If you've lived in Florida as long as I have, you sure get fussy about the Caribbean. We've got great beaches here, plus wonderful restaurants (which you won't get sick from) and more than enough to do. Why go to San Juan and fight that horrible traffic? Why go to St. Thomas and fight those thousands of tourists just off the cruise ships? No, if some place in the Caribbean is going to attract my attention it's got to be pretty special.
Like Nevis. Nevis is one of those little tiny islands in the Caribbean that celebrities are always running off to for complete relaxation and total privacy. Princess Diana, Oprah, Janet Jackson . they've all been here. (Of course, what they don't realize is that the minute they leave the locals start telling stories about them. This means that one of the side effects of your trip to Nevis will be a large and fascinating dose of celebrity gossip.)
Nevis is located smack in the middle of the Caribbean, right where the Leeward Islands meet the Windward. It is indeed tiny, barely 36 square miles. Physically it has a Bali Hai kind of air, with a giant and hopefully dormant volcano at its center, usually wreathed in clouds. The entire island descends from the volcano. It looms up everywhere, right behind your back. Sometimes it looks peaceful, sometimes mysterious, but always it's there. One tourist went hiking on the mountain and got lost for 10 days. (Why didn't he just walk downhill? I asked. It turned out he was stuck in a ravine.)
The population of Nevis is 10,000-a small town, really, where everybody knows everybody else and is constantly waving at them and calling out greetings. Most of the population is black, the descendants of the slaves who worked the sugar plantations. Over and over you encounter the same last names-Pinney, Hudgins, Nisbett-which were also the names of the big plantation owners. There was an election going on while I was there and it was terribly exciting. The whole place was election-mad; posters everywhere; and I was kept awake one night by an election rally in a bar just down the hill.
Any Caribbean island can be pretty. But Nevis has something else. Its dramatic past is everywhere, so close you can touch it. Many buildings date from the 1600 and 1700s and are still in use. Ruins of sugar plantations dot the landscape. Archaeologists in increasing numbers are visiting to research the period before the American Revolution, when Nevis was "Queen of the Antilles" with economic and social ties that spread out over the world. This is where Alexander Hamilton was born (Thomas Jefferson's grandfather was raised on neighboring St. Kitts) and this is where a young and dashing Lord Nelson married the daughter of a wealthy planter, under a tree that still stands.
Of course not all of the sugar plantations are in ruins. Many of them have been turned into inns. The "plantations inns," as they are known, give Nevis its own special personality as far as accommodations go. I stayed at a place called the Hermitage. It has cute little cottages in the Nevisian vernacular style (lots of gingerbread and bright colors) and its Great House is thought to be the oldest wooden structure in the Caribbean.
I loved my cottage. The first thing I noticed as I walked in was the mosquito net draped over the bed. Believe me, there is nothing to transport you back into the past like a mosquito net. It raises all sorts of interesting questions, like "How badly am I going to need this thing?" and "Does this mean there's no air conditioning?" I studied it very carefully before I climbed in that night. It seemed to me that a really smart mosquito could find his way in. That is indeed what happened. That's when I discovered the drawback to mosquito nets. The mosquitoes are smart enough to get in but not smart enough to get out.
But I am not one to let a little mosquito spoil my fun. There is a lot to see on Nevis in a low-key sort of way-old churches with great old cemeteries, a couple of folksy and charming historical museums, a botanical garden. There is no shopping to speak of and nary a fast food restaurant, and you don't miss them one bit. My favorite thing to do was visit the other plantation inns to see how they compared. My runner-up favorite was the Golden Rock Plantation, which is a little more casual than the Hermitage and has a sensational view-spread out before you in the deep blue Caribbean are St. Kitts, St. Eustacius and poor Montserrat, with its volcano spewing smoke and ash into the sky, just far away enough to be picturesque rather than scary.
The more I visit the Caribbean the more I prefer being up in the hills. You have a view and a breeze and, hopefully, a cocktail. It's very Somerset Maugham. But if you feel your Caribbean experience is lessened by not having a beach at your door, you should probably stay at the Four Seasons on Nevis. It's rated one of the top two or three resorts in the Caribbean and has a top-notch golf course, a great rarity on the islands. The whole place was done in the Nevisian Colonial style as interpreted by the Four Seasons Decorating Department-a sort of theme-park version of a plantation inn. I stayed there my last two nights on Nevis and my room was so hyper-luxurious that I rarely got out of bed. It made me realize that some things have improved since the 17th century. For example, the invention of the mini-bar.
A frank word about food. To me this has always been the Caribbean's greatest drawback. Too much rice, too many beans, all those strange tubers. Nevis solves this food problem by not having any restaurants. Oh, there are a few, and they are quite good, but you'll do most of your eating at the inns and hotels, which are also quite good. One exception you might want to make is for Miss June's Cuisine. The gimmick is you go to her house, have drinks in the living room, then go on to a buffet in the dining room with 30 or so different dishes (the curries are the best.) It's like going to a dinner party, or perhaps attending a salon, and I was rather skeptical at first but ended up having a wonderful time. This was largely due to Miss June herself, an imposing Trinidadian and confidante to the stars. She is delightfully indiscreet with her memories of Steven Tyler and Aerosmith, who were there trying to dry out; and believe me, Miss June's is not the place to dry out.
And finally, my two favorite things about Nevis. First, they have wild monkeys. I found this terribly exciting, as it had always been one of my dreams as a small child to visit a place that had wild monkeys. Well, now I have. And you really do see them. They have more monkeys than people. They run across the road, right in front of your car. They're very cute at first, with their gray fur and little black faces. They're not so cute later on, when they toss coconuts on the tin roof of your cottage in the middle of the night.
And then there's the English language. Or rather Nevis' take on it. I remember seeing a flyer for a dance that promised to be a "special summer bashment." And there was the cook at the Hermitage. Or rather her name and address. It's poetry come to life:
Nevis, West Indies
P.S. I am told that the travel brochure is now officially obsolete and that what you do nowadays is visit Web sites. So go to www.nevisisland.com where you will find links to the places I've mentioned.