The Pace is Pleasantly Slow
This article first appeared in The Boston Sunday Globe, Travel Section, 12/4/88
Bound for the Caribbean, you have a choice. You can seek out the fast lane of sleek hotels, busy beaches, casinos and discos. Or you can aim for an island such as Nevis where 17th- and 18th-century sugar plantations have been turned into some of the most atmospheric inns in the West Indies and where the white coral and gray volcanic sand beaches are frequented more by pelicans than people.
Tucked in the northeast shoulder of the Caribbean, Nevis from afar resembles a floating mountain, with 3,596-foot Mount Nevis towering in its midst. When we stopped there this January, it didn't take long to understand why friends spoke so highly of this Leeward isle. In a word, Nevis (pronounced NEE-vis) is everything Caribbean, without the commercialism. Which isn't to say that this intimate 36-square-mile island doesn't tempt the tourist with canopy beds, tiled swimming pools or orchid gardens. Nevisian life, however, unwinds in its own good time. The plodding donkey, with an islander astride, rules the road more than the auto, a relatively rare possession among Nevis' 8,000 residents. Moreover, Nevis' modest airport doesn't receive anything much bigger than a 19-seater. Speed, in the modern sense, just hasn't arrived, which accentuates the leftover feeling of Nevis' former "Queen of the Caribbees" days, when Great Houses covered the island and plantocracy shone.
Around every bend lies a reminder of Nevis' past -- the stone towers of windmills and cattle mills where sugarcane was crushed, the sulfur springs that Europeans once flocked to. That Nevisians are working to preserve many a plantation site, along with its older-world atmosphere, is what the traveler seeking a refined yet rustic retreat will especially appreciate.
The customary route to Nevis is via St. Kitts, Nevis' close neighbor to the northwest. Often linked together in the same breath, for centuries the two islands coexisted as a British colony, until, in 1983, they emerged as the independent nation of St. Kitts-Nevis. Ever since, each island -- with a certain amount of jubilation -- has handled its own affairs.
St. Kitts and Nevis are often referred to as "The Twin Sisters." Yet the two are considerably different, and likely to become more so with independence, as was first pointed out to us by a St. Kittian's couple we met on the boat ride over to Nevis one cloudless blue morning. Crossing from St. Kitts to Nevis was like going from city to country, they claimed. We wondered if that wasn't a slight exaggeration since even Basseterre -- St. Kitts' capital of low buildings and narrow streets where the Nevis boat docks -- didn't seem so terribly urban. Then again, what awaited us was an island ''as unspoiled as St. Martin was 25 years ago," in the words of our soon- to-be innkeeper, Mrs. Knorr.
Because the regular ferry, The Caribe Queen, was under repair that morning,we found ourselves squeezed aboard The Effort, a converted fishing vessel whose full load of people, crates and motorcycles was measured by her sluggish rolling and dipping as she headed down St. Kitts' mountainous southern handle and across The Narrows, a 2-mile-wide strait, to Nevis' capital of Charlestown. The 45-minute boat ride costs $5, as opposed to the $30 flight from St. Kitts. Scheduled air service from other islands is available through Liat, Winair and Coastal Air, with charter service provided by Carib Aviation.
While the flight over is short and scenic, approaching Nevis by sea is considerably more dramatic, by gradual degrees. As Mount Nevis looms larger and larger, one can't help but imagine Christopher Columbus' discovery of the island in 1493, when, word has it, he named the isle "Nuestra Senora de las Nieves," or "Our Lady of the Snows," because of the snowlike clouds that often cap Mount Nevis' peak.
Ferrying over, unlike flying over, also has the advantage of landing the newcomer directly into the midst of colorful Charlestown. One of the Caribbean's most well-preserved old towns (established in the 1660s), Charlestown, with its wooden and stone buildings, its green and red aluminum roofs, its open-door shops and lively street life, stands out as Nevis' one noisy little corner, abutted otherwise by hilly countryside studded with villages as small as hamlets.
The newcomer is likely to start out at two places -- the police station, where a driver's license can be obtained for $12 as long as a US license and passport are provided, and the tourist office, conveniently situated around the corner from Charlestown Pier. Across the street lies Caribbean Confections, whose island-made breads (coconut and banana), ice creams (rum- raisin and pineapple), soaps (chamomile and carrot) and perfumes (jasmine and voodoo) are guaranteed to lure in the visitor more than once.
This particular store gave us our first sense of Nevis' richest asset -- its incredible array of produce, and plant life in general. Nevis has been described as one big garden, and even those visitors who are novices at identifying bougainvillea and crotons, will find themselves pleasantly distracted by the variety of tropical vegetation.
Rainfall (which usually comes at night) is more plentiful than on neighboring isles because of the condensation that collects in clouds over Nevis' peak. Consequently, one-fifth of Nevis' residents farm to some degree, offering up their fruits and vegetables, along with meats and fish, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at Charlestown's open-air market. Here the visitor will find lemons as big as oranges, ochre and squashlike tania and christophene, pumpkins and yams, and plenty of nutmeg and ginger roots.
Sold at market, as well as at the Nevis Handicraft Cooperative Society around the corner, is one of Nevis' most prized recipes, its hot sauce. A friend who asked us to bring him back a bottle of this lethal concoction told us to look for an old woman selling it on the roadside. That old woman, apparently, has turned into several women, all privy to the sauce's secret ingredients.
The main street through Charlestown goes on to circle the island for 19 coastal miles, in rutted country-road fashion. In other words, all roads lead to Charlestown, and chances are you'll return there daily -- to stock up on specially-designed Caribbean postage stamps at the Nevis Philatelic Bureau, to visit the intriguing stone structure that houses both the Court House and Public Library, to buy eucalyptus oil or Barker's Liquid of Life at Evelyn's Drug Store, to have lunch at Unella's overlooking the port, or to cash a check at the Bank of Nevis.
(Keep in mind that Nevis' banks close at 1 p.m. American dollars are welcome on Nevis, and vendors usually can return change in kind, down to the quarter. However, to avoid inexact conversion methods, it's probably wise to cash into Nevis' currency, the East Caribbean dollar.)
On Charlestown's south side lies the Government House, a handsome stone edifice viewed by appointment only, which serves as the deputy governor-general's work place and residence. On the north side stands the Alexander Hamilton House and Museum, where the American statesman was reportedly born in 1757. Nevis cherishes two other well-known names -- actress Cicely Tyson, of Nevisian roots, and the British military hero Lord Horatio Nelson, who married Fanny Nisbet, a Nevisian judge's daughter in 1787. An intriguing collection of Nelsonian memorabilia, put together by a former Philadelphian, Robert Abrahams, can be seen at Morning Star Plantation just west of town.
While taxis are available ($35 for an island tour), renting a jeeplike minimoke makes the island easily accessible. (Alert Skeete's Car Rental ahead, and either father or son Skeete will meet you at the dock or airstrip with a minimoke. Phone: (809) 469-5458. On a whim, you'll follow side roads to weed- covered plantations bordering the sea, (the Coconut Walk Estate, for instance), or perhaps find yourself ascending steep farmland in search of Ira Dore, whose riding horses can take you up even farther, into Mount Nevis' rain forest. (Dore can be reached at 809-469-5428.)
Staying at one of the island's six inn-converted plantations in itself provides a strong sense of the island's golden age. We were lucky to stumble onto the Old Manor Estate, whose lava stone and wood units -- including a former cooperage, smokehouse, birthing room and blacksmith shop -- stare directly up Mount Nevis' steep windward slope. Vicki and Greg Knorr, a mother and son originally from Ohio, manage Old Manor. Vicki is said to run the best kitchen on the island, which our first dinner of pumpkin soup, coconut shrimp and papaya ice cream (all island foods) had us believing. At $125 per night, our huge, marble-floored suite situated in the restored overseer's building, seemed almost a bargain. (For an additional $25-$30 per day, breakfast and dinner are included at each plantation.)
Golden Rock Estate, run by innkeeper Pam Barry, who is a direct descendant of the plantation's original owner, is another gem, where meals are served on an alluring terrace bordered by elephant ear, hibiscus, orchids, roses and avocado trees. Among the many different types of accommodations, guests can stay within the round interior of a former windmill or in cottages overlooking the Atlantic. Gourmet magazine has hailed Golden Rock's Saturday night West Indian buffet as "justly famous." So too are bartender Ralston's rum punches, served with a dusting of nutmeg.
Proof of the hospitality found at Nevis' inns are the visitors you run into who, year after year, return to the inn of their choice: Hermitage Plantation, with the oldest Great House (250 years) on the island; Montpelier Plantation, with its garden-surrounded stucco cottages and its great stone livingroom; Zetland Plantation, whose perch 1,000 feet up Mount Nevis presents vistas of Antigua, Montserrat and Redonda to the east; and Nisbet Plantation, located on Pinney's Beach, whose 4-mile stretch, fringed with coconut palms, draws the most beachgoers.
Most of Nevis' inns are situated in Mount Nevis' foothills. Yet all have a strip of beach property not far off, with transportation to and fro. Whichever inn you choose, you'll want to visit the others, particularly for an evening meal. Night on Nevis is apt to unwind around an inn's cocktail and dinner hours, and ensuing conversation between guests. A certain amount of competition between kitchens keeps standards high. (Call a day ahead for dinner reservations.)
Some may complain there's not enough to do on Nevis. For us, that was hardly the case. In fact, our tennis rackets never got used, even though many of the inns have courts open to both guests and non-guests. Nor (for $4) did we rent golf clubs and try out Nevis Golf Club's chip and pitch course, whose 12 short holes are ingeniously laid out around two greens. Nor did we embark on a day's sail with Les Windley, one of the island's foremost skippers, or obtain a guide for the difficult climb to Mount Nevis' peak, or take advantage of the water sports offered at Oulie Beach.
Instead, lured on by Nevis' open landscape, we did something quite old-fashioned. We took walks. Whether steered by guidebooks to hilltops or plantation lands, or just following our noses, on foot we discovered the ineffable dignity and friendliness of the islanders, as well as Nevis' natural bounty.
One young girl, Elicia John, climbed over barbed wire to cut us some sugar cane. An old-timer, Godfrey Brooks, demonstrated how he pulverized rock into lime. We witnessed after-school cricket games in village streets and learned to tell the difference between the island's look-alike goats and sheep: the goat's tail is pointed up, the sheep's down. "The special thing about this island are the people," Vicki Knorr said one evening. The next morning, on yet another walk, we passed a flock of children carrying chairs from school for the outdoor funeral of a beloved organist.
One road worker we encountered wore a T-shirt inscribed: "Save Our Island:Nevis." So that there continues to be a choice in the Caribbean, away from commercialism, one hopes for Nevis' continued preservation.
Winter rates at Nevis' plantations range from $75-$130 for a single, $125-$240 for a double. Special accommodations (a windmill room, for instance) represent higher prices. Below are approximate EP (without meals) rates.
Old Manor Estate, PO Box 70, Charlestown, Nevis, W.I. Telephone (809)469-5445. Single: $95. Double: $125.
Golden Rock Estate, PO Box 493, Charlestown, Nevis, W.I. Telephone (809)469-5346. Single: $100. Double: $150.
Montpelier Plantation, PO Box 474, Charlestown, Nevis, W.I. Telephone (809)469-5462. Single: $140. Double: $200.
Hermitage Plantation, St. Johns Parish, Nevis, W.I. Telephone (809)469-5477. Single: $100. Double: $125.
Zetland Plantation, PO Box 448, Charlestown, Nevis, W.I. Telephone (809)469-5454. Single: $75. Double $120.
Nisbet Plantation, New Castle, Nevis, W.I. Telephone (809) 469-5325. Single: $150. Double: $210.