St. Kitts and Nevis

They are places of a bygone time–St.Kitts and Nevis, tiny islands set where the Atlantic and Caribbean meet and where flower-lined roads pass through villages of frame churches and plantation inns with a poignant, never forgotten past.

Mostly the islands are left to relative obscurity, though earlier this year, the eye of the world’s media was focused on Nevis, the smaller of the two, which held a vote on whether to secede from its federation with St. Kitts. Nevesians decided to stay. “It makes no sense to leave,” David Rollinson, a Canadian teacher living on Nevis had told me a few months earlier. “They belong together for the good of both.” People who visit them like the islands the way they are and I expect many are glad they won’t go through a divorce that would alter their genteel way of life. Time may well have left them behind but that seems just fine to those who live there and those, like me, who love to spend time there.

St. Kitts is the larger though only five miles wide and 23 miles long. Nevis is a ball-shaped islet of only 40 square miles. They form a nation of their own in what’s called The Leeward Islands, about 65 miles west of Antigua. In total they have a population of about 50,000, about 40,000 of whom are on St. Kitts. They’re places of Old West Indies charm, jewels of green foliage and decaying stone cottages splashed with color from hibiscus, bougainvillea, and Black-eyed Susan. Their open lands are punctuated by slender palms above which flit numberless birds and clouds of butterflies. The islands seem like bountiful gardens growing wild and beautiful in the calm sea.

A Six-Seat Plane

I arrived, with my wife, one evening not long ago, landing first on St. Kitts, then boarding a six-seat plane for a memorable seven-minute flight over the shining water to Nevis, just two miles away. We were to reside there for a week at a historic inn called The Montpelier. Like many of the inns on both islands, it’s a repository of the British colonial past, set on a former plantation whose original mill, about 200 years old, still stands. Just steps from the mill, on March 11, 1787, Admiral Horatio Nelson, the legendary naval hero of England, married a local widow Fanny Nisbet.

By the opening of this century, the sugar plantations dwindled–more efficient form of production had overtaken them. The Montpelier was one of the last, closing in the Ô30s. For many years it lay empty, its former Great House falling into ruin. Then in the early Ô60s a young man named James Gaskell (schooled at Eton and graduated in law at Cambridge), decided that he really wanted to be an innkeeper on one of the British colonies of the Caribbean. A friend led him to Nevis. There he discovered Montpelier estate, a dilapidated ruin on a rocky land and withered grass. Despite that, year by year and stone by stone, James and his wife Celia created their beautiful country house inn.

Although we stayed at the Montpelier, we would have just as comfortably settled on St. Kitts as many Canadians do, choosing the gleaming Jack Tar resort. Nestled at Frigate Bay and washed by the waters of both the Atlantic and the Caribbean, Jack Tar provides, through Signature Vacations, the convenience of all-inclusive stays. The resort is casual and tranquil, set on a hillside overlooking The Royal St. Kitts’ 18-hole championship golf course. Sun Ôn Sand Beach resort, another Signature Vacations property, is also a popular Canadian destination.

Snow Lady of the Caribbean?

The name St. Kitts, is a British contraction of the original name, St. Christopher, given to it by Christopher Columbus who “found” the island in 1493. He called Nevis “Nuestra Senora de las Nieves,” meaning “our Lady of the snows,” in recognition of fluffy snow-like clouds which still hover over its most noted site, the volcanic peak, Mount Nevis. The British, who arrived in the early 1600s, made St. Kitts a base for their West Indies colonization. It soon became a center of ongoing conflict between Britain and France that went on until 1783 when the Treaty of Versailles granted St. Kitts to the British. For much of their history both islands prospered through the sugar trade. By the early 1900s, sugar faded and tourism began. But the unique past is still strong, important sites are maintained, history is respected and Old West Indies ways linger in peaceful people as do old customs including the possibility of jail for swearing in public.

On a blue, bright Nevis morning made pleasanter by a soft breeze, we joined Thelma Claxton and headed out over the island’s only road–narrow and pot-holed–to see villages of frame houses and packed churches, enveloped in gnarled trees.

Alexander Hamilton’s Birthplace

One balmy afternoon I went for a walk through the streets and squares of old Charlestown, the Nevis capital (pop. 1,100) where you can drop in on local shops and visit a museum filled with historic memorabilia. It’s dedicated to Alexander Hamilton, the most famous son of Nevis. He was born there around 1757 and was to become a towering statesman of American history–George Washington’s secretary of the treasury. Our guide that day was David Rollinson who with his wife has lived on the island for eight years. He is an Ontario teacher and is now involved in the movement to protect the architecture of the island. He calls his company Eco-Tours and, along with historic walks, he’ll take you on nature rambles in the rain forest and upon the slopes of the island’s dormant volcano, Mount Nevis peak.

Naturally we allowed lots of time for visits to St. Kitts. We did it by taking a sea sprayed ferry boat ride of about a half hour from Charlestown over the channel to St. Kitts capital, Basseterre. It’s a picture-postcard town and a fine place for picking up locally designed clothes and jewelry at Palms Arcade.

Sibling Rivalry

St. Kitts is a bit more commercial than Nevis with resorts and some light industry. Since its larger and busier, it feels itself the elder sibling in the inevitable rivalry between two islands existing in a single federation. The roads are new and smooth and thread through towns and villages where, as in the capital of Basseterre, you’ll see some of the best examples of West Indies architecture in the Caribbean.

In time we passed through a tropical rain forest, to reach a 17th century house, set on a five-acre green lawn with a fine garden, including a massive “saman” or rain tree thought to be almost 400 years old. We were on the estate of Romney Manor. We strolled among exotic plant life and great trees we’ll probably never see elsewhere.

We dropped in at a small shop called Caribelle Batik, where a local artist was practicing the art of batik. On a piece of cotton fabric, on which a sketch had been made, she was etching a design with molten hot wax. Then, our driver, St. Clair Maynard a friendly, soft-spoken man, took us around the sea girded perimeter where we saw not just the historic tree-shaded inns, but at Frigate Bay, the new resorts, including Jack T, that invite so many northerners to the tranquility and warmth of these peaceable islands.

At noon we paused. We were to launch at a hotel about which I had heard good things. We pulled up at Ottley’s Plantation Inn, set near the slopes of St. Kitts’s soaring landmark, Mount Liamuiga.

I was pleased I had enough time to meet on of the innkeepers, Nancy Lowell. Over a light lunch in the inn’s Royal Palm Cafe, she told me of the history of Ottley’s. It had been a private home since its creation in the 1600s by the Ottleys, a British family in the long-ago sugar trade.

In the late 1980’s a couple from Princeton, New Jersey, booksellers by trade, who had been coming to St. Kitts for over 20 years did something they’d dreamt of: they bought Ottley’s. A couple of years later, daughter Nancy and son-in-law Marty joined them. Together they did some modest renovations and have made Ottley’s which has 15 guest rooms, a jewel.

After lunch we headed for the island’s most historic site: Brimstone Hill. It’s a fortress nicknamed “the Gibraltar of the West Indies,” since it was here the British set up a defense of their outpost in the West Indies. It wasn’t the past that made my visit there special. It was the panorama, the unending sweep of water, where I saw all the way to distant islands which, like St. Kitts and Nevis, seemed to shine in the sunny, afternoon sea.

When You Go… DON’T MISS

Besseterre. The capital of St. Kitts has the personality of a small town little changed by time–its culture still retained with undertones of the days of Empire when Britain ruled. Its fine Treasury Building by the water, is an excellent example of traditional West Indies design. Its Circus, at the heart of town, is marked by the famous Berkeley Memorial Clock, made of cast iron. The sad legacy of the past haunts nearby Independence Square; it was the site of the slave market which was a central part of the sugar industry.

Brimstone Hill Fortress: Aside from the spectacular views from this old fort, it’s filled with a sense of an age of conquest that is not quite lost amid today’s peaceful grounds and lawns. It’s enormous, taking over 100 years to build until completion in the 1780s. Today you’ll find stone walls 12 feet in thickness and the ruins of a hospital, asylum, and cemetery.

Charlestown: The Nevesian capital is small so that a tour can take only a couple of hours. Here are fine examples of the building materials and designs of the past which the local historical association works hard to maintain. Look especially at the courthouse with its coral stone facade and box-shaped clock tower above the small-town square. Also worth a visit are the impressive columns and ruins of one of the oldest Jewish synagogues and cemeteries in the western world–dating to the middle of the 1600s, when Nevis, its sugar trade booming, was called “the Queen of the Caribees.”

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