St. Kitts: Hiking a Volcano
St. Kitts: Life is Good
By Paul Shoul
As I peer out of my window flying to St. Kitts on a small American Eagle island hopper from Puerto Rico, I find myself dreaming of what it must have been like to be the first to discover these beautiful Islands.
We fly by St. Thomas, then St. John, and St. Croix rising from the endless ocean, like oases of safe haven, mystery, and maybe even paradise.
The chill from the winter I came from in Massachusetts finally starts to fade as our altitude falls. St. Kitts and its sister island, Nevis, come into clear view underneath us, and I am struck by how little seems to be developed. It is green, and inviting.
What development I can see is mostly clustered around the coastal edges of the island. The middle appears to be empty, except for the rather large volcano that I am supposed to climb the next day.
A Bit of a Bump
The Pilot brings us in for our landing and the plane hits harder than expected, we all let go a communal gasp as we bounce twice before safely smoothing out to taxi down the runway. His crackling voice comes on the intercom.
“Well folks, sorry about that. We landed, we bounced, but we made it in time for happy hour.” Laughter fills the cabin. All is forgiven and forgotten. I do not care about anything that was my life a minute, an hour, or a day ago. All I want to do is get outside. It looks really nice.
St Kitts is located in the Leeward island group of the Caribbean about an hour from Puerto Rico by plane. For the price of a $540 dollar round-trip ticket on American airlines, you can leave JFK at 7:00 a.m. in New York and be there by 3:00 in the afternoon.
Plenty of time to get your feet wet, have a locally brewed Caribe beer and some fried conch fritters and yes.. make it in time for happy hour.
It's 80 degrees and sunny most of the time, the ocean is beautiful, the people are friendly. It is everything you would expect on a tropical island, and as I found… even more.
Extreme Volcano Hike
I was there for a three-night stay at the St. Kitts Marriott Resort. We also had a few planned activities around the island; one of them was an “Extreme Volcano Hike.”
The description/warning of the climb said “This is a rugged physical adventure, involving five hours of rough hiking. You must be physically fit to participate.”
“Oh sure,” I thought.
They were not talking to me. I put it into perspective. That’s meant for the obese cruise ship people. I’m Joe seasoned traveler; it will be a walk in the park.
A Huge Project
I was also skeptical about what a large resort hotel like the Marriott would be like. Surely it would be filled with people mulling around an amusement park pool with artificial palm trees eating plastic zombie food. What if I became one of them! What if they made me drink the Kool-Aid! What a jaded man I have become, and how wonderful it is to be old enough to enjoy being proven wrong.
I had the pleasure of meeting the General Manager George Landa. He is a real guy, he has brought in skilled people, and they have done a fine job with this huge project. The sheer scale of the place could have led to the creation of an impersonal environment.
There are eight restaurants, a casino, banquet rooms, a golf course, spas, three swimming pools and 573 rooms. What an operation! Yet, I found it to be quite personal and inviting. The service was friendly and attentive. The rooms were very nice. Mine had a balcony facing the sea, a great whirl pool tub and honestly, the most comfortable bed I have slept in out side of my own. The overall atmosphere is casual and fun, and at no time did I feel crowded or zombie like.
They are also making a real effort to put out quality food. The three restaurants I ate in each felt like I had just walked in off the street into a chef-owned establishment.
La Cucina is an Italian restaurant with a huge open kitchen and aside from their fine main dishes (I had the osso bucco) offered a buffet-style antipasto that was fresh varied and more than enough for a complete meal.
For a taste of fresh Seafood, I ate at Blu. I tried the grilled sea bass with Hawaiian black lava salt that was top notch, and the filet minion I had at the Royal Grille steak house was as good as any I have had. Finish any dinner with a Cuban cigar and a glass of fine rum at the Keys Cigar and Rum Bar and you have a recipe for a great evening out, without ever leaving the hotel.
Climbing Into the Clouds
Chuck, who was our guide for the day to climb the Liamuiga volcano, has been hiking the area since he was nine years old, just like his father and his grandfather before him. If someone gets lost up there, he is the one the authorities call when they cannot find them.
We began our climb in the village of St. Paul and it soon became apparent that this was not going to be the walk in the park that I had anticipated. It was steep; sometimes we had to climb hand over hand up slippery roots. The walking stick that I was given which seemed a novelty at the beginning became crucial to keep my balance.
After two hours I asked him who was the oldest person he had brought up the mountain. When he told me it was an 85-year-old woman, I stopped complaining to myself and started walking faster. There are six rest stops along the way and after I got into a rhythm the climb got easier with every step.
The View From the Top
Along the way Chuck pointed out what the plants around us were and what some were used for, like the rubber trees or the large white trumpet leaves scattered on the forest floor which are used to treat high blood pressure and the mauby tree from which a sweet, low alcohol drink is made. (It's delicious.)
Although this is a steep climb, there are no bugs to bite you, or anything lurking that wants to eat you. The view from the top into the crater makes the whole trip well worthwhile and the hardest part was coming down, not only because of the new muscles you have to use, but because it was so nice up there that I did not want to leave.
The other high points of my trip were a ride on the sugar train and a trip to the Brimstone Hill fort. In 2005, after enormous losses and pressure from out side markets, St. Kitts stopped producing sugar cane commercially.
Gibraltar of the Indies
For more than three hundred and sixty years it had been their main economic driver. Shifting away from sugar, there is an active effort by the government to increase tourism. The train that was once used to transport sugar is now used for sightseeing. It still runs the original route and gives you an intimate, different look at the island.
The Brimstone Hill Fortress, also known as the “Gibraltar of the West Indies,” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that should not be missed. The views are spectacular from the top of this 800-foot- high hill. The fort is extremely well preserved giving testimony to the quality of its construction by the British from 1690 to 1790. It is a clear window into a troubled past.
Many a person died building it, defending it, and as a result of its central role in expanding French and English colonialism in the Caribbean.
Although there is a lot to see and do on St. Kitts, when I am on a tropical island vacation, I really just want to hang out.
Life is Good
I stopped by Turtle Beach and was sorry that I did not have the time to do a whole lot of nothing there. Palm trees line the beach. Monkeys walk up to the bar. Wilbur the giant pig signs autographs and people rave about the food. “Best Lobster on the Island” was a common reference.
My last afternoon was spent walking around the downtown area of Basseterre, taking a quick tour of the docks, and finally settling down to lunch at Circus Grill. There is a constant breeze on the island and sitting on this second-floor restaurant's balcony overlooking the ocean was a satisfying end to my stay.
Salty Conch fritters, Mutton in a red sauce, fish stew, good conversation, a great view and a cold Caribe beer. Ya Man… life is good.
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there though his work in the Valley Advocate and Preview magazines. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.