On Wednesday nights, Eddy's Bar in Charlestown is the place to see and be seen in Nevis. Never mind the major and minor royalty of Europe and Hollywood who are frequently spotted at the tonier spots; Eddy's is for the real people of this tiny island.
In one corner of the dimly lit room is a table of fishermen who earlier in the day hauled in the catch that's starring tonight in the island's well-dressed dining rooms: as grouper almondine and spicy red snapper, blackened or grilled. Their wives, housekeepers at the Four Seasons resort, listen to the men's spirited patter and smile as an American tourist bravely attempts a Neil Diamond standard on the karaoke machine.
Scattered about at other tables, enjoying the cool evening breeze that arrives with their libations, are well-tanned bankers from England, local shopkeepers, a couple of hotel chefs enjoying a rare night off and a smattering of ex-pats congregating for their weekly helping of gossip.
It's an illuminating cross section, a representative slice of the collision of history and culture that has happened here on Nevis, a quirky little corner of the Caribbean. Three hundred years ago, Nevis attracted the cream of international society, drawn by the incredible wealth of the island's sugar plantations. They came to stay in the elegant great houses, guests of the sugar aristocracy, to dine sumptuously and then retire to the drawing room for entertainment and clever conversation. Today, that society still comes, paparazzi in tow, to stay at those same elegant plantations now converted into charming country inns.
Despite this regular flow of dukes and duchesses, Nevis is defined less by People magazine than by the folks who meet at Eddy's for the cool breeze, rum punch and the shared gossip.
Nevis didn't appear on Europe's radar until Columbus' second voyage in 1493. Mistaking the ever-present cloud cover atop the 3,232-foot Nevis Peak for frozen precipitation as he sailed past, the explorer named the island ''Nuestra Senora de las Nieves,'' or Our Lady of the Snows. For the next century, the island's fierce Carib natives fended off the European invaders. In 1607, Capt. John Smith's party landed on Nevis briefly before going on to found Jamestown, Virginia. In 1623, the first English settlers arrived, followed by the French two years later.
Although the European rivals briefly united to eradicate the Caribs, they soon enough began fighting each other for control of Nevis and its fertile fields. The prize was sugar, which was virtually worth its weight in gold in sweet-toothed Europe. After a brief, failed flirtation with tobacco as a cash crop -- the Nevisian tobacco leaf was inferior to that grown in Virginia -- Nevis became one of the Caribbean's prime producers of sugarcane, and its slave-dependent plantations created enough product to keep the docks in Charlestown constantly busy. Sephardic Jewish immigrants, driven out of Europe and then Brazil by the Inquisition, arrived on Nevis bringing with them the secret of refining the wet, dark-brown muscavado sugar the English produced into dry crystals. In this form, it was easier to transport and fetched a better price at market. In the early 18th century, the sugar wealth created on this 7-mile-long island exceeded the gross domestic product of several of the North American colonies combined.
By the time slavery on Nevis was abolished in 1834, the sugar bubble had burst. Huge production on competing islands such as Cuba and Hispaniola drove prices down, and Britain grew tired of defending her faraway possession against the forays of pirates and enemy nations. Slowly, one by one, the plantations shut down, the wild tropical greenery overtook the cultivated fields, vines crept up the sides of the great houses and stone towers, and, like Sleeping Beauty, Nevis became somnolent for nearly 200 years.
''People think we're living in a remote place,'' says Maureen Lupinacci, the owner of the Hermitage Plantation Inn. She left Pennsylvania in 1965 for the Caribbean and settled in Nevis in 1979. ''But the world comes to us -- people from all over the globe. I find the world so much broader here than in Pennsylvania.''
Often, that broad world comes in the form of celebrity. Princess Diana escaped to the Montpelier Plantation in the aftermath of her 1993 separation from Prince Charles. Actor Michael Douglas brought his new wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and their new baby to Nevis in 2000, just missing a beachfront performance by Hootie and the Blowfish.
But Nevis is not a place that goes silly over celebrities. It took a bartender to recognize blues legend Taj Mahal dining out with his wife one night. And a regular guest of the Golden Rock Inn recalls an evening when he fell into a spirited discussion of a controversial Nevisian constitutional issue with a local property owner. The guest discovered in the wee hours of the morning that his conversational companion was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who owns a villa near Golden Rock.
Celebrity or no, visitors to Nevis quickly fall in with the egalitarian spirit of the place, perhaps joined by the shared experience of simply getting there. While Nevis' brand-new, airport terminal and lengthened runway slowly take shape, visitors must either board a succession of planes of ever-decreasing size for the short hop from neighboring islands or land at St. Kitts and ride a ferry across the channel.
But once on Nevis, the near-constant 79-degree temperatures and the ever-present northeast trades soothe a travel-weary soul, and a rum punch and warm welcome await at the island's elegant plantation inns.
The gray stone Great House at the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club on Nevis' northern shore dates from 1758, although historians aren't exactly sure which parts of the house were built in what century. Not that it matters, as the stately lawn, flanked by royal coconut palms, still sweeps majestically down to the beach. The hotel, with its 38 rooms and suites scattered about in cottages, is still reminiscent of the plantation era, although the modern dcor -- touches of bright fabrics and modern conveniences -- demonstrates how far the place has come since Bermudian David Dodwell purchased it in the early 1990s.
The Great House is the center of activity, with a veranda where elegant dinners are served, a bar and a library. The beautiful white-sand beach with its protective reef is perfect for swimming and snorkeling, and the beachfront Coconuts restaurant is the place for breakfast. Thursday night's beach barbecue usually features grilled lobster and other delights.
From the island-circling road, it's a dramatic 1,000-foot climb up to the Golden Rock Plantation Inn, which opened as a hotel in 1958. Today it is run by Pam Barry, a descendant of planter Edward Huggins who built the estate in 1815.
Slow-paced with a gentle charm, Golden Rock offers 150 acres of tranquility overlooking fields descending to the distant sea. There are books on birding in the tiny reception room -- once the plantation's countinghouse -- and miles of hiking trails laid out on the grounds, where guests are likely to see the offspring of green monkeys brought from Africa in the 1600s.
Among the trails is the 9-mile Upper Round Road, a walking trail that once linked the more remote plantations in the higher elevations. The island's Historical and Conservation Society now maintains this trail for hikers.
Here, too, the inn's 14 rooms occupy a smattering of cottages, many of which have four-poster beds and mahogany furnishings. For romance, it's hard to beat the rooms in the sugar mill tower, with its aged stone walls and period furnishings.
Dining is in the huge, volcanic-stone kitchen building, where guests gather afterward for card games and conversation. And a visit to Nevis isn't complete without sampling the lobster salad at the Golden Rock's beach pavilion.
Old Manor Estate
The nearby Old Manor Estate is also hidden away off the circular road. Nestled in tropical growth, the estate was in ruins when a coterie of Texans bought the place in the late 1980s. The new stone buildings were erected on 18th-century foundations found under knotty undergrowth, and offer elegant and comfortable whitewashed rooms with odd steps and strange angles and many original stone walls.
The main house serves breakfast, and candlelight washes the stone interior at dinner, unless the meal is served outdoors in the courtyard. The library houses a big-screen TV for those who feel compelled to keep up with the outside world.
The inn's swimming pool is a huge cistern carved out of rock 300 years ago, and some of the plantation's original machinery functions as modern sculpture on the grounds, a reminder of the plantation past.
The Hermitage was also rescued from ruin, this time by innkeepers Richard and Maureen Lupinacci. The old Great House here dates from 1740, but a group of archaeologists from Southampton University excavated some support posts that were set perhaps as early as 1660. The old house is also believed to be one of just three earthfast buildings -- built directly on the ground or on foundations set in postholes -- still standing on Nevis, which has a history of earthquakes.
The Hermitage is still one of the most welcoming of inns, with its plump-cushion, breeze-swept style created by the Lupinaccis and their son Richard.
The Great House is the inn's social center, with meals served on the elegant back patio, not far from the library lounge with its well-thumbed volumes. The pool is sunk into a hillside offering views of the sea 800 feet below. Like chicks around a mother hen, the 15 rooms are in comfortable cottages, decorated with four-posters and skirted tables on wood floors, ceiling fans, private porches and hammocks.
On the island's south shore, a cement track leads off the main road, climbing into the backcountry heights and the Montpelier Plantation Inn. Nurtured by owners James and Celia Milnes Gaskell, the inn received rave notices in several tony British publications and attracted British high society.
A giant ficus tree just beyond the stone entry gate shields the Great House from public view. Inside, the spacious and comfortable communal living room and formal dining room are furnished in English country-house style, while the mullioned windows and open doorways allow the cooling breezes inside.
There are just 17 rooms in the plantation's cottages, most with four-poster beds and wicker seating. Four-course dinners on the veranda are a nightly feature following chitchat over cocktails with the owners and other guests. By day, the pool, draped in tropical foliage, is the main gathering spot.
Once, this small island was home to 110 working sugar plantations; the last one, New River Plantation, closed in 1956. Still, Nevis' collection of luxury plantation inns keeps the spirit and soul of its history -- some of it bittersweet-- alive. Most of us will never hold a hereditary title or lead lives that are a string of dinner parties and repart. But dining by candlelight in a centuries-old great house, swimming in a spring-fed pool and strolling through the impeccably manicured grounds of a once-bustling plantation are ways of feeling -- if only for a few days -- the graceful beat of a West Indies that is fast fading away.
Posted online 09/06/01.