Travel -- October 1996
Two Kinds of Paradise
Caribbean's grandest resorts and some
of its most historic inns
by Barbara Wallraff
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.)
The 196-room Four Seasons Resort Nevis (for more information call 800-332-3442) has all the amenities you'd expect, and others you'd never think of: washers and dryers for guests to use at will, a staffed child-care center, and private launches to bring guests over from the international airport on St. Kitts (people staying elsewhere typically take a six-minute flight and then hire a taxi or rent a car). Such amenities are what minimize hassle. Then again, I reflected as I swung gently in a fluffy white-rope hammock suspended between palm trees, one person's hassle is another person's local color. Admittedly, the resort encourages guests to see the island and eat at restaurants besides its own. (It can't, though, make it convenient, for although Nevis is small and you can drive around it in less than an hour, nothing is especially close to anything else, and you'll have to drive or take taxis to eat out. For this reason and also because the prices on the Four Seasons' menus are high -- a dinner entree of Caribbean lobster costs $48, for example -- it's wise to book a package that includes breakfast and dinner.) Still, people who are hoping to experience a Caribbean culture may find this paradise bland. Four Seasons guests under the sway of such feelings can be seen slipping out to Sunshine's, a locally owned open-air bar a few yards down the beach. It's a tourist place, but it's fun anyway. The specialty here is a rum-based drink called a Killer Bee, which a British writer once called "the alcoholic equivalent of an Exocet" missile.
Nevis, to all evidence, continues to occupy a special place in British hearts -- and vice versa. There's a sweet little Horatio Nelson museum just outside Charlestown, young Nevisians play cricket, and most of the inns serve afternoon tea -- a good hot potful with cake, and never mind that it's probably ninety degrees and sunny and you're sitting by the pool. The best of the inns, Montpelier, stands on the spot where Nelson married a local woman, Fanny Nisbet; and its owners and operators are a delightful family of British expats, the Milnes Gaskells.
Montpelier certainly amounts to a strong argument in favor of the more personal vision of paradise. The seventeen guest rooms here -- though they're in cottages that aren't a bit historic and the sea views from them are distant -- are clean, airy, white, spacious, and comfortably appointed. Guests must drive to the beach, or use the inn's shuttle, but once they do, they have a quiet stretch of sand all to themselves, nicely set up with bathrooms, cabanas, and sturdy chaise longues. Underwater are scattered more conch shells and sand dollars than I've ever before seen in one place. Lazy guests might prefer to ease into the large swimming pool back at the inn. Not-so-lazy guests at Montpelier -- or anywhere else on the island -- may use the Four Seasons' golf course, for a fee.
The most impressive thing about Montpelier is the rebuilt historic great house, where you can enjoy the best food on the island (people staying elsewhere often come over for meals). Dinner consists of four elegant courses served by candlelight out on the broad verandah: an appetizer of lobster medallions, for example, followed by spinach and cheese cannelloni, a main course of grilled mahi-mahi with a light Niçoise sauce, and a beautiful fruity dessert. Then it's time to adjourn for coffee and homemade chocolates. The wine list, too, is a tour de force of surprisingly well priced good stuff: the wine cellar, most of which comes from France via St. Barts, is a hobby of James Milnes Gaskell's. Montpelier's high-season rates for two people, including breakfast, start at $280 a night; dinner costs $45-$55 a person additional. (For more information call 809-469-3462.)
The hotel has been fashioned from the great house and outbuildings of a plantation built by, as it happens, the infamous slaver Edward Huggins (the old sugar mill is now a unique guest suite). Barry, a descendant of Huggins's, has made a point of hiring Nevisian craftspeople to create the furnishings and art for the sixteen guest rooms, most of which are in simple outbuildings of recent construction. (I thought it might be time, however, for her to commission them to make a few new things, including new furniture for some of the public rooms.) When I came home, I told my friend who had brought me the brochure that I thought the place seemed a bit down-at-heel. He didn't disagree but said it was an advantage as far as he and his fiancée were concerned. "If a place isn't a little bit funky," he told me, "we can't afford it." Golden Rock's rates in season start at $255 for two, including breakfast and dinner. (For more information call 800-223-9832.)
Two other inns where I did stay, The Hermitage, with fourteen rooms and suites, and Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, with thirty-eight, have their strengths -- and their weaknesses. The handsome great house of The Hermitage, where drinks and dinner are served, is said to be the oldest wooden building in the Caribbean, and a few of the guest cottages are historic structures that have been trucked up the hillside from other locations on the island. The overall effect, with brightly painted gingerbread trim and pretty flowers along the walkway, is downright giddy. (Rates here start at $325 for two, including breakfast and dinner; call 800-223-9832.) And Nisbet Plantation is directly on the beach; my room here, with a charming little screened-in sitting area full of comfortable furniture, was the nicest of any of those in the inns where I stayed. (Rates start at $355 for two, including breakfast and dinner; call 800-742-6008.) But I didn't much enjoy the food at either of these two inns. Uninspired food is a major drawback, because neither of these inns is convenient to anywhere else to eat.
The fish barbecue served every Thursday night at Nisbet, though, is fun and delicious -- worth coming to no matter where you're staying. At first everyone sips rum punch, listens to the live music, and admires the display of fresh seafood on ice. Then, after a while, the staff fires up the charcoal grill, and the big serving platters fill up. Often when the moon is bright, I was told, a boating party motors over from St. Kitts for this barbecue. It might not be everyone's idea of paradise -- but after all, what is? Long may hoteliers keep trying to create a paradise to suit every taste.
Photograph by Julian H. Fisher
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1996; Two Kinds of Paradise; Volume 278, No. 4; pages 46-50.