Best Islands to Live On: Bequia

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Why Bequia? This charming Caribbean island still feels like a secret. Artists and writers thrive in its little communities, fueled by the colorful tropical life surrounding them. But since the island is quite small (only 7 square miles), big industry and mega-resorts have blessedly left Bequia alone. We chose this island for those of you who are pure dreamers -- those who aren't looking for glitz and glamour but for a flower-filled Caribbean garden where you can set up a canvas and paint a free life.

Life of an Expat "This island still retains the color and adventure of the Old Caribbean, not over run by 'modern conveniences,'" says Julie Savage Lea, an established Virginia artist now living in Bequia. "It's full of wonderful, magical stories and ancient things. Everyone who comes here falls in love." Julie's love affair with Bequia began about 30 years ago. She, husband Douglass and sons Benjamin & Zachary were on a sailing trip around the Caribbean on a 38-foot ketch named Ishtar.

"We did a full-moon sail, and we reached the channel between St. Vincent and Bequia right about first light," Julie says. "Something happened in this trip across the channel. The stars, the wind, the water -- it was just magic." Once they set anchor, Julie got her first look at the island scenes that would later be the subject of dozens of sketches and paintings. "All this movement was going on right at dawn. I could see women balancing loads on their heads. Even the fishing boats were all lined up on the beach. I pulled out my watercolors and started painting. I just never stopped."

The family returned to Bequia again and again for the next three decades. "I'd come down and just paint my heart out," she says. "Every time I came back I would see it in a much different way -- the intense color and variety and strangeness of the plant life, the trees, the sunlight, the clouds." In 1999, a collection of Julie's paintings were published in a book, Bequia Reflections. She also receives commissions from homeowners, local hotels and restaurants, and she exhibits work in her studio, Mango Tree Cottage. "Since I've been down here and painting what I love, my career is just soaring," says Julie.

In 2005, Julie and Douglass, a retired writer, moved to the island full time, trading their 200-year old house in Waterford, Virginia, for a 1960s Frank Lloyd Wright-style home they call ZeeBreeze. "We're way high over Spring Bay, with its beautiful turquoise water, and I can see the ocean," Julie says. "I just throw my hands up in the air and sing the praises. Then I go down to my studio in Port Elizabeth, and I'm in the West Indies -- goats in the road, everybody's smiling. I go to my cottage, turn on classical music and paint away. It's a Gauguin experience."

Facts of Life

  • Climate: Tropical
  • Population of island: 4,696
  • Percentage expats: 7 percent
  • Population of main town, Port Elizabeth: 2,500
  • House starting price: Mid $200,000s
  • Travel from US: Fly to Barbados, then an hour flight to Bequia.
  • Closest hospital: Port Elizabeth
  • Price of local beer: $1.50 for a Hairoun
  • Language: English
  • Ease of immigration: Medium
  • Ease of buying a home: Medium
  • Website: bequiatourism.com

Purchasing Paradise

  • $ Three-bedroom cottage with a fruit tree garden, 100 yards from Friendship Bay beach: $320,000.
  • $$ Four-bedroom house with pool and panoramic view of Admiralty Bay: $750,000.
  • $$$ Three-building villa with gardens and infinity-edge pool: $1.5 million.

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