Nevis: The unspoiled Caribbean

The “ker-thunk” of the wooden screen door seems more in keeping with a Canadian cottage than a Caribbean vacation, but this sound of home comes from the slamming of the doors on the oceanfront cottages that make up the Oualie Beach Hotel on the tiny island of Nevis. It’s entirely in keeping with the laid-back, relaxed atmosphere of the island, which still manages to maintain an air of casual elegance.

Saw-toothed grass grows thinly outside the cabins until it disappears in the gold and white mixture of coral and sand that runs down to a sheltered cove where guests snorkel, windsurf, kayak and scuba dive – or simply loll in hammocks stretched between palm trees.

Sister of a saint
Nevis is a secluded volcanic island two miles south of its sister island of St. Kitts (together, they form the Federation of St. Christopher and Nevis). In the centre, 3,200-foot-high Mount Nevis rises like the crown of a hat. Mist almost always cloaks the top of Nevis, making the mountain appear snow-capped.

In fact, the mist is responsible for the island’s name: on his second visit to the Caribbean, Christopher Columbus mistook the cloudsor snow – la nieve in Spanish. Below the virgin old-growth forest, the “brim” of the hat is lush with a gentle slope, perfect for cultivation. Sugar-white beaches edge the shoreline.

After claiming the island for Spain but discovering no gold or silver, Columbus and his crew moved on. The English arrived in the 1600s, bringing with them the cultivation of cotton and tobacco. But both crops soon moved to Virginia, and the biggest event in the history of Nevis was ushered in – the arrival of sugar to supply the seemingly unending demand for the sweetener by the coffeehouses of Europe.

By the mid-1600s, sugar cane was well established on Nevis and remained the sole source of income for 200 years. Sugar was king, a monoculture responsible for life on the island including the building of the capital of Charlestown. As with most development in Caribbean islands, the town was built on the leeward, or west side, away from the brute force of hurricanes.

New era begins with resort
The heyday of the sugar era ended in the mid-1800s and was almost a death knell for Nevis. Once bustling plantations and sugar mills fell silent. The island inhabitants eked out their living with subsistence farming, and emigration was constant until the second major event in the island’s history occurred – the arrival of the Four Seasons.

The resort, which opened in 1991, is credited with stopping the decline in population (it employs 700 of the 10,000 population, making it the biggest business on Nevis) and has changed the island irrevocably. Its success ushered in a new era: the age of tourism.

Interestingly, the poor economic conditions meant the capital of Charlestown had remained virtually untouched: there was simply no money for re-development. The town still has a good stock of heritage buildings and, although enforcing heritage preservation laws is often difficult, Charlestown is one of the best-preserved small-island towns in the Caribbean.

Today, the trails and pathways that connected the great plantations, windmills and villages where the workers lived are perfect for walking, hiking, biking and horseback riding. Many of the plantations themselves have been converted into elegant inns.

One example of the quality of the restoration is Nisbet Plantation Beach Club on the north shore of Nevis. The beautiful great house that is the focal point of the estate dates from 1778 and overlooks the green expanse of the Avenue of Palms leading to the reef-protected white sand shore.

From hikes through tropic rainforests and tours of plantations to mountain biking, snorkelling and windsurfing, Nevis is enjoying a style of tourism that lacks the commercialism of many other Caribbean islands. An oasis of green and peace.