Off-season Caribbean island travel has its rewards…like less expensive stays, fewer people at the popular spots around the island, a personalized rain forest tour and having restaurants to yourselves.
It was May, early off-season for our destination, the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. These sister islands can be found in the Leeward Island group in the Eastern Caribbean Sea, to the west of Antigua. Perusing the Internet in preparation for our trip, we discovered that just 2 miles separate the islands at their closest point, and according to official websites, offer visitors …” a relatively authentic island experience, (with) luxuriant mountain rain forests; uncrowded beaches; historic ruins; towering, long-dormant volcanoes; charming if slightly dilapidated Georgian capitals in Basseterre (St. Kitts) and Charlestown (Nevis); intact cultural heritage; friendly if shy people; and restored, 18th-century sugar plantation inns run by elegant, if sometimes eccentric, expatriate British and American owners”.
Thus adequately prepped by our research, we arrived on St. Kitts with realistic expectations. As seasoned Caribbean travelers, we’re accustomed to traveling off season (southern natives don’t mind the heat and humidity), quickly adjusting to the slower pace of life that typifies most cultures in the Tropics.
After clearing Customs at Robert L. Bradshaw International Airport on St. Kitts, we were met by a helpful employee of our car rental company and, before we knew it, we were tooling merrily along (on the left, of course) toward the brilliant sunset, headed for the Timothy Beach Resort (TBR), our home for the next week or so. Having arrived on a Saturday, we looked forward to a delightful introduction to the island via the highly-recommended Sunday Brunch at Ottley’s Plantation Inn, a lush, tropical oasis on the Atlantic side of the island.
Ottley’s was virtually deserted when we visited on that windy, rainy morning. Heavy mist swept across and obscured the peaks of the rain-forested mountains in the near distance, leaving behind large dewdrops on the flowering bougainvillea and carefully tended lawns and ornamentals.We were enjoying the silence and solitude accented by bird calls when we were approached by a large, friendly, wet and smelly golden retriever, who greeted us with a gentle tail-wag and a wet nose then led us down the royal palm-lined track that skirts the main building.
Our canine host paused to munch on a ripe mango then followed us as we explored the rainforest trail located behind the property.We spent a few minutes quietly stepping over fallen mangoes and looking up at the towering trees festooned with ferns and liana vines, then made our way back to the swimming pool area, where we were greeted warmly by the staff and served one of the most outstanding meals we enjoyed during our stay.
Noon is a bit soon for us to be drinking alcohol, but the rum punch or mimosa comes with the meal, so we threw all caution to the wind and went for it!
During our meal, we were amused by the black and white cat that slept on a low wall of the open-air dining area. A quiet older couple dined right next to the cat, which snoozed quietly. Four businessmen showed up and started a loud conversation, which startled the cat and grated on our ears, formerly accustomed to the sound of the wind through the rainforest. The cat sauntered over to us to extend greetings, which we cordially returned. The reception it received at the loudmouth table, however, was a rude kick. We decided to steer well clear of such dismissive and arrogant interlopers.
After the meal we walked the grounds some more, as the sun came out and bathed the hillside in heat and a white-gold light. We ran into the operations manager, who greeted us warmly, inquired about our stay, where we were from, and offered to take a photo of us with our camera, which we accepted. The manager inquired if we were enjoying our stay, and indeed throughout our time on the island, we were continually asked by servers and others we met “How are you enjoying your stay? Are you having a good time?”
Thoroughly stuffed with excellent food and mellowed from the serenity of Ottley’s, we hit the shore road and continued our island tour, counterclockwise, a direction that friends on the island suggested would help us to unwind. We passed numerous sugar processing ruins that dot the island.
After a couple of photo ops, we came to Black Rocks. Parking the car at the top of the headland in what appeared to be a small park, we dodged a flock of the ubiquitous goats that inhabit the island. The goats had more sense than we did — they didn’t even get close to the loose, steep track that led down the dangerously sheer hillside to the volcanic rocks below.
At Black Rocks, huge waves crashed all along the shore, as far as one could see in both directions, tearing themselves into spume and mist against the jagged, massive volcanic rocks below. The scene was one of immense energy and I couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding. Normally, I readily clamber over rocks and boulders encountered on hikes and tramps, but this place engendered in me a caution that kept me well away from the edge. Besides, the wind was blowing so hard that it I was afraid of being blown overboard, so we hung out, snapped a few shots and returned to the car.
Further along we came to Dieppe Bay, passing the Golden Lemon Inn, which we aimed to visit for a luncheon later in the week.
Around the top (northern end) of St. Kitts, we spotted Brimstone Hill fortress on our left– a Must See and, on a clear day, you enjoy the most magnificent views available (unless you do a rainforest hike — more about that later.)
We typically bring along a small, collapsible cooler on our trips, and this visit was no exception. Fortified by bottled water, a Yoohoo, local soft drinks and Carib beer (potable if Very Cold), we didn’t hesitate to leave our comfy digs at Timothy Beach Resort early every morning to spend the day exploring the island. Power bars and other snacks kept us going until we chose a time and place to stop, eat, and chill.
One day we drove over Monkey Hill just below TBR, and made our way down to Turtle Beach. The rusted A-frame of a destroyed building, litter and the overpowering smell of cattle crowding around a fresh water tank greeted us at Turtle Beach. It was a holiday, and large groups of partiers were having their revelries.
We bumped along through the soft sand, skirting the shore, to a quiet place where we could get out of the car, hoping to enjoy the view of Nevis across the way – only to be scoured by sand whipped up by the gale blowing across the channel between Nevis and St. Kitts. Oh well, not much snorkeling here today! In fact, it was difficult to keep one’s feet.
As to snorkeling – I’m a SCUBA diver from Way Back but do enjoy exploring island shorelines for snorkeling. Having done my homework by reading posts on the St. Kitts/Nevis message board for several months, I determined we might head to the southern end of South Friar’s Bay area for snorkeling. Hmmm. Not much to see, except a couple of coral-encrusted canon which we were told had been recently “studied” by students from I-forgot-where. When we snorkeled over the canon, which were lying in about 10 feet of water approximately 70 feet from shore, we spotted dozens of small plastic Zip-Lock bags strewn all around the site. Each bag had a white, flat plastic “stake” in it. Each plastic “stake” had cryptic writing on it. Some of these bags were tucked in among the surrounding rubble, but most of them had floated free and were lying on the sandy bottom. It wouldn’t take much of a sea to scatter these bags all along the bay bottom and onto the shore, or out to sea. This “research” effort struck me as little more than litter, for certainly those plastic bags and tags would only add to the flotsam and litter we found everywhere piled above and below the high-water mark. Not to mention the danger to turtles and other animals, fish and coral reef structures. Not to mention the half-life of plastic litter.
The best off-shore snorkeling we found was the shallow, man-made reef structure that parallels the shoreline along the northern end of South Friar’s Bay, from the Shipwreck bar north. This “reef” is located approximately 25-30 feet offshore (depending on the tide) and in about 8-10 feet of water. We found the structure best suited to early morning exploration, before the winds and seas kick up.
One can ride the gentle current that slowly pushes you northward, drifting and peering under the shallow ledge for shy critters like boxfish, trumpet fish, damsels, blennies, angelfish and all manner of juvenile reef fish. If the waves kick up, the visibility gets pretty low, so we learned to stick with the early morning dip for best results.
We were dismayed by the amount of garbage and trash piled up behind the Shipwreck bar, at the base of the hill. Rusted out beach chairs, boxes, broken wooden seats and every manner of plastic container were heaped with no consideration for aesthetics or safety. As a commercial photographer, I am typically careful to crop such eyesores out of lovely beach scenes, but I did take several shots of the “alternative” views. On one hand, I can’t help but believe this is a sign of laziness and Not My Job attitude on the part of people who own and operate these beach-side “businesses.” On the other hand, throughout my travels across the eastern and Western Caribbean, over the past 25+ years, this sort of visual has been all too common and reflects the difficulty of solid waste disposal on islands, the lack of infrastructure, funds and planning for such disposal, the dismal attitude of poor and struggling islanders and the nonchalant attitude of tourists who are, for the most part, completely oblivious to their contributions to the plight of these sensitive ecosystems.
We made a point of visiting Romney Manor, the 350-year-old estate once owned by a British earl, and the home of Caribe Batik.
What gorgeous surrounds, lovingly cared-for, well- tended lawns and exotic plants and fruiting trees! The batik goods at this tropical “factory” are breathtaking – we just had to buy a gift for ourselves as well as family and friends back home.
However. Once again Reality bit us in the butt. Like the approach to Ottley’s and the Golden Lemon and other destinations, we passed through horribly run-down and poverty-stricken areas, with sights like a huge sow sleeping underneath a wrecked and rusted truck carcass and the troubling sight of a naked toddler wiping herself clean (and dropping the rag) after defecating in the bushes across from her home (a shanty, really), which apparently sported no running water or sanitary facilities. Such scenes do not hearten the tourist, however enchanting some areas may appear.
Leaving such painful sights behind, we opted for a rainforest hike so early one morning we met our erstwhile guide Hugh Rodgers for a personal, guided hike on Mount Liamuiga, the dead volcano that is such a massive feature of the island. Over the course of a couple of hours, we were guided up and down well-tended (but not well-worn!) trails under and through the triple-canopy as Mr. Rodgers shared with us his prodigious knowledge of the fauna, flora and history of our surrounds.
We appreciated that Mr. Rogers could strike just the right balance between informational chat and allowing periods of silence to stretch out so that we could enjoy the sounds of the animals, insects and the smell of nutmeg on the wind– an enveloping, sensory experience.
After our rainforest hike, we decided to spend a day visiting Nevis. This smaller island is just across a deep water channel from St. Kitts but, in many ways, seems slower and much more a reflection of the imperial era of European influence.
Small as it is, Nevis almost proved more than we could see in a day, even though we were perfectly mobile in a rental car. Our research unearthed key points of interest, so after a quick early morning bite to eat at a cute restaurant overlooking the ferry dock in Charlestown, we set off on a day-long drive around the island, taking in the Botanical Gardens (beautiful and worth banging down a rough track, with little signage to point the way) and places to stay, several of which are built around historic sugar plantations.
By the time we’d visited the Golden Rock Estate’s one hundred acres nestled high up in the foothills of Mt. Nevis, the all-inclusive Nisbet Plantation Beach Club (built in 1778 and the home of Fanny Nisbet, eventual wife of Admiral Horatio Nelson), the Four Seasons Resort Hotel with its extravagant pool and exorbitant drink prices, and a few smaller, out-of-the-way beach properties, we were satisfied we’d pretty much “done” Nevis. Tired but happy wanderers, we turned in the rental car, boarded the ferry for the short trip over to St. Kitts, and a lovely dinner at one of several restaurants near the center of Basseterre.
Segue to the town of Basseterre, one of the oldest in the Eastern Caribbean, which retains much of the Georgian character of Nelson’s days. The town is the main commercial and industrial center of St. Kitts, and features bustling port traffic, ferry traffic, foot traffic in and out of stores and along narrow streets, and animal traffic in the form of goats and chickens that wander about, dodging, well, traffic.
Driving to, from and about in Basseterre proved a challenge, even for this driver accustomed to tight spots in and around Boston and squeezing into tiny parking places on the streets of Atlanta. Roundabouts do little to sort traffic but do provide picturesque distraction as one attempts to avoid being side-swiped while negotiating the myriad of 90 degree turns that define the entrance or exit of these somewhat dysfunctional traffic managers.
Of particular interest was the center of a roundabout featuring a half-size concrete statue of a faintly Victorian lady, clad in a (as-best-I-recall) diaphanous, wind-blown gown. Adopting a Statue-of-Liberty stance, the figure, situated on a chipped concrete pedestal, held what once must have been a light fixture. Somehow, through the years, the light had been lost, the fixture broken and replaced by what appeared to be, yes, a rusted metal drainpipe! Just as our island-dwelling, ex-pat Brit friend had informed us, “Our Lady of the Drainpipe” stood forth for all to see, but try as I might, I could only capture a wildly tilted image of her outside the widow of our car as we furiously went around and around. Tiring of the life-threatening adventure, we soon bailed from that roundabout and headed to one a bit more genteel.
The centerpiece of Basseterre’s evocative Georgian architecture is its Circus, a positively spacious and well-organized roundabout modeled in proper Victorian patriotism after Piccadilly, in London. In the middle of the Circus stands the bright green bronze of the Berkeley Memorial Clock, an ornate, cast iron tower with four clock faces and more than a little architectural decoration. Decorously immobile, it posed for several pictures, much to my satisfaction.
With one of the longest written histories in the Caribbean, St. Kitts and Nevis reflect some of their pre-Columbian past and a great deal of their European history dating from the 1400s to the Spanish, French and British periods. Whether you choose a little bit of history, a lot of local color, ancient volcanoes surrounded by rain forests, wind-swept hillsides dotted with the ruins of old sugar mills, modern romantic getaway resorts, or a mix of them all, St. Kitts and Nevis offer a variety of material from which any visitor can craft a unique Caribbean vacation.