Get a kick out of St Kitts

By | Category: Travel destinations

Prized by the British as one of its earliest and wealthiest colonies,  life on the Caribbean island of St Kitts is still as sweet as sugar says Judith Baker

Forbes recently put St Kitts and Nevis as second and third in its list of countries with the most billionaires per capita. (Number one was Monaco). Ok they’ve only got one out of 53,000, but that still puts them way ahead of the USA, India and China on the list.

I don’t think I met the billionaire in question on my recent trip to the islands, although I did notice a proliferation of banks: an indication of the investment that is pouring into these tiny islands. But despite that, the sleepy Caribbean islands of St Kitts and Nevis are mostly unspoilt and retain an individual charm that sets them apart from some of the other popular Caribbean destinations.

A view of the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean meeting point

Columbus first sailed past these shores in 1493 and named St Christopher (now called St Kitts) after his patron saint. He thought the clouds surrounding Nevis’ peak looked like snow and the island’s original name was Nuestra Senora de las Nieves (Our Lady of the Snows).

As one of the earliest colonies and the closest (in nautical terms) St Kitts & Nevis was prized by the British, creating a model for the lucrative plantation system based on sugar and slavery. This pride and the lengths they went to defend it is nowhere more evident than at St Kitts’ vast Brimstone Hill Fortress. Standing at 800 feet above sea level, the fortress is a breath-taking defensive network built around 1690 by African slave labour. It now houses a museum and visitor centre, which gives a glimpse of what life would have been like for the soldiers living here in these dramatic surroundings. Once called the Gibraltar of the West Indies for its domination of 18th century battles, Fort Brimstone has been designated a World Heritage Site.

The Piccadilly Circus Clock Tower

Like many of the islands in the West Indies, St Kitts was the object of a struggle between the French and the British and place names reflect both influences. In Basseterre, the island’s capital, I am told that the main square was formerly known as Pall Mall and the area around the central clock tower is called Piccadilly Circus, because it resembles the busy roundabout in London, but it is difficult to see the similarities. Basseterre (it was named by the French, meaning lower ground) has a relaxed, quirky feel with some of the buildings’ paint peeling slightly in the sunshine, and people going about their daily business in a relaxed, amiable way.

St Kitts' scenic railway

The prettiest way to see St Kitts is from The Sugar Train, the islands ‘scenic railway’ which trundles around the coastline and is the only one of its kind in the Caribbean region. The colourful double decker train was formerly used to transport sugar from the plantations to the factory. Built between 1912 and 1926, the train remained in use until 2005 when sugar production ceased. To add to the experience, a group of acapella singers dressed in tartan step aboard to sing local calypsos.

From the observation carriage, I see old sugar plantation houses, disused mills and abandoned factories hiding amid a wealth of rich vegetation. At just 68 square miles, St Kitts has more than a quarter of its land as a National Park, and a rainforest that is actually expanding in size rather than shrinking. Despite this, the two island nation (the smallest in the Americas) has managed to avoid tourism on a mass scale. So I don’t see the high rise hotels, the all-inclusive resorts and the tourist tat here, but there are literally thousands of cheeky Green Vervet monkeys swinging through the trees and elegant displays of frigate birds, hummingbirds, lizards and mongeese.

In the centre of St Kitts rises Mount Liamuiga, the highest volcano on the island at 3,792 feet at the crest of its carter. Although more energetic visitors hike to the peak, I opted for the gentler walk through the rainforest which offers a magical glimpse into the quiet beauty of the islands with its waterfalls, bubbling streams and exotic foliage.

The coastline here is varied, with both an Atlantic and a Caribbean side, black sand and white sand. The beaches range from the black strip of Dieppe Bay to the pretty white sand Cockleshell Bay with views over to Nevis. The hippest place on St Kitts turns out to be Frigate Bay on the Caribbean Sea, where laid back hotels such as Timothy Beach look out to a row of beach shacks and bars with entertainment including fire eaters and live music going on into the small hours.

More stately activities are on offer at Ottley’s Plantation Inn, an18th century sugar plantation that has been lovingly restored into a family-run inn with accommodation mostly in little cottages in 35 acres of gardens and rainforest.

The rainforest

Eating out here is an education. There are some smart restaurants in the larger hotels with international menus, but the islanders also pride themselves on a hearty, healthy cuisine which includes steamed breadfruit, goat water (a stew), salt fish and oxtail. At the weekends, souse appears on local menus – served and sold with black, white or steamed savoury pudding, it is a favourite among locals. Souse is made by fully cooking the meat and then marinating it for a long time in a solution made of fresh lime or lemon juice, vinegar, salt, parsley, minced hot pepper and cucumbers.

El Fredo’s in downtown Basseterre has an unassuming exterior and built next to a petroleum plant, not the classiest location. But this is a ruby in the dust. The Welsh flag fluttering inside is the first indication that this isn’t your usual West Indian hangout. The specials on the blackboard at El Fredo’s near the port include: Creole snapper, Mahi Mahi, plantain fritters, oxtail and fry fish. Dumplings, plantain, yams and dasheen add substance to the other home-made dishes.

I find that owners Kenneth and Jasmine are native St Kittitians, who have returned here from Cardiff. The place is packed at lunchtime with a mix of tourists and local workers, reminding me that this is a working island as well as a holiday destination…

 

 

NEED TO KNOW
British Airways flies to St Kitts twice weekly from London Gatwick. Return flights start from £475.

For further information on St Kitts www.stkittstourism.com

To read Judith’s take on Nevis – St Kitt’s little sister – don’t forget to log onto CD-Traveller on 6 May.

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