Small island, major charm
Nevis – which lives in the shadow of its sister island St. Kitts – boasts empty beaches, more monkeys than people and streets so quiet they don't need traffic signals. Sometimes it's good to be unpopular
As the ferry from St. Kitts approaches the west side of Nevis, I take in the view of the idyllic volcanic mountain, framed with lush tropical greenery and pearl-coloured sand.
"This is Pinney's, the most popular beach," a friendly local explains, pointing to a few charming shack eateries and a couple of chairs and umbrellas in the distance. Between them is unspoiled coastline, with hardly any passersby, and long stretches of coconut groves. When I mention that, for a popular place, it doesn't look busy at all, he smiles. "There are no crowds in Nevis," he says. "Every beach feels private."
The smaller of the two islands in the country of St. Kitts and Nevis is untouched by mass tourism. There are no casinos or duty-free shops, and roads are free from traffic lights. The island is intimate and easy to explore. Any taxi driver doubles as a guide; with only 93 square kilometres and 12,000 residents, all locals are familiar with every corner.
At the peak of the sugar industry in the 18th-century, Nevis (pronounced Nee-vis) was known as the Queen of the Caribbean, for the island's beauty and social grace of its planter and merchant families. While the industry is long gone, gorgeous grounds of some historic plantations have been converted into intimate, upscale hotels, which have attracted privacy-seeking celebrities including Meryl Streep, Michael Douglas and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
When Trudeau and his family vacationed in Nevis earlier this year, photos surfaced of him at Sunshine's on Pinney's Beach. It's one of the island's popular local bars famous for its Killer Bee punch, which is based on a mix of rum and passion fruit juice. "One and you're stung; two, you're stunned; three, it's a knockout," says Sunshine, the owner. The bar was on our must-see list, too, and we take our Killer Bee cocktails (it stings gently when consumed in small sips) over to one of the large picnic tables to look out over the ocean with our toes in the sand.
Then we enjoy the best thing on Pinney's Beach – the Caribbean Sea itself. While winds are ubiquitous on the other, Atlantic-facing, side of the island, the west side of Nevis is virtually breeze-less. It is a perfect place for young swimmers to gain confidence and for older ones to snorkel. Since the water is as flat as glass, I choose stand-up paddle boarding. The absence of strong currents makes it a relaxing ride with impressive views over to the south end of Nevis' sister island, St. Kitts, and puffy clouds circling the volcanic peaks above the country's capital, Basseterre.
A short walk up the beach from Sunshine's is the Four Seasons Resort, the largest property on the island. Its beautiful waterfront is complemented by the ruins of a former sugar and coconut plantation, bordering the Robert Trent Jones-designed golf course. On the north side of Nevis, Nisbet Plantation Beach Club is centred on the Great House, where Fanny Nisbet met General Horatio Nelson during his service at the Leeward Islands. The couple married at Montpelier Plantation, now another high-end resort, which hosts an exquisite gourmet restaurant in its 300-year-old sugar mill.
The quaint past is also alive outside of the hotels. I encounter it in the tiny city of Charlestown, where traditional houses are decorated with ornate gingerbread fretwork, and the well-restored birth house of U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton presents exhibits of Nevis over the years. It is not a grand museum in size, but as the only visitor I enjoy undivided attention from the curator.
Many locals suggested we visit the abandoned sugar factory at Hamilton Estate, which, up in the rain forest, often serves as a playground for the island's wildlife. Nevis is one of several Caribbean countries where vervet monkeys, initially brought as pets from Africa, escaped and naturalized in the wild. According to current estimates, there are more monkeys than people in Nevis, so it's easy to find them in trees, bushes or alongside sugar plantation ruins. Social and mischievous, they're quite unfazed by human presence, and might even pose when you pull out a camera.
We spot them after touring the Hamilton Estate ruins, before heading to the other end of the property, where a torch-lined pathway leads to the popular Bananas restaurant. Its brightly coloured main room is dominated by diverse local art and a striking rum bar. Inspired by the historic plantation setting, I order aged rum from Martinique, which I imagine would be closest to the drink of choice back in the day. We take our glasses to the upper terrace and watch the sun set behind the palm-tree tops into the sparkling Caribbean sea. The deep tones of the 10-year-old rum smell delicious in the gentle breeze, though the taste is intense – I'm not used to drinking a country's colonial heritage.
But when you're in the Caribbean, rum is a way of life, so we make sure to stop in at Mango, which has more than a hundred varietals from Bermuda to Brazil. Inside the Four Seasons Resort, Mango pairs rum with local seafood, such as snapper, wahoo or mahi mahi. The restaurant also offers signature cocktails such as the Nevisian spirit, which goes down easy with a splash of fresh juices to complement the rum's rich flavour. I enjoy it on Mango's open waterfront deck with a tasty lobster fritter.
While I was busy exploring local culinary traditions, my son became interested in cricket, so we sign him up for a lesson with Carl Tuckett, a former international player and umpire. He offers group and private classes for children, depending on the season. On the Charlestown Secondary School field, my son learns a few basic moves from Tuckett before some local students join in for an impromptu game after their practice. It is a simple setting, with rusty poles and unpainted walls, yet the vibe is hospitable and inviting. "All of Nevis is very calm and friendly," says Tuckett, whose cricket career led him to a five-year stay in England and numerous trips across the world. "A great place to live."
Our last stop before we leave is the sea turtle nesting ground on remote Lover's Beach, at the northwest end of the island. We tour it on a late November evening with Lemuel Pemberton, who started Nevis Turtle Group to monitor the progress of turtle nests and help prevent poaching. It is the tail end of the season and Pemberton warns us that there might not be much to observe, but we head out anyway, watching as he relocates nests attacked by mongooses and carefully records the number and condition of eggs he finds. As the midnight hour approaches, we are still walking in the dark, across the endless coastline, avoiding rocks and waves, looking for turtles that aren't there. And then, under a heap of empty shells in the last nest of the night, a baby turtle appears. It is a delicate creature, less than seven centimetres long, with tiny flippers and faint lines on its soft shell, but it moves vigorously in my hands, signalling it's ready to be released. For a few moments we admire a small miracle of nature, a lone baby turtle on a long beach, until it waddles into the gentle waves of the Caribbean and embarks on the journey of life.
IF YOU GO
If you want to join the local volunteers of the Nevis Turtle Group on their beach-monitoring walks, arrive during the nesting season of leatherback, hawksbill or green turtles from March to November. For details, nevisturtlegroup.org
Where to stay
Four Seasons Resort Nevis The largest resort on the island includes a golf course, 10 tennis courts, five restaurants and a spa. Their Sea Turtle Conservancy program offers sea turtle day camps for younger guests, as well as a roster of events in July, where turtles are tagged with GPS satellites and released. Rooms from $312 (U.S.), fourseasons.com/nevis
Montpelier Plantation & Beach Intimate and sophisticated, this Relais & Château property is nestled in the exquisite tropical gardens. From $225, montpeliernevis.com
Nisbet Plantation Beach Club The only historic plantation on the beach, with pale yellow cottages along the fairway to the sea. From $435, nisbetplantation.com
Nevis Oualie Beach Casual and affordable, this beachfront venue is ideal for water-sport enthusiasts. From $166, oualiebeach.com
Where to eat
Bananas Hidden in the lush gardens of Hamilton Estate, this charming venue offers eclectic cuisine, from fresh local lobster linguine to braised Moroccan lamb shanks. bananasrestaurantnevis.com
Mango On a deck right above the water, this beach restaurant serves premium seafood, alongside Caribbean favourites such as mango rum barbecue ribs with coconut coleslaw. fourseasons.com/nevis
Mill Privée For a romantic treat, go for a candlelit dinner at this historic sugar mill, located on Montpelier Plantation. Five-course tasting menu from $95. montpeliernevis.com
Sunshine's The local favourite beach shack on Pinney's Beach serves light meals based on freshly caught seafood. sunshinesnevis.com
What to see
Museum of Nevis History On Charlestown's Main Street, visit the birth house of Alexander Hamilton and explore Nevisian artifacts through the ages. nevisisland.com