St Kitts / Nevis
Located in the northern part of the Leeward Islands in the eastern Caribbean, St. Kitts and Nevis, like no other islands in the Caribbean, seem to embody a kind of lush tropical paradise usually associated with the South Pacific.
The atmosphere here is luxuriant, an intoxicating blend of sunlight, sea air and fantastically abundant vegetation. At the center of St. Kitts stands the spectacular, cloud-fringed peak of Mount Liamuiga a dormant volcano covered by dense tropical forest. And on Nevis, too, the ground rises upward into a cloud forest filled with elusive green vervet monkeys and brilliant tropical flowers. For eco-tourists, or simply anyone who enjoys stunning natural beauty, St. Kitts and Nevis cannot fail to exceed expectations.
First sighted by Christopher Columbus on his second New World voyage in 1493, St Kitts was originally known as Liamuiga, or Fertile Land, by resident Caribs. Designated “St Christopher” by Columbus, the island wasn’t settled until over a century later, when an Englishman named Sir Thomas Warner came ashore in 1623, and established Old Road Town . A small posse sailed for Nevis five years later and set up a camp near Cotton Ground that later fell to a 1680 earthquake.
St Kitts didn’t remain entirely British for long, as the threat posed by oppressed native Caribs prompted Warner to form a union with the French the following year. Their combined legions decimated the lot in a bloody battle in 1627.
The ensuing liaison was tenuous as the island was split between the two colonial superpowers. The French lorded over the northern and southern coasts and established the modern-day capital, Basseterre ; the British controlled the leftover areas in between. These were occasionally wrested from the British by the French as well, culminating in a one-month siege at Brimstone Hill in 1782. The Treaty of Paris , signed the following year, officially returned St Kitts to the British and put an end to the squabbles.
Nevis, meanwhile, had no part in the struggle, and instead became the region’s most profitable sugarcane producer and destination of choice for Britain’s rich and famous thanks to its natural spas . Indeed, Lord Nelson made his mark here by marrying local Fanny Nisbet in 1787.
The two islands were only joined as a federated state in 1983, following failed geo-political associations like the West Indian Federation and the Associated States that included neighbouring Anguilla. The one condition for their union, that Nevis be allowed to separate at a later date, may ultimately prove their undoing, as the latter continues to strive for independence
Paddle-shaped ST KITTS lies a few miles northwest of Nevis, just across The Narrows. Lush rainforest covers the central mountain range that forms the island’s spine, while the surrounding lowlands are largely given over to sugarcane fields. Most visitors tend to head directly to the resort area of Frigate Bay , focusing their time in the southern region where all of the island’s beaches are found. The best of these fringe the South-East Peninsula , an undulating spit skirted by the island’s only white sand. Nearer to St Kitts’ centre, the capital, Basseterre , is worth a visit for its concentration of traditional skirt-and-blouse style houses, while traces of the island’s imperial past lie closer to its north end, where the star attraction, Brimstone Hill Fortress , presides over the Caribbean. The northern coast has its own quiet appeal, with fields of overgrown sugarcane sheltering gracious former-plantation inns , while the Atlantic side offers dramatic vistas and little else.
Settled by the French following the partition of St Kitts in 1628, the island capital, BASSETERRE , on the Caribbean coast, is French in name only today. Its centre, The Circus , reflects the town’s later British dominion; the roundabout circling the green Berkeley Memorial Clock is allegedly modelled after London’s Piccadilly, though the only obvious similarity is the traffic. Traces of British rule also dominate due east, in the historical town centre, Independence Square , where walkways imitating the spokes of a Union Jack are inlaid with red stones. A maiden-topped fountain at its nexus, a gift from Queen Elizabeth to commemorate St Kitts’ independence in 1983, marks the spot that once hosted the Lesser Antilles’ largest slave market ; slaves were bathed at the small red fountain on the square’s south side prior to mounting the stage. The square looks onto the staid 1927 Immaculate Conception cathedral, its substantial twin-towered facade devoid of the drama associated with Anglican St George’s , a few blocks northwest of the Circus. The French parish that originally stood here was incinerated in 1706 by the British, who rebuilt their own church in 1856-59, complete with menacing spearheads on the ground-floor Gothic windows.
English-French distinctions aside, Basseterre’s most remarkable aspect is its preservation of traditional Caribbean skirt-and-blouse homes built with stone ground floors topped by wooden levels – the stone prevented flooding, the wood allowed a breeze – and trimmed with dainty gingerbread fretwork. Many demonstrate a certain cultural ingenuity, most obvious along Fort Street , where old sentinel walls have been incorporated in their construction. Others are deceptively ancient, having been rebuilt using stones from Brimstone Hill Fortress, following an 1867 fire that ravaged most of the town. (Note that if you want to take pictures of private homes, you should get the owner’s permission first.) A decent collection of photographs pre-dating the fire is displayed at the St Christopher Heritage Society (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 9am-noon; free), at the foot of the Circus.
Some of the cheapest food in St Kitts can be found at Basseterre’s ferry docks, where roadside shacks grill up great seafood for a fraction of the price you’d pay elsewhere. A number of other eateries in town also offer tasty meals.
American Bakery Fort Sreet. A good selection of inexpensive pastries, cakes and sweets, and one of the only spots open on Sundays. Mon-Sat 6am-7pm, Sun 2-7pm.
Ballahoo The Circus tel 869/465-4197. Boasting a prime location on an airy verandah, this popular moderately priced restaurant has a fine seafood menu, including superb lobster thermidor. Mon-Sat 8am-11pm.
Bambu’s Bank Street. A trendy joint with an affordable pub-style menu ranging from jerk chicken wings and burgers to nachos and conch fritters.
Chef’s Church Street. A verandah with a low-key ambience and inexpensive sandwiches and burgers.
Fisherman’s Wharf Below Ocean Terrace Inn . Moderately priced tasty seafood served at picnic tables on a breezy pier; head to the buffet to pile on extra fixings like creole rice and mac-and-cheese.
Pete’s BBQ Ferry docks. This inexpensive rustic roadside BBQ shack serves, hands down, the best lobster you’ll eat on St Kitts and, quite possibly, in the entire Eastern Caribbean; the heaping orders of spare ribs are pretty mouthwatering too. Open Fri & Sat night only.
The northern part of St Kitts, traversed by the CIRCLE ISLAND ROAD , is an easy half-day excursion, though if you have the time, you should break up the drive with lunch at St Kitts’ best West Indian restaurant, Rawlins Plantation Inn . Better yet, base yourself at one of St Kitts’ charming plantation inns that are concentrated in this part of the island. The topography here is typical West Indies, with scores of sugarcane fields, windmills and ramshackle churches.
The first stop of note along the Circle Island Road, four miles north of Basseterre, is Bloody Point , a hillock on the outskirts of Challengers village that witnessed a brutal Carib massacre in 1626. A one-hour hike affords glimpses of cartoon-like petroglyphs engraved into the rocky hillside.
After the point, the road heads down to the seaside village of Old Road Town , the island’s first settlement under Sir Thomas Warner’s tenure; the only vestige is a derelict redbrick building that once served as Government House. Better maintained are the petroglyphs that pre-date Warner’s arrival, etched on a boulder along the nearby road signposted to Romney Manor; the pregnant-looking character is a fertility idol. The onetime estate of Thomas Jefferson’s great grandfather, Romney Manor lies at the end of the road, its smart yellow cottages now home to Caribelle Batik (Mon-Fri 8.30am-4pm; closed Sat & Sun), a popular handicraft boutique. The surrounding grounds feature a botanical garden (free) with a 350-year-old saman tree as its centrepiece. The derelict ruins of Jefferson’s brother William’s sugar plantation lie below, notable for the extensive aqueduct that’s used today as the departure point for rainforest hikes . Greg’s Safaris (tel 869/465-4121, ) offers half-day treks in the area for US$40, as well as more strenuous full-day climbs up Liamuiga for US$60. Back on the main road, another mile north along the Caribbean coast, lies Middle Island village, where an unkempt cemetery contains Sir Thomas Warner’s extravagant marble tomb .
A few miles north of Middle Island, the conical 800ft Brimstone Hill hulks over the flatlands, its name derived from the sulphuric odours exuding from nearby underwater vents. The British mustn’t have minded the smell since they chose the hill’s flanks to support a fortress (daily 9.30am-5.30pm; US$5) so grand it was nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the West Indies”. Started in 1690 and expanded over the course of the following century, the sprawling garrison ultimately proved insufficient defence – it was captured by the French in 1782 after a one-month siege. The Paris Treaty forced its return a year later, but the fortress fell into disuse as relations eased between the warring nations and the dwindling economics of sugarcane production meant island resources no longer needed protection. Abandoned in 1853 and left to deteriorate until 1965, an ambitious restoration project has returned the fortress to its former splendour, and earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition in 2000.
The prominent hilltop compound, the Citadel , provides spectacular views from its parapets. The fortifications themselves surround a water catchment system. The enclosing barracks house an eclectic museum showcasing military paraphernalia, Carib tools and decorative adornos (small clay figurines) and a rubbing of the petroglyphs at Old Road Town. On the grassy parade, stairs access the lower bastions on a promontory with a tiny military cemetery outside the rampart walls. A canteen near the steps serves snacks, or you can picnic.
Note that the bus to Brimstone Hill drops you off on the main island road, after which it’s another 2km on foot up a very steep hill.
Beyond Brimstone Hill, the road passes the remains of Fort Charles , a 1672 military outpost used as a leper colony from 1890 to 1995, before arriving in Sandy Point , St Kitts’ second largest town. Not much happens here, except for diving at the offshore reef; contact Dive St Kitts for more information (tel 869/465-1189 or 1-800/621-1270, ). The point itself is a rather grubby black-sand beach.
Lying in the flatlands below the crater-capped Mount Liamuiga , the island’s highest point at 3792ft, the northern coast is set to change dramatically in upcoming years as high-rolling developers transform it into St Kitts’ secondary resort area. For now, the coastal stretch between Newton Ground and Sandy Bay retains an evocative old-world aura, with windswept ocean vistas, fields of untamed sugarcane and the ruins of abandoned plantations; what few estates remain now house inns that make for excellent lodging or lunch stops. The main settlement this far north, Dieppe Bay , is a former French village that marks the start of the Atlantic coast. Midway down the Atlantic side lies St Kitts’ jaw-dropping natural wonder, Black Rocks , a jumble of solidified black lava formations that tumble into the sea. A viewing area is signposted to the left of the main road.