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  • Writer's pictureJay Belmar Van Meerbeeck

13 ° N, 61° W - Island in the Clouds

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

Trading in my heels for a backpacking trip to Bequia to retrace my childhood memories on one of the last undeveloped spots in the Caribbean.

“Oh Jeee zass, oh Gaahd!” a woman seated next to me bawls hysterically in her heavy Vincentian accent. Seemingly unperturbed, my two British colleagues who joined me on this adventure continue scanning the wind-splashed water for dolphins. My stomach, however, is doing summersaults with every dip and roll. The city girl in me had apparently forgotten what it was like to be an island girl.


Having left the busy metropolis yesterday, we are now sailing to Bequia. The ferry, in its earlier years, was a North Atlantic oilrig tender. The city of Kingstown slowly disappears behind us as buildings and their backdrop of cloud-covered mountains merge into one smoky blur. The deceptively vacant side of Bequia adjusts incrementally into focus as we plough our way onwards.


The landscape is noticeably different from St. Vincent. From this view of Bequia we could have easily been looking at the cliffs of Exmoor. Bequia, -- pronounced Bek-Way -- is the largest of the Grenadine islands in the archipelagic country of St Vincent and the Grenadines. This lightning bolt-shaped island, surrounded by greenish-blue waters, is seven square miles. It is just surpassed in size by the city of Westminster. Only by zooming all the way in on Google Maps will you spot the island. That said, a long-awaited international airport opened on St Vincent in February 2017 and Bequia is soon to be discovered by a wave of new explorers. To some degree I am here to retrace my childhood memories on one of the last undeveloped spots in the Caribbean, where everyone knows everyone.


The ferry pulls into Port Elizabeth, the island’s sleepy capital. Jose, the driver arranged for us by the inn is waiting for us on the dock. Our open-taxi rides towards the inn, located half way in-between everything, and zooms past brightly painted houses. Goats are roaming freely in a cemetery and animated locals are shouting in the semblance of a mild Vincentian accent spiced with Kalinago and other tones. Something important must be happening!



Our inns exterior is reminiscent of those two and three-storey houses of cards we used to build as children. We are all assigned airy suites on the second floor with shutter windows overlooking the garden. The trees are weighted down with mangoes and I make a mental note to return for a few. Hailing a local dollar van, we head to the Belmont Walkway that runs past a series of hotels and restaurants to for a Discovery Dive lesson. Our instructor, spends an hour going through diving instructions. This is followed by a basic test and we are given the go-ahead for our dive.



A final equipment and safety check, wetsuits donned, and we dive into the deep waters of the Devil’s Table. Pulsing with angelfish, longsnout seahorses, shy eels and lazy nurse sharks loafing on the sea floor, it was easy to see why it is referred to it as the critter capital of the Caribbean. I’m so giddy with excitement that I quickly use up the air in my tank; the diving trip is short lived.


It’s almost 6 p.m. when we have dinner with our local host, Leah. We share a couple of rounds of the local Hairoun beer, while an orchestra of crickets serenades us. “How about you take a sunrise hike up Bequia’s second highest peak, the Ma Peggy rock, in the morning?” Leah proposes.

 

Herman, our guide, knows the historic trail intimately. He laughs as we struggle to get our feet going following our previous night’s feast. “The hike takes up to three hours and we must try to beat the sun”, he instructs. The sunrise reflects onto the motionless ocean behind us as we ascend towards the clouds. Bequia definitely lives up to its indigenous name: Island in the Clouds.



At an animal watering hole, now filled only with historical memories, we pause to inhale the mountain air and the aroma of surrounding cinnamon trees. Herman points to a Grenadines Boa snake skillfully camouflaged against a gumbo-limbo tree. Despite his reassurances that it is harmless, we quickly move on, not even waiting for a photograph. By 7:00 a.m. we are wiping beads of sweat off our eyes as we twist and duck through a winding maze resembling a disturbed Japanese rock garden with clusters of purple, wild orchids.



At the summit, Herman announces: “Up on this rock, Ma Peggy, who had remarkable vision, would point fishermen to where the fishes were”. Sounds like quite an old tall tale. From this rock, we can see nearly all of Bequia and the numerous islands and cays of the Grenadines. Maybe there is some truth to the story after all.


Our exhilaration is irrepressible...worth the early morning climb.



 

A wave crashes into the tiny boat in which we are about to make our pilgrimage, making it bob up and down in the water like a discarded beer can. Our weary city knees protest as we attempt to jump aboard, only to be baptized in the bath-warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. Drenched and placed in the bow, we are given strict instructions by Aubry our guide who has been fishing since his youth. “Don’t move when we shove off; we will use the oars until we clear the shallow reefs,” he hollers over the noisy surf.


Aubry demonstrates his mastery of island geography in a brief lesson during our cruise down the southern coastline in the midday sun. “Over there is Sample Cay, our whaling station. Some may not like the idea but whaling is in our blood” he laments as we pass a tiny island with a lone concrete structure. Whaling falls under an international treaty as an indigenous practice. Natives are allowed to catch four whales per year.



We spot Brown Boobies seated like royals on the towering cliffs and flying fish gliding effortlessly over the water, almost as if challenging Aubry to a race. Motoring past the fishing village of Paget Farm, we find houses built in the 1970s and 1980s with wealth accumulated through labour on the National Bulk boats. We continue to Moonhole  --  the island’s south-western tip -- where the setting moon can be seen through a hole in the rock at certain times of the year.


At Moonhole, we anchor a few yards offshore, gazing in awe at the most unusual and bizarre houses carved out of the rocks. The houses have no windows or doors and the one opposite us was built inside the gaping hole. We almost expect to see Fred and Wilma Flintstone waving at us. Asking Aubry for a closer look, we are told that those homes can only be viewed from the sea, and public tours are no longer permitted.



As dusk falls on our final night on the island, we reflect on the simplicity of the island’s charm and feel satisfied that we experienced it before the masses arrive.


Travel details:

  • Golden Apple Inn: En-suite rooms from £66 and Bequia Underwater Tours offers 3-hour Discovery Dive lessons at £65.

  • Tours: Boat excursions can be organised upon request.

  • Fly to Barbados with Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com). From there, fly onwards to St. Vincent with Liat (www.liat.com).

  • Jay sailed with the Bequia Express ferry company.


Travel feature submitted in partial fulfillment of the course requirements for Travel Journalism, University of Westminster.

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