There are few places in the world where the greatest hazard on the roads is presented by copulating tortoises. But on the island of Mustique, during the hot and humid days of summer, they are such a feature that the publishing magnate and island regular, Felix Dennis, erected a giant statue of a couple mid-coitus on the island’s main crossroads.
On my most recent trip , swerving to avoid one of these proliferating amphibians, I nearly wiped out the head of conservation, coming round a blind corner in the opposite direction. An appreciation of the ironic is important here, as are the supersized “bonking tortoises”, who provide a landmark since signposts are considered an invasion of privacy. They are also a fitting testament to the eccentric nature of Mustique itself.
Leased from the St Vincent government half a century ago (recently renewed for another 50 years), here you will find rock stars turned wildlife campaigners housing orphaned possums in their beachside sheds; world-renowned artists teaching a Sunday painting class; members of the Gates family dancing barefoot to calypso; and not a single request for a selfie when Mick Jagger and Tommy Hilfiger turn up for a drink at the stylish weekly Cotton House cocktails.
It’s a community ripe for satire but which also summons respect for its continued adherence to the founding values of former owner Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner, as an exclusive oasis where discretion and privacy are the most valuable commodities. Once you set foot on its hallowed ground, the welcome is warm and irresistible. But be warned, although there are few rules here, they are generally only visible once you have broken them!
Writing about Mustique is a risky business, as you never know who you might offend. Like the omnipresent tortoises brought here decades ago as pets, the homeowners, too, are imports and run the gamut from oligarchs to old money, celebrity to aristocracy.
In a world of social media, Mustique’s continued secrecy is quite an achievement – but like any small community, gossip is what fuels any stay. You’ll find liberal servings at the Cotton House, where homeowners and hotel guests mingle over pre-lunch rum punch, an island fuel that also has anecdote-erasing properties.
These days, conservation and a significant charitable trust, which raised over £4 million in a matter of days to provide urgent relief to the victims of the recent St Vincent volcanic eruption, have become priorities.
Indeed, the aforementioned head of conservation, a Trinidadian called Nakita, has done sterling work regenerating coral reefs, with 90 per cent of the coral returned to the sea on vast “trees” made of metal bars, and now flourishing.
Follow me below on a day in the life of this eccentric Caribbean idyll…
Despite the stream of globally renowned stars and billionaires that pass through Basil’s Bar, the iconic waterside wooden bar (and the island’s most famous venue) – sitting on stilts over the turquoise waters of the harbour – is a flat shoes and beach cover-up environment. I once made the mistake of overpacking, but now have given in to the daily uniform of a cotton dress and flip-flops. And while the original stardust continues with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, along with the likes of Bono and, erm, Jeremy Clarkson – all beneficiaries of the island’s Chatham House-styled charms – most returnees do so because there are few places on Earth where they barely raise a glance.
The few brightly coloured clapboard shops in the tiny port continue the film-set feel and offer the only purchasing potential on the island apart from real estate. The Pink House (pinkhousemustique.com) run by the island doctor’s wife, Lotty Bunbury, supplies the island uniform of exquisite beachwear, most of it made locally in St Vincent, and some of which I am modelling here!
We’ve got used to living in bubbles, but some are more enticing than others. During the last two years the island has been relentlessly fully booked, a safe haven for the super rich to escape the strictures and worries of the pandemic world. In fact there’s a Truman Show quality to Mustique that’s quite unsettling – every drive a frenzy of hand-waving, beaming residents; as you’re never sure who’s whizzing past, you should always wave back so as not to commit the cardinal sin of unfriendliness.
This is an island where megabucks might not buy you much but every visitor is invited to sample the experience of being idly rich. My summer daze incorporated early rising and yoga (open to all) in a pavilion by the sea, followed by a morning swim in Gelliceaux Bay, which was Princess Margaret’s favourite, then decadent, long lunches leading to afternoon naps and a brisk evening walk when the sun lost its force. We all know that money can’t buy happiness but I can’t lie, a stay on Mustique certainly provides gold-plated opportunities for a glimpse of it.
High up on a hillside is my dream residence ‘Carissa’, all Cape Dutch grandeur with the most exquisite infinity pool overlooking the island’s lagoon and across to neighbouring Canouan. It’s a breezy oasis of cool stone floors and whirring fans, decorated in 21st-century island style: luxury sofas, Hermès scatter cushions, meticulously chosen modern art, lavish light fittings and magnificent mirrors. Sitting at the poolside bar with a margarita in your hand, the cares of the world beyond island shores are definitely diminished.
There is also a small trove of simpler, relatively less expensive options. My favourite is Moana, a classic beach bungalow close to the shimmering sea, more barefoot chic than ostentatious opulence, with cool white mosquito netted bedrooms and rustic lounging areas entirely open to the elements. Owned by a surfer, the love of the sea is its signature with shells piled in dishes, retro surf boards placed decoratively against the walls and a crazy paving pool that spun me right back to the 1970s.
Wild west coast
Basil’s Bar’s packed Wednesday “jump-up” features a live band playing a mixture of soca, reggae and pop. Once my playground, it’s now more the social domain of my teenagers. Instead I’ve discovered even wilder places, like the windy west coast where beaches like Pasture and Macaroni can only be reached via rocky cactus-strewn cliffs and the pathways are trammelled on a daily basis by Marie France, longtime partner of the late Felix Dennis and as much of an island institution as the famed bar owner Basil.
A septuagenarian with the legs of an ostrich, she leads a daily walking group for those in the know (or on the private WhatsApp group). It’s literally as far from the luxury mansions as you can get, revealing the wild, rocky seascape and secret jungle bowers on the windward side through a labyrinth of tiny trails that lead to breathtaking vistas of the ocean and faraway islands.
How to do it
Villas on Mustique (020 7201 6831; mustique-island.com) cost from $7,500 per week, plus tax. Rooms at The Cotton House (cottonhouse.net) cost from $600 per night, full board. Fly to Barbados, St Lucia or St Vincent, then take a light aircraft transfer.Internet Explorer Channel Network