Pirates, Pioneers and Progress, Pt. 3
Story by Julian Putley
Beef Island today is best known as the location of the Terrence B. Lettsome Airport, but it is also known for its fabulous beaches, luxury villas, shops, art galleries and eateries. In a multi-part series, author Julian Putley looks back at Beef Island's earliest days.
In Part Two of this Beef Island trilogy we looked at the amazing dream-come-true story of Wladek and Mabel Wagner and their development of Trellis Bay as a yachtsmen's refuge in the 1950s. Memorable characters such as Tony and Jackie Snell who started the Last Resort in the early '70s, adventurers Russ and Minine Norgrove, and local families, the Penns, the Dawsons and others were fundamental to creating present day Beef Island. Vital infrastructure was added like the Queen Elizabeth Bridge, which links Beef Island to Tortola and replaced a rope-towed barge, while the building of the airport finally linked the BVI by air to the rest of the world.
Many colorful personalities have been associated with this small island located off Tortola's eastern shore and one of Beef Island's most famous residents was Hollywood's mega film star from the '40s and '50s, Maureen O'Hara. She had starring roles in over 30 productions and was a favorite co-star of Hollywood giant John Wayne. Her third husband, Charles Blair, was a famous aviator and something of a maverick, like Wayne. He founded the seaplane company, Antilles Air Boats in 1969 with the "Grumman Goose," a WW2 flying boat. Blair died in 1978 when an engine exploded on a seaplane he was piloting between St Croix and St Thomas and crashed into the sea. O'Hara took over the company and became the first woman president of an airline. Sometime later she fell in love with Tortola and built a house on Little Mountain, Beef Island. For a while she was editor of the Virgin Islander, a regional magazine based in Road Town.
Today the focal point of Beef Island is Trellis Bay and the nearby Terrence B Lettsome Airport. Here, the Wagner's legacy is still very much in evidence. The Last Resort Bar and Restaurant on Bellamy Cay, located in a building originally built by Wladek and Mabel Wagner in the 1950s as the Bellamy Cay Club, was run successfully by founder Tony Snell's daughter Jessica Snell and Ben Bamford since Tony's retirement; it is now being operated by the Burrills – an iconic BVI establishment lives on. Talented Al Broderick and his band Hot Sauce will be among the varied entertainment and ex-restaurateur and chef Mike Burrill is providing the cuisine.
The attractive arc that makes up Trellis Bay has become a hive of activity and is a terminal for many ferryboat services to the sister islands and several of the BVI's premier resorts. In the year 2000 the airport was transformed into a modern and attractive facility. Its proximity to the bay's ferry services is fortuitous for guests and residents alike. There are also useful facilities at the water's edge. Ephraim Penn, son of one of Beef Island's pioneering builders, Obel Penn, has a busy superette here and a dinghy dock for boaters.
Among the businesses here are the HiHo boutitque, a coffee shop and the Trellis Kitchen and Cybercafe run by Jeremy Wright. Jeremy, founder of Boardsaiing BVI in 1981 at Nanny Cay, later relocated to the beach at Trellis Bay in one of Wladek and Mabel Wagner's original stone buildings. His business includes not only the restaurant, the cyber cafe and Boardsailing BVI, but is also the location for "Mega Party Central." Trellis Bay is becoming world famous for its full moon and New Year's Eve parties. The carnival-like party usually kicks off with a Caribbean buffet featuring a variety of West Indian dishes, there is usually a reggae band or fungi band and performers may include fire jugglers, magicians or acrobats. Later in the evening the fireball sculptures are lit as well as the burning men and then the mocko jumbies appear. These talented stilt-walkers, dressed in vibrant costumes, wow the crowd with their acrobatic antics. Their job is to expel any evil spirits in the area, just as their ancestors did in Africa many moons ago. Now dancing on the sand under the moon cranks up and carries on late into the evening.
The fireball sculptures were the brainchild of artiste extraordinaire, Aragorn Dick-Read. Dancing figures, celestial bodies and unusual symbols are cut into huge steel spheres, pyramids and cubes. When a fire is lit inside the sculptures the figures appear to dance and the symbols display an unusual significance. This talented artist has been invited to countries around the world, including China, to demonstrate his skill. Aragorn has developed an arts and crafts center here, unrivalled in the Caribbean. The retail outlet prides itself in having only Caribbean made products. Promoting Caribbean crafts is one of Aragorn's missions and every other year, in March, the center hosts a five-day workshop and exhibition with artists and artisans displaying their creations from all around the region.
The setting for the studio is right on the water in the original Wagner cottages. The Caribbean ambiance is enhanced by the sandy ground and beach, seagrape trees and palms. Under a palm thatched shed visitors delight in a traditional Carib canoe, Gli Gli a built in 1997 as a replica on the island of Dominica by descendants of Kallinago Indians. The project was the inspiration of Dick-Read who visited the small reservation in Dominica and managed the entire project. A successful re-enactment voyage was undertaken to the delta of the Orinoco River in Venezuela and on up the river to Guyanese villages to celebrate a unity of peoples fragmented by historical events. It was filmed as a documentary and shown on BBC television.
Further along the beach is the Loose Mongoose bar, restaurant and guesthouse, which was recently taken over by Kevin and Neil Cline. Live music can be enjoyed on Wednesday and Sundays. The comfortable guesthouse is a good option for those with early flights as it is walking distance from the airport.
Among Beef Island's residents and business owners who have the early pioneers to be thankful for are Mark and Cate Stephenson who purchased The Norgrove's original quiet house at Well Bay in 2004. During the ensuing ten years the couple has developed the property into an enchanting boutique style villa resort, Surfsong. The cleverly designed open-style villas use local stone, cedar shingle roofs and incorporate Balinese furnishings. Giant granite boulders and tropical trees and plants have been used to meld into the architecture to create a tranquil garden setting.
From the early days when Beef Island was an isolated cay through to the rope towed barge, and now a modern dual carriageway bridge, access to Beef Island has come a long way and is much easier to get to. Similarly the once primitive airstrip is now a tarmac runway with modern control tower and state-of-the-art terminal building. It is hard to believe that as recently as 1950 there was nothing on Beef Island except some plots for agriculture, cattle, a few chickens and goats, a ruin and perhaps a retired civil servant living as a hermit.
Beef Island has seen many changes over the decades and is likely to see many more. There are further development plans and murmurings of yet another airport expansion. But everyone's fervent hope is that the wonderful character of Beef Island and Trellis Bay will not be lost and that the natural environment will be preserved.