Sweet retreat on St. Kitts and Nevis

By Gay Nagle Myers

St. Kitts is shaped like an upside-down guitar. Some locals say its shape more closely resembles a chicken leg. I prefer the guitar image.

No matter, it is a thoroughly likable island with a mix of ingredients that appeals to visitors: beaches, beach bars, bays, batik, birds, bungalows, Basseterre (the capital), bananas, Brinley rum and Brimstone Fortress (a Unesco World Heritage site built by the British in 1690).

Throw in the Sugar Train, officially called the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, which carries passengers on a two-hour tour in double-decker rail cars that clackety-clack along tracks built in 1912 to carry sugar cane from island plantations to the sugar factory in Basseterre. (Click on the images or here for a slideshow from Gay's trip to the St. Kitts and Nevis.)

Passengers enjoy sugar cakes and beverages while a dedicated choir in traditional madras dress serenades them with folkloric tunes.

That's an attraction and a sightseeing highlight unique to St. Kitts and is the most popular excursion for cruise passengers.

The train tour operates Fridays in the off season but steps up to daily service in the peak season.

A bonus, and a destination in its own right, is sister island Nevis, a 45-minute, 2.5-mile ferry ride across the Narrows channel to the small dock in colorful Charlestown.

Several developments are under way on St. Kitts as the island moves from a sugar-based economy (the last sugarcane crop was in 2005) toward becoming a first-rate tourism destination.
One of the biggest drivers of change is the Christophe Harbour Development Co., a division of Kiawah Partners that developed South Carolina's Kiawah Island.

Its 2,500-acre luxury resort community on the southeastern peninsula will eventually include luxury homes, villas, two top-end hotels (the Park Hyatt St. Kitts is slated to break ground in 2013; the second hotel has not been named), a yacht harbor, marina village, private beach club and golf course.

What's open now are four one-bedroom Turtle Beach Bungalows, originally built next to the development's Pavilion beach club and restaurant to house prospective buyers, but also are rented out for $450 a night in season.

St Kitts Scenic RailwayThe project already has created a lot of attention from second-home investors as well as affluent travelers seeking a new vacation destination, according to Spencer Nash, director of operations and development.

As Thenford Grey, part guide, driver and island historian, navigated switchback roads heading northwest to Kittitian Hill, a 400-acre, master-planned, sustainable resort with villas and cottages managed by Arizona-based Sedona Resorts, he pointed out remnants of St. Kitts' 200 sugar mills.

"Sugar was king for 350 years, but tourism now reigns," Grey said.

The ghosts of sugar can be seen everywhere in former plantation houses, broken-down windmills and neglected fields where cane still grows naturally.

Kittitian Hill broke ground in late 2010 and will total more than 500 rooms when completed and will feature a village with a center for creative arts.

The first phase of construction includes 84 hotel cottages, 69 luxury villas, an 18-hole golf course and clubhouse, a 100-room village inn, a beach club, pool, restaurants, bars and shops.
I saw several of the cottages. Charming, cozy yet airy, bright and light, and 30 will open in the first quarter of 2013.

There are some neat features. Instead of a flatscreen TV, each cottage has a large movie screen that can be lowered from the ceiling above the window facing the bed.

However, the bathroom sort of stumped me. It's located on the open wooden deck off the bedroom.

There's no door, so the clawfoot porcelain tub, a small marble basin and the toilet are right out there, not far from the neighboring cottage.

St Kitts Timothys HillIn all fairness, there is a white linen curtain that can be pulled to shield the loo and surround the tub.

How will that play with guests?

"We're planting big banana plants all around the deck," said Valmiki Kempadoo, CEO of Kittitian Hill. "They grow fast, tall and are very thick."

Next stop on Grey's tour was the Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, designed by British army engineers and built by African slave workers in 1690.

Still there are the cannons that the Brits used against an attack from French soldiers in 1782. The French won that battle, but the island was returned to the British a year later.

Last stop, and a must for anyone who loves colorful island-made fabrics, was Caribelle Batik at Romney Manor, which dates from 1626.

I contributed a fair share to Kittitian coffers at Caribelle and toasted my purchases that evening with a shot of molasses-based Brinley Gold rum, handcrafted by the local Brinley family.

A fitting end to a day on St. Kitts.

For Caribbean and Mexico news, follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly. 

Sister islands

Nevis Mount Nevis Charleston• The Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis is a federal two-island state in the Leeward Islands in the northern Caribbean.

• Although independent from Great Britain since 1983, it is a member of the British Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

• It's the smallest sovereign state in the Americas, in both area (261 square miles) and population (51,000: 38,000 on St. Kitts, 13,000 on Nevis).

• The capital city and government headquarters is Basseterre on St. Kitts. The capital of Nevis is Charlestown.

• The Kalinago Indians named St. Kitts Liamuiga, which means "Fertile Land" and is the name of the island's volcano. Christopher Columbus named it St. Christopher, later shortened to St. Kitts.

• Nevis' original name was Oualie, "Land of Beautiful Waters." Columbus and his sailors called it Santa Maria de las Nieves because the cloud-covered peak of the volcano reminded them of a snow-capped mountain. Nieves in Spanish means snow. It later became Nevis.

• The earliest celebrity sighting on Nevis was Alexander Hamilton, first secretary of the U.S. Treasury and one of the framers of the Constitution. He was born in 1757 in a house that now is the Museum of Nevis History and the Nevis House of Assembly.

• Nevis has no traffic lights, but it does have charming old sugar plantation inns renovated as luxury island accommodations, including Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, Montpelier Plantation, Hermitage Plantation Inn and Golden Rock Inn.
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