Nestled in a cluster of islands called the Grenadines in the West Indies not far from St. Vincent is a 1400-acre island unlike most others in the world. This little known parcel of land is called Mustique and has become the Caribbean’s best-kept secret for those seeking a private island escape.
Certainly there are other destinations that offer more amenities – nightlife, spas, sports — but that’s not why people come here. Mustique’s appeal isn’t its chic lifestyle, it’s the laid back island calm.
Originally discovered by Spanish sailors in the 15th century, Mustique was later developed by European settlers who built huge sugar plantations. The plantations were prosperous until the 19th century, but fell into ruin and sugar beets replaced sugar cane though soon overgrown with scrub.
In the late 1950s, a Scottish baron named Colin Tennant purchased the three-mile site to develop as an upscale resort. His idea was for Mustique to be divided into plots and sold to shareholders who would invest equally to retain exclusivity. The land was snatched up by an eclectic group of socialites, rock stars, designers and artists. Tennant saved one plot as a wedding gift for his good friend Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II. Margaret built a cliff-top villa called Les Jolies Eaux (“Beautiful Waters”), designed by her uncle-in-law, Oliver Messel, a leading British theatre set designer known for his flamboyant designs, many of which can be found in homes on the island.
Messel created a 5-bedroom house in the neo-Georgian style for the Princess and she spent many happy years there entertaining family and friends. Les Jolies Eaux stayed in the royal family until 1999 when an American couple bought the estate and added a large veranda, master pavilion and cabana. They kept the manor-house with the overstuffed chintz sofas and chairs. This is where my husband and I spent many happy evenings on a May escape to the island.
We arrived early afternoon on an eight-seater prop plane, landing at our own version of Fantasy Island, but instead of Tattoo greeting us, Arnold, our butler (Les Jolies Eaux has a staff of five), was waiting to pack us and our luggage into the house “mule” (Kawasaki golf cart), which would be our main transportation. Monsoon-level rain leaves big puddles on Mustique’s streets and this four-legged creature traverses them with ease.
It was a short ride from the airport to the villa where the staff was lined up to greet us: Judy, our lovely chef, and Arnold have been with the villa since it was built more than 40 years ago, serving Princess Margaret and then her son, David Linley, before the current owners took over.
Judy gave us a quick tour of the home, which features a long spacious living room opening to a terrace and magnificent view of the water. On either side of the room was a dining area and parlor for reading or enjoying a leisure game of chess. Five bedrooms were tucked around the villa with names like Detective, Princess, Studio and Treetop, each offering its own distinct personality and charm.
We chose the poolside master pavilion, an elegant wood-beamed cottage with its own balcony and dipping pool. Most mornings we spent sipping coffee looking out to the water and listening to waves crash against the shore.
Mustique is close to the equator so sunset and sunrise occur about the same time every day. There are no street lights so we timed excursions to be back at the villa before dark. With only 100 or so houses on Mustique, and no visible electrical or telephone lines, there were few landmarks to guide us and getting lost was not an inviting option.
The one exception to our home-by-dark rule was the weekly cocktail reception at the historic Cotton House, an old plantation transformed into a luxury hotel. Here guests gather every Tuesday night in the Great Room to imbibe and share tales with other residents about island life.
Mustique, we learned, is a bit like Hollywood: You never know who you’ll see, and had we been there a month earlier, we could have mingled with Tommy Hilfiger, Mick Jagger, Bryan Adams and even Shania Twain. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge spent their “babymoon” at the family villa, and Bill Gates parks his yacht offshore when he visits financier friend, Felix Dennis.
In general, though, days are laidback and anonymous and often spent exploring the many beaches and inlets. One favorite excursion is packing a champagne and caviar picnic to enjoy at Macaroni beach, a secluded stretch of pristine white sand in a palm-shrouded setting.
On other days we frequented the village bakery for its simple island specialties as well as western favorites like sourdough baguettes.
Those who don’t want to stay in a villa can choose between two lovely hotels, the largest of which is Cotton House, offering a spa, golf course and two restaurants: the Veranda serving Caribbean-fused dining and the waterfront Beach Café, a casual destination for snacks to enjoy at tables looking out to Endeavour Bay. Don’t miss the delicious callaloo soup, made from a spinach-like vegetable that tastes much better than it looks.
Slightly out of town is the five-bedroom Firefly guesthouse famed for its cocktail bar and view of the sun setting over Brittania Bay. The pizza is so popular that the restaurant offers beach deliveries.
No trip to Mustique would be complete without stopping at Basil’s Bar, the only true nightspot on the island. Run by Basil Charles, the unofficial mayor of Mustique, Basil’s legendary “Jump Up” Wednesdays attract locals who gather for the barbecue buffet and live music with dancing on the deck until the wee hours.
Charles worked as a bartender and assistant manager at the Cotton House, before opening the beachfront bar more than 25 years ago. He was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2005.
Equestrians will want to stop by the island stables, while tennis buffs can check out the club courts for socials and tournaments when high season starts.
Vacations on Mustique don’t come cheap. Villas like Les Jolies Eaux and Coccoloba, also a Oliver Messel design, rent for $20,000-30,000 per week. The 6-bedroom Plantation House goes for $30,000-$50,000, but you’ll have the best view on the island.
No matter what you select, Mustique is paradise found and not easily left.
For more information on Mustique, contact Mustique-island.com.
-Kristine M. Carber