Changes on the Island of Mustique
Published: June 2009
By Michael Gross
A legendarily exclusive Caribbean hideaway for royals, pop stars, and the international jet set, Mustique these days is rather more accessible—welcoming, even.
It was a warm June night at Basil’s bar, on the island of Mustique. The blues were playing, the crowd began to swell, and the concrete dance floor was pulsing. It was the 30th anniversary of what is arguably the most famous beach bar in the Caribbean, as well as the 60th birthday of its proprietor, islander Basil Charles, the unofficial mayor of Mustique and a caftan-clad perpetual party machine, who called this, the penultimate event in a week of nonstop festivities—and the latest in three decades of them—his “best fête yet.”
Early in the evening, the cocktail crowd mingled in Charles’s open-sided, metal-roofed Balinese pavilions set on rocks beside a pier jutting into Britannia Bay. They were longtime denizens of Mustique, a mixed bag of Europeans and North and South Americans, many of them old enough to have partied there often before, almost all of them wealthy enough to own or rent one of the 100 homes on this tiny chunk of volcanic rock smack in the middle of the island-nation chain called St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Once the most private of private islands—where you had to be known and preapproved even to be allowed to fly into the mini-airport (it helped to be royal, too)—Mustique has evolved into the same thing only different, an apparently classless, postcolonial, eco-friendly place that’s open to all. Most of the houses are available to rent, at a wide range of prices.
“It’s hard not to like this island,” says Noel Charles, a close friend but no relation to Basil, who was at the party with his wife, Cynthia Lennon (once married to John Lennon, and mother of Julian Lennon). Scottish baron Colin Tennant originally created the island enclave as a private playpen for pals like Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret; her husband, Lord Snowdon (a.k.a. Anthony Armstrong-Jones); and other swells. Mustique is now run by something resembling a cooperative corporation, owned by shareholding homeowners, that controls almost every aspect of life on the tiny island. And tiny is an understatement.
Mustique is a mere three and a half miles square, gently sprinkled with villas ranging from two-bedroom, breeze-filled hideaways created 40 years ago by stage-set designer Oliver Messel to extravagantly tricked-out, spanking-new air- conditioned dream palaces that could easily pass as boutique über-luxury hotels. There are only two hotels, however: the 17-room Cotton House and the five-room Firefly Mustique. Besides that, there are three restaurants, a handful of shops, nine beaches, and a fleet of golf carts, the only means of guest transportation. There’s no golf, but there are tennis courts, horses, hiking, diving, and snorkeling.
The villa owners are a rarefied group, currently including Mick Jagger and Tommy Hilfiger, and the island also attracts high-profile renters like Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez. But the real appeal of the place isn’t its celebrity pedigree, it’s the pure, unadulterated escape it represents—the timeless, private-island calm that prevails. There are no visible power, telephone, or water lines—all are underground—and houses can’t rise above the tree line. There are excellent roads, adequate electricity and water, and most of, if not all, the comforts of an aristocrat’s home.
Tennant bought the island in the late 50’s, and in 1968, his Mustique Company entered into an agreement with St. Vincent to preserve the island’s character and ecology by, among other things, limiting development to 114 houses. A small building boom followed, and the Messel houses that resulted are among the island’s most appealing rentals. By the mid 1970’s, Mustique had become a Robinson Crusoe–style fantasy island for Tennant’s chic friends, a place where daily beach picnics featured skinny-dipping, champagne, and caviar and lobster served by liveried butlers on silver and fine china.
But Tennant was better with parties than he was with money—he sold everything, from Cotton House to family heirlooms, to subsidize the island—and in 1976 Mustique was dead in the water. “He was the greatest dreamer but he hated accounting,” Basil Charles says. Tennant finally sold a controlling interest to Hans Neumann, a Venezuelan homeowner, and his influence waned.
In 1979, Neumann turned management over to Brian Alexander, son of World War II hero Field Marshal Harold Alexander, who sold more houses, stabilized the island’s economy, and began to move Mustique out of its neo-feudal period, even as the culture remained, as he puts it, a “benevolent paternalism.” Under Alexander, for example, the Mustique Company built homes for the island’s Vincentian workers in a little village beside Britannia Bay, as well as bunkhouses for construction workers who’d previously lived on building sites.
The villas—most but not all of which are available for rent—are Mustique’s principal lure. My wife and I stayed in Blue Waters, one of the first Messel houses, and one of the least expensive on the island. It turned out to be a charming, if faded, architectural gem, with sweeping views from the back terrace over the swimming pool and Endeavor Bay to the islands of Canouan and Bequia beyond. Stone steps lead to a bay where a reef is literally an arm’s length away—it became our favorite swimming hole.
Many visitors rent larger villas, like Princess Margaret’s Les Jolies Eaux, with its chintz fabrics, mini-Versailles gardens, private beach, and framed, autographed photograph of Margaret Thatcher; or the 10-bedroom Yemanja, which overlooks two bays and has sprawling gardens surrounding two boulder-fringed pools and a waterfall.
The island’s main hotel—originally conceived as a guesthouse for homeowners—has evolved over the years into a stand-alone destination. The Cotton House is now a full-service property with a pool, a historic windmill, two restaurants, and a spa. Though its beach (the same one as is beneath Blue Waters) is rocky, a pier provides access to deeper water, and there is swimming and snorkeling right offshore, and a vast array of marine life, including fields of sea urchins. We even saw a baby electric ray.
The Mustique Company runs it all, generating and selling power and water (from its own desalinization plant, which augments the cisterns at every house), and collecting a percentage from rentals and the equivalent of taxes, which nets profits of about $2–$3 million per year that are then reinvested in the island. It does some things very well—in particular, it upholds the integrity of Tennant’s original vision of an island defined by exclusivity and refinement, which now passes as eco-friendliness. All building plans must be approved by a board of shareholders. The company owns the south side of the island, and for the present, at least, vows to maintain it as a greenbelt. And a few years ago, the shareholders decided to take 10 of the legal building lots off the market.
Still, the true soul of Mustique is not to be found in the homes of the rich. Rather, it resides in the vicinity of Basil’s Bar and in the story of its owner, a Vincentian who was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2005. Charles has been working here since the early 70’s, first as a bartender at Cotton House, then as the island’s assistant manager. Tennant was notoriously difficult, but somehow Charles got along with him, and when Tennant sold the Mustique Company in 1976, he proposed they become partners in a bar and gave Charles a quarter share. Some years later, backed by several homeowners, Charles bought Tennant out and eventually did the same with most of his later partners as well. Before that, though, “I became Public Enemy No. 1,” Charles says. “They wanted the bar to become a private club. I said, ‘What about the local people?’ People wouldn’t come for barbecue because their gardeners were here. I said, ‘Your gardener would take a bullet for you.’” And in the meantime, he became successful enough to buy two houses and become a Mustique shareholder, too.
“I still give them hell,” Charles says. He fought to upgrade the workers’ village and, recently, the company’s ferry, which he found totally inadequate. “They live in an unreal world,” he fumes of those who oppose the upgrades. “They don’t live here.
“Look,” Charles says, “nothing is perfect; the workers need a little bit more.” Still, he loves this place. “People ask me where I’m from and I say, ‘I don’t know where heaven is, but I live just next door.’”
Michael Gross’s latest book, Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum, will be published in May by Broadway Books.
Fly to Barbados (a number of carriers offer nonstop service from major U.S. cities) and transfer to a 50-minute flight or private charter to Mustique island on Grenadine Airways (grenadineairways.com).
Where to Stay
784/456-4777 or 888/452-8380; cottonhouse.net; doubles from $700 in low season.
784/488-8414; mustiquefirefly.com; doubles from $550, including breakfast, in low season.
Rent a Villa
Houses are available by the week through the Mustique Company (800/747-9214; mustique-island.com), and are significantly less expensive during the off-season, May 1 through November 14. Here are two of the more affordable options.
Two-bedroom Balinese-style villa surrounded by tropical jungle, overlooking the water. From $4,250 a week in low season.
Recently renovated with tropical gardens, a swimming pool, and three bedrooms with panoramic views. From $5,000 a week in low season.