Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

St. Vincent and the Grenadines: Moonhole

 Flying into Bequia’s small airport, we could spot a few of the nearby Moonhole houses from the air. Most, though, are hidden by trees or are designed so in tune with the landscape that they all but disappear.
       A visitor seeing the community for the first time might think it is the ruins of some long-ago civilization. All the houses are made primarily of stone and concrete with whalebones used sometimes as banisters. Large fishing net floats are imbedded like sidelights around doors. Some windows have Plexiglas panels to give some relief from the trade winds; others are totally open or filled with louvers. Most doors are Dutch-style, with the top half left open to catch the breeze. Furniture is mostly built-in and made of stone and concrete and topped off with pillows.
        Though this quirky little community has been in various forms of turmoil since its founder’s death in 2001, the threat that Moonhole might really disappear seems to be fading.
       Its founder, Tom Johnston, was an advertising man back in the “Mad Men” era. In 1964 he abandoned Madison Avenue to build a house and live under a large natural stone arch on this obscure island Bequia (BEK-way), one of the Grenadine islands in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The arch is called Moonhole because at times the moon can be seen through it.
Tom Johnston,the original
Moonhole house and Moonhole
itself are depicted in a
painting hung on the wi-fi
terrace above the Moonhole
UUsing local workers and his own untrained sense of design, Johnston built his house. Sports Illustrated magazine wrote about it in 1967 (click HERE for article). He and his wife, Gladys, had to abandon that house in the early 1970s after a large stone fell from the arch and crashed through their bedroom ceiling, narrowly missing Gladys. By that time he had built several other houses, and he and Gladys moved into one of the other houses.
       Using a crew of 30 or more local workers, Johnston eventually designed and built 17 houses.  Some were purchased by friends; some were available for rent. An open-air art gallery with a whalebone-fronted bar occupied a prime viewpoint atop what is now the Moonhole Company’s office and was once the scene of community gatherings and dinners. Today it’s used by Moonhole guests seeking a wi-fi hotspot.
       Johnston’s death sent Moonhole into something of a tailspin, marked by litigation among property owners and the Moonhole Company and the Johnstons’ Conservation Trust. Some of Johnston’s original home buyers are too old or ill these days to visit; some houses have fallen into disrepair while others are maintained and rented out by the Moonhole Company. Stone-paved waterside walkways are falling apart, leaving visitors to clamber around gaps.  The original house under the arch still exists, but it’s off limits, as is the entire area near the arch due to the danger of falling stones.
       So why come here?
      It’s an incredibly beautiful place. The houses flow up and down the hills in a way that I doubt many formally trained architects would ever imagine. Living rooms have open holes in the ceilings so built-in planters get water when it rains. The beach offers swimming and snorkeling. Steep stone stairways take the place of gym exercise equipment. A helpful staff will arrange taxis, buy groceries and confirm your airline seats. To visit the Moonhole Company's website, click HERE. Take a look at the photos of the rental houses to get an idea of the artistry that went into this place.

Stone steps lead to one of the stone houses
at Moonhole. Beach house, where we stayed,
is at the same level as the entrance
to the community, so we didn't spend a lot
of time on stairways such as this.

       We shared Beach House, the only house on Moonhole’s sandy beach, with our friends Mary and Dick Greenberg from Fort Collins, Colorado, for a week in January 2017. It has two bedrooms, each with a full bath. The sun powers electrical outlets strong enough to recharge our phones and tablets, but there’s not enough power for hair dryers or very bright interior lighting. The beds are comfortable kings with trustworthy mosquito netting. Toilets are flush and showers are cold, relying on captured rainwater. There are solar bag showers, which you fill with water, put out in the sun, and then use the attached hose and shower head to give yourself a warm shower – but the cold-water showers aren’t that cold at all.
       Food and drink were no problem at all. Our housekeeper/cook, Zoreatha, and Dalia, her assistant, took care of everything.  She had a chicken dinner ready for our first night complete with a sauvignon blanc and asked what else we liked. We all agreed on seafood and I asked about conch. The next day we had conch – I’m not sure of the preparation but it was tender (yes, tender conch!) pieces of conch in a light sauce. Delicious. For another meal she prepared pieces of lobster in a similar way.
       As for drinks, Jane and I showed up with a bottle of rum from the duty-free in Barbados. Orange juice, pineapple juice and “tropical punch” were already in the fridge, so we had a very happy happy hour with fruity rum drinks, sitting out on lounges on what felt like our own private beach. On our first trip into Port Elizabeth, the main town on the island, we hit Vintage, a wine and spirits store on the waterfront Belmont Walkway, and came back with what turned out to be not nearly enough alcohol. So we made other trips.
       For variety, we had dinner a couple of nights in Port Elizabeth, both times at Fig Tree. It’s not the only or even necessarily the best place on the island, but it certainly suited us. For more on restaurants on Bequia, see the Happy on Bequia post below (click HERE). 
        The Moonhole experience, at least at Beach House, was sort of like camping at the beach, but oh so much better. 
      Here are my snapshots from Moonhole.

This seating area on the wi-fi terrace was once the setting for community dinners and other events at Moonhole.

Whalebones are used in the construction of the bar on the wi-fi terrace. Note the foot rail, also whalebone.

A cache of whale bones stored on the wi-fi terrace will be
used in future restoration and construction, according to
Carroll Rooth of the Moonhole Company.

What was once a walkway along the waterfront below the wi-fi terrace is in disrepair. Wouldn't
you assume that you'd stumbled upon some sort of ancient ruins?  The structures to the left
were built as artists' studios.

Tom Johnston's original stone structures still stand, but not all
are still in use.

What appeared to be an old barbecue pit is disintegrating on the waterfront below the wi-fi terrace.

The Johnston's original house and the area beneath the Moonhole arch are off limits due
to danger from falling stones.

Our friend Mary picked up conch shells along the rocky waterfront below the wi-fi terrace.

The multi-level lounge at Beach House. Stone and wood furniture with colorful cushions. 

Our room at Beach House. You have to go outdoors to reach either of the two bedrooms from the main living area.
The mosquito netting worked well, though I think the almost constant sea breeze is what minimized our mosquito bites.
Beach House. At the right is the Greenbergs' room. Straight ahead
is an entrance to our room with the top half of the Dutch door open.
Above the Greenberg's room is a terrace with a stone table and a bench.

Tom Johnston adorned his houses with art, including this whale bone carved to resemble a humpback whale.

The "front door" for Beach House. The little window to the lower right was in our room. 

The beach just steps from Beach House. Did we choose the right house or what? 
Another view of the same beach.

The main living area at Beach House. Note the fishing net floats that frame the doorway. Panels
of Plexiglas swivel to restrict or allow sea breezes into the room.
A visitor strikes a pose along one of Moonhole's
stone walkways.
The dining area at Beach House. Note the Flintstone-like seating.
Actually, it's quite comfortable.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

St. Vincent and the Grenadines: Happy on Bequia

      A January 2017 getaway was needed, someplace sunny and warm. On two previous trips to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Jane and I visited Bequia for a few hours.  The first was a day trip from St. Vincent to visit Moonhole, the fantastical community of stone homes at the southern tip of the island. Our second visit was a lunch stop while sailing the Grenadines..
     This time, we planned two weeks on Bequia (BEK-way). First, a week in a house at Moonhole, which we shared with friends, Mary and Dick Greenberg of Colorado. The second week, on our own after the Greenbergs left, was at Firefly, a small hotel on a mountainside farther north. 
      Click HERE for Dick Greenberg's blog posting about the week at Moonhole.  My own post on Moonhole should appear in this blog just above this posting.
      Bequia, which has about 5,000 residents, is about seven square miles and is at latitude 13 degrees 17 minutes north, meaning that it's close enough to the equator that nights and days are about 12 hours each and the temperatures are about the same year-round. Like most Caribbean islands, it's volcanic in origin. U.S. dollars are readily accepted, but I think that taxis and merchants don't give a very favorable exchange rate. So we used an ATM (usually where you get the best exchange rate) to get Eastern Caribbean dollars. 
      Here are some links to places on Bequia
      The Moonhole Company (click HERE) handles rentals for houses at Moonhole. They come with a housekeeper/cook, though guests pay the grocery bill. Wine, beer and rum can be bought in Port Elizabeth.
      Firefly (click HERE) is a small inn and restaurant. We stayed there six nights. The room was lovely -- the double shower even had its own door to the terrace -- but the restaurant's dinner menu became monotonous. Lunch is much better thanks to a selection of curried rotis.  I can recommend both the curried goat roti and the curried chicken roti. The hotel/restaurant staff here was exceptionally professional and friendly. The hotel provides guests with cellphones preloaded with phone numbers for a good taxi service as well as numbers at the hotel. Take the phone to the pool so you can order drinks from the bar. Otherwise, it's a steep 40-step climb to fetch your own. 
     The Fig Tree (click HERE) was our favorite restaurant. We ate there twice with the Greenbergs and then again on our last night. We had grilled lobster each time. Hardly anyone was there for our first two visits, but it was packed on our third visit, possibly due to live music -- two excellent guitarists/singers who performed songs by Bob Marley, Paul Simon and others.
      Max's Pizzeria (click HERE) is next door to the Fig Tree. We ate there once and had the lobster pizza, which is much better than it sounds. An island institution, it's now owned and operated by a young couple from San Diego. Highly recommended for its lively ambiance as well as the food.
      Sugar Reef (click HERE) is within walking distance of Firefly.  It's more formal and less friendly than Firefly and everyplace else we ate. The food, however, was good even it it wasn't quite what we expected. Lobster came cut into pieces and dressed and placed back in its shell and was overall the smallest serving of lobster we saw.
      Jack's (click HERE) is the only place to eat on Princess Margaret Beach. It's known for its fried chicken, but I enjoyed an excellent fish sandwich and very cold Hairoun, the local beer. Jane had a Nicoise salad with fresh grilled tuna.
      Keegan's (click HERE) is a guesthouse and cafe on Lower Bay. We had dinner there waiting for the Bequia Music Fest to start at the nearby De Reef bar. Grilled lobster was huge and Jane was particularly happy to get the entire beast, not just the severed tail. 
      Getting to Bequia is not easy. There are no direct flights from the U.S. to St. Vincent or any of the Grenadine islands. Jane and I flew to Barbados where we were scheduled to take at SVGAir flight to Bequia. That flight was overbooked, however, and we were bumped onto an ad hoc Air Mustique Barbados-Bequia flight. The Greenbergs were never able to get tickets for a Barbados-Bequia flight, so they flew into Barbados, spent a night in a hotel, and the next day took an early flight to St. Vincent. From there they caught a ferry for the one-hour trip to Bequia. On the way home, it was we who had to overnight in Barbados because the different airlines' flight times didn't line up.
     Getting to Bequia, however, is definitely worth the effort. This island, where everyone seems to know everyone, is the friendliest place I've ever been. There's none of the grinding poverty that is seen elsewhere in the islands, even on St. Vincent itself. Houses are often brightly painted and appear in good repair. There's not a huge huge gap between homes for residents and vacation homes for outsiders. When we found the most recommended wine shop closed when it should be open, a lady at an office next door explained that the usual wine shop clerk was injured. She called around to locate the owner. She didn't reach her right away, but later in the afternoon when we were walking by again, she said the owner had just been there and this time was able to contact her to come back. She did and we were able to stock up. In our experience, taxis don't expect payment when they take you from a remote hotel into Port Elizabeth. No, you can pay them later when they take you back to the hotel. People wave when you pass by. "Hello" and "good afternoon" are always answered. Hands are shaken. It's an island of friends.
      Here are some of my snapshots from the trip.

Our eight-passenger Air Mustique flight to Bequia.

Barbados as seen just after takeoff on our flight to Bequia.
An egret takes in a view of the harbor at Port Elizabeth, the main community on Bequia, 

Rib bones from a whale frame the entrance to the Whaleboner bar. Bequia's fishermen
 are allowed to hunt for whales, though we heard none had been killed for several years. 

A colorful local? No. It's Dick, a Colorado Rastafarian. 

Attendees at the annual Bequia Music Fest, a three-day event at several
venues. These women are waiting for the show to start at De Reef on Lower Bay.

The Signals, a band from Dominica, at the music fest. 

Sugar Reef is a restaurant and inn on Industry Bay. The most elegant dining room we saw on Bequia.

The bar and dining area at Firefly, where we stayed for six nights.

The pool at Firefly is 40 stone steps below the restaurant.

Cruise ship passengers spent a morning at Princess Margaret Beach.

Princess Margaret Beach got its name after a visit from the late princess, who was associated more
with nearby Mustique than with Bequia.

Jack's is the only place to eat at Princess Margaret Beach, and that's not a bad thing. The beer is icy cold
and the "fish burger" is really a large grilled piece of mahi-mahi. 

The dock at Jack's. A waterside walkway that once connected
 Princess Margaret Beach with Port Elizabeth has fallen into
disrepair, so a lot of water taxis use this dock.

Boats moored in Admiralty Bay off Port Elizabeth. People who watch the sunset carefully
can see the green flash as the last rays of the sun skim waves far away.

The hawksbill sea turtle rescue operation provides a nice break from the sun and sand, as
well as an opportunity to give a few dollars to support the sanctuary. 

Jane and Mary check out the occupants of one of the tanks.

Our room at Firefly. Those are coconuts on the little table.

View from Firefly, which looks east.  Firefly is developing the waterfront area with new villas;
dredging will make the water deeper for swimmers and provide sand to widen the beach.