© Josephine Matyas
Living in the past
Nevis isn’t just beautiful — it’s one of the most authentic Caribbean islands you’ll ever visit
They say the two islands of St. Kitts and Nevis are sisters. I see St. Kitts as the older one with a closet full of splashy outfits: casinos, sprawling resort properties, a cruise port and acres of duty free shopping. Little sister Nevis is the Cinderella of the duo: modest and hard-working, pretty with plenty of substance. It’s not that there is anything wrong with St. Kitts; it’s just that Nevis has… a better personality. There. I’ve put my bias up front.
It’s only three kilometres across the channel from St. Kitts to Nevis. And for most people the water crossing is the best way to get there. To those who can’t face a twisty drive around a mountain and a pedal-to-the-metal boat ride across a (sometimes) choppy sea after a long flight, I have this to say: no problem; you can have your ultra-convenient, on-the-beaten-path stay. Leave perfect little Nevis to the rest of us.
Certainly, Nevis may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of a family vacation — in our case not sisters like the islands, but mother and twenty-something son. It was a test for me — when Eric was small, as parents we’d explained the world to him through travel: the elasticity of people, cultures, landscapes and politics. How much of it sank in? For him, I assumed Nevis was five days in the Caribbean sun and a break from the anchor of a grey Canadian winter. For me, it was a chance to reconnect and to see how many of those childhood lessons had infiltrated. In any case, we found ourselves in a speedboat, bouncing along the surface of the water: St. Kitts in the rear view mirror, Nevis straight ahead.
British on the beach
Since I discovered Nevis a decade ago, I’ve been returning as often as I can. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on how you look at it — the itch does not go away. Perfectly round, with a verdant, dormant volcano smack in the middle, Nevis is like the Little Island That Could, chugging along in pace with the ups and downs of the global economy. Uphill — like every other Caribbean island when the world’s finances take a shellacking — and on cruise control when times are good. On Nevis they know what they have and, like the modest Cinderella, they have resisted becoming too enamoured of their own success. There are just eight resorts on the island, including four built at the remains of the island’s once-thriving colonial-era plantations. They stay abreast of the times, but their sweet and gentle character stays unchanged.
And Nevis doesn’t make you wait long for a perfect tropical vista. For starters, there is a landscape that is the envy of the Caribbean — picture perfect beaches lined with coconut palms and a lush and green rainforest-draped mountain — but at the heart of the island are its people. Nevis has a solid British history (save for one year when the French planted a flag in 1782 before the Brits got it back the following year) and it comes with all the modern-day customs — drive on the left, afternoon tea, basic politeness and continental-style dining etiquette.
In the morning we set out for a hike along a nature trail above the hillside plantation inn of Golden Rock (Charlestown; goldenrocknevis.com; doubles from $191). I’d asked for a gentle route, with moderate elevation change. Youthful and fit, Eric eyed Nevis Peak, salivating at the chance to tackle the 985-metre summit, intrigued by the way the low hanging clouds suddenly shrouded the peak, and then just as quickly floated away leaving a crystal clear view of the top. Age ruled. Gentle nature walk it was. He acquiesced, intrigued by the larger-than-life rainforest vegetation and the tales of the island history reeled off by our hiking guide, Lynnell Liburd.
“They think this volcano is about 1.2 million years old,” said Lynnell, whose ancestors were brought to Nevis in the 1600s aboard slave ships from West Africa. “The land was settled by the Arawak, the Carib, the Europeans and then the African slaves brought to work the plantations.”
In the thick undergrowth of shrubs and vines are the remains of walls and terraces, each stone placed by hand to create a larger — and more productive — area for growing the plantation crops. Lynnell pointed out how, in the era of large plantations, even the hillsides were cleared of natural vegetation to use every possible inch to grow sugarcane, the once lucrative crop known as white gold.
“Sugar was grown from the coast to 500 metres up the slopes — that’s halfway up the mountain. At the time, Nevis was so rich that the highest paid British official in the region was based here. The money, however, came from the backs of slave labour,” he said. “In the 1700s the economy of West Indian colonies like Nevis was larger than the 13 American colonies put together. That’s how it came to be known as the ‘Queen of the Caribees.’”
History is never far from the surface on Nevis and it was hard to dodge the harsh reality of the colonial plantation economy. As difficult as it is, it’s important to Nevisians to tell the story of their history, whether on a hike or at stops like the Nevisian Heritage Village or the Bath Springs, a steaming hot vein of water sourced deep inside the volcano. It’s a favourite spot for locals and visitors to meet at the end of the working day.
To both mother and son, this gave the island an authentic feel: people sharing their lives and their heritage rather than creating an artificial amusement park atmosphere carved out to satiate North American demands.
“They ground sugar cane here,” said Pat Thompson as she explained the workings of the Heritage Village, where they preserve history through model homes of slaves quarters, rum shacks and the ruins of the massive stone boiling house. The village is set on the remains of Fothergills Estate, at one time a working sugarcane plantation. “This village is a vision for the future. Without this, our children would not know where they are coming from.”
OK. Visions for the future, children learning from their family history. This was something I could connect with. These daytime experiences opened the door for us the next evening, when I talked to Eric about the difficult history of his immigrant grandparents leaving their homeland and coming to Canada. It was a long conversation that we’d never had before. Now we talked, asked and answered questions, adult to adult, mother to son.
The setting was the casual Thursday night beachside barbecue at the historic Nisbet Plantation Beach Club (St. James Parish; nisbetplantation.com; doubles from US$560 including breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner). Beach barbecue night at Nisbet is about steel pan bands, digging into a platter of seafood with the sand in your toes and the breeze off the ocean. For us, it was also about learning family history.
The resort property is the ancestral home of Fanny Nisbet, the wife of British naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson. The history books tell how Nelson arrived on Nevis, fell in love with Fanny Nisbet and the two were married under a large fig tree up the mountain. The resort — once a coconut plantation — has been turned into an intimate, award-winning property. It’s the island’s only beachfront plantation — where guests break for traditional English afternoon tea served with small sandwiches and biscuits on the patio at the stone Great House.
The next day we were off again, skimming across the water between the sister islands. This time, Nevis was at our backs, heading home to Canada. For Eric it was “the most authentic place” he’d ever been. For his mother it was more than Caribbean sun. It was a chance to connect and to learn together. I have no doubt that he will be itching to return to Nevis — just as I did. That will be a part of his future. I’m glad we saw it together now.
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