Two Kinds of Paradise

Nevis has one of theCaribbean's grandest resorts and someof its most historic inns.

Guest Cottage at The Hermitage

PARADISE, according to one view of it, requires the involvement of a major corporation. How else to be able to buy an appealing site with an ample beach, and then to install a few swimming pools and an outdoor Jacuzzi, lay out a first-quality golf course, and build restaurants, bars, and air-conditioned guest rooms with every amenity from a big bathroom to cable TV? According to an alternative view, a paradise open to the public can be founded with the amount of money that might be available to a well-to-do family. That's enough to rebuild or renovate a historic plantation great house, put up some guest cottages, install a swimming pool.

The Caribbean island of Nevis, part of the nation of St. Kitts and Nevis (a British colony until 1983), is pretty, quiet, and clean -- a good start for a paradise of either type. And it is known for its deluxe Four Seasons resort and its plantation inns, which nicely correspond to the two visions of paradise, I thought when I stayed at the resort and several inns, at their invitation, earlier this year. There are few modern hotels or motels on Nevis, few tourist shops, and no all-inclusive resorts; thus Nevisian tourism in general has an unusual, understated quality. I liked this very much and grew curious about why Nevis is so different from every other Caribbean island I've visited.

That Caribbean islands might have paradisiacal qualities was not widely accepted until sometime in this century. For countless millennia many of them were dry, barren, hostile. Once Europeans arrived and, against their will, Africans, the islands that were better than that became places of backbreaking agricultural labor. Nevis, like a number of other islands, produced sugar, and today its landscape is dotted with the round, tapered stone remains of sugar mills. According to some sources, outrage over the extreme cruelty of a Nevis plantation owner, one Edward Huggins, was a proximate cause for the outlawing of slavery throughout the British Empire in the 1830s. As in the American South, the ban was the beginning of the end for plantation economies, although not until 1956 did Nevis's last sugar plantation shut down. The Caribbean's next successful crop was tourists -- a development made possible by the coming of airplane travel and the postwar boom in the United States and Europe. Some islands seized on the potential of this new industry; others, like Nevis, lagged behind.

Eventually the region's economic planners realized that one tourist who is willing to spend $250 a day is economically more than five times as desirable as five tourists who can spend only $50, because one tourist uses less water than five, and generates less garbage, and takes up less space on the roads. Of course islands and resorts have to compete hard to attract rich tourists, and compete they do. As David Rollinson, a marvelously erudite history and ecology guide who took me for an educational walk on Nevis, explained, "It's not as if we can just grow soybeans or something if tourism doesn't work out. We don't have any choice."

In this competition a lack of earlier, now crumbling development can be an advantage, as Nevis has found. Besides, Nevis is that paragon, a volcanic island with beaches. Volcanic islands tend to be mountainous, with fertile soil and, because of the mountains, ample rainfall. Thus they're generally more scenic than islands that were created in less dramatic ways. What's more, as Rollinson told me, "volcanic islands have more interesting histories, because they've had water and hence agriculture." On our walk we saw, among other things, a picturesquely ruined sugar plantation and a deserted beach strewn with glossy red shards of Arawak pottery dating back to A.D. 600.

The sweep of Nevis's history is remarkable, and the local people, some 90 percent of whom are black, seemed proud of it -- at least in the way that a family would be proud of a valuable antique they had inherited that might or might not be to their taste: proud that America's early Jamestown settlers paused on their island first, that Alexander Hamilton was born here, that Horatio Nelson was married here, that much of the capital, Charlestown, dates from the seventeenth century and has been designated a World Heritage Site. People seemed proud of the diversity implied in their history as well. Philip Morton, who drove me around Nevis, pointed out the seventeenth-century Jewish cemetery with the same enthusiasm as he did the 350-year-old Anglican churches. (As for contemporary diversity: it is not lost on Nevisians that many of the owners and managers of the successful tourist accommodations are white immigrants from the United States, Canada, and Europe; these new arrivals, for their part, put their children in the local schools and speak glowingly of Nevis as a wholesome, virtually crime-free place to raise kids.) Fortunately, the kind of tourist who might be interested in all this history and diversity is perhaps the same kind of person the island's accommodations are likely to suit. (Information about all tourist accommodations is available from the St. Kitts and Nevis Department of Tourism; call 800-582-6208.)

IT was a source of tremendous excitement for Nevisians when, almost six years ago, the Four Seasons corporation opened its first resort property -- and still its only Caribbean one -- on the island's Pinney's Beach. The resort is by far the largest private employer on the island, and Nevis remains so grateful to it that earlier this year the government issued commemorative stamps in honor of its fifth anniversary. The Four Seasons chain has a devoted following among business travelers, who feel that its city hotels demonstrate a near-perfect understanding of their needs. The formula seems to boil down to a maximum of facilities and a minimum of hassles -- a formula also likely to please tired captains of industry and their families on vacation. Tired or not, guests can find a great deal to do here: golf, take a snorkeling excursion, swim in the pools, swim or windsurf or sail in the ocean, shop, eat (well) in three restaurants, rent videos, dance under the stars. And everything happens effortlessly, except paying for it: from November 1 through mid-December room rates start at $625 a day for two, including breakfast and dinner, and in high season rates rise to $950 a day. This may sound steep, but it's what Caribbean luxury costs. The rates at a number of hotels on nearby St. Barts alone are higher still.

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