Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
ST KITTS AND NEVIS
St Kitts and Nevis have left behind their plantation economy and woken up to what they have to offer the discerning visitor - a relaxed way of life and luxury hotels in elegant Great Houses or on the beach.
Romney Manor and Wingfield Estate
Brimstone Hill National park Fortress
Montpelier Great House
When the last Sugar Train tooted at the sugar factory at Needsmust on St Kitts on July 30, 2005, it signaled the end of a chapter in the Federation of St Kitts and Nevis. Certainly, it was the end of many years of toiling in the fields for the last 1,500 islanders employed in the industry. However, cane still grows around the island, since the crop protects the land from erosion, at least until another use is found for it. As Kittitians waved goodbye to the sugar industry, tourism was becoming a profitable prospect. But even with a growing number of visitors this still remains a place to relax and enjoy the tranquility of an unrushed society.
A colorful underwater scene off St Kitts and Nevis
The Amerindians called St Kitts Liamuiga (The Fertile Isle) and Nevis Oualie (Land of Beautiful Water). Columbus named the former St Christopher, still its formal title, and the latter Nuestra Señora de las Nieves (Our Lady of the Snows - in reality, clouds). St Kitts sits on a land area of 65 sq miles (168 sq km), while Nevis, separated by a 2-mile (3km) stretch of choppy sea, is smaller at 36 sq miles (93 sq km).
Schoolchildren at Basseterre, St Kitts.
First British settlement
The arrival on St Kitts in 1623 of British settlers was followed closely by a group of French colonists and for many years the island was shared between them, with Britain occupying the northwest and France the southeast. Partition was ended with the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 and St Kitts was finally recognized as a British colony in 1783 under the Treaty of Versailles.
By that time the islands were thriving sugar and cotton producers supported by a vast army of African slaves, a situation that continued way beyond Emancipation in 1834. In the 1780s, tiny Nevis had become a more significant commercial center than New York, a veritable Caribbean social nexus (“The Queen of the Caribbees”), complete with palatial planters’ mansions and a fashionable hotel-spa. Horatio Nelson, sent to enforce the Treaty of Versailles, was an attractive and eligible addition to the social whirl, despite annoying the planters by chasing away the “foreign” American traders vital to their economy.
"At Nevis…a spa was established; and here, to this Tunbridge Wells of the Caribbees, came all the fashionable of the West Indies…"
Sir Frederick Treves The Cradle of the Deep
Never big enough to warrant individual attention, from 1816 St Christopher, Nevis, Anguilla, and the British Virgin Islands were administered as a single colony. In 1871 this was replaced by the Leeward Islands Federation. In 1958-62, St Kitts and Nevis belonged to the West Indies Federation. The road to independence was a rather messy process. In 1967, the three islands of St Kitts, Nevis, and Anguilla, long jointly administered, became an Associated State of the United Kingdom. Almost immediately Anguilla ceded, eventually regaining its Crown Colony status, and the islands of St Kitts and Nevis - never very compatible bedfellows - were left to sort out a joint constitution prior to their formal independence on September 19, 1983. The secession of Nevis, long a burning issue, has now taken a back seat after a referendum in 1998 failed to gain the approval of two-thirds of the electorate.
The pulse of development
With the demise of the sugar industry, the government put great emphasis on investment in tourism to generate employment and wealth distribution. Spending on infrastructure has made St Kitts unrecognizable from only 20 years ago. There is a thriving cruise ship port complex and new roads have been built to take pressure off traffic in Basseterre. Among major developments are the Warner Park Sporting Complex, with a cricket stadium used in the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup, and the Silver Jubilee Athletic Stadium, used for the carifta Games, both of which are valuable magnets for sports tourism. Not to be left out, Nevis is constructing a geothermal power plant, and new villas, spas, and other tourist projects have also been built.
The government also initiated a fast-paced public-housing program so that today tiny, mostly well-kept dwellings speckle the landscape. Cable TV and the internet are no longer a luxury and almost everyone has a cellphone or two. The flimsy wooden cottages of the past are being replaced by “wall” (concrete) homes and SUVs are increasingly seen on the roads.
This knack for patiently waiting to pick only the choicest fruits of progress, while preserving the best of the old ways, is nowhere more evident than in Basseterre 1 [map]. After a long descent into shabbiness, this elegant old West Indian town, which became the official British capital in 1727, is enjoying a second debut.
A campaign to restore the town’s graceful but dilapidated commercial buildings and dwellings has resulted in one of the greatest success stories in Caribbean architectural preservation. Careful and sensitive restorations have revealed the buildings’ original charm, with their lower floors of rough-cut volcanic stone and upper stories of fanciful wooden gingerbread. What began as an exercise in civic pride has become an economic success story as well. More and more cruise ship passengers enjoy the town’s beauty, and business is growing, with attractive shops offering duty-free products opening up everywhere.
Yet Basseterre still booms with an irrepressible Caribbean vigor. Crisply dressed traffic police sort out the snarls at the intersections around the Circus where an ornate cast-iron clock tower, the Berkeley Memorial, regards the swirling scene; visitors and locals peer down from the balcony of the Ballahoo, a meeting place and restaurant, at the frenetic salesmanship of the cab drivers (“Man, you gotta want a taxi - s’way too hot to walk, man”).
Independence Square nearby is a pretty park, overlooked by 18th-century houses. Where once there was a slave market is now a network of paths in a Union Jack design with a fountain in the middle.
Jason Holder of Barbados Tridents in action during the 2014 Limacol Caribbean Premier League Final, 2014.
The St Kitts Music Festival features well-known artists from the Caribbean and all over the music world. This spectacular 4-night event in June is held in the grounds of the Warner Park Stadium, which was refurbished for the Cricket World Cup in 2007.
Just off the bayfront, Port Zante has emerged on 30 acres (12 hectares) of reclaimed land, now almost completely covered with stores and restaurants catering mostly for cruise ship visitors.
Genocide at Bloody Point
Both St Kitts and Nevis were inhabited by Amerindians when Columbus passed by in 1493. They were named Caribs by the subsequent colonizers, and the Kalinago chief, Ouboutou Tegremante, initially welcomed Sir Thomas Warner and his family when they arrived at Old Road Bay from the Guianas in 1623. Leaving his family behind, Warner then sailed to Britain to bring more settlers to the island in 1624. When they were joined the following year by the crew of a French ship that had been attacked by the Spanish, the Amerindians began to be worried about the pace of colonization.
Kalinago chiefs from St Kitts, Nevis, and Dominica planned to attack the settlers in 1626, but they were betrayed and the local Amerindians were killed in their beds. Warner and his men prepared themselves for the expected retaliation and faced an invasion force of some 3,000-4,000 warriors. Two thousand of them were massacred in a deep ravine and bodies were piled high on the beach - called Bloody Point - by the combined British and French forces, whose casualties numbered about 100. Subsequently, African slaves were imported to work on the sugar plantations and Sir Thomas Warner died a very wealthy man in 1649. He is buried in an ornate tomb in St Thomas’ churchyard at Middle Island.
Bay Road runs the full length of the ocean front in Basseterre, linking Port Zante to the downtown area where locals live and work. On Bay Road is the bus terminal and in the same complex is the ferry terminal, where ferries go back and forth between St Kitts and Nevis. In true Caribbean style, mangoes, soursop, pears, herbs, and every type of tropical fruit and vegetable line the sidewalks just next to the terminal, wooing the discerning shopper towards the local market just steps away on the other side of the road.
Kittitian sprinter Kim Collins became the world champion in the 100 meters in 2003. He represented his country at four Summer Olympics (1996-2008) and seven consecutive World Championships in Athletics (1997-2009). He retired in 2009 but in 2011 returned to international competitions at the age of 34 and as of 2015 he was still competing. He is a national hero and even has a highway named after him.
Scenic railway journey, St Kitts.
The St Kitts circular
If Basseterre is basking in a vibrant new life, then the rest of St Kitts, as enjoyed on the 32-mile (51km) loop drive, remains mostly in a sleepy haze, although there is evidence of an island in transition. The island’s main road wriggles through villages of pastel-shaded wood and breeze-block cottages with tin roofs, overlooking black-sand beaches and backed by fields of sugar cane climbing up to the fringes of the rainforest around Mount Liamuiga (once Mount Misery).
Remnants of old sugar mills abound and the round stone towers, now bereft of their sails, dot the landscape. A handful of the plantation houses have found a more productive use as elite inns and private homes. The little railroad has been renovated and is still busy, carrying tourists (principally cruise ship visitors) on a 3-hour circular tour of the island. The St Kitts Scenic Railway (tel: 869-465 7263; www.stkittsscenicrailway.com) passes ruined sugar estate buildings and offers a better view of the countryside than you get from a car. The narrow-gauge railway was built in 1912-26 to take the cane from the fields to the sugar mill in Basseterre, and it was this innovation that caused the closure of the small sugar windmills on the estates.
By car, head west out of Basseterre on the coast road through fishing villages to Old Road Town, where the first British settlers landed. Above the village are the ruins of Wingfield Sugar Estate and the lush rainforest gardens of Romney Manor 2 [map]; the old estate house was destroyed by fire in 1995. Here are the workshops of Caribelle Batik (tel: 869-465 6253; www.caribellebatikstkitts.com; Mon-Fri), where you can buy batik clothes and material and watch their creation. There are 6 acres (2.4 hectares) of glorious gardens containing a saman tree believed to be more than 350 years old. At 24ft (7 meters) in diameter, it covers half an acre.
A three-minute walk from Romney Manor is Wingfield Estate, with the ruins of a mighty sugar mill and rum distillery. Knowledgeable guides will explain the processes to you, and there is a café. Wingfield is also the place to come for the Sky Rides zip line tour (tel: 869-466 4259; www.skysafaristkitts.com), where cables allow you to fly through the rainforest over Wingfield River.
Green vervet monkeys on Nevis.
Nevis Tourism Authority
Farther northwest, Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park 3 [map] (www.brimstonehillfortress.org; daily 9.30am-5.30pm), a Unesco World Heritage Site, is history preserved atop an 800ft (245-meter) volcanic plug of andesite edged by limestone protrusions. A great graystone fortress peers out over a panorama of ocean. Begun in 1690, the fortress was confidently known as Britain’s “Gibraltar of the West Indies,” until its humiliating capture by the French in 1782, just prior to their final ejection a year later. Today a series of small museum rooms gives a useful overview of island culture and history, and a café provides a welcome rest. It is one of the best-preserved historical fortifications in the Americas: don’t miss it. After touring the fortress you can follow nature trails and spot green vervet monkeys larking about. The views are tremendous and you should be able to see several neighboring islands from the top.
When cruise ships dock at the modern Port Zante in Basseterre on a Sunday, most shops open up especially for them.
High above the fort, the rainforest begins abruptly. Guided walking tours to the 3,792ft (1,156-meter) picture-postcard volcanic crater of Mount Liamuiga 4 [map] are available from tour operators in Basseterre, although it is possible to do most of it independently from the village of St Paul’s. Follow sinuous paths up through the cane and enter the gloom where the trade wind breezes suddenly cease. Buzzings and rustlings in the undergrowth and tree tops suggest a lively retinue of residents and possible sightings of green vervet monkeys. There are beautiful wild orchids and other flowering plants in the forest. You can climb into the crater, holding on to vines and roots, and from here to the summit a guide is essential. The hike will take all day and is only for experienced hikers.
On the northern slope of the volcano, off the circular road, is Rawlins Plantation Inn 5 [map], a 17th-century plantation house and ruined mill transformed into a lovely British colonial-style hotel surrounded by beautiful gardens. It is a pleasant place to stop for lunch or afternoon tea on the terrace while touring the island, or you can go a bit farther round the northern tip to the Golden Lemon Inn, at Dieppe Bay 6 [map]. The main building was once a warehouse and shop, with the family living quarters above. The beach, looking across to Statia, is black sand, and it is a good spot for birdwatching, with lots of water birds paddling and fishing.
Spice Mill’s inviting daybeds on Cockleshell Beach.
Continuing along the north coast road, you come to Black Rocks, an interesting rock formation where lava flowed into the sea and solidified. Farther along this Atlantic side of the island, Ottley’s Plantation Inn 7 [map], another converted sugar estate, offers a spring-fed pool and short and easy rainforest walks. The Ottley family came from Yorkshire in the 18th century, but the Great House has been much altered and expanded since then. The present building is gracious and elegant, on a hillside overlooking the ocean.
The southeast peninsula
At the entrance to the 14-mile (22km) southeast peninsula, Frigate Bay 8 [map] embraces both the Atlantic and the Caribbean with pale sandy beaches offering water sports. This is the main island resort area so far, with a large Marriott hotel and golf course as well as other, more intimate places to stay. From Frigate Bay a 6-mile (4km) road runs down the narrow, hilly peninsula to Major’s Bay. From the top you can see Friar’s Bay, with a wild beach on the Atlantic Ocean on one side and a calm beach on the Caribbean Sea on the other and Nevis in the distance.
Construction has begun on the huge Christophe Harbour project covering 2,500 acres (1,012 hectares), which includes a five-star luxury hotel (to open in 2016), a 300-acre (120-hectare) marina village capable of accommodating mega-yachts and Customs and Immigration facilities, villas, spas, beach clubs, and a Tom Fazio golf course. One of the agreements between the developers and local government was that they maintain the environmental integrity of the island, including sensitivity to the salt ponds, lagoons, coral reefs, monkeys, tropical birds, and vibrant sea life.
Great Salt Pond is being developed for the marina, with a channel giving an outlet to Ballast Bay on the Caribbean. Excavated sand is to be used to replenish the beaches at Ballast Bay and White House Bay. The latter has long been popular as a yacht anchorage and there is good diving on old wrecks there. Sandy Bank Bay, on the Atlantic, is a sheltered, curved bay with plenty of sand, as its name suggests, but while you can splash around in the shallow water, swimming is dangerous because of the undertow. It is a marine sanctuary and no boat moorings are permitted. Christophe Harbour Beach Club is here, and a large residential development is planned.
Half Way Tree, on the Caribbean coast of St Kitts, is reputed to have got its name from the villagers cutting all of their trees halfway to ward off any jumbies (evil spirits) coming from Brimstone Hill.
The ferry linking St Kitts to Nevis.
Turtle Beach is heaven for birdwatchers and nature lovers, or visitors can just lunch in the Beach House restaurant, take a swim, and admire the view of Nevis. It is very romantic in the evening as the moon rises and the lights come on over the water on Nevis. Luxury bungalows have been built here for a select few guests so far.
There are other luxury resorts under development: Silver Reef Resort and Ocean’s Edge Resort in Frigate Bay, and Cockleshell Bay Resort, to be the Caribbean’s first Park Hyatt Hotel. Spice Mill is a lovely beach bar and restaurant on Cockleshell Beach, with four-poster daybeds and sun loungers on the sand, often with live music to complete the process of relaxation.
The slow boat to Nevis
While regular short-hop flights are available between St Kitts and Nevis every day, ferries linking Basseterre to Charlestown provide an unforgettable 30- or 45-minute, 12-mile (19km) nautical experience - a slice of island life in its most chaotic and charismatic form. Whether you want to reach Nevis quickly and in style or on the slow cargo boat MV Sea Hustler is up to you; there is no difference in the price. An alternative in transport to Nevis from St Kitts is the sea bridge: owners drive their vehicles onto the barge and take an interesting journey to Nevis, where they simply drive off when they arrive.
The ride is choppy as the ferry rolls past the velvety hills of the southeast peninsula, catching the bigger waves in The Narrows between the islands. Outside the spray-splattered windows, the classic volcanic profile of Nevis Peak rises 3,232ft (985 meters) into perpetual cloud cap. Dense rainforest shrouds the higher slopes; lower down are fields and the remnants of old sugar mills, and below that the line of Pinney’s Beach - 4 miles (6km) of golden sand shaded by palms, backed by the luxury Four Seasons Resort. With bars and restaurants, this is the island’s busiest beach and it still looks deserted.
Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), illegitimate son of a Scottish merchant, who grew up to be the first secretary of the American Treasury alongside George Washington, kept his lowly start on Nevis quiet.
A gingerbread capital
Emerging from its palmy setting, Charlestown 9 [map] (pop. 1,800) is a colorful sprawl of pastel walls, tin roofs, and shady gardens. At the pier a hand-painted sign reads “Welcome to Nevis. Birthplace of Alexander Hamilton.”
After Nevis’ heyday in the 18th century, the town’s fortunes fluctuated, hit by hurricanes and other disasters and the slackening demand for its Sea Island cotton and sugar cane. However, Charlestown has retained a quaint dignity and architectural unity in its high-roofed, verandah-shaded, gingerbread-trimmed buildings on Main Street and around D.R. Walwyn’s Plaza.
At the top end of Main Street is the Alexander Hamilton Museum (www.nevis-nhcs.org; Mon-Fri 9am-4pm, Sat 9am-noon) in a Caribbean Georgian house on the site where the 18th-century American statesman Alexander Hamilton was born in 1755 or 1757. Set in a beautiful garden by the sea, growing typical Nevisian plants and trees, the museum charts the life of Hamilton and the island’s history. The museum is on the first floor; upstairs is the island’s House of Assembly.
Back at the Plaza, huckster ladies sell vegetables and trinkets near the Nevis Handicraft Co-op, where home-made fruit wines - pawpaw, sorrel, genip, and gooseberry - are for sale in old soda bottles, along with some fiery pepper sauce. Around the corner at the Nevis Philatelic Bureau, visitors can buy first-day editions of colorful Nevis stamps. On Saturday, by 7.30am the town is bursting with life as Nevisians crowd into the fish, meat, and vegetable market down by the docks.
Downtown Charleston, Nevis.
Horatio and Fanny
Horatio Nelson came to the Caribbean as Captain of the Boreas in 1784, to keep an eye out for any illegal trading. After American independence, the new nation’s ships were no longer allowed to trade with British colonies, but when Nelson impounded the goods of four disguised American merchant ships lying off Nevis, the island’s merchants, who were going to do business with them and whose livelihood depended on them, sued him for £40,000. Their anger was such that Nelson had to hide on his ship for 8 weeks until John Herbert, the president of Nevis and Fanny Nisbet’s uncle, bailed him out.
Based in Antigua in English Harbour, Nelson hated the “infernal heat” of the West Indies and sought diversion on Nevis, which represented the height of fashion at the time. His charm and his friendship with the future William IV, who was also based in Antigua for a time, made him a welcome guest in Nevis’s Great Houses, and he was soon seen with the attractive young widow, Fanny Nisbet, on his arm.
He married Fanny in March 1787, and Prince William wrote: “Poor Nelson is head over ears in love. I frequently laugh at him about it…he married Mrs Nisbet on the twelfth of March [it was the 11th] and I had, my Lord, the honour of giving her away….”
The Nelson era
The 18-mile (30km) road around Nevis meanders southward out of Charlestown to the shell of the once-fashionable Bath Hotel ) [map] (Mon-Fri; charge). Built in 1778 to accommodate the cream of colonial society visiting the natural sulfur spring nearby, the hotel spa is believed to be one of the first in the Caribbean. The Spring House, built over a fault that supplies hot water at a constant 102°-108°F, is closed because of hurricane damage, but an outdoor pool has been constructed for anyone wanting to sample the healing powers of the mineral waters.
Manicured lawns at the Botanical Gardens, Nevis.
Nevis Tourism Authority
The British sea captain Horatio Nelson was stationed here in the mid-1780s when he married Fanny Nisbet, a Nevisian society widow (see box), and the Nelson Museum (www.nevis-nhcs.org; Mon-Fri 9am-4pm, Sat 9am-noon) has a marvellous collection of memorabilia of his time in the West Indies. Their marriage certificate is on display in the 300-year-old St John’s Fig Tree Church ! [map], 2 miles (3km) away, which also has a fascinating array of tombstones.
The road continues eastward, circling Nevis Peak whose forested slopes hide a web of hiking trails, and wriggles past bursting bushes of bauhinias and untidy bark-dripping gum trees. The spine-laden trunk of a sandbox rises out of a tangle of Mexican creepers and lantana. A turning to the right leads to Montpelier Great House @ [map], the sugar estate where Horatio and Fanny tied the knot. In the 1960s, a plantation house-style hotel was built on the site, which is now surrounded by lovely gardens, and past guests have included British royalty. It is one of several tastefully converted estates on the island, where you can recapture the atmosphere of the old plantation days.
Close by, the Botanical Gardens £ [map] (tel: 869-469 3509; www.botanicalgardennevis.com) are well worth visiting for their spectacular collection of plants from around the world, highlighted by statuary and fountains. There is a conservatory designed as a mini Kew Gardens, a good copy of the one in England, a replica Great House, a shop, and café.
On the north coast, popular opinion has it that the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club $ [map], near Newcastle, has the best beach in Nevis, although Oualie Beach gives it a good run for its money, with water sports, snorkelling, scuba diving, and even cycling. Beaches on the Atlantic side of the island, such as White Bay, have good views of Montserrat, but the sea is rough and dangerous.
Eden Brown Estate on the east coast is supposed to be haunted by a bereft bride, Julia Huggins. Her husband-to-be and his best man, her brother, held a duel on the eve of their wedding in 1822. The fiancé killed the brother, and the bride’s father would not let her marry a murderer. She remained a recluse in the house and islanders say that she has often been heard crying there.