What remained the same and what changes did I notice since my visit ten years ago? The island remains beautiful and the drive down to the end of the southern peninsula which has remained surprisingly undeveloped is one of the great Caribbean drives. Sugar cane still ripples and rustles on the hillsides in the warm gentle breezes. But this will soon be history after a sugar-growing history of 400 years.
Apart from its natural beauty, the island treasures are the quaint places to stay and the people you meet there. Unlike other Caribbean islands, St. Kitts has managed to keep a lid on development, but sadly there is a new, unsightly 648-room St. Kitts Marriott Resort now soaring over Frigate Bay, looking from the rear strangely like a prison. It's a big beach property like any other with a spa and a casino. It has brought increased employment and rooms to the island's roster and increased airlift from a variety of departure points. It boasts a golf course, appealing to many, watered with desalinated water from a specially-installed adjacent desalination plant which is good to know. But I can't understand why anyone would choose to stay there when there are many far more appealing options.
The capital, Basseterre, boasts a new cruise ship terminal capable of taking the largest liners afloat. In fact, on my visit, the Queen Mary 2 and another vessel, almost as large, were in port. The adjacent craft market was busy with trinket and t-shirt buyers and the town bustling. Enquire if ships are in port before you choose a day to explore Basseterre so that you can enjoy this quaint town peacefully. If you like to shop, do not miss the Sugar Mill Art Gallery and the Art Glass Gallery, both on Princes Street and close to Canadian-owned Stonewalls, a popular courtyard bar and restaurant. On this visit I also discovered a gem missed earlier, the International House Museum on Central Street, located in one of the oldest buildings in Basseterre. If a history buff, book lover, librarian or archivist, you will be fascinated by all that this tiny house holds: yellowed copies of The Saint Christopher Gazette dating back to 1850, old books on Caribbean history, land deeds and most poignant and interesting of all - slave records. Winston is the curator/collector here; he's been featured in international articles and you're sure to find him ready for a conversation. It's also worth a one-hour visit to the Heritage Centre and Museum near the Pelican Mall to see old photos and read stories of people important to St. Kitts' history.
With the cruise market in mind, the St. Kitts Scenic Train was devised (in fact you will probably find the train fully-booked on cruise-ship days and on other days it will only run if there are at least ten passengers, so call ahead if interested). This new tourist attraction is a double-storey, open-topped train that circles almost the entire island, though not the beautiful southern peninsula. There is room for guests to have a seat both on the open-air level and the lower, air-conditioned section. The steep price of US$89 pp. for the 3½ hour trip includes an interesting commentary, a few traditional songs from three young women who call themselves the "Scenic Railway Choir," rather loud piped music the rest of the time, plus rum punch and a sampling of sugar cakes. It was an experience, travelling through the high sugar canes and seeing the workers loading the real sugar train, but as mentioned, that crop is gone. If you don't plan to drive while on St. Kitts, this trip gives a fine overview of the island and a glimpse of places you might otherwise not see, but I recommend putting that money towards a car rental.
Dr Keith and Judith Blake, who met in Canada, now call their charming house - Rock Haven - home. And, for your stay on St. Kitts, you can too, for Rock Haven is a two-bedroom B&B, one room on the main floor and the other self-catering unit downstairs which opens out onto the small walled garden, lush with fountain flowers, bougainvillea and yellow-bell bushes. This pretty property is set in a residential area on a hillside overlooking Frigate and Half Moon Bays, not far from the capital Basseterre, with views of both oceans. It offers a warm welcome and traditional Caribbean décor
brilliantly painted walls, local art, English chintz on fine mahogany furniture and shuttered windows.
My next stop was Mule House, another hillside property, this one set amongst the fields overlooking the spectacular north shore and distant islands. This home offers four homey, spacious, self-contained, self-catering apartments, all of which sleep four comfortably in two double bedrooms. You will find flowers, fruit, some home-baked goodies and rum awaiting, and Sue and Ray, who personally meet every first-time visitor, will shop for you prior to your arrival if you wish. They are avid horticulturalists who take an active part in promoting and preserving the flora of the island, including a project to save the flamboyant trees, and nowhere is this interest more evident than in their own garden. On a garden tour, Sue pointed out her many banana varieties, papayas, pomserrats, guavas, sweet and sour oranges, West Indian cherries, rare Natal plums, limes and mangoes and more. And then there are the flowers: golden trumpets, birds of paradise, wild geranium, ginger lilies, helaconieas, oleaners and, of course, hibiscus in abundance. A paradise for hummingbirds, finches, butterflies and other visitors!
Sue will also gladly guide you on a morning walk into the rain forest above their property, or, for a more in-depth hike - arrange a tour for you with Oliver Spencer, a renowned Kittitian (he's President of the St. Kitts Horticultural Society) whose company - Periwinkle Tours - specializes in volcano hikes or rain forest treks with an emphasis on history, flora and fauna.
After full days of such activities, or merely relaxing in the garden or on a nearby beach if you prefer, the first-floor verandah at Mule House becomes a popular gathering place for happy hour. There's a small grocery store within walking distance of the house or a larger one a short drive away. Guests here are welcome to use the barbecue in the garden - and often do. Your hosts are a mine of information on the islands.
For those with a sense of history, it is fascinating to imagine what the Caribbean islands were like in the past. Slavery and suffering, toil and tears in the sugar plantations were the order of the day for the majority. But the land-owning minority lived in style. Of the 300 or so sugar estates once active on the island, only a handful remain. Two of these - Ottley's and Rawlin's - have
been converted into hotels. They are expensive, but even if you don't stay, well worth a visit for a meal.
An additional attraction is a visit to the adjacent Kate Design Art Gallery. Kate Spencer
(www.katedesign.com) captures the glories of this island beautifully, providing a wonderful souvenir or gift.
Ottley's is another lovely plantation property, ideal for a romantic dinner in a candlelit poolside setting. If you stay, you will find charming accommodation in the handsome 'great house' or fancy cottages, a spa, tennis courts, pool and restaurant set in 35 acres of gardens and forest trails. This property is popular with plumy-voiced Brits, lovely but with a formal atmosphere.
The other historic hotel I visited - the Golden Lemon - was not a sugar estate but a shipping merchant's store and house. Built in 1610 it lays claim to being the oldest occupied house on the island. Unlike the plantations it stands beside a beach. Property owner, Arthur Leaman, was former editor of House & Garden Magazine. In one of the courtyard rooms, a small swimming pool occupies part of the terrace and part of the living room! Wow! The food is renowned throughout the island. Yes, all these historic properties are for the deep of pocket or for a special occasion, but no visit to St. Kitts would be complete without treating yourself to a visit to experience the atmosphere and the food.
For a far cheaper meal, I asked around for a more casual recommendation. Everyone cried "Spratnets - great food, cheap, lots of fish and lobsters, live music, popular with locals and visitors alike" and everyone can tell you how to get there!
A few more accommodation options: SeaLofts, is a quaint condominium complex set on a two-mile Atlantic beach suitable for renters or holiday investment. The people enjoying the gardens and beach here included a number of Canadians and British and everyone was very friendly. Joyce Isaac, General Manager of the Homeowners Association, showed me around and introduced me to several Canadian folk with whom I enjoyed a chat.
Another suggestion is Frigate Bay Hotel. It is small and charming with its low-rise yellow-painted buildings circling a pretty garden and pool area, which is also the site of the split-level, indoor/outdoor dining room. All this stands above the St. Kitts Golf Course, whose 12th fairway adjoins the property, and from there it's just a short walk to the beach. Their poolside studios are self catering. I was enjoying a lone breakfast here when Managing Director, Sam Ng'alla, came to meet me and show me around. He was most charming and so proud of his property and his friendly staff.
Timothy Beach Resort is another pleasant place. This is a collection of self-catering suites and hotel rooms with a terrace restaurant overlooking the beach that seemed very casual and popular. I received another warm welcome from Front Office Manager, Virgil Williams, who was only too pleased to show me around.
Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/