Call it the Mustique Misstep.
The Caribbean island of Mustique has long served as a tropical version of The Great Gatsby’s East Egg, a devil-may-care playground for the charming and the charmed. But it’s on the slide. Right next door, the island of Bequia is itching to snatch Mustique’s title as the hideout of choice for the wealthy and unconventional.
Once, boho sybarites from Mick Jagger to Mary Wells to David Bowie flocked to Mustique, lured by Colin Tennant, the Third Baron Glenconner and the fantastically connected Pied Piper–like developer of the island, who was notorious for his naked beach parties there in the 1960s with Princess Margaret. Now, though, the new generation is opting to stay—or stray—right next door. Mostly, they say, because Bequia retains the off-kilter glamour that once defined Mustique, which is effectively banned by the shellacked and cinched-tight scene that has now taken over the island.
“There are so many rules at Mustique now, it’s become the Island of No,” says one longtime visitor to Tennant’s playground, likening the current makeup of the board of the island’s operator, the Mustique Company, to a prissy New York co-op.
“Someone’s always offended,” says a former resident, alluding to the newcomers who don’t understand the ways of the natives. “We used to do crazy stuff like pool diving. You’d go around the island and jump into someone’s pool, swim a length, and run off again. Everyone thought it was hysterical. At the end of a party, people used to take the wrong cars, and you’d sort it out the next day. Now, God forbid, security would be on you with a letter of complaint.”
Many Mustique vets pin the pivot to Bequia on two high-profile Mustique homeowners: financier and Bernie Madoff associate Walter Noel, and billionaire Ferrari collector and Aston Martin Formula One team co-owner Lawrence Stroll. The former imported an emphasis on networking and deal-making, which upended Mustique’s off-duty vibe. Others haven’t forgiven him for his ties to Madoff, though Mrs. Noel still socializes on the island despite the snubs. “Eighty percent of the room will turn their back on them,” says a veteran party guest.
As for Stroll, his desire to create additional social restraints—deploying security guards on the beach by his house; gating a driveway—has upended the casual, largely unwritten social contracts which had maintained the island’s laid-back affect.
On Bequia, however, there’s been no such “uptight upgrade,” and the vibe has lured those who normally would have bought into Mustique, such as Liz and Stan Clayton, who used to own the Firefly Hotel there, but sold it in 2005 and moved to a former tropical plantation on Bequia.
“The expats on Bequia look at Mustique like a snooty older brother,” says Lauren King-Barry, who came to the island with her husband, Evan, and four children to wait out the pandemic, and are still there. “A certain kind of people love this place—more adventurous, more open to things.”
People like Evan Barry, for example, an avid sailor who chanced on Bequia decades ago and was attracted to the hands-on yachting culture—think sail-it-yourself skiffs, more than crewed super-yachts—which has shielded Bequia from Mustique’s “dry-clean-only bikini” fate. (It was on Bequia, after all, that Bob Dylan’s 67-foot schooner, Water Pearl, was built in the late 1970s.)
Magnus Lewin, who co-founded and runs TradeWinds, a charter company that’s long been headquartered on-island, says, “The people in Bequia now? Thirty-five years ago, they’d have headed towards Mustique. But those days are gone. It’s a cool, fun crowd here, and you’re seeing a lot of houses being built that are quite eccentric.”
Nicola Cornwell and Mike Wilkie’s home, Sail House, is one example. The couple, both former British TV executives, stumbled on Bequia while on a sabbatical sailing round the Caribbean. They hired an architect to build a 6,000-square-foot sustainable home on a hilltop here. “If you want to put on your ball gown with flip-flops and some heritage diamonds, and go to down to a rum shack on the beach here, it doesn’t matter,” says Cornwell. “No one gives a shit what you did before—you’re judged by how you act, not who you were. They have a saying in Bequia: ‘We’re all here because we’re not all there.’”
The ultimate embodiment of Bequia’s offbeat charm might be Moonhole, a quirky development seemingly carved out of the face of a cliff, which is one of the first sights you see as you land at the small airstrip. Homes on this 30-acre plot were built in the 1960s by a New York advertising couple, Tom and Gladdie Johnston. Tom had no formal training, and would throw up a shack, mostly using blocks of local volcanic rock. Now a trust oversees the site, and private homes are offered for rental and sale, even though many lack electricity and rely on rainwater. (Tranquility House is on the market for $1.59 million).
Other homes are a bargain compared to ones on Mustique, where a six-bedroom house can cost $16 million. “People actually live here, so there’s genuine culture,” says real-estate agent Meg Whitaker of the Grenadines Collection. “It’s very eccentric, and, geographically, it’s amazing. People do not live on Mustique, apart from a sort of herded little village where they’ve put all the local inhabitants.”
They could also buy one of the villas Liz Clayton is building with her husband, Stan. In 2016, they took on a business partner to develop the Firefly, a four-room hotel with a guest cottage and three luxury villas on a beach called Paradise, aimed at the kind of clientele who were once Mustique devotees.
“Bequia is the Caribbean as you imagine it,” Clayton says. “You don’t need to prove yourself here. Here, you can still sit out at night with a G&T and look up and see the black sky and stars.”
As he says, Mark Ellwood focuses on “froth in all its forms.” He has written for AIR MAIL about the turmoil inside Moda Operandi. He is also a columnist for Bloomberg Pursuits, the creator and a co-host of Bloomberg’s Travel Genius podcast, and the author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World