The Right Beach, Right Now

ach and Do Brazil, an open-air restaurant owned by Boubou (yes, just Boubou). It’s situated for sunset views, and although I’m far too early for that, I settle on the balcony and gape anyway. Sheets of light glance off the waves below, breaking into silver shards when the water tumbles into the rocks on the shore. Families play in the surf, and topless women point themselves toward the sun. In the restaurant, Arabic music plays in the background and the barefoot waiter and waitress wear sarongs. I hear at least four different languages as I wait for my lunch-shrimp and vegetable tempura and a zingy seviche. The French chef trains once a year with the great Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and it shows. The moment occasions me to wonder: What am I always rushing to and from in the city, anyway? What more could I ask than this?

Boubou, outfitted in funky crocheted pants, a frayed denim hat, and camouflage sunglasses, joins me and breaks into a gap-toothed smile. The son of Roger Vadim, he lived through the St. Barts party years. His story of how he came to be here begins, ‘I was only coming for five days. . . .’ It’s the same story I will hear from at least four other people.

‘In the beginning, St. Barts was mostly old smugglers, gays, former drug addicts-people who went away from society,’ says Boubou. ‘Nobody had any money. We partied all night, and then at four or five we’d get on somebody’s boat to go somewhere for breakfast. It was only after tourism arrived that I decided I had better get to work.’ His typical day, he says, consists of taking an early swim, consulting with the chefs at Do Brazil and his other restaurant, La Mandala, then relaxing before the dinner rush.

I ask Boubou to name his favorite beach. ‘Anse du Gouverneur,’ he says, and in fifteen minutes I’m floating on my back in the salty, buoyant water, eyes on the sky, enveloped in a mix of blues. There’s so much more to see, to do. Time is short. Must get moving, right? I’m not going anywhere.

‘So, pardner, what are you guys drinking?’ I ask. ‘Whiskey?’

The person to whom I am speaking sighs and rolls his eyes. He and his friend are sitting on tall stools, holding ornate glasses with long straws. This obviously entertains the bartender, who smiles as he wipes down glasses. Their feet don’t even come close to touching the ground. ‘No, of course we’re not,’ he finally allows, speaking in a very proper cadence.
‘How old are you?’ I continue. Another eye roll, and he nudges his buddy. ‘He is asking you a question. Pay attention.’ His friend is eating a maraschino cherry, and a sticky ring develops around his mouth. He giggles. Another sigh. Resignation. Adults. ‘I’m eight, he’s five. He’s from the United Kingdom. I’m Canadian. Anything else?’

I am at Basil’s Bar on Mustique, and I’ve seen these two boys, the older with vivid red hair and the other a bright blond, tooling all over the place on their Razor scooters, heads held high like diminutive island kings. And in a sense they are: Their families own villas here. I smile. ‘No, that’s all. Have fun,’ I say, and take my own drink to my table, passing the lads’ parents, who are holding court at a breeze-caressed table piled high with appetizers. Basil’s is the heart of the island-the meeting place for visitors and residents alike. It is open-air and built over the water; the tide slides under the boards at my feet as I sip my drink. Mustique’s allure is less about the land itself, a range of hills covered in scrub, white cedar, and cactuses that is just this side of homely, and more about the people it houses-the haves of the world. One doesn’t turn up here unless one is a member of the fiduciary elite or a bold-faced name on the New York Post’s ‘Page Six.’ It is also famed for its more than eighty villas that range in price from about two million dollars to five million dollars. Some are secluded, others stand out imperiously, but all are christened with hey-Joneses-check-this-out names such as Palm Beach, Serenissima, and Alumbrera.

Upon arriving, I didn’t quite get it. There’s a languor in the air, an idleness born of wealth and fabulousness. But what do people do in those huge houses? I saw the fantastical lengths the owners go to-the Great House, an enormous property with an Indian motif, includes a seventeenth-century pavilion that was originally designed as a resting place for a maharaja but is now a backdrop for the pool. (Actually, I only saw this in Mustique II, a book about the island; nobody is exactly inviting gawkers to their homes.) I’m told that many owners visit once a year for the holidays and mostly show off the pads to visiting friends.

But I think the owners come to do just what I am doing-to get away from the chatter and the madness. They just do it in a way that involves sums of money equivalent to the GNP of small nations. After that, I’m okay with Mustique.

It’s not a place to do stuff; it’s a place to be in a state of mind-a rich, fabulous state of mind. I’m also told that there are more than a dozen very moneyed, youngish widows on the island. Hmm. Interesting.

I’m staying at the Cotton House resort, a compound that sits on a narrow lee of land separating the yin and the yang of the Caribbean and the Atlantic. Once the site of a sugar mill, the property was refashioned in the late ’60s by British theatrical designer Oliver Messel and Mustique’s architectural-genius-in-residence, Arne Hasselquist. The atmosphere is somehow elegant and chic yet informal, and the staff are far too adept to ever make a guest feel awkward. Show up with a harem of circus performers and there’d be nary a murmur. Quite simply, they’re too used to dealing with the megarich. Still, I’m probably one of the few to arrive with no Gucci in tow. (But yes, you can take my two travel-beaten backpacks to my room, thanks.) The twenty rooms and suites occupy a series of small buildings; the new Coutinot House, which fronts the Caribbean, is one of the gems. It has a wraparound veranda, an outdoor bathtub warmed by the sun, and a massive four-poster with mosquito netting. A fitting location for the end of my trip, it fairly commands: Languish.
After my ushering in (I was met at the airport by the staff, who bore cold water and wet hand towels), the porter informs me that they will unpack for me if I would like. No thanks. Usually I just fling everything onto the floor, so I am afraid that the orderliness might confuse me. A glorious breakfast of eggs and fresh island fruits is delivered to my room as I am doing just that, and I eat on the balcony, looking out at the ocean. So this is how the other 1.3 percent live.

My room has no TV and I love it. I also love what they do have-food delivery to any beach you choose. Food, and the silver to pick at it with, as well as pillows and blankets. One day, as I’m stretched out on a chaise on Endeavour Bay, eating a tikka masala chicken sandwich on fine china, I realize that it’s never even crossed my mind to go running or kayaking here. Too much work.

But no place can harbor such conspicuous idleness without somebody breaking his back, and I’m curious about what the nonmoneyed locals think. I ask around and am directed to seventy-one-year-old Cardinal Simon, the founder of the Mustique Indigenous Peoples Association and a lifelong resident. I walk over to Lovelle Village, a small, congested collection of houses on a hill, where many of the island workers live, and find Simon at the Piccadilly Bar, which he owns. He is a thin, older man with close-cropped white hair, and I catch him in the morning, wearing a T-shirt and boxer shorts. Happy to talk, he sets up an old fan and two folding chairs in a dusty back room. He tells me that for years the native Mustiquians had to struggle to own bits of their own land but that today anyone who has lived on the island for at least fifteen years can buy land at a mortal’s price. ‘We just want a slice of the cake instead of the crumbles,’ he says. But the natives also value tourism. ‘Security is good on the island because the people know it benefits us to be nice to the tourists. They bring money, and we want their money.’

After talking with Simon, I walk back down to Britannia Bay to speak with the one local who has conspicuously made good. The owner of Basil’s Bar is wrapped in island mythology. Basil Charles, the legend goes, was a poor island boy when he was befriended by local landowner Lord Glenconner, who took him around Europe as a novelty-and Basil won everyone over with his charm. He has the satisfied demeanor of an elder statesman, and is almost regal in his ankle-length caftan. We talk of his longtime friendship with Mick Jagger (‘really a shy guy’), the wild New Year’s Eve parties at the bar (‘anything can happen’), and the clamor by native Mustiquians and workers from St. Vincent to get a share of the island’s wealth. These days Basil spends part of his time in Bali, but his love of Mustique remains undiminished. ‘The success of the island is because of how safe it is,’ he says. ‘My house is never locked. I sleep with my windows open.’

At the end of the day, my last on the islands and a fine one, I go horseback riding. The late-afternoon sun slants in, and the breeze is thick with salt. At the stable, I’m introduced to a well-sculpted horse wearing an English saddle. I’ve never ridden English style, but I adjust as we make our way to L’Ansecoy Bay Beach, the location of Mick Jagger’s modest home and Tommy Hilfiger’s grandiose mansion. There is absolutely nobody around. I urge the horse to a trot, and we kick up sand and splash into the water. I ride to a remote, windswept bowl of land where the island turtles, black-shelled with orange spots, gather. The sea crashes upon the rocks, but it’s a quiet place and we stop, breathing in the island smells.

But by now the light is dim. The kiki-kiki sounds of the tree frogs are gathering force, nature’s alarm clock signaling the oncoming dark. It is time to go back to the stable. Tomorrow I must return to airplanes and luggage searches, hurried paces and honking taxicabs, talking heads and the latest bad news. But for now, this moment is mine. I’ll take in this bit of tranquillity and store it for later, when things seem too much and I need it most.

And, hey, tonight maybe I’ll go to Basil’s and see if any of those widows are around.

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