A quest for peace of mind, takes authors Kailash Maharaj and Shivana Maharaj on an adventure to two little known sister islands in the Eastern Caribbean.
Gripping thick tree stumps, protruding from wild tropical growth, sidestepping loose, damp stones, I am making my way to the 1156 metre summit of Mount Liamuiga, the mercifully extinct stratovolcano that dominates aerial views of St. Kitts, and emerges near lush, sparsely populated villages.
Sister island Nevis is somewhere in the distance though a foreboding mist prevents me from seeing it. The German tour group whose cruise ship docked this morning has dispersed, so too my guide. I am far behind them now, but better able to observe the carved head of a monkey discarded by a bored hiker who never made it all the way to the top, and to recollect the tales of those who had an emotional breakdown making the ascent.
As I try to catch my breath, my eyes focus on a caterpillar inching its way horizontally along a rock as if to remind me – just keep moving, even at a slow pace. Alone, I am able to see things metaphorically – I am climbing a sacred mountain.
The year before there had been an earthquake in my life. One day, someone mentioned that they were from St. Kitts. The island federation was then but a vague outline – somewhere in the Caribbean between Puerto Rico and Martinique – but somehow it was a beacon. Its geography though not readily inscribed in my mind, was somehow etched in my heart, as the Caribbean is the home of my ancestors.
Lately, I’d found myself besieged by whirling thoughts – not quite aftershocks but future shock. The sort that makes me unconsciously toy with panicked scenarios. So, seeking solace and in an attempt to assuage my fears, I find myself surreptitiously here, lured by the ocean and the promise of peace.
The Amerindians called this place Liamuiga, or fertile land, and for centuries every inch of arable land was given to the cultivation of sugar cane. Bountiful St. Kitts proved so successful that it provided the model for plantation life later exported throughout the Caribbean. Little wonder that Horatio Nelson and Sam Jefferson (ancestor of Thomas Jefferson) lived on St. Kitts (Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the American Treasury lived on Nevis).
In 2005 St. Kitts relinquished sugar cane as its main commercial industry. That emblem of the islands which sailed many a dream (and nightmare) to the Caribbean was gone and in its place – tourism. It is hoped that the influx from tourism will be just another tempering force. After all, since the time of Columbus, the islands have always been subject to outside influences.
A symbol of this change if not a touchstone for the entire island is the narrow gauge St. Kitts Scenic Railway – dubbed the sugar train. The last railway in the West Indies, it was built between 1912 and 1926 to transport cane to the central factory though it now ferries visitors on an 18 mile journey (there is also a trip by bus).
Aboard the open air upper deck, I gaze hungrily to one side and then another. At times there are abandoned cane fields, their green stalks made yellow by the rising sun, at other times steeples reach toward azure sky in seaside villages. There are views of coconut trees perching upon cliffs, and goat skin drying on wooden rafters – a local remedy for warding off greedy monkeys. At one point a boy races through a schoolyard yelling to his friends while waving at us, “train coming.” He is the picture of glee.
At other times black sand beaches, and old ghauts (ravines enabling rainwater to go to the sea) whiz by as we cross bridges their wooden tracks curving toward the horizon. But always the scenes are accompanied by a live playlist of a capella folksongs. As Michael Rode the Boat Ashore begins a local treat of sugar cake (made from coconut) is circulated and I think of my grandmother who made it to sell in her shop.
But more than anything what I see is the story not just of St. Kitts but of the whole Caribbean told through the island’s geography. Everywhere I go, locals remind me of the richness of the rich volcanic soil the draw for the English who first settled here in the 17th century. To get a feeling for the way things were, I tour Brimstone Hill an impenetrable polygonal fortress – the Gibraltar of the West Indies. Canons primed for firing point in the direction of St. Eustacius, and the panorama includes views of Saba, and Saint-Martin.
Elsewhere, Wingfield estate is home to an embarrassment of firsts – the first land grant in the English West Indies was given here in 1625, an aqueduct and water wheel used for power stand beside a steam engine recalling the high days of sugar production when this was the first working estate, and a recently excavated rum distillery is the oldest standing on the island.
Further up the road, I stop at Romney manor, also home to Caribelle Batik factory, flanked by a 400 year old saman tree. A woman explains the intricate batik technique as she holds a bright textile the result of dip dying several times until the correct shade is achieved. Outside a wave of magenta batik sheets flutter in the wind to air dry.
That evening I dine at Marshall’s restaurant in posh Fort Tyson. Owned and operated by chef Verral Marshall, the menu reflects his Jamaican heritage (curried goat) as well as classic dishes from his international repertoire (Coquilles St. Jacques). Marshall has called St. Kitts home for forty years. He eagerly shows me his lush garden, full of papaya, soursop, banana and coconut trees. “I planted each one of these, and everything gets put onto my menu,” Marshall tells me as I dig into a sumptuous house made lemongrass ice cream.
Seeking a different vantage point – that inimitable view from above which makes problems miniscule and gross matter into miniature, I decide to take a helicopter ride.
At Temsco headquarters waiting to board, I meet the exuberant Devon “Pepper” Ranks, a born and bred Kittitian who quells my jitters through conversation. He offers the most a propos comparison of the two islands – “St Kitts is to New York as Nevis is to Manhattan.” (The dichotomy of the islands is summarily if superficially explained – St. Kitts has embraced mass tourism, Nevis tends to welcome a well-heeled crowd. Like any familial relationship it’s a tenuous sisterhood; this federation, a sort of deep disavowing rivalry that perpetuates talk of succession by Nevis although it has partial self-government.)
The company flies its fleet of helicopters from its base in Alaska to St. Kitts each high season. Young pilot Shannon is originally from Oregon and immediately makes me feel at ease with a weightless feather take-off and eventual landing.
The technicolours of this island are subdued by rain which lends a brooding romanticism to sights that I am accustomed to seeing in the acute angles of midday sun. It is a different sort of seduction from this island. A chartreuse field spotted with a stone plantation house at its centre takes on an attractive lugubriousness. A dreamy sepia quality envelops a salt lake.
Perspective plays with my vision and expectedly, all that would seem ferocious on land appears docile from up here – white breakers tap rather than pound black rocks while what appears to be no more than a small rise in the landscape is in fact a towering hill. Everywhere, the arc of a rainbow confounds my view as if this were a place of reverie, of perpetual wishes granted, of promises realized.
Another day, I stop at Royal Palm restaurant at Ottley’s Plantation, a family owned property with a beautifully restored butter yellow great house plucked from colonial days. Sipping cold nutmeg infused rum punch, and munching on conch fritters, I listen to Nancy Lowell speak of how her family, former bookstore owners in New Jersey came to St. Kitts in the early 1980s. She stops to explain St. Kitts’ appeal. “It’s not homogenized [tourism] here. It’s historic. You’re in a real place with real people. People are genuinely nice here, not because they’ve taken a course.”
Indeed, the tourist footprint though appreciable, is not yet entrenched; it is not yet a place of artificiality. Rather the island is a mix of locals, medical students, expats and tourists.
Perhaps the forerunner of change to a tourism based economy was heralded by the opening of the St. Kitts Marriott and The Royal Beach Casino in 2004. The resort in Frigate Bay is by far the most popular on the island and a leading employer.
Emanating from every direction of the sprawling hotel is a site of interest – 3 freeform pools, an 18-hole championship golf course, a tennis court, gym, and spa. It is a one-stop-shop hotel. Yet it manages never to feel crowded. In fact, I am the sole person on the beach as all others have fled the passing rain that appears once each day for only a couple of minutes. I shelter under one of the nearly one hundred blue and white canvas palapas that line the 4-mile stretch of beach.
The hotel is laid out like a Spanish colonial city dominated by a main palm tree-lined square. The second floor lobby anchored by a siren statue and wooden ship maximizes its location by taking advantage of the prevailing ocean breezes. Guest rooms (including mine in Pembrook House) snake the periphery and open unto smaller courtyards with mosaic fountains and gigantic terracotta pots.
For all its multi-faceted appeal, the hotel still keeps local roots: there are vendors selling arts and crafts each day near the fitness centre; and the head chefs at sleek oceanfront Blu Restaurant where I enjoy a delicious grilled lobster dinner are local; waitresses at breakfast address me with island warmth as ‘sweetheart’ or ‘darling.’
It is a pleasant walk from the Marriott to the Strip, a short length of beachfront where straw huts, restaurants and bars vie for attention especially in the evening. The two other people around – local boys – are more interested in eating nuts than a protracted sales pitch. One of them sings a local calypso, “let it rain all day so we can sleep, sleep, sleep, and have no stress, stress, stress….” The mood is utterly relaxing.
Yet for all that I have seen, I sense that what is yet to come for this island will be equally as potent. Locals I speak to call St. Kitts the authentic Caribbean, they don’t want to lose what makes them unique, and they’re fighting to keep it – for they too feel an impending change.
Thus far, development has been relegated to the periphery leaving the middle of St. Kitts alone but that too is set to alter. Multi-million dollar projects abound – plans to make this into a premiere Caribbean destination – the sort that will radically alter not only the economic culture of the islands but, inevitably, its character too.
I get a glimpse of the future at Port Zante, a replica of other cruise ship ports in the Caribbean – the fabricated, manufactured Caribbean – though it is a brief visit I wonder what will happen when even more cruise ships arrive (as they are slated to do). Will the impending changes render this island unrecognizable? Will future visitors feel peace as I have? And though I do not long for stasis – to prevent this island from progress or keep it in some state of reliquary – asleep while all the world moves on – it is bittersweet the way life is – the way I want to hang on to things in the hope that by loving them profoundly I can save them as they are. But, of course, this is not the way of life.
On my final day in St. Kitts, I stop at an isthmus saturated with the spectral hues of the island, the green of hills and the blue of ocean and sky. Undulating hills like the humps of a sleeping dragon crouched on the sea cut perpendicular to the horizon. To my left is the Atlantic, a rumbling behemoth, to my right the Caribbean Sea gently feminine, with scarcely a wave. I stand at their centre, spellbound.
But, naturally, there are a million such vignettes across St. Kitts. I had seen them at Cockleshell Bay, the see-and-be-seen beach packed with cruise ship passengers and a plethora of beach activities; at Black rocks with its lava formations; and even at tragic Bloody Point where, in 1626 the sea ran red with the blood of massacred Caribs. Only here, now, this place has loosened the stronghold of my thoughts and begun a path toward surrender.
”When we talk about democracy, peace, and tranquility none ‘a dem islands could compete with we. I am proud to be Nevisian. God bless our country, our native land. Grant us the courage to change the things we can…because it is the land of our birth, paradise here on earth…Nevis nice. Nevis nice, nice. Nevis nice,” blares the car radio as Crefton “King Meeko” Warner sings a popular calypso considered the unofficial anthem of Nevis.
I am driving along a two lane road from the ferry dock marveling at this island, a sybaritic volcanic speck amidst cerulean water. In its prime it was considered the Queen of the Caribees – the fashionable centre of the West Indies. Although the glory days of the past are referenced often, today there is an abiding peace on the island.
Though Nevis appears pastoral with its marauding cast of free range animals its main industries – tourism and offshore finance – have nothing to do with the soil. The sugar trade ended here decades ago supplanted by cotton until finally tourism gained dominance. And though it has been longer in the tourist trade than St. Kitts, the island does not feel rehearsed.
Stone structures with gingerbread details dominate Charlestown its capital; green vervet monkeys brought to the island from Africa in the 17th century outnumber people (and are infamous for enjoying a tipple); and locals note that “stress” would be added by the introduction of a traffic light.
On Saturdays men play dominoes and a few teens lime at brightly painted shops. There is no blaring music, no car horns, no hollering in the streets. It’s quiet here. Really quiet. And because it is hard to get here – you have to choose Nevis – you seek out the solitude, the peace, the quiet.
Most days I spend on the porch of my second-storey suite at the Mount Nevis Hotel where a welcome, coolness regularly pervades. The hotel has arguably the most transfixing view on the island. From here the hills of Nevis meld with the southern tip of St. Kitts and I cannot tell where one begins and the other ends.
My room is spacious and homey with a full kitchen, private entrance, bedroom and sitting area. Wicker furniture sits beside a Philippe Starcke-inspired Louis Ghost Chair. It is the sort of languid place where an errant brown cow that has somehow jumped the fence and is racing through the property provides cheery havoc like the subplot of a L.M. Montgomery novel.
The local bridge club is enraptured in a game and a guest is swimming laps the day I meet Dr. Adly Meguid who owns the hotel with his family. A former UN official who settled here in the 1980s, his itinerant stories range from dining with Cuban heads-of-state, to providing tools for economic development. He speaks infrequently but with stunning truth. While I am here, I see him every day – satisfyingly in charge of every detail of the hotel, projecting familial warmth.
A former lime plantation, the hotel is a master class in authentic hospitality. When I meet chef Rahul Kinja he insists on preparing an entire meal (and, in mere minutes) in the newly inaugurated tandoor oven and throughout my stay I enjoy delicious meals from the restaurant. Weeks before my arrival, general manager Peter Capezza and his wife, marketing coordinator Jamie, (a young couple from the Southern USA – he’s soft spoken and considered she is ebullient and spunky) scrupulously plan a tailored itinerary for me. It is the sort of elite service I normally associate with movie stars in exclusive hideaways. Contrary to the formulaic template into which he has perfunctorily stuck my name, he sends me a personal letter of welcome to Nevis when I check my phone on the ferry coming here.
Together, we tour the hotel’s organic garden where peppers, okra, and tomatoes hide under a screen cover from the prying hands of prim monkeys who take one bite before tossing, not wanting to get their hands wet and sticky (they even have their own crossing sign near the entrance to the hotel, though they remain skittish). Nearby there is an old stone cistern. Later, we stop near some mango trees where land has been cleared for a US $60 million expansion project. “It’s over 2 acres. It’s going to be low impact,” Capezza tells me.
At the end of the driveway Cottle church, built in the 19th century so that the plantation owner and his slaves could worship together (and today, a favourite wedding destination) is gleaming in the purple haze of the setting sun. It is an apt representation of this place where all are treated with respectful intimacy.
Nevis seems to recalibrate the values and ideals in the lives of those who stay for a while. The rest and quietness does something to even the most hyper of personalities – it clarifies intentions, it makes those wishes that are most dear but buried come to the surface. Hiren Fatnani manager of Indian Summer restaurant buzzes with friendly albeit wired energy. He is visibly pleased with the entrepreneurial success of his restaurant which serves tasty Indian dishes and he is already forecasting the opening of another. Accustomed to the pace of Bombay, he is astonished by life here, a welcome respite from city life. “One car passes and then five minutes later another. It is peace.”
The expats I meet at the gorgeous oceanfront Four Seasons Resort Nevis have the same attitude – a renewed sense of purpose and revived appreciation. “I appreciate more what I have,” says a young man who moved here from Singapore a few years ago. At the property, I treat myself to a wonderful massage near the boxy, shingled wooden spa houses that reference Nevis’ architectural past. At Coral Grill, the chef ably concocts a dish that I’m craving which is not on the menu, before I devour the standout tropical pavlova for dessert.
Perhaps the greatest benediction Nevis offers is that any visitor can become a local almost instantly. On several occasions locals wave to me as if we are longtime friends. The distance between local and tourist is truncated here and it is easy to integrate into life. At the hot springs there are no barriers as I plunge into the pool structure surrounded by neem trees. Elsewhere in the world this would have long ago been made into a tourist attraction edging out locals.
When I hear singing coming from the many churches as I drive on Sunday, I decide to visit St. James Windward church noted for its black crucifix. There is a large boulder before the unlocked door and inside, two ladies sweeping the pews, motion for me to enter. Nothing is cordoned off; there is access as if I too am a local.
It is all familiar to English expat, Gillian Smith. Owner of Bananas Restaurant a sun dappled place that resembles an artist’s retreat with a vagabond sense of charm, Smith opened the present location eight years ago. She credits Nevis and its people with her success. “My husband wants me to go and open something in Europe. In Europe I can’t open a restaurant like this. I would never have been able to achieve what I have had I been anywhere else. So many people are good to me here.”
What I am struck by most here is Nevis’ preternatural beauty. It is on full display as I take a meditative stroll through the Botanical Gardens of Nevis – a labyrinth of Asian statues, palms and water fountains with impossibly perfect flowers enlivening every corner.
That evening, a trail of candlelit stone stairs leads to Montpelier Plantation’s Great Room, just past an enormous cottonwood tree. A former sugar plantation that seems at once modern and untouched, it is owned by mother-son duo Muffin and Timothy Hoffman. They greet almost every guest by first name while serving hors d’oeuvres. At Restaurant 750, the Caribbean and French influenced menu starts with a velvety pumpkin and coconut soup and ends with a modern century take on an apple tart tatin.
Those who live here are not immune to Nevis’ charms. Greg and Evelyn Slagon are proprietors of Yachtsman Grill and Funky Monkey Tours in Nelson Springs. The restaurant serves fresh lobster, fresh cut fries, and features an authentic wood burning pizza oven. It is part of a complex with unobstructed beach views. “The sun sparkles here a little brighter. I wake up in the morning and it’s like diamonds everywhere. But mostly it’s still so secluded unspoiled. You get that old feel that’s lost in some of the other islands,” remarks Evelyn before she sees me off for the afternoon.
Snacking on parched peanuts and a zingy homemade sassafras drink I circumambulate Nevis Peak in a 4 x 4 off-road vehicle along the single main road and to places where cars cannot pass. Tom of Funky Monkey Tours is my driver and guide. He is spending the season here, on leave from Michigan. At first the scenery is decidedly bucolic – droves of donkeys once used for labour now roam the island (“I swear I see a different arrangement each time”), inside a crumbling sugar mill a hive of bees go merrily about their duty while a strangler vine threatens to one day topple the stone structure poised precariously on a brush hilltop; sugar plantations have become beguiling inns. All that once supported plantation life – was at one time tame or cultivated – is now wild. Transformations made possible by that strange, dizzying reversal of fortune when king sugar became a pauper.
We turn a corner and suddenly we are again in present day and wind turbines, signs for geothermal power, a marina development and a drag racing course give me another perspective of this island (which like St. Kitts has a smattering of development plans). It is dusk as we make our way to the Atlantic coast. Driftwood dragged ashore by pounding waves is unbelievably luminescent in the fading light. When, perchance, I tire of a view of melons growing in neat rows, I gaze out at the stone structure where mortar was made; stooping on the sea, its roof collapsing.
At the eerie Eden Brown ruins, Tom tells me how this place became haunted when a feuding groom and his best man were killed leaving a grieving bride and sister who appears on moonlit nights. Stories linger here and time disrobed of its linear aspect takes on an easy fluidity so that what happened centuries ago, is told as though it happened yesterday.
I’m finally nearing the rim of the crater on Mount Liamuiga, glad I’m not great at math. This way the hike does not have a grasp on my nerves because I can’t estimate the distance. The crater that had once appeared indomitable, though, is now, slowly, with determined effort, before me. With a final push, I can at last see the muddy lake encircled by greenery – the most exalted view here, if not the most captivating. As my heart rate lowers euphoria sets in.
I know that just as these islands once emerged from volcanoes, just as they were the social centre of the Caribbean in the before being overtaken by rival upstarts, just as sugar cane once reined and now grows wild so they shall be transformed once more. It is life’s unavoidable evanescence. But, I am not thinking of what will happen to me or to these islands in the future, nor am I thinking of the past. This moment is all I have, and that is enough.
All information was acurate as at date of publishing