Lawson Sargeant is bent over a scrubbed bench, fixing a tiny sail on a carved, wooden boat. It’s a fiddly and intricate business. In his workshop in Port Elizabeth, on the Caribbean island of Bequia, wooden replicas of yachts and sailing boats are lined up on turquoise-painted shelves all around the room.
You might first think that you’ve entered some kind of niche toy store, but the Sargeant Brothers Model Boat Shop is much more than that, with the miniature boats taking months to build and selling from $3,000 upwards (one mini super-yacht is for sale for $10,000).
Working alongside his brother and other craftsmen, Lawson uses aged hand planes, small chisels and carving knives to create detailed and realistic replicas. Some boats, he reveals, are commissioned by rich yachties who have heard about the shop on the grapevine and stop off while sailing around the islands; others are simply inspired by the vessels he’s grown up around. He’s even made one for the Queen – a model of The Royal Yacht Britannia – gifted to her in 1985, when she visited Bequia as part of her official tour of the Caribbean.
Turns out that the island, pronounced ‘Beck-way’ and found some 15km south of St Vincent in the Windward Islands, has a long history of boat-building – and not just miniature ones. Beginning in the 1800s, Bequians built a reputation as some of the finest shipwrights in the West Indies, renowned for their superbly crafted fishing boats, schooners and whaleboats.
In fact, drive around the island and you’ll soon spot the reoccurring image of the whale everywhere – painted on the side shops, carved into wooden posts and even featuring on restaurant menus. It’s a nod to the fact that Bequia is one of the few places in the world where, controversially, whaling is still allowed. No more than four whales are allowed to be landed each year although, in reality, it turns out that hardly any are ever caught.
This is a land that has long beckoned sailors and explorers; buccaneers and pirates – with even the notorious Blackbeard (otherwise known as British Captain Edward Teach), reaching its shores in the early 18th century.
In the early 90s, a sailor of a different kind also felt Bequia’s pull. During a sailing trip around the Grenadines, Swedish-born property developer Bengt Mortstedt came across the island in 1992. It was New Year’s Eve, and compared to the glitz of other Caribbean islands, such as Barbados, he fell in love with its sleepy nature – “much like a vintage postcard”. He continued to return to the island over the years until, one day, he spotted a closed B&B up for sale.
With a vision in mind, he slowly set about transforming the dilapidated property, buying up adjoining land in the process. “Initially I just wanted a low-key place for all the family to stay,” he says. Instead, what was going to be a villa gradually turned into a hotel, opening in 2009, symbolically on New Year’s Eve. Bequia Beach Hotel – one of the only hotels on the island – is the result. “I built the sort of place that I would want to stay in,” he says.
The hotel is as barefoot and laid-back as its homeland. At night, you fall asleep to the soundtrack of the waves crashing on the beach. Colonial-style four-poster beds are dressed with bedspreads stamped with mini pineapples, your bedside lamp is a kitsch ceramic parrot, and retro travel posters adorn the walls.
Mortstedt might describe himself as an ‘accidental hotelier’ but, somehow, things feel just right here.
Dinner at the main restaurant, Bagatelle – of barbecued amberjack, jerk chicken and rice n peas – is as satisfying as only soul food can be. The central lounge, with its twirling ceiling fans, bamboo armchairs and library of books, could have been styled in the 40s yet, with a rum punch in hand and the sound of the cicadas outside, it feels wonderfully timeless.
From dips in the saltwater infinity pool to walks along the palm-fringed Friendship Bay, where the hotel is found, days unfold slowly here. Mornings start with a glass of soursop and banana pancakes, maybe with a side of plantain. You might spend the day soaking up the sun or perhaps you’ll book a day trip to Mustique aboard the hotel’s own Benetti yacht, The Star of the Seas. A venture to Jack’s Bar, the hotel’s outpost on the northern side of the island, is a must for lunch of conch croquettes and coconut shrimp.
Just seven miles long, there is no mass tourism on Bequia, no large resorts or noisy tourist towns. Instead – offering the very essence of slow travel – its unfussy charm is found in driftwood-strewn beaches and frangipani-framed chattel houses. Down by the waterfront in the harbour, rastas sell guava and mangos and Beresford Hammond’s two-step reggae is on a loop. Ferries dock here, bringing workers, and a handful of tourists, from neighbouring islands. This is as busy as it gets.
A drive north takes you to the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary, founded by Orton King, a retired fisherman. Here, in a series of seawater pools, rescued Hawksbill Turtles are nurtured until they are strong enough to face the depths of the ocean again. Stay long enough and you’ll hear his seafaring tales of shipwrecks and terrific storms.
A ride in one of the brightly-painted dollar taxis will take you past fishermen on the rocks hauling out their catch of snapper and tuna. An undulating string of hills stretches the length of the island, making some of the roads impossibly steep to navigate yet also giving epic views across to the islands of Pigeon and Petit Nevis. Locals, chattering in patois, salute friends along the roadside, or break off from their conversation to holler a one-liner at someone they know. With a population of just 5,000, no one is a stranger.
Back at Bequia Beach Hotel, Bengt is gearing up to open his latest luxury villa, part of his newest project called Grenadine Hills. The collection of three high-end homes, adds a new dimension to accommodation on the island, with the villas offering slick spaces with infinity pools, wine cellars and views over the southern Grenadines. The newest, opening this summer, is the eight-bedroom Rock Villa, boasting locally-influenced architecture and Caribbean design touches. While it will be fancy enough to call in an A-list clientele, it will more likely welcome families and friends who holiday here every year.
“Many of our guests, come back year after year,” says Bengt. “Once people discover Bequia, they just keep coming back for more. Just like me.”
After a day or two on the island, you begin to walk more slowly, meandering along shell-encrusted paths, catching glimpses of hummingbirds in the trees. Meals of lobster and fried okra taste delicious while looking out across the aquamarine sea. In no time at all, the sun dips and watching the sunset streak the sky lilac, gold and pink is as high-energy as it gets.
NEED TO KNOW
Stay seven nights, B&B, at Bequia Beach Hotel with Exsus Travel, from £2,425 per person. This includes return flights from London Heathrow to Barbados, and inter-island flights to Bequia with Bequia Air. Exsus.com