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Changes on the Island of Mustique

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Photo: Courtesy of The Mustique Company

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.

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