Joan Wilder: Journalist, Writer, Editor

Nevis – Caribbean in the clouds

Article spread for Nevis - The Caribbean in the Clouds

Naturally, it’s Nevis: Caribbean isle preserves simple life despite tourism-based renaissance

It’s the mountain that brings the blessing. Or, more accurately, that catches the blessing blowing in from the sea: moist air condensing as it rises up the slopes to give rain to the island. In tropical fashion, the rain then conspires with the sun to make everything green and growing.

It is early morning on Nevis, one of the Leeward Islands in the northeastern Caribbean. I’m having coffee at Coconuts, the breakfast restaurant of a beautiful hotel, Nisbet Plantation. The restaurant is a happy structure made entirely of bare wood: an open-sided, open- air pavilion. Forty feet to my left is the ocean. To the right, across 30 acres of lawn and a hundred palms, sits Mount Nevis — its rainforest now shaded, now bright, curving gently around itself in a thousand variations of green.

It is a 75-degree morning in early April, with an intoxicating, slightly-more-than-gentle-breeze. Waves break white and foamy on the coral reef 50 yards offshore, and the ocean looks sun-bleached and silver in one direction, and swimming pool-turquoise in the other. Silly coconut palms — tall and skinny — line the beach in a random pattern, their wind-tossed fronds like so many Caribbean flags.

Leaving the airport in a taxi the day before, there were no exit ramps or signs or alternate routes to navigate. We just drove out of the small parking lot and there we were passing houses, trees, people and sheep. Now, taking off on a standard three-hour island tour with driver Calvin Klein (!), I begin settling into the new world that Calvin is showing me. Although the island is small and has basically only one main road — appropriately called Main Road — it has more than its fair share of history. Every so often, Calvin stops for show and tell. I hear about Alexander Hamilton being born on Nevis; Admiral Horatio Nelson’s Nevisian marriage and wife; and the scoop on the late Princess Diana’s visit a few years back.

After a dozen sightseeing stops and a few goat-crossings, we have circled the entire island on Main Road. Narrow, barely wide enough for two cars to pass, it has no white lines, no shoulders, no stop signs and not a single traffic light.

It takes a while to acclimate to the smallness of Main Road. I keep unconsciously expecting to get to a more main road, but this is it.

Little Nevis, a British colony until it achieved independent statehood along with St. Kitts in 1983, was once a big player on the world stage. Artifacts indicate that Arawak and Carib Indians lived on Nevis from as early as 2000 BC. As for Europeans, Columbus was the first to stop by in the year 1493. He gave the island its present name, the word “Nevis” (pronounced NEE-vis) being a corruption of the Spanish for “snow,” which is what cloud-covered Mount Nevis looked like to the great navigator.

Although the Spanish claimed the entire Caribbean, they weren’t interested in the smaller islands, and the British sneaked in and settled Nevis in 1628. For the next 150 years, the British and French battled over the island, occasionally uniting to fight off the still- possessive Spanish war machine.

It turned out to be an island worth fighting for. The mountain that gave birth to it through a series of eruptions that ended a million years ago produced mineral-rich soil, which combined with plentiful rainfall to create the perfect environment for growing good sugar cane. In a period of time in the late 1700 and early 1800s, exports from Nevis exceeded those of colonial New York, creating a substantial chunk of the wealth that fueled the British empire. The colony’s rich plantocracy was built on the backs of African slaves, and the island’s beautiful stone ruins and windmills now stand as a monument to its once- colossal, slave-based economy.

With the industrial revolution, things changed. Nevis was too hilly to make use of mechanical equipment, and even with slave labor it couldn’t compete with sugar production on sister-island St. Kitts. At the same time, Europe developed the sugar beet, which matures much more quickly than cane, and the once-rich Queen of the Caribbean began to lose its wealth in the early part of the 1800s.

Now, due to tourism, the island is experiencing a renaissance. This is largely the result of the arrival of the Caribbean’s only Four Seasons resort in 1991, which has enhanced the island’s profile and boosted business at other Nevisian resorts and smaller hotels. Still, the 36-square-mile island remains largely, and spectacularly, undeveloped.

Sheep, goats, cows and monkeys roam the land, wild donkeys bray at night. Almost everyone you encounter smiles and says hello. Twice when I was stopped at the side of Main Road, the next car to pass asked if I needed help. There is no crime to speak of: I felt perfectly safe every minute. Charlestown is the only town, and you can drive through it, around the island, and back again in an hour. The airport — a small shack on the sea with gorgeous views of hilly St. Kitts — can receive only small commuter planes from the other islands. But, soon, due to the near-completion of a larger runway that will be able to accommodate 40-seaters from San Juan, all this may be changing.

Just exactly how it will change is the question. Coming to love this pretty place (which happens fast), you can’t help but hope that the islanders will be careful about development.

It takes a while to sink in that buying bottled water is unnecessary on Nevis; it comes out pure and delicious right from the tap. The average yearly 250-300 inches of rain that falls on Mount Nevis filters down to the aquifer through at least 150 feet of sand, silt and porous rock — nature’s perfect filter. Nor are there polluting influences near the source, a term on Nevis that refers to any naturally occurring accumulation of water.

On another perfect day, Jim Johnson, a biologist, leads us up Jessups Ghaut in the rainforest, following a 100-year-old pipe that transports water down from the source.

The path is narrow, the forest lush, the air cool and musky. As our city sensibilities adjust, the forest begins to reveal itself. Everywhere, tiny flowers are hidden on the tops of grasses. Giant plants burst from logs of fallen mahogany, and massive philodendrons shine beneath towering tree ferns. Overhead, a thick canopy shields us from the hot sun, and hundreds of strong, hanging vines seem to whisper, “Tarzan.”
Several massive buttressroot fig trees scream “rainforest, rainforest” — their trunks are at least a dozen feet across. In this environment, it is easy to imagine dinosaurs chomping, as they did, on the giant leaves of the sceropia tree just up the path.

Later, Johnson takes me to Green Ghaut — another part of the rainforest. We pass dozens of different flowers on the walk in — alamander, pink beeweed, crepe jasmine and plumbago. As we continue, the grasses of the lower lands are replaced with ground ferns, indicating our ascent into a different moisture level. Then, after three steep climbs, we emerge on a high ridge overlooking a deep, V- shaped valley. It is as though we have come up for air after a long underwater swim, our heads bobbing above the surface of a vast green sea.
Johnson has some surprisingly good news about the effects of tourism. Because so many islanders have quit agriculture for resort work, there are fewer crops for the mongoose population to feed on, so the numbers of this small predator have declined, and as a result fewer birds are being eaten. Since the Four Seasons opened, 51 avian species have returned.

“Now, when birds get blown over in storms, they find enough food to live, so they build houses and stay,” said Johnson. “Kind of like tourists!”

Over a snack of raw sugar cane, dried tamarind seeds and guava “cheese,” Johnson remarked that although Nevisians are now living longer, more are dying of strokes and heart attacks. He attributes this to the rich diet and sedentary lifestyle newly available to those in the resort industry. Johnson also sees a mind-body connection to the increase of these diseases.

“Families used to work together, eat together, take mid-day breaks together,” he said. “Now, families are splintered, with everyone working in different places.”

In other cases, however, tourism is bringing families back together. Bertico, my horseback riding guide at Nevis Equestrian Center, was raised in Santo Domingo where his Nevisian parents moved for work 30 years ago. With more jobs on the island now, many are returning home.

Bertico and I rode along the beach just at the edge of the water, somehow communicating in his Spanish, my Italian and a shared English. As he led me through the gently hilly country of Cotton Ground on the east side of the island, we compared the names of things. By the end of our jaunt, we knew the Spanish, Italian and English words for wind, shade, sun, ocean, horse, man, woman, child – - and bull. When we come upon a large white one with long horns, Bertico gave him a wide berth, and my horse and I followed.

There is no bright-light city night life on Nevis, which isn’t to say there’s nothing to do. Several nights a week, there is dancing at one or another place, and among the hotel lounges, somewhere there is music nightly.

Dining is the big evening event for vacationers on Nevis. There are at least 10 fine dining rooms on the island, many attached to a handful of old Nevisian plantation resorts. Five-course dinners at the Great House at Nisbet were divine, as was my evening out at the sublime Montpelier Plantation, where Princess Diana stayed on her visit.

The plantation resorts give Nevis an Old World elegance. They dot the developing country like a string of vacationers’ oases, and it is usual for guests at one to dine at another, or at least to visit and walk the grounds. With golf, spa, sailing, shopping and salon available at the Four Seasons, there is something for every kind of vacationer on little Nevis.

On my last day there, a new friend, Patterson, took me to visit Miss Maude Brookes. Miss Brookes sat with a few friends outside the small bright yellow house where she has lived since her birth in 1901. She was delighted to meet me, and happy to talk.

Unlike most Nevisians her age, who either farmed or fished, Miss Brookes earned her living as a potter: She made coal pots — large ceramic bowls that hold charcoal on which another pot is placed for cooking.
On a walk in the rainforest, I had seen a clearing where someone had been making charcoal from acacia wood — people still do that on Nevis. I had also seen coal pots filled with street food for sale in Charlestown. Right after seeing the coal pot vendor, I’d gone to the Four Seasons for a swim where a smiling attendant offered me a spritz of Evian water while I lounged on the beach.

Miss Brookes has had a happy life, and she’s happy still. She loves her island, her house, her church, the dinner she made last night: fish and sweet potatoes.

It is a late, sunny afternoon, and the trade winds blow in off the ocean, 100 yards away, just across the new airport runway that now lies between her little yellow house and the water. Even though she doesn’t like this latest development, Miss Brookes can still see every little whitecap being blown up by the breeze.

“We must go forward for the young people,” she says, teasing me with a slap on the arm.

Behind us, Mount Nevis rests cool and easy — a constant reminder that life abides.

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