In the Grenadines, You Can See and Be Seen — or Avoid Other People Entirely
The sister islands of Bequia, Canouan, and Mustique have long drawn people in search of escape — from the rat race, the paparazzi, or society as a whole. A writer explores three very different enclaves that, despite recent development, remain hidden in plain sight.
I'm on a boat with my captain, Vibe, and his teenage deckhand, Storm. It's my first afternoon on Bequia, one of the 30-some islands that make up St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and we are sailing around the western coast to take a look at Moonhole, a former utopian community chiseled out of the rocky cliffs. At one time, there were dozens of people living in this commune and eco-resort, founded in the 1960s by a Chicago advertising exec. It ran on solar power and rainwater and was built entirely from local materials, including whalebone and old anchor chains.
Judging by the precarious stairs cut into the cliff face, Moonhole was never the easiest place to reach, and over the years, minor squabbles and major storms have left it looking a little forlorn. Still, one of the original residents, Charles Brewer — a ninetysomething architect who taught at Yale with Frank Lloyd Wright — continues to live there, and there are six villas available to rent. Presumably not the ones I saw with trees growing through them.
The Grenadines, an archipelago that unspools across the eastern edge of the Caribbean just above Venezuela, have always been like this — a bit wild and inaccessible. Historically, these islands have attracted more adventurous types, from hippies to sailing enthusiasts and entrepreneurs who have seen this as one of the last patches of unspoiled paradise in the region.
Only nine of the Grenadines are inhabited, and even the most developed have managed to maintain a surprisingly low profile: Bequia, the second-largest island, with a population of just over 5,000 and more towns than tourism infrastructure; Canouan, which a series of high-profile developers have tried to shape into the Caribbean's next glamorous getaway; and Mustique, where jet-setters hide out to escape international scrutiny. Recently, however, an influx of investors and hoteliers has been trying to make the Grenadines more accessible—with new resorts, marinas, and airstrips that can, finally, accommodate more than a twin-prop engine.
"Interesting people end up on Bequia," Philip Mortstedt told me over lunch. His father, Bengt Mortstedt, a Swedish businessman based in London, first encountered Bequia while sailing around the Grenadines in 1992. Back then, the place reminded Bengt of "St. Bart's in the seventies" — a pristine Caribbean island not yet invaded by designer shops and oligarchs. He was smitten. In 2009, he opened the then-12-room Bequia Beach Hotel over Friendship Bay, on the island's Atlantic coast.
Even after the recent addition of 47 rooms, a yacht for guest charters, and a private jet to pick guests up from Barbados, the resort still has a laid-back, old-school vibe. There are rattan ceiling fans, vintage posters of now-defunct island airlines, and stacks of antique suitcases that Bengt and his wife picked up at flea markets in Europe. The piano even came from their family home in London. At dinner one night, I ordered the fish carpaccio and jerk-rub steak from Chef Clinton at Bagatelle, the beachside restaurant, and watched couples dance to calypso under the fairy lights.
I had arrived a few days earlier on a puddle jumper from Barbados. (During the flight, we stopped to pick up a few locals from Union Island.) The airstrip at Bequia is still rustic — baby goats grazing on weeds next to the runway far outnumbered the tourists going through immigration. I was picked up in an open-air truck and driven to The Liming, the island's newest hotel, which opened in late 2018. It's made up of nine bright yellow villas, many with their own pools, just steps from the beach. There's also a five-bedroom colonial-style mansion in the hills and an infinity pool — but not much else. Liming in Caribbean slang means "hanging out" or "enjoying the scene." It's a pretty easy directive to follow. I quickly found myself falling into a routine: dip in the pool, read on the chaise, jump in the sea, eat, nap, rinse, repeat.
When I could peel myself away from this blissful schedule, I headed into Port Elizabeth, a town lined with melon-colored houses with gingerbread trim, frangipani trees, and docks filled with fishing boats. Here, older ladies trickled out of St. Mary the Virgin, a handsome stone Anglican church, to buy fruit from Rastafarian farmers at the market. Fishermen pulled huge lobsters from the water. Bequia is very much a working island, with an old-fashioned Caribbean community feel. I learned later that it is one of only four places in the world where "aboriginal whaling" is still legal, as long as the traditional methods — harpoons and wooden boats — are used. In fact, a humpback had been taken down just weeks before I arrived.
When I asked Vibe how neighboring islands compare to Bequia, he dug his thumb into his chest. "This is my island," he told me. "It's open and relaxed and real."
In 1993, some 20 miles south on the island of Canouan, an Italian-Swiss developer named Antonio Saladino built a sprawling resort called Carenage Bay Beach & Golf Club, hoping to lure Europeans. Ever since that hotel's arrival, this verdant hump of an island — population 1,700 — has been carved up by foreign developers trying to turn it into the next big beach enclave for billionaires. It was all fits and starts — despite its astonishing beaches, Canouan was simply too hard to get to, either by plane or by boat. After years of failing to attract tourists, the property was taken over by Rosewood, and in 2003, Raffles, at which point Saladino invited Donald Trump to operate a casino there. Saladino's venture was ultimately unsuccessful, eventually bulldozed by Dermot Desmond — the Irish-born owner of Barbados's Sandy Lane — and replaced with the Pink Sands Club.
The property changed hands again in 2018, when Mandarin Oriental took over operations. (As for Trump's failed casino? Many will delight in telling you the building now serves as a hurricane shelter.) With the arrival of Mandarin, it feels like Canouan is at last about to hit the big time. Desmond recently put the finishing touches on Glossy Bay, a $250 million, 120-slip marina near the resort with luxury stores and restaurants. He boasted to the local papers that Glossy Bay would be "as identifiable to the Grenadines as the leaning Tower of Pisa, as the Eiffel Tower, as Buckingham Palace."
On my way to the Mandarin Oriental, we drove past a few shiny super-yachts at the new marina, where guests were dining at Shenanigans, a clubby waterfront restaurant. Other than the resort — which takes up about two-thirds of the island — the marina remains Canouan's main attraction. But rumors swirl that Soho House is taking over the 32-room Tamarind Beach Hotel, and there are even whispers of Aman Resorts putting down stakes.
The Mandarin's main building has the imperial look of a marble wedding cake, but the restaurants, spa, gym, and pool areas have been updated with a beach-chic patina. Six new villas dot the cliffside, done up in stone, wood, and glass, with infinity pools facing the beach. You sense that the hotel caters to an über-wealthy crowd. Right after checking in, I came across a tech-exec couple from Palo Alto whose two towheaded boys were playing with the countless sea turtles that scuttle about on the island.
You can see why the place would appeal to C-suiters who work very hard, and don't want to have to work hard to relax. It's all here — white-sand beaches, piercingly blue waters, and every luxury amenity one could want, from a world-class golf course to an airport that can easily accommodate their jets. Several hotel employees emphasized the fact that they can host high-profile guests in total privacy.
One morning at Shell Beach, the property's guests-only beach club, I chatted with a 12-year-old boy who was casually watching over his siblings as his parents paddleboarded nearby. Sipping fresh coconut juice at the thatched-roof bar, he asked me where I was from. When I told him Brooklyn, he said, in a vaguely Continental accent, "You're so lucky!" I asked him where he was from. He sighed. "I'm from Monaco."
If Canouan is a haven for type A's, Mustique is the spot for A-listers. The island has a Cheeveresque vibe to it — that is, if your favorite avuncular neighbor happens to be Mick Jagger. There are no street signs or traffic lights; the 100 or so homes all have pleasing names like Jacaranda and Hibiscus. Everyone zips around the two-square-mile island on "mules," golf buggies and tiny jeeps that can tackle the steep, narrow roads.
The island's fabulous (and slightly louche) reputation goes back to 1958, when Colin Tennant, a.k.a. Lord Glenconner, bought the island as a bohemian haven for his bon vivant friends — including Princess Margaret, who was looking to keep her sybaritic lifestyle out of the glare of media scrutiny. He soon bestowed her 10 acres, as a wedding gift, to build Les Jolies Eaux: a neo-Georgian property designed by Oliver Messel, architect of some of the most fanciful houses in the Caribbean. Over the years, high-wattage Brits (David Bowie among them) picked up their own parcels of land from Tennant. In 1968, he privatized the island as the Mustique Company. Today, homeowners there — everyone from Tommy Hilfiger to Maguy Le Coze, co-owner of New York's Le Bernardin — are also shareholders.
But even as more monied VIPs come in, the vibe remains low-key. In fact, when Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich sailed in on his super-yacht, he offered $150 million for one of the island's grandest houses — and then withdrew it, owing to the fact that Mustique doesn't allow armed guards. "There are yachts, but no mega-mega-yachts," explained Jeannette Cadet, the manager of the Mustique Company and the island's queen bee. One afternoon, she drove me around to tour a few of the houses (some of which are available for short-term rental). Cadet has a maternal protectiveness about her residents — even, still, for Princess Margaret, who gave her house to her son, Lord Linley, in 1996 and died in 2002. "They would never leave that poor woman alone," she lamented.
Before I got there, the mystique of Mustique had me picturing a jet-set scene — Annabel's on the beach, if you will. But instead, when I arrived at the world-famous Basil's Bar for the Wednesday "jump-up," or street party, I found myself in a waterside shack with strong drinks, a lively steel band, and a crowd of normal-seeming folks. (Since my visit, however, Basil's has been refurbished by none other than Philippe Starck.) In fact, after a few days of driving around the island, picnicking on Macaroni Beach, and waving to the same pair of ladies out power-walking each morning, I felt pretty much like a regular.
That friendly feeling is best seen on Tuesday nights at Cotton House, the 52-year-old hotel where I witnessed everyone descend for cocktails and cassava chips in the Great Room to see who else had flown in for the week. Tennant and Messel built the 17-room property on an 18th-century sugar plantation, and a recent renovation has given a polish to the hotel's colonial-luxe look — antique shell-encrusted chests, rattan furniture, and louvered doors. From the veranda, you can see stone villas tucked behind bougainvillea vines on one side and a strip of luminous white sand on the other. Sure, you might see a famous face or two — but you're just as likely to see a family watching a movie at the outdoor cinema, or honeymooners on their way back from a tennis game.
Cadet did indulge me with some light small-town gossip about the more notable residents. Bryan Adams, who also owns a villa designed by Messel, is a passionate environmentalist. "He grows everything he eats on the island," Cadet said. Le Coze, Cadet's good friend, unsurprisingly has the best chef on Mustique. A few years ago, when Janet Jackson tried to hire her away, "we put a stop to it." And Jagger? "Mick is a big family man."
In the end, she said, "We are not St. Bart's. We aren't trying to compete."
Your Guide to the Grenadines
It's always been comparatively difficult to reach these isles. To get to Bequia, Canouan, or Mustique, many find the best option is to travel to Barbados, from where you can hop a flight on SVG Air or Mustique Airways. However, there is now increased airlift from the U.S. to the main island, St. Vincent, thanks to a brand-new airport, where scheduled and charter flights depart regularly to the Grenadines. For those of us without yachts or private jets, getting between the islands can be complicated — though many resorts offer air transfers. There are also interisland ferry services operated by Bequia Express and Admiralty Transport.
The island's newest hotel is The Liming, where each of the 13 rooms has its own plunge pool. Bequia Beach Hotel is the largest, with 59 rooms and a yacht, Star of the Sea, that guests can reserve for tours. The owners recently launched a flight service called Bequia Air for guest transfers and private charters. Visit Jack's Beach Bar, which serves fresh seafood on nearby Princess Margaret Beach.
The main event is the Mandarin Oriental, a 1,200-acre property with 26 suites and 13 private villas. It's ideal for families, with a world-class kids' club, excellent golf course, and access to some of the Caribbean's best beaches. Visit the bars and restaurants at Sandy Lane Yacht Club, part of the new marina development at Glossy Bay.
Despite being the de facto social hub of the island, the 17-room Cotton House maintains a laid-back atmosphere. Guests can easily go unnoticed among the 13 acres of tropical gardens. In late 2016, the property was reenvisioned with a clean Caribbean look by Tristan Auer. Plan your visit around the Wednesday night jump-up party at Basil's Bar, a Mustique fixture recently redesigned by Philippe Starck.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline The Scene in the Grenadines. Bequia Beach House, Cotton House, The Liming, and Mandarin Oriental provided support for the reporting of this story.