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St. Kitts and Nevis: A Pristine Pair

By JEFF BURDICK

© St. Petersburg Times


After a two-hour hike, we reach the summit of the volcano, and clouds shroud our view. A crater black as pitch is rumored to be about 800 feet below. Behind us, a mongoose finishes off crumbs from our lunch of tuna, English Cheddar and coconuts, and above, African vervet monkeys rustle the rain forest canopy but remain elusively just out of sight.

We are on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, just south of St. Martin and west of Antigua. When travelers think of the Caribbean, images of kitschy port-city marketplaces and lazy, sunny beaches dominate, but for the traveler intrepid enough to venture beyond the port shops of St. Kitts and Nevis, there is an abundance of eco-adventure, uncrowded dive sites and West Indian history.

Though "discovered" by Christopher Columbus in 1493, the two islands have been largely overlooked by the new explorers of the 20th century: tourists. Ironically, this anonymity has allowed St. Kitts and Nevis to protect what has become their greatest tourism asset: a pristine, uncongested environment, an increasingly rare pearl in the world today.

This was borne out during our sweaty five-hour hike up the Mount Liamiuga volcano on St. Kitts. During the trek, we encountered not a single person. We ascended through 1,600 feet of elevation along a 2.5-mile path to the volcano crest, about 2,800 feet above sea level. At lower elevations, we traversed rain forests of mango trees imported by the British and, higher up, indigenous hardwood forests of mahogany, mastic, birch and Spanish ash.

The shy vervet monkeys, originally imported by French colonials as pets, always remained a step ahead, but the clutter along the trail of their half-eaten lunch of mangoes was a constant reminder of their presence. Hawks, quails and pigeons make the mount their aerie and took part in the cacophony of calls that livened our trek.

Greg Pereira, owner of Greg's Safaris, led our trek, as he has done through the island's rain forests and sugar cane country since 1986. He believes St. Kitts was twice blessed. First, ancient eruptions of the now-dormant volcano created rich soil throughout the island; now it supports sugar cane that flourishes in the lowlands and sustains rain forests on the peak. And second, St. Kitts escaped unscarred the overdevelopment of the Caribbean by mega-resort companies during their construction sprees of the '60s, '70s and '80s.

This delayed development of both St. Kitts and Nevis proved serendipitous. The two islands, formed into a federation before the British granted them their independence more than 30 years ago, have learned from the experience (and mistakes) of early tourism-boom islands such as Jamaica and St. Martin. Islanders believe those islands sacrificed too much of their natural environments for the quick tourism dollar. Today, St. Kitts enjoys an admirable reputation for high environmental standards.

"We are still an unspoiled jewel," said Pereira, a proud fifth-generation Kittitian of Portuguese descent. "Our rain forest has actually expanded instead of decreased over past years, unlike Jamaica and much of the rest of the world. Today, 38 percent of St. Kitts is forested and protected from development."

Another example of St. Kitts' cautious approach to development has been its verdant Southeast Peninsula. The completion of the Dr. Kennedy Simmonds Highway in 1991 opened up the precipitously hilly region to development, though the government law limits it to just 10 percent of the cove-strewn peninsula. Those restrictions have dissuaded at least one major chain of all-inclusive resorts. Another chain, Casablanca Resort, attempted to establish a property there in the early '90s but ran out of money early in construction. The abandoned girder frame has rusted and become a jungle gym for monkeys.

An aspect that makes the Southeast Peninsula such an attractive locale are the abundant ship wrecks, reefs and coves that are tailor-made for scuba diving, snorkeling and sea kayaking. The waters here are rich with marine life such as stingrays, sea turtles (they breed and hatch on Nevis), blowfish and manhole-size grouper.

In addition, a dozen wrecks have been found around both islands, but according to maritime historians, this is just a fraction of the nearly 400 ships that sank in the area between 1493 to 1815.

Both islands also offer up a lot of interesting history. Nevis, even less developed than St. Kitts, retains close ties to its sugar cane glory days of the 17th century when it was among the richest islands in the Caribbean, at its height producing 85 percent of all sugar in the British Empire. Because of its lucrative and prominent production, Nevis became for a time the administrative capital of all the British Leeward Islands. Though sugar is no longer cultivated as a cash crop, the rock structures of many sugar mills dot the landscape, less their wooden windmills, which long ago disintegrated.

Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of Nevis is its resiliency to the erosion of time. Because growth has come slowly to the island, relics of its past remain close to the surface. At the ruins of the Bath House, considered the finest structure in the Caribbean when it was built in 1778 and the elite from the United States, Canada and Europe "came to take the water," shards of pottery up to two centuries old still litter the grounds. The foundations of the school Nevis native Alexander Hamilton attended are still extant. Nevis' Montpelier Plantation was the site in 1787 of the marriage between Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and Fanny Nisbet. The marriage certificate is on display in the Fig Tree Church.

Change comes so slowly to the island that several years ago the island's museum curator happened onto a building that may yield evidence of the oldest Jewish synagogue in the Caribbean. The curator, David Robinson, was walking to work one morning in Charlestown when he noticed that a usually locked wooden door was ajar, and curiosity got the best of him. Upon entering, Robinson noticed three stone barrel-vaulted ceiling panels supported by three stone columns typical of a mikvah (Jewish ceremonial bath house). A piece of a menorah was found at the site, and a short walk away remain 19 tombstones in a Jewish cemetery that dates as far back as 1658.

Vincent Hubbard, an island historian and resident, said that over the years the building had functioned as a home, ice house and oil-barrel storage shed. "If we can prove the date, it will be considered the oldest standing synagogue in the Western Hemisphere," Hubbard said.

On the more populated island of St. Kitts (35,000 of the two-island population of 44,000 reside on St. Kitts), remnants from sugar mills are scattered throughout the countryside, and historic Brimstone Hill Fortress is the island's most visited site. Known during colonial times as "the Gibraltar of the West Indies," the 800-foot-high fortress was established by the British when they shared the island with the French. The fortress sprawls over multiple precipices, and visitors can walk through garrisons, a museum and along the fortress' cannon-lined walls.

St. Kitts and Nevis possess a surprisingly rich offering of attractions, history and natural beauty that too often is overlooked by vacationers who desire uncomplicated R&R. If you go

Getting there: St. Kitts and Nevis are along the northern extent of the Antilles Islands, which arc from Puerto Rico to Venezuela. Cruise ships make hundreds of port calls at both islands, and American Eagle serves St. Kitts with flights from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Nevis Express flies several times a day between islands, and daily ferry service is available. One small hotel, the Mount Nevis, will send a plane to pick up guests at the St. Kitts airport.

Accommodations: Nevis is the pricier of the two islands. The Four Seasons Resort Nevis is one of the few five-star properties in the Caribbean; (800) 332-3442. The old-world elegance of the 38-suite Nisbet Plantation Beach Club is just a notch below; (800) 742-6008. More moderate is the 32-room Mount Nevis Hotel and Beach Club, built in the 1980s by an American couple; (800) 756-3847 or (212) 874-4276.

On St. Kitts, the Jack Tar Village Beach Resort & Casino offers all-inclusive accommodations; (800) 999-9182. The Frigate Bay Resort is a midscale property with an excellent pool and bar and beach access; (800) 468-3750.

Tours: Greg's Safaris offers daylong (five- to eight-hour) St. Kitts volcano treks priced at U.S. $55, which includes round-trip transportation, lunch atop the volcano and pre- and post-trek snacks. Half-day rain forest tours cost $35, including a snack and transportation via Land Rovers. Call (869) 465-4121. The Golden Rock Hotel on Nevis offers maps for free self-guided hikes along its monkey trail; (869) 469-3346. Interpretive hikes up to Mount Nevis are also available for $30 adults, $15 children; (869) 469-9080.

For more information: St. Kitts & Nevis Tourist Office, 414 E 75th St., New York, NY 10021; (800) 582-6208. Jeff Burdick is a freelance writer who lives in Evanston, Ill.

Originally published October 26, 1997



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