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This article appears in Volume 21: The Islands Issue.
It’s early in the morning and I am sitting on the veranda of a 300-year-old plantation house. Beside me a bright-blue hummingbird floats, seemingly weightless, as it delicately inspects a flower for nectar. Only a few metres away, an entire family of green vervet monkeys chatter to each other as they play in the branches of a wide-spreading tree. This isn’t an idle summer fantasy – this is Nevis, otherwise known as the “Queen of the Caribbean”.
One half of St Kitts and Nevis, and a ten-minute taxi boat ride away from the larger St Kitts, this unspoilt and unhurried island is far less glossy than any of its neighbours across the West Indies, but that’s part of its charm. Here you won’t find glittering casinos, mega cruise ships or fast-food chains. Instead, most of the island’s 36 square miles are undeveloped and wide swathes of it, including the towering volcanic peak in its centre, appear to be completely untouched by human hands. Soon, even Nevis’ power source will be green, with geothermal energy set to make the island completely carbon-neutral within the next decade.
For all its lack of commercial development, Nevis has centuries of history behind it, some of which I hear about on a 4×4 tour around the island. My guide, Waz, from Funky Monkey Tours, fearlessly throttles up dirt tracks and down sandy lanes (I’m still not convinced that some of them were roads at all) regaling me with stories of plantation owners, pirates and slaves as we explore the ruins of a haunted house as well as the first non-segregated church built in the Caribbean. He explains why the island is eerily quiet – it’s Sunday morning and everyone is in church. “We have about 70 churches on Nevis. There are only four grocery stores, but plenty of churches.”
It’s not only the roads that are empty. Our first stop, Lovers’ Beach – arguably the most picturesque on the entire coastline – is so devoid of signs of human life that I can almost imagine that we’re on a deserted island. And it’s not just because it’s a Sunday. “From June to November you can come and watch turtles hatching early in the morning,” Waz tells me. “The rest of the time, almost no one comes here.”
People might be few and far between, but there’s no shortage of animal life on the island. Goats, sheep and wild donkeys wander the streets between candy-coloured wooden houses, while monkeys disappear into the greenery as soon as we come near. Adorable though they may be to tourists, the locals are less enamoured of the black-and-white monkeys – brought over in the 17th century as pets, there are now 20,000 monkeys to a population of 12,000 people, with voracious appetites that no garden fence can keep out.
During the drive, ice-cold Ting in hand (“It’s better with rum,” I am told, “but everything is better with rum”) we pass the very first hotel to be built in the Caribbean in 1778, the Bath Hotel. Once a playground for the rich and famous, it’s now a government building, but the hot-spring baths that made it so popular remain just down the hill, free and open for all – another example of Nevis’ non-commercial feel.
These days visitors seeking a more low-key holiday stay in one of the island’s four “plantation inns”, remnants of the days when Nevis was a big player in the lucrative sugar industry. While there is one major resort, the Four Seasons, it is at these unassuming estates that you’ll slip into the unhurried lifestyle of the Caribbean and probably pick up the habit of ending every day with a sweet and spicy rum punch. With the exception of Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, whose beachside location ensures a short stroll from bed to sand, these tucked-away properties reside up in the rainforest-clad hills, characterised by centuries-old “great houses”, cottage-style accommodation and crumbling sugar mills.
Staying at one doesn’t mean shunning the others – each of the properties has their own draw, from hog-roast feasts at The Hermitage with the jovial owner, Richie Lupinacci, to lobster sandwiches overlooking the stunningly designed Golden Rock Inn. “We share our guests,” is how Helen Kidd, the general manager at Montpelier Plantation, describes an almost family-like arrangement. Their own restaurant, 750, is an experience that begins with cocktails – with the plantation’s owner, Muffin, presiding – before guests sit down to a veritable à la carte feast.
In fact, there’s no shortage of good food to be found on Nevis. Bananas Bistro is the place to go for locally inspired dishes such as johnnycakes (cornmeal flatbread) and Nevisian goat water (a kind of stew), while a visit to the island isn’t complete without a trip to the beachside Sunshine’s for jerk chicken wings and one of its killer bees – a lethal rum punch that goes down all too easily. Just don’t ask what’s in it – laughter will be the only response from the owner, Sunshine.
Enjoying the balmy humidity of the island in a hammock from my cottage at The Hermitage, it’s hard to believe that only a few weeks ago two category-five hurricanes tore through the Caribbean region, carving out a trail of destruction that will leave scars for years to come. On Nevis the impact was minor, and the beaches that appear a little worse for wear on my visit will, I am assured, be back to their pristine state in a few months – if not weeks – while work is already underway on the few roads that were damaged. The words that I hear repeated many times over during my few days on the island are “we were very lucky” – in comparison with harder hit islands such as Puerto Rico and Dominica.
On the last day of my trip I find myself scaling a waterfall, with my heart in my throat, as Reggie Douglas, my guide, points out where to place my feet and hands so that I don’t fall head-first on to the boulders below. We are on the trail of the island’s six waterfalls, deep in the nearly impenetrable jungle that covers the slopes of the 3,232ft Nevis Peak. Without a guide I would have no chance of ever finding the tumbling falls. While Douglas confidently hacks a clear passage through the greenery with a fearsome machete, I can barely discern the path at all.
Of course, Douglas would be unlikely to get lost – it was he who discovered the falls furthest up the trickling waterway, and he has put in long hours making the trail to them navigable. He also happens to be a champion triathlete and a local hero in Nevis (with a medal to prove it), so I don’t feel too bad about struggling to keep up. As we walk, he points out various plants and fruits with medicinal properties, knowledge passed down through the generations and learnt from his grandmother.
Towards the edge of the peak we pass an ancient stone bridge over a gorge, covered in moss but still standing, although no road can be seen in either direction – all that is left of a once well-travelled track that zigzagged through the hillside sugar and cocoa plantations. Seeing the creeping jungle slowly taking over this man-made construction, it is easy to imagine that if the island was left to its own devices, it wouldn’t be long before it looked as though humans were never here at all.
British Airways Holidays offers two flights per week to and from St Kitts from London Gatwick Airport to Robert L Bradshaw International Airport. The flight duration is ten hours, including a brief stopover in Antigua. Nevis is a ten-minute ride away from St Kitts by water taxi. For the best packages and to book visit ba.com/stkitts
If you want to contribute to relief efforts in the wake of the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean, the Unidos relief fund by the Hispanic Foundation has been set up to help Puerto Ricans affected, while the Dominica Hurricane Relief Fund has been set up by the Dominican government.
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