HAL blogger Gary Frink currently is sailing on board Prinsendam’s 24-day Amazon River and Caribbean adventure and will be sending in cruise diaries throughout his time on board. Enjoy!
AMAZON ADVENTURE Aboard the Prinsendam, in route to Oranjestad, Aruba, December 16, 2011
There was confusion in cabin 126 for sometime about St. Vincent and the Grenadines and something called Bequia (pronounced Beck-wee). The itinerary we printed off from the Holland America website, states our port of call on this particular day was “Port Elizabeth, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines.” The small map on the itinerary page, detailing all of the ports of call during The Amazon Explorer voyage, demarcates Bequia as our port of call. Jeanne and I are a well-traveled couple (I won’t bore you with chapter and verse of our journeys over the last four decades and my chapter is longer.)
Returning on the tender to the Prinsendam early this afternoon, I said to Jeanne: “I swear to God I had never heard of Bequia.” Now that we spent a few delightful hours in Port Elizabeth (named in honor of the current and seemingly perpetual Queen of England) and Bequia Island, let me run it down.
Saint Vincent and The Grenadines is a tiny island nation which became independent of Great Britain in 1979. Saint Vincent is the principal island of the national federation and referred to locally as the “mainland;” it contains the seat of government. Port Elizabeth is the main town on the island of Bequia.
Bequia is the largest island in the Grenadines’ chain of over 35 small islands. Obviously, when we planted our feet on the Port Elizabeth dock today we were visiting Port Elizabeth, the town; Bequia, the island; and Saint Vincent And The Grenadines, the nation, all for the first time.
I state unequivocally that Bequia, the Caribbean island I became aware of today (and learned to correctly pronounce its name,) is a tucked-away-from-the-Caribbean-beaten-path delight. First, it’s people treat visitors casually, none of the constant hustle and confidence games of the “tourist” islands (take your pick.) There are no little Switzerlands, Diamond Internationals, Colombian Emeralds or duty-free shops polluting the waterfront and main drag (they are one and the same in Port Elizabeth.) There are no Carlos and Charlies tourist trap, booze joints; not even a Denny’s 24-hour restaurant graces the island. There are no high rise buildings jutting out of the sand on Bequia, the seven square mile sandy spec in the Caribbean. There are no time-share hotels. To put Bequia in context: Try to imagine what St. Thomas looked like 60 years ago, when A. H. Riise was one of the very few main street shops catering to visitors.
“I read an ad in the Wall Street Journal about land for sale here, came down and eventually bought a chunk of the island. That was 18 years ago, and I have been living here full time for the last ten.” Jeanne and I were in the dock-side Bequia tourist office when I struck up a conversation with Emmett Pace, a tanned, diminutive 70s-something man from South Carolina. He was a willing wealth of information about everything Bequia. Jeanne and I absorbed his flow of island knowledge. Health care? “There is one government doctor; the nurses try, but there is no equipment here.” Vehicles? “They raise much of their government revenue here from import duties, after all, everything is imported. You bring in a car from the States, the import tax will double its cost.” Before we took his leave, Emmett offered to sell us a compound (two houses and a guest house) for $998,000, “they turned down a million two last year.” I told him that when we were in the market for Bequia real estate he’d be our man.
We next strolled the beach-side narrow, concrete walkway; it is so deliberately placed at the Caribbean’s edge, that wavelets lap gently over it. We stopped at the clap board Hotel Frangipani; given that it features some rooms without private bath, it clearly has more in common with a guest house than a modern hotel. We were at the far end of the sea-front sidewalk. “What do you want to do now,” I asked Jeanne, “tour of the island or the beach?” “The beach,” was her expected answer.
After walking back to the middle of Port Elizabeth and the Prinsendam’s small tender dock, we engaged a “taxi,” an old Japanese pickup truck with two benches built along the sides of the cargo box and a wooden canopy as sun shade. “Take us to the beach,” were the only instructions needed. Bequia has several long, wide, picture-post-card-quality, Caribbean Sea-meets-sand sites. We left the selection to our driver; he chose well.
Lower Bay Beach is a comber’s perfect vision. Our momentary piece of it was directly in front of and across the narrow paved road, from Mango’s Bar and Grill. It was one-stop shopping: We rented two padded beach lounges, purchased a Coke Zero, a rum punch and lastly, for the road, a local beer. Most importantly, Jeanne delighted in bouncing about in strong Lower Bay Beach waves. When she removed her bathing suit to shower and dress for dinner, a full handful of sand fell to the tiled floor of our cabin bathroom.
As we waited for the return of our taxi, I chatted amicably with a Canadian gentleman who, with his wife, had arrived to have a Mango’s lunch at a table on the beach side of the road, near where we waited for our return taxi. “Toronto,” he replied to my inquiry as to his residence. “It gets cold there,” I smartly returned. “Oh, we have had a home here for 15 years and haven’t seen a Canadian winter in ten. We come in November and stay “til spring.” That two-handed forehand smash ended the match. Later, when I commented on how remote and unknown Bequia is, he replied: “Most of us wish to keep it that way.”
Back in Port Elizabeth, we successfully walked Main Road in search of a t-shirt for Jeanne as a memento of our brief discovery mission to Bequia. It is an island over which we’ll pine for long sojourns during winters yet to unfold.
BREAKING NEWS: Jeanne was agitated early this morning, when she returned to our cabin after her customary casino stint: “I had a 10,000 units payout. The machine said 10,000, I couldn’t believe it.” $100 is a lot of money for one hit, when playing a penny slot machine.