local centre for the whaling industry and that is what most of the fishermen used to do. He is trying to convert them in to more eco-friendly activities. Entry is free but please make a small donation.Why not take a day cruise on the Friendship Rose Schooner to Mustique or the Tobago Keys?
As with all good things our holiday came to an end. We travelled in late November early December and stayed at the Bequia Beach Hotel. The weather was brilliant with only two rain showers which was quite a change from the alarmist forecast that said rain every day. The flights back were tedious but relatively uneventful. You need to totally clear customs and immigration in Barbados so fill in all those forms! If you want to use a lounge in Bridgetown there is still only one and it is not very nice. All the BA, Virgin, American, Air Canada folk all pile in it. Flying overnight on Virgin was a bit disappointing. Their very new flat beds are not as comfortable as the old ones and their flat pillow means your head is lower than your feet! Turbulence was bad (a seasonal thing) but service was better than BA. You may have already guessed that we love Bequia. And we will go back. It is how you expect the Caribbean used to be before the crowds moved in. The people are nice and you feel safe there. The scenery is stunning and the sea beguiling. If you want to know more then send me an email! Cheers everyone!

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