Cocktails at Basil’s
“Where’s Mick Jagger?” the American tourist asks, a little too loud, a little too shrill. She takes another sip from her second or third cocktail. The bartender at Basil’s Bar nods; he’s used to these kinds of questions from people who come to Mustique and claim they’re definitely not on a celebrity stalking trip, only to gulp down drink after drink while constantly scanning the terrace. Is that Bryan Adams at the table over there? Is that Tommy Hilfiger gazing out on the sea in deep relaxation? Like Mick Jagger, they all own property on Mustique. The place to see and be seen on this two-square-mile island is Basil’s Bar, a simple terrace on the beach with a thatched roof. The bar is named after its founder, Basil Charles, a slender seventy-five-year-old man with gray hair who was born on the island of St. Vincent, about thirty kilometers away. Basil’s is a Caribbean legend; no other tiki bar in the region has hosted more royalty, actors and pop stars, among them Kate Moss, Eric Clapton and Jerry Hall – not to mention Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s sister, who died in 2002. She traveled to Mustique in the 1970s and 1980s, turning the then mosquito-plagued island into a vacation paradise beloved by the jet set.
Basil, you were the first bartender on Mustique, at first in the only hotel on the island, the Cotton House, then in Basil’s Bar from 1976. When did your work become your calling?
I originally trained as a mechanic. When I started working on the island in 1971, the hotel needed an all-rounder to cover a variety of jobs. One day I was standing behind the bar at the Cotton House and a man in a white suit came up to me and asked, “Do you know how to make a rum and coke?” That was Colin Tennant, the man who’d bought Mustique.
He came from a wealthy family, was a friend of Princess Margaret, and had purchased the island for £45,000 during a sailing trip in 1958.
I told him, “I don’t know how you want your drink.” I pointed to the six different bottles of rum behind me and the array of glass sizes, and said I could simply choose any glass, pour a shot of rum in it and add Coke. “Is that how you like it?” “How disgusting,” he said, “I want a small glass, two ice cubes, a big shot of Bacardi followed by a shot of Coke.
“From now on, you can have your drink just the way you like it,” I told him. That was the moment Colin thought: I’ve found my bartender."
Is that what you thought too?
I was just a poor guy who needed money. You see, my father was a fisherman, and my mother died when I was nine. The first time I came to Mustique was on the mail boat from St. Vincent that came by once a week. I suggested to the hotel manager at the time that I stay for a week and see if things worked out. And here I am, more than forty-five years later.
Sir Rodney Touche, a close friend of the Princess, once said, “I love Mustique for everything it doesn’t have.”
[Laughs] In the early days, the Cotton House had eight rooms, and only three houses had been fully built . . .
And today there are about a hundred magnificent villas on the island, and the hotel has fifteen rooms . . .
But back then there were no roads, there was no electricity, no hot water and only one generator. I remember one time when Princess Margaret arrived with her entourage, having fled wintery Europe, the power grid would break down at seven in the evening because all the ladies were blow-drying their hair at the same time. Sometimes it would be back up the next day, sometimes not for a whole week. Here at Basil’s Bar, brownouts later became part of the folklore. The guests hoped that the power would go out so that we could put the candles on the tables to create a more romantic atmosphere.
Princess Margaret with a group of friends in the spring of 1972.
In the back: Basil Charles.
The island was a well-kept secret until 1976, when photos appeared of Margaret on Mustique together with Roddy Llewellyn, with whom she had an eight-year affair beginning in 1973. At the time, she was married to photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones.
When did you first actually meet Princess Margaret?
In February of my first year. At first, I had to address her as “Her Royal Highness” and bow. Later we were allowed to call her “Ma’am”. She was cool. Over the years we got on well. Sometimes when she was at the bar of the Cotton House and a stranger was headed her way to ask her to dance, I would jump up and quickly ask her to dance myself. Colin had impressed upon us not to put her in an awkward situation. That included being careful not to let a stranger approach her.
In a BBC documentary about the Queen’s sister, who died in 2002, you called her a trailblazer. What did you mean by that?
There could only be one queen, and Princess Margaret grew up knowing she would never take on that role. She had a different life to live. In my opinion, she liberated women: She smoked in public – that was frowned upon in her circles in the sixties – and she danced. She also liked to drink.
Her husband, Lord Snowdon, called Mustique “Mistake”.
He hated Mustique because it was Margaret’s island. Colin knew her pretty well from the fifties. They dated for a while. When Princess Margaret got married in 1960, he asked her: Would you rather have a cocktail shaker from Asprey or a parcel of land on my island? She chose the land, and Lord Snowdon understood it was a gift just for her. From the seventies on, he had a number of affairs with other women. In any other marriage, his wife would have divorced him, but for a long time Princess Margaret didn’t want to do that. The Queen wouldn’t have allowed it either, I think. And so the Princess came to Mustique, sometimes with a younger man she might be dating. On the island she could be free to do as she pleased. There was no press here.
You’ve never had any problems with paparazzi?
We didn’t allow reporters on the island. If we knew the Princess was coming to Basil’s Bar, we told every guest with a camera that they could stay if they agreed to let us take their camera, lock it behind the bar and give it back afterwards. No one ever refused.
Colin Tennant really took a liking to you. In 1974 he even invited you to his family home in Scotland.
It was the first time I had ever left the country. On his estate they organized hunting parties where his friends came to shoot partridges and pheasants. For lunch and dinner there was a strict dress code: shirts, jackets, long trousers.
At a dinner, Tennant seated you next to the “palest person in the room”, in his words. Didn’t you feel like you were being put on display?
He was a colonialist eccentric, I suppose. But without him, I wouldn’t have been allowed to lease and later buy a piece of this bar. He made sure I could. And I would not say that he sat me next to the whitest person there, but rather next to the snobbiest person. He wanted to see what would happen. To him, it was a social experiment.
You were seated next to the Countess of Dartmore, later known as Lady Di’s stepmother.
She was so stiff, schooled always to be polite. “What do you think of the weather?” she asked. “Man, it’s shit,” I replied. “It’s the middle of summer, and there’s fog outside all the time.” She looked like someone who lived in a hair salon. Her hair was sticky with hairspray. Every time they served a new course, she would check her reflection in a spoon to make sure every strand was in place. I prayed to God that the meal would be over soon.
"Some snobs wanted to allow only the rich to drink their beer here. They didn’t want fishermen, butlers and cleaning ladies to sit at the same bar. There was no discussion; I overruled them."
Tennant showed you the world. What were you able to teach him?
He hated bookkeeping. We opened the bar jointly, and he said at the time, “Basil, this bar will never make any money.” I proved him wrong. From day one, we were making a profit. I kept track of how much we sold every night, how much inventory we had, how much cash was lying around behind the counter. I had a safe installed behind the counter under the floor. I was the only one who knew the combination.
How did you hone your craft?
I bought the books written by the best bartenders and learned how to mix cocktails. And over the years I have created my own drinks. For example, the “Hurricane David”, which is still served today. The drink commemorates a storm that hit Mustique in 1979. It didn’t hit us full force, but it scared us pretty good. One ounce of dark rum, one of light rum, an ounce and a half of vodka, a shot of crème de cacao, lots of ice, some lime juice on top. A whirlwind of a drink named after a tropical storm.
Later Tennant almost went broke and had to sell off part of the island in the late seventies. He never wanted guests to be able to rent the villas. Today, they can without any problems.
But some of his ideas still live on. No marina, no tour boats, no big hotel. The island just needed money to continue to exist so that all the roads and utility lines could be built. The school, the church, the village for the locals.
Do they come to the bar?
That was important to me from the beginning. Some snobs wanted to allow only the rich to drink their beer here. They didn’t want fishermen, butlers and cleaning ladies to sit at the same bar. There was no discussion; I overruled them.
One of your guests was David Bowie. They say it took him five years to build his mansion. Do you sometimes think that the rich are just a couple cards short of a full deck?