(Telegraph) – Hunting for the perfect winter hideaway is a bit like waiting for that proverbial bus. You spend years looking and then two come along together. Make no mistake – I’ve been searching in some wonderful places, from South Africa to the Great Barrier Reef, from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean.
But the question has always been “Would you go back?” and the answer has never been a wholehearted “Yes!” Then, early this year, I fell into the tropical embrace of a pair of absolute beauties.
They are a hundred miles apart in the Caribbean: one on the west coast of Barbados, the other on the little island of Bequia in the east Caribbean, one of the tiny dots which form the tail of the kite that is St Vincent and the Grenadines.
They are two very different hotels with an important common link: they are the living dream of dedicated individuals. Their owners love and care for them in a way that captures the hearts of their guests.
Bengt Mortstedt calls himself an accidental hotelier. A successful Swedish businessman, he first fetched up on Bequia by boat on New Year’s Eve in 1992. He fell in love with the island there and then. He returned in 1996, again on a sailing trip – you could only reach the island then by water – and found it as captivating as before.
So he decided this was the place to build his retirement villa and several years later, in his 50s by this time, he bought a derelict B&B on a beautiful stretch of beach called Friendship Bay. The discovery that the island now had a landing strip brought a radical change of plan: he wouldn’t build a private house, he would create a hotel resort instead.
Fifteen years on, the Bequia Beach Hotel boasts 59 guest suites, two restaurants and two swimming pools in a nine-acre estate on the magnifcent sandy curve of the bay. It’s not ritzy or pretentious – just comfortable and luxurious in an undemanding kind of way.
“I am the host – guests are like my big family,” says “Mr Bengt”, as his staff call him. (And there are more than 230 of these plus their dependants – all of whose lives have been transformed by the arrival of the serious-minded yet fun-loving Swede who has set up the biggest business the island has ever known).
For someone who had never been in the hospitality trade before, Bengt’s hotel is an astonishing achievement. He’s had to weather Hurricane Ivan, which washed most of the beach away just after he’d bought the property in 2004. The locals promised him it would return and it did: two years later.
He is his own general manager and has had to train his staff who, although willing and friendly, needed tuition in how to look after well-heeled metropolitan guests.
Bengt, a lawyer who once worked for his family’s commercial property business, was appalled at my suggestion that the hotel was a vanity project. When I asked him by how much he had blown his original budget, his answer was telling: “What budget?” he said with an enigmatic smile.
His bible is a book called Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk (author of The Caine Mutiny). It’s a comedy about a New York press agent who escapes to the Caribbean to reinvent himself and run a hotel. It all ends in disaster. But Bengt Mortstedt is made of sterner stuff. “I feel that my hard work has paid off,” he says. “The hotel is established so I have probably done something right.”
He certainly has. The hotel style – old colonial meets Thirties chic – is charming. It’s extremely well run, and Bequia, five-and-a-half miles long and just over a mile wide, is a place of quiet beaches and friendly bars where time evaporates into idyllic idleness.
A 40-minute hop in a noisy twin-engined plane takes you from barefoot Bequia to sophisticated Barbados. It was here that, in 1956, 50 years before Bengt opened his hotel, a couple of English honeymooners, Edward (known as Budge) and Cynthia O’Hara arrived by boat in Bridgetown, the capital.
They had been married 24 hours earlier – but the opportunity of running a new small hotel in the West Indies was an adventure they couldn’t resist. Budge had read physics at Cambridge but, like many of his generation, was forced by the war to cut short his degree.
He joined the Navy and never returned to university. He had married Cynthia at The Lygon Arms, the smart Cotswolds coaching inn where he was the manager.
From there, they went to run the Coral Reef Club. These days it’s one of Barbados’s best-known resorts, an elegant haven of English charm on a prime site on the west coast. Beautiful gardens, elegant rooms, two swimming pools and its own beach, all tended by well-trained staff, make it an eternal favourite among visitors who return year after year.
In 1956 only the central house and the odd cottage stood on the plot. Bit by bit, with the then owner, Budge and Cynthia built up the business.
In the Fifties and Sixties only the rich and famous could afford the time and expense of the long journey to the West Indies via Bermuda: the likes of James Mason, Harry Belafonte, and Agatha Christie (who wrote a Miss Marple mystery set in a Caribbean hotel while a guest there) came to stay.
Later, the O’Haras were able to invest money of their own in the hotel and eventually buy out the other shareholders. It was a risky project that paid off, as cheaper air travel encouraged Middle England to follow in the footsteps of the elite.
Budge died suddenly, aged 70, in 1995. By then his and Cynthia’s three children, Patrick, Mark and Karen, had all decided to join the family business. They and their spouses now form the board of the company and have expanded the hotel enormously. But Budge remains their guiding spirit.
“We have our own vision,” says Karen. “But when there is a disagreement, I usually think – what would my father do?” And Cynthia is still there to remind them – she chairs the firm. A trim and gracious 89-year-old, she swims every morning and helps host the weekly cocktail party for guests. “My parents,” says Karen, “were terrific hosts, which has been a big part of the success of this business.”
It’s taken more than 60 years for the O’Hara family to develop the refined atmosphere of the Coral Reef Club. Their presence, their care and their vigilance are key.
Karen tells me that recently, while having lunch with her mother in the hotel dining room, a guest knocked a spoon from the buffet on to the floor, then picked it up and put it back. Cynthia couldn’t rest until she’d sneaked over, removed the offending article and given it to a waiter to be washed up.
At the Bequia Beach Hotel, Bengt Mortstedt’s journey is guided by the same dedication. He recently persuaded a French chef on the nearby island of Mustique to make the trip to Bequia to teach his staff how to make croissants, breads and pastries (all delicious, as I can testify). These are simple anecdotes but examples of what it takes to create a place to which visitors will always want to return.
The O’Haras can’t be sure that their third generation, now making their career choices, will decide to work in the family business. Bengt, today a widower of 70, has a son helping him market his Bequia projects (he now also owns Jack’s, a smart bar and restaurant on the other side of the island) but doesn’t know whether he will eventually take over.
That’s the thing about pioneers. They know that the future depends on the present. Get it right today and tomorrow will take care of itself.
In Don’t Stop the Carnival, Wouk writes about the West Indian’s philosophy of life. It comes, he says, “from a piece of wisdom that his climate of eternal summer teaches him… that today is like yesterday, and tomorrow will be like today; and that therefore the idea is to take things easy and enjoy the passing time under the sun”.
You don’t have to spend much time in the Caribbean to recognise the truth of that. At the Coral Reef Club you enjoy the lazy sophistication that’s attracted people to Barbados for decades.
At the Bequia Beach Hotel you discover the simpler, but no less refined, pleasures of life on a quiet island. Like the best operatic duets they harmonise perfectly with one another. In Barbados the view from my terrace was framed by trees that attracted a multitude of coloured birds; in Bequia I looked out across the garden to the wide horizon of the bay.
I spent quite a lot of time on those terraces, lounging in the comfort of others’ hard work. I can still see the sea and hear the breeze mixed with distant music rustling the leaves on the palm trees and licking the tops of the waves. Back in London, I busy myself with my urban day, refreshed by the thought that I shall go back to two places where the warmth of the sun burns away all notion of time.