Simple pursuits charm guests who seek out Nevis' secrets

Contributing editor Kristin O'Meara explored Nevis. Her report follows:

CHARLESTOWN, Nevis -- Tell people you've been to Nevis (knee-vis) and watch what happens.

Inevitably, you'll be met with a quizzical look and asked, "Uh, where is that exactly?"

Although Nevis is in the same neighborhood as a handful of better-known islands, such as St. Maarten, Montserrat and Anguilla, most folks have not heard of this 36-square-mile hideaway.

Its near-secret status is surprising, given the presence of its star property, the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, which has had 10 years to boost the profile of this serene little island.

Nevis caters to a specialized sort of traveler, one with money, time and taste.

Here, the best things to do are the simplest: swimming in the sea; walking the beaches, or contemplating the cloud formations that hover around Nevis Peak, the island's highest point.

Nevis Peak is evidence of the island's volcanic past. Many 18th century homes and buildings come from its igneous rock, especially in Charlestown, the sleepy capital.

Pink House is one of the restored Nevisian cottages available to guests at the Hermitage. To call Charlestown a city is an overstatement. During a quick, bumpy ride through its neat, narrow streets, I saw few tourists and no tourist traps.

Instead, its well-kept buildings are the product of Nevisians' efforts to protect the island's historic and placid charm.

The most boring place in town is the police station, where it appears that nothing ever happens. Crime is just not a big issue here.

I discovered a surprising taste of Americana at the Museum of Nevis History, the restored birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, who was born on Nevis in 1757.

Just a few steps from the museum's stone walls, waves splash the shoreline, and from the shaded courtyard, the horizon takes on breathtaking proportions.

The museum houses an array of artifacts; old black-and-white photos; typed signage, frayed a bit at the edges, and several handmade instruments, including a guitar built from a tin container for ham.

A popular daytime activity on Nevis is visiting beaches.

The three main strands are Pinney's Beach and Oualie Beach on the Caribbean coast and Nisbet Beach on the Atlantic.

However, not every visitor makes a daily, lemming-like dash to the water's edge.

Nevis' hillsides are dotted with restored plantation inns, and each is appealing enough to warrant a beachless afternoon.

On the uphill drive to visit several inns, I learned that air conditioning is not needed because the temperature drops at the higher elevations.

First stop was Montpelier Plantation Inn, four miles from Charlestown.

A waterfall spills from a Mayan-style statue in the rain forest conservatory at the Botancial Garden of Nevis. A curious, mud-brown dog met our group with good humor after we unceremoniously roused her from a nap.

The inn is set on 60 acres along a narrow, hilly road that separates it from the site of Admiral Horatio Nelson's marriage in 1787 to a well-connected widow named Fanny Nisbet.

Clearly, the Nelsons were onto something, because Montpelier today is a popular spot for nuptials.

Most couples exchange vows beneath the branches of a gnarled ficus tree, which fronts the circa-1700 manor house.

It's easy to see why this plantation inn attracts high-caliber guests, such as the late Princess Diana, with its inviting public rooms, open-air dining areas, tennis court, pool and sugar mill.

The 16 hillside guest units offer sea views and cool breezes.

The inn's private beach is 25 minutes away by car, but a daily trip really is not necessary in this peaceful setting.

Next stop was the Hermitage, farther east and higher up. As we glimpsed the dollhouse-like structures that dot the property, a surge of genuine "oohs" rose from my group.

In the densely forested setting, we prowled among the 12 improbably cute, charmingly pastel cottages.

Described as Nevisian colonial, the 12 West Indian-style structures are furnished with antiques and dominated by massive, four-poster beds.

The cottages encircle the 250-year-old Great House, an airy yet solid structure decorated with antiques, chintzes, oriental rugs and lace.

Richie Lupinacci, the young son of owners Richard and Maureen, explained that the cottages had been brought to the site from elsewhere on the island.

He also said that curious vervet monkeys come close to peer at the guests.

These monkeys, which are found on Nevis and St. Kitts, have dark green and black faces, chins, hands and feet.

Flowers, fruit trees and towering palms are everywhere, and like a secret garden, the grounds seemed an excellent place to hide out.

Alas, we could not tarry long. As our bus pulled away, a ponytailed Richard Sr. came to the door, lit a big cigar and waved goodbye.

For a cooling respite, we headed for the leafy Botanical Garden of Nevis.

This privately run facility is elegantly laid out and manicured with the precision of a golf course.

The soothing sound of rushing water can be heard almost anywhere on the grounds, thanks to an array of carefully placed ponds, streams and fountains.

We walked through its rose and vine garden and explored its rain forest conservatory, which was topped off by a waterfall spewing from a Mayan-style statue.

That evening, our group dined at the Old Manor Hotel, a third plantation inn with an open-air veranda outside the Cooperage restaurant.

The mountain air was downright chilly, but the food was good, the staff gracious and the property, not surprisingly, unique.

We walked the grounds among massive stone structures that had once housed the plantation's workers.

The property's round pool glowed in the distance, and the guest room we visited was spacious, with dark wood furnishings and wooden floors.

As we made our way outside, the power and the lights cut out, in true island fashion.

Absolute darkness engulfed us. Reflexively, everyone looked up at the only source of light.

There were so many stars, familiar ones, the same stars that we see back home, but now they seemed much closer.

That moment in the darkness made it abundantly clear that we were tiny beings on a tiny rock in a very big ocean.

Before long, someone flicked on a flashlight, and we picked our way over the flagstone walkways.

Soon the hum of generators kicked the lights back on, but that moment in darkness had revealed something.

Nevis is a very small place. A very rare place. Keep it to yourself.

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