Nevis: The Caribbean's Forgotten Island
Nevis: The Smaller, Relaxed Sister of St. Kitts
By Paul Shoul
We all have images planted in our minds of the perfect Caribbean Island. Waves lapping upon the shores of secluded palm lined beaches. Turquoise waters teeming with tropical fish. Dinner on the deck at sunset. Long pensive walks, or maybe a crazy night out with the locals dancing, killer drinks and …... definitely a volcano in the middle.
The problem between a Google image search and the reality of the Caribbean paradise described above is that sometimes when you get there, everybody else is there too, the pictures were cropped. Maybe crowds are what you are looking for, but if you're not, Nevis is the real deal.
I arrived in Nevis flying in from Boston via Miami and San Juan Puerto Rico. The final leg was a 1.5 hour flight in a small plane with Cape Air over the ocean and islands of the West Indies with my five fellow passengers and a dog. The view descending on approach to paradise can’t be beat. Later that day, watching the sunset over the ocean at Sunshine's Beach Bar and Grill, I downed one of his deceptively strong Killer Bee rum punches, settled in and ordered another. I had landed well.
A Two-Island Country
The Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis is a small two Island country, really small, the smallest sovereign state in the Americas, with about 54,000 people in total. Separated by a two-mile shallow channel, the larger Saint Kitts is the capital, has an airport accepting international flights, and a deep water port that can accommodate large cruise ships. Nevis on the other hand is only 36 square miles, has just 12,000 residents and one main road. The port is too shallow, and the runway too short. Small is beautiful and has saved Nevis from becoming over run.
Its history seems grander than its tiny land mass. Oualie ("Land of Beautiful Waters") was originally the home of the Arawak and Carib. That all changed in 1493 when Columbus floated by one day. In the 17th century Nevis was nicknamed the “Queen of the Caribes” for its spectacular sugar production, it was the richest of the Leeward Islands. It’s story includes pirates, romance and heroes. Sugar might have brought wealth to to the crown and plantation owners, but was built on the blood and toil of thousands of West African slaves.
Wealth brought envy. The French, Spanish and English battled for its ownership for years. Nevis is the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, author of the US constitution, and where Horatio Nelson was stationed as a young sea captain.
The End of Sugar
War, soil erosion and natural disasters took their toll and eventually the sugar industry collapsed. To make up for the loss of income, in 1798 a novel idea was hatched and the first luxury hotel in the western hemisphere was opened in Nevis at the site of natural sulphur hot springs famed for their restorative powers. The hot waters still flow and the building still stands today housing Government offices.
Charlestown market Nevisians are community minded religious people, there are over sixty churches on the island.
The little capital Charlestown seems stuck in time. Slow living amongst historic colonial stone buildings, narrow winding streets leading to the sea, a small park in the center, a few Rasta hanging on the ancient stone balcony of the Tea House Chinese restaurant.
Evidence of the past, lie in ruins and in restoration around the island. From the rusting hulks of crumbling sugar machinery scattered on the coast or hiding in the jungle, to the beautifully restored plantations now housing some very unique boutique hotels and restaurants.
Resorts on Nevis
Wandering into the great house at the Hermitage, the room is abuzz with conversation. Old friends and travelers, no longer strangers, are scattered in small groups around antique furniture. Lubricated by tea and rum punch, everyone is telling stories. I am invited in and feel immediately at home. Built over 250 years years ago on the slopes of Mt. Nevis, it lays claim to being the oldest wooden house in the Caribbean.
The bar feels like an old English pub, comfortable and well stocked. The veranda restaurant is known as one of the best on the island with a focus on local foods. During my two days there I noticed a 50/50 split between guests and the locals that gathered at the bar and came for the food and conversation, always a good sign.
The Hermitage has 15 rooms in gingerbread cottages throughout the property, and a freshwater swimming pool. My little cottage was complete with a kitchen, antique four post canopy bed with mosquito netting and a hammock on the porch.
I absolutely loved this place, my only complaint was reserved for an overly enthusiastic rooster stationed under my bedroom window, singlemindedly determined to deprive me of sleeping late. Your day will will come my little feathered friend!
Montpelier Plantation & Beach:
Perched in the foothills of Mt. Nevis, surrounded by 60 acres of tropical gardens, the Montpelier was one of the first 18th century Nevis sugar plantation estates.
This is where Horatio Nelson was married and Princess Diana came to vacation with her children, Its been a classy place for over 300 years.
The Stone Manor house forms the centerpiece of the hotel that spreads outward throughout the 19 rooms, verandas gardens and tennis court.
A tall conical stone tower of a historic sugar windmill rises over the swimming pool. The rooms are spacious, well appointed and have a sense of real privacy. I spent two nights in #10 at the back of the property with huge windows to let in the breeze and a beautiful porch overlooking the mountains.
The Montpelier is a luxury caribbean boutique hotel in every sense of the words, It is unique, charming and comfortable. The restaurant is exceptional. A private beach with personal cabanas has transportation daily. There is laid back feeling here, the kind of luxury that doesn't demand dressing the part or anything more from their guests than to just relax, you are in paradise, things will be taken care of.
I spent two nights at Oualie, located on a beautiful stretch of beach 20 minutes on the main road outside of Charlestown. Thirtytwo rooms are scattered along the beach in two-story gingerbread cottages. Solar hot water heaters are stationed outside each one. Oualie has a lot going on and going for it.
There is fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling offered right from the dock outside the restaurant. Rooms are comfortable with spacious bathrooms, adequate air conditioning, and screened in porches, but all in need of a paint job.
The food in comparison to other restaurants on the island was lacking. That being said, I’d stay there again in a heart beat. What it lacks in finishing touches, it makes up for in reasonable rates, a stellar location, nice beach and the bar shines. Fun, full of locals, great drinks, and live music a few nights a week.
Nisbet Plantation Beach Club
This is where Horatio Nelson met and fell in love Fanny Nisbet, widow of Dr. Nisbet, owner of the the plantation in the 1700s.
Then a sugar and coconut plantation, in the 1950s it became a hotel. Located on 30 acres and a palm lined white sand beach, Nisbet exudes the good life.
All rooms are in cottages spaced well apart from each other and the great house. The rooms are gorgeous, light, airy and well packed with everything extra you may need from bug spray and free wifi, to bathrobes and an umbrella. There is a swimming pool, beach side restaurant and bar, tennis courts, a fitness center and spa.
Although Nisbet is a shoes off, laid back on the beach kind of place, dinner at the great house is a more proper British affair. I did not stay at the Nisbet but did have the pleasure of dining with Club's general manager Alistair Forrest.
Born into a family of hoteliers, it is as he said “a way of life.” At the helm of a ship sailing along smoothly for over 25 years under the same ownership, he sees his job not as an agent of change, but rather as a caretaker, with respect for the legacy and tradition of old world charm in an authentic Caribbean experience.
Some of the employees have been here over 25 years. Many a guest have been coming for an equally long time. The Maitre D, Patterson, boasts of a collection of over 4000 ties, all given as gifts by returning guests.
The Great house porch is furnished in wicker, live music is being played in the corner of the bar, while perfect cocktails are delivered with a calm smile. The dining room is decidedly elegant serving an array of of gourmet traditional island fare. Fresh, flavorful, and perfectly executed. Our dinner ranged from asian influenced tempura shrimp to a stunning filet mignon.
Four Seasons Nevis
Of the 400 hotel rooms on Nevis, 196 guest rooms and 45 villas belong to the Four Seasons. An oasis of 5-star luxury on a small forgotten island is the setting for many a day dream around February in Boston. Its size is wielded with grace.
The grounds are vast, but everything is tucked in well amongst the palm trees. The amenities are too many to list. Lets just say that after a round of golf, and then a massage at the spa, you might hang out on your private beach cabana for a swim and a drink before dinner at one of four restaurants.
Seated on a long open air dining porch overlooking the Caribbean, I thought to myself that if this place tastes as good as it looks, I was in for a treat. It did. The level of service and attention to detail evident everywhere in the hotel extends to its new restaurant, Mango. From the first sip of a savory sweet rum martini, to the appetizer of cod cakes and then a huge pile of grilled spiny lobsters as an entree.
As one would hope, being the stomping grounds of the Pirates of the Caribbean, Mango’s 101 Rum Bar, actually has over 101 different varieties, a veritable who’s who of rum. I made a dent in six noble brands but really liked the kick of the the local Cane Spirit Rothschild (CSR), bottled in neighboring Saint Kitts.
Alas I could only afford to pay homage to their $5000 bottle of Appleton Estate 50-year-old Jamaica Independence reserve, one of only 800 bottles ever produced. They have only sold four shots, at $400 each, to two Russians, and they both ordered a double.
With 11 unique cottages the eye of an artist and the skill of an architect can be felt at Golden Rock. I only had a quick lunch there, (try the lobster roll) but was really impressed by the sense of modern flair, color and design married with the historic estate stone work. The tropical gardens are some of the best on the island. Golden Rock is small, intimate and gorgeous.
I also had a chance to tour the new renovation of Paradise Beach Boutique Resort, reopening on January 15th 2015.
This is a private self-contained world of luxury, comprised of 7, 3-4 bedroom villas of 2900-3400 square feet. All have private swimming pools, full kitchens, vaulted thatched roofs and concierge’s and butler service. Those that require privacy and the best of everything will find it at Paradise Beach.
Dreaming of Goat Water
Talking food with chef Paulette Fredericks at her restaurant, The Paradise Drive Through, I commented that Nevis cuisine was not very hot or spicy.
"Of course not," she said, "we are not spicy hot people, Nevis is chill,” Paulette has worked as a chef for other hotels, finally opening her own place which has become a cornerstone of the Island. Nevis cuisine may skip the fiery heat but does not skimp on flavor.
Paulette builds depth to her dishes with braising and liberal use of the local “season peppers.” They have the exact flavor of habaneros, without the killer heat. Her jerk chicken is not to be missed. Paulette is the master of “Island to table cooking.”
She also explained the the fantastic local dish of Goat water that I had the night before at the uber cool Bananas restaurant and art gallery.
Goat water is the stuff of dreams, a household staple on the island for special occasions. Goat meat is seared, slow cooked and simmered into a rich stew. Clove and Pawpaw fruit are key flavors with breadfruit added to break down and thicken the stew. Wow.
Started over 20 years ago with just a cooler and a grill under some palm trees, Sunshines has grown to be hands down the most popular beach bar on Nevis. It has a sprawling rustic feel, colorful, quirky thatched roofs and open to the beach.
The food is Caribbean playful. Bright, flavorful with an emphasis on grilled lobster, salads shrimp and barbecue. Although Sunshine is somewhat of a celebrity and his place is “the place”, he said that he will never go overboard with it. “This is the Caribbean,” he said, "the whole idea is to take it slow.”
I ended my trip in Nevis like I had started it, drinking a killer bee rum punch at Sunshines. The recipe is secret, but honestly, I don't care what's in it. Its sweet cold and fantastic, and I’m having another one.
No trip to Nevis is complete without a walk up the mountain or through the jungle. I took a hike to Russell's rest waterfall with Reggie from Nevis Adventure Tours. A really nice guy with an abundance of local knowledge who knows the twists and turns of jungle trails like the back of hand. He should, he cut many of them himself.
The Botanical Gardens of Nevis are also a must see. The rainforest conservatory and 6 other gardens are beautiful. It also has a gift shop, restaurant and is a prime wedding location.
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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 through his work in the Valley Advocate. 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.