Nevis: The Queen of the Caribes

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The bananaquit, or sugar bird, is small and courageous.
The bananaquit, or sugar bird, is small and courageous. Nevis: The Queen of the Caribes

Kent E. St. John

By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor

Inexplicably, quite a few years ago I broke off a long time love affair. Thanks to the Caribbean Island of Nevis, I have rekindled love anew. From the runway at the Vance W. Amory Airport, I noticed the clouds swirling around Nevis Peak even as the bright Caribbean sun blazed around me.

In 1493 Columbus thought Nevis Peak looked snow-capped; I thought it crowned. That is in fact how Nevis got named; Columbus called the island the Las Nieves, Spanish for snow.

I spent the next several days on an island blessed with history and beauty, the island is also called “Queen of the Caribes” — all hail the queen. It could only be Nevis that would restart my long-time affair with the Caribbean.

Plantation Life

While many Caribbean islands have a plantation or two converted into lodgings, Nevis has the most, a total of five. Over the course of my visit I stayed in one and visited most of them for either a lunch or a dinner. All are different, with their own unique styles, no cookie cutter formula repeated.

At one time tiny Nevis was a major sugar producing island and a center for British administration for its holdings in the area. It was on Nevis that Lord Horatio Nelson began his naval career and married a local, Fanny Nesbit. It was also on Nevis that one of America’s heroes, Alexander Hamilton, was born, best known now as the face of the ten dollar bill.

The Old Manor
The Old Manor

Over the years Nevis has hosted many famous faces and was home to the first Caribbean tourist hotel, the Bath Hotel built in 1787. The hotel had hot spring baths said to cure gout, rheumatism and other debilitating diseases. Physician Sir Fredrick Treves, author of the Elephant Man, visited and wrote the first travelogue of the island. Many places in that travelogue still exist today, including those hot springs.

Home Sweet Home

As soon as I passed through the gates and up to the Old Manor Hotel I felt at home. The 18th century sugar plantation is set on the gentle slopes of Mt. Nevis in the Gingerland area. Lodgings are spread throughout the plantation buildings and feature verandahs overlooking picturesque ruins and gardens. For more options, find accommodations in Nevis and unique tours of the island.

From my room I had glimpses of the sun rising over the sea below. It was a great place to sit with a cup of coffee and listen to the roosters crow, as my balcony was slowly enveloped by sunshine.

At the Manor staff are friendly yet very unobtrusive and peace rules. They have recently started up a buffet dinner night that proved a very special night. Lobster and steaks were grilled in the old vaulted original kitchen building and tables spread in a courtyard, while the band Kassanova played their soulful tunes table hopping began in earnest.

I happened to encounter a wonderful couple, the Wilsons, who were on my flight from San Juan. An invitation to their second home on the island for a cocktail party was extended to my group. Things like that I soon found to be the norm on Nevis.

A street in Charlestown
A street in Charlestown

Heritage Trail

To get a sense of Nevis’s history, the sunny morning was spent traveling to Charlestown on part of the Heritage Trail. The trail lead to twenty-five of the premier heritage sites each with informative signs depicting past history in surprising detail.

In the town is a great small museum about all aspects of Nevis, from indigenous natives through the plantation and slavery period. Also the museum has displays of traditions that are still in play today. The museum building was once owned by Hamilton’s family.

Nearby is where more than 7000 people crossed the threshold into slavery; many were then sent to other islands and the US to toil.

Charlestown is a quaint town that has several stunning churches of varying denominations and building styles. The Jewish cemetery is all that remains of a once thriving Jewish community dating from the 17th century. Charlestown is best done by just strolling in any direction. Stop in the Nevis Tourism building right in the middle of town for some great information from a very friendly staff — the building itself is a treasure.

The Golden Rock Plantation
The Golden Rock Plantation

Just Golden

After a morning of exploring some of Nevis’s historic sites, we headed to the perfect place to let it sink in, The Golden Rock Plantation. Golden Rock is located 1000 feet above the sea and set on a 96-acre nature reserve. The plantation was built in 1801 as a sugar plantation, and many of the original buildings are still serving the Inn. The plantation was built by Edward Huggins and is today run by his relative Pam Berry.

Sitting at an outdoor table in the midst of beautiful scenery with Pam filling us in on family stories of life on the plantation was priceless, especially with the signature lunch of lobster sandwiches. Big things are ahead for Golden Rock as some new partners have stepped aboard. New York artists Brice and Helen Mardens have some marvelous plans, such as creating a studio on the grounds for visiting artists.

Monkey Business

After a fantastic lunch we decided to walk it off, and the Golden Rock Nature Trail was a perfect spot. As we headed up through huge rain forests full of plants and tropical foliage, those rock stars of Nevis soon made their appearances.

Road signs help protect the vervet monkeys.
Road signs help protect the vervet monkeys.

The vervet monkeys are from Africa and came to Nevis aboard slave ships. They have adapted well to the lush island and we saw them in abundance. They are stunning in appearance with white faces and clownish behavior. They hang in groups of up to fifty and eat fruits and flowers. Road crossing signs for them can be found throughout the island.

As we traversed ridge-lines and ravines, our guide Lynnell Liburd patiently taught us about the flora and fauna and their relationship to life past and present on Nevis. The rainforest was a virtual pharmacy filled with medicinal plants; I now know that the nettle plant is great for cramps.

As we ended our hike back at Golden Rock it seemed that the monkeys had also gathered at the plantation is if it were cocktail hour — “Caribe beer for me and a mango for my buddy with the hairy face.”

Speaking of hairy creatures, you will frequently run into goats and sheep roaming the island. Here is the difference; tail down it’s a sheep, tail up it’s a goat.

If flora is your thing then Nevis is also, you don’t have to go to the Botanical Gardens to get the magnificent plants and flowers that thrive throughout the island; every plantation visited had wonderful gardens to explore.

The Double Deuce
The Double Deuce

Puttin on the Ritz

Five-star food matched with ten-star surroundings is the best way I can explain dinner at the Montpelier Plantation. As we entered the Great House it was obvious that we didn’t stumble into an unknown. This place has a reputation and has earned it — make reservations.

Far below the lights of Charlestown and St. Kitts twinkled as we headed to our table in the Mill. There is no doubt that Montpelier is a sparkling gem in the Relais & Chateaux crown. If you’re going to splurge it should be here.

Now that I’ve used the splurge word, I feel it is only fair that I mention a fantastic beach joint that will give big thrills for a small outlay of cash, the Double Deuce on Pinney’s Beach.

“Rush Slowly,” was the sign posted above the small bar. The tables were filled with spectators of the Fifth Annual Triathlon, a success story of its own. Once again the overwhelming friendliness of people on Nevis was astounding.

Snorkeling in Nevis is a visual paradise
Snorkeling in Nevis is a visual paradise

Diving In

After having several outstanding meals we decided it was time for some action and the best kind is snorkeling in the clear, pool-like Caribbean. We hooked up with marine biologist Barbara Whitman from Under the Sea at her unique aquarium and shop at the Oualie Beach Hotel.

This is no ‘hop in the boat and go’ operation; Barbara has hands-on touch-and-feel tanks where you literally hold and learn about some of the creatures you will later be sharing the sea with. Barbara also introduced us to Crush, a hawksbill turtle she rescued and is nursing for a return to the sea. Her beguiling and fun personality makes learning a pleasure.

Soon we loaded up in her 17-foot inflatable for some great snorkeling. Schools of fish modeled for us in a visual paradise. Barbara constantly led us to some amazing sights and kept us entertained. (Read more in “Be Our Guest.”)

If you need to burn off more calories, right next door to Barbara’s place is Winston Crooke’s sailboard and bike shop. Winston is also the organizer of the triathlon. You got it. “Meet one person on Nevis and you meet many more.”

A school of fish
A school of fish

After a full day of activity the Oualie Hotel’s restaurant was the perfect place to dine, complete with live music. This is a place to let loose and sway with the rhythms, steps from the water. It was obvious to me that Nevis was seducing me back into the Caribbean vibes I had abandoned.

Kelly Rippa Effect

While not a celebrity sighting junky I did happen to remember hearing Kelly mention on TV once about her love for Nevis and the Four Season Resort. After a day of mass athletic activity the impulse to be pampered overcame me; a massage seemed fitting for a man falling in love again. Love of Nevis builds rapidly and the setting of the spa is bliss.

After an hour of sheer luxury, I headed just down the Four Season’s beach to Sunshine’s Beach Bar. This place has become a legend and rightly so; the brightly blowing flags and multi-colored tables vibrated with the glow of the sinking sun.

From the pictures on the few walls it seems many celebs cruise down from the Four Seasons to hang out. If there was any doubt about the freshness of the food, it faded rapidly as a fisherman hopped off his boat and waded ashore carrying a red snapper to Sunshine’s. Fresh fish and a “Killer Bee rum punch.” What could be more island?

Sunshine's bar
Sunshine’s bar

What a Way to End

In some ways my brand new love affair was summed up over my last dinner at the Hermitage. The bar is housed in the oldest all-wood house in the Antilles. Wide board floors and antiques complemented the small funky bar filled with faces met throughout my stay. I felt as if I was a part of a special club.

Out under the veranda’s twinkling lights, great food along with salutations and toasts made me feel as if I was in one of the world’s special places with special people, by dinner’s end I knew I was.

As my driver and now good friend TC pulled up to the Old Manor to take us to the airport, I think she sensed my desire to remain on Nevis. She made a special stop at Bocane Ceramic Studio so I could purchase a piece of Nevis to bring home. I had been admiring Cheryl Liburd’s work throughout my stay.

TC’s last bit of advice as we approached the airport was to try the great food at the small restaurant. Over my grilled lobster lunch, all I could think was, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Till we meet again my Caribbean love.

A sugar bird in Nevis Visit our Kent St. John Page with links to all his stories.

Read more GoNOMAD stories about Nevis