“Welcome to Sugar City!” chirped the immigration officer as he reached for my passport, merrily tossing off a moniker with delectable connotations. Surely St. Kitts’ 68 square miles would be brimming with all manner of sweetness.
Sugar City is more than a confectionary nickname, however – it’s history in a nutshell. Christened St. Christopher by Columbus in 1493 after the patron saint of sailors and travelers, the island (whose name the British later shortened to the familiar St. Kitts) became England’s first settlement in the Caribbean in 1623, and until the late 18th century, its wealthiest sugar colony. Upon achieving independence in 1983, it became half of the twin-island nation of St. Christopher and Nevis and continued to produce sugar until the last government-run plantation closed in 2005. Tracks from the “sugar train” that transported cane from estates to the factory are still there, crisscrossing the island like arteries, testament to the lifeblood that sustained it for centuries.
This historical legacy is part of St. Kitts’ appeal. But electric-green vistas, uncrowded beaches and modern amenities are big draws too. They’re such compelling lures, in fact, that developers are unfurling plans to recast this understated isle as the next “it” destination, complete with a megayacht marina and a members-only beach club.
If ever there was a time to visit St. Kitts, then, it’s now – to witness the fascinating collision of the past, present and onrushing future on a one small, stunning island.
St. Kitts is shaped like a drumstick, and its upper parishes – the drumstick’s meaty portion – deliver adventures in time travel, stunning vistas of what the island once was. The past has a face here, and in northern St. Kitts you can’t miss it: acres of sugar-cane fields swaying in the balmy breeze. Touring this region makes for a blissful day’s activity. On one side, the boisterous sea transforms from cobalt to cerulean by the mile. On the other, verdant mountains that comprise the bulk of the island’s rugged interior peek from beneath layers of clouds and mist. Here and there villages emerge, bearing names like Half-Way Tree, Challengers and Saddlers, hinting at an old-time Caribbean way of life. Perched on the stoops of wooden houses and ramshackle rum shops, denizens sip Carib beer and eye passing vehicles with studied indifference.
Cruise through the aptly named Old Road Town, where the British established their first Caribbean outpost; they battled the French for control of the island until the Treaty of Paris put it in English hands in 1783. Today Old Road would be left off most tourist agendas if not for Sprat Net, a beachside restaurant open for dinner. With picnic tables and grills, the setting is unassuming, and the menu is as authentic as the town itself: chicken, fish or lobster, served with coleslaw and rice and peas.
North of Old Road is the equally charming Sandy Point Town, which also has a lone tourist attraction – not in town but above it. Known as the Gibraltar of the West Indies, Brimstone Hill is an imposing stone fortress built 800 feet above sea level by slaves during the 18th century. Today it’s an impeccably preserved 40-acre UNESCO World Heritage site with a museum and views of the island’s dramatic northern coastline.
The fertile parishes over which Brimstone Hill kept watch were the heart of colonial St. Kitts, and at the height of the sugar trade, the island boasted 68 plantations, one for every square mile. I spent three memorable nights in one of them.
Ottley’s Plantation Inn, which dates to the 17th century, is a Garden of Eden, its 35 acres bursting with color and character – sugar-mill ruins, a rainforest trail and doves cooing at every turn. The inn sits on the foothills of lofty Mount Liamuiga, a dormant volcano that performs a disappearing act of which illusionist David Copperfield would be proud: It was there when I checked in at the inn’s yellow great house, but by the time I’d made my way to the pool, nestled in the remains of a sugar mill, there was only mist and sky where the mountain once stood.
My room was a former cotton house, circa 1703. I joked with Ottley’s receptionist that I would indubitably spot at least one duppy (the West Indian word for ghost) before I left. When that didn’t happen, I concluded that the gracious splendor of the surroundings had exorcised the demons of history. Sunsets were devoted to comparing the stunning views from a variety of benches. In the mornings I rose with the sun and indulged in massages at the Mango Orchard Spa, a charmingly austere hut in the rainforest, where the air was perfumed by the pervasive and tangy scent of red cedar.
At dinner one night, as I savored pumpkin ravioli and cauliflower soup, I met my hosts, Art Keusch and his wife, Ruth, who opened Ottley’s in 1990. This evening, they made the rounds, chatting volubly with guests about everything from the plantation’s storied past to which wine goes best with mahimahi.
“They call your room the English Cottage,” Art said. “Princess Margaret once stayed there. So if it’s not fine enough for you,” he added, bowing and smiling, “too bad!”
In the upper parishes, one could spend an entire lovely vacation visiting plantation after plantation. There’s 18th-century Clay Villa, now a small museum, petting zoo, aviary and garden, where I ogled exotic plants too numerous to mention, as well as Japanese koi, rabbits, turtles and cockatiels. At Rawlins Plantation Inn, where the honeymoon suite occupies the remains of a windmill, I took an afternoon stroll through fields of sugar cane and mango trees, then sipped rum punch on the veranda of the great house, awed by a vast and verdant panorama.
I lunched at the oldest inhabited building in St. Kitts, on the northern tip of the island in Dieppe Bay Town (population 800), which was settled by the Huguenots in 1610 and named for a French city. In its former lives, the building was a shipping merchant’s residence, a customhouse and a hospital, but now it’s the Golden Lemon, a boutique hotel founded in the 1960s and once frequented by the likes of Graham Greene and the Kennedys. St. Kitts’ only black-sand beach borders the property, and a swim in its cool, clear waters offers breathtaking views of the cloud-covered island of St. Eustatius, seemingly a stone’s throw away.
Of course, St. Kitts’ past began well before European settlement, and going on safari affords an eye-opening perspective. Greg Pereira, of Greg’s Safaris, began our half-day hike at Bloody Point Canyon, where in 1626, British and French forces massacred the remaining members of the Kalinago tribe, who themselves had earlier chased out the island’s original denizens, the Arawaks. The Kalinagos (also known as the Caribs) named the isle Liamuiga, which means fertile island, and after I spend a day vigorously hiking amid gigantic ficus trees and night-blooming jasmine, spotting hermit crabs, whistling frogs and vervet monkeys (imported from Africa as pets by the French centuries ago and now said to outnumber humans on the island 2-to-1), it’s clear why. Almost a quarter of St. Kitts is designated as a national park, and the island is one of few places on Earth where the rainforest is expanding.
But at the canyon itself, pre-Colombian history trumps nature. Beside a majestic kapok tree (considered sacred by the Kalinagos), I came upon 350-year-old petroglyphs. What were the figures carved into the fault line? Jellyfish? Smiley faces? Were they carved as homage to the ancestors or to appease the spirits? There were no easy answers. “There’s a lot of mystery in this place,” Greg said.
Frigate Bay is on the bone of the drumstick, between the northern parishes and the southeast peninsula. It’s got everything visitors flock to islands for: white-sand beaches and clusters of hotels and restaurants. Check into the St. Kitts Marriott Resort and Royal Beach Casino there, and you lurch dramatically into the present. The sprawling resort, opened in 2003 and ever expanding to offer more time-share options, delivers all the amenities of a colossal chain hotel, including oversize swimming pools and the island’s only golf course.
Vacationing families flock to Frigate Bay and its neighboring coastline, but the place never feels congested. After all, there are plenty of beaches to go around, as well as catamaran cruises on the Irie Lime or Spirit of St. Kitts and shopping for duty-free baubles at the recently expanded Port Zante cruise-ship dock. And there’s also that quintessentially Caribbean form of entertainment: the beach bar. “The strip” at South Frigate Bay is as happening as night life gets on St. Kitts, where it’s distilled to the essentials: drinks, sand, music and dancing. The star of the show is Mr. X’s Shiggidy Shack, which offers water sports by day, a mean red snapper with rice and peas in the evening, and a meaner rum drink after hours. A few doors down is Ziggy’s, where I frequently ended up parked at a picnic table on the sand, relishing the DJ’s reggae selections. The music and the people-watching never failed to entertain, and there was always at least one rum-happy, sunned-out vacationing couple rediscovering each other at the bar.
St. Kitts’ capital, Basseterre, is nearly four centuries old and saturated in Georgian architecture. But it feels much more present than past, every narrow block alive with shops, food stalls, street merchants and enormous speakers blasting reggae.
One afternoon, at an ital (vegetarian) restaurant named Kalabash, I met a Rastafarian named Agard. We strolled to Independence Square, a grassy park that once was a slave market, and as we chatted about the contrast between the diverse faces of the island, I tried to reconcile St. Kitts’ present with its past — the strip with the plantation, Frigate Bay with Old Road. It turned out that Agard grew up in Old Road and was surprised that I knew its history. His Rastafarian sect was pressing local schools to incorporate Kittitian history into their curricula.
“Our youth learn about England and America but not about St. Kitts, even though this island is covered in history,” he said, shaking his head. “And if you don’t know your past, can you truly succeed in your present?”
St. Kitts' future, meanwhile, is under construction. For a peek over the horizon, head south from Frigate Bay toward the southeast peninsula. Narrow, mountainous and sparsely populated, it offers surreally pretty panoramas of brown and green peaks encircled by sapphire seas and set against the majestic backdrop of its cloud-crowned sister island, Nevis. It’s obvious why real estate in this region is so coveted by investors.
Thanks to the government’s focus on tourism and a program that grants Kittitian citizenship to those who invest $350,000 or more in real estate, new development plans are set to transform the island. A few, such as Sedona Resorts’ 400-acre Kittitian Hill project, are in the north, but most are in the southeast.
The largest of these new projects is Christophe Harbour resort and residential development, a 2,500-acre luxury venture scheduled for completion sometime after 2011. Plans include a 300-slip yacht marina; a Tom Fazio golf course; a Mandarin Oriental hotel; a village with boutique hotels, upscale shopping and restaurants; million-dollar homes; a beach club; and a sports pavilion.
“We really like Gustavia in St. Barts,” sales executive Chris Stutts explained, “and that’s the clientele we feel we can attract to St. Kitts.”
Before the beautiful people arrive, however, a minor population adjustment will have to be made. The goats that roam the peninsula must be exiled from the premises so they don’t consume the development’s landscaping. As we wrapped up our tour, a lone holdout scurried across our path. “Citizen’s arrest,” I joked. “Deport him!”
Nearby, Carambola, a restaurant with all the amenities of a posh resort minus the rooms, is slated to open before the end of the year. The teak-walled waterside restaurant will have a wine cellar, grand piano and 20-foot-long sushi bar; daybeds will line the beach, their occupants served by private butlers. The executive chef’s resume includes stints in Dubai and at the venerable Sandy Lane hotel in Barbados.
“Eating here will be an experience,” promised the manager.
Eating at the stylish new Beach House is already an experience. Part of Christophe Harbour, the oceanfront restaurant offers a taste of the new, improved and decidedly luxe St. Kitts. Dark wood and sheer white curtains create a chic minimalist ambience, and the menu includes crayfish beurre blanc, citrus lobster salad and Kobe burgers. I thought of Sprat Net, up in Old Road, and felt time shift again.
I looked up from my grilled swordfish and, spotting a ramshackle dock in the water, caught a wave of nostalgia. The dock was all that remained of Turtle Beach, the unpretentious beach bar I’d fallen in love with on a visit to the island five years earlier.
As I luxuriated on the peninsula’s calm and quiet beaches, the nostalgic feeling persisted. At Cockleshell Bay, I walked barefoot along the sand and saw three neighboring establishments on the shore: Lion Rock Beach Bar, a no-frills rum shack painted red, gold and green; Reggae Beach Bar, a contemporary version of the same; and the Spice Mill, a new high-end restaurant with modish decor and wooden daybeds that evoke St. Barts or Miami’s South Beach. There, on one small stretch, were St. Kitts’ past, present and future coexisting as peacefully as the sun, the sea and the sand.