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.

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