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What I’ll remember most about the small Caribbean island of Nevis are the mango-eating green vervet monkeys, rum punches topped with freshly-grated nutmeg, herds of goats and sheep roaming free with no human guide, the array of sturdy old sugar mills transformed into luxury plantation inns, and a cast of colorful characters.
Set like an uncut diamond in the West Indies, this volcanic isle covered in tropical rainforest offers a rich experience untouched by most visitors who continue to seek the already-discovered shininess of the more popular and crowded tropical vacation spots surrounded by the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
The smaller of the two-island federation of St. Kitts and Nevis, separated by a two-mile ferry ride, the English-speaking Nevis (pronounced NEE-vis) encompasses 36 square miles and has 11,000 permanent residents.
The indigenous Caribs named it “Oualie” (“Land of Beautiful Waters”) and the Arawaks called Nevis “Dulcina” (“Sweet Island”). Its fertile soil, coupled with the importation of slaves, enabled the nation to become a leading sugar producer in the region. Nevis came to be known as “Queen of the Caribbees.”
In the early 1900s, the sugar industry waned when America and Europe began to produce their own sugar. In 1958 the last of the sugar mills ceased to operate. In recent years they have been converted to plantation inns catering to tourists.
My journey began with a drive from the airport to the Montpelier Plantation Inn on the opposite side of the island in the van of the locally notable driver T.C. Claxton, a skinny Brit with short red hair who knows everyone in town and plenty of people out of town. Refusing to reveal her real name, the know-them-all will only say it stands for “tough cookie.”
When T.C. dropped me off at the sprawling former sugar plantation, which has won a Condé Nast reader’s poll as the Caribbean’s top resort, a friendly employee guided me to my suite, stopping by the pool along the way to hand me a rum punch. When I joined my companions for drinks and dinner, I happily learned that we were on a quest to find the best rum punch on the island.
Lunch the next day was at the Hermitage Plantation Inn, and a barramundi (a local fish) with plantains and rice, with a rum punch. My friends ordered punches as well, Kym, originally from the South American/Caribbean country of Guyana, now living in Atlanta, Leesa from Winnipeg, Canada and Margie from Miami. Sitting on a patio overlooking a grove of mango trees, we wondered about the green monkeys we had heard about. We hadn’t seen any but were assured they are everywhere and sure enough, not long after we did see one scampering by.
For dinner, we attended what was billed as a fish fry BBQ at the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, an elegant affair that began with a rich pumpkin soup and included an extravaganza of grilled fish, shrimp and steak. Here we met the charismatic food and beverage manager Patterson Fleming, aka the Prince of Ties. The dapper dresser told us that guests constantly gift him fancy cravats. His collection exceeds 7,000.
The next morning we headed out to the Oualie Beach Hotel, where Kym and Leesa would snorkel with well-known marine biologist Barbara Whitman and Margie and I were scheduled for a hike. The laid-back beach property includes a bar (where owner John Yearwood plays in a band every Tuesday night), hotel rooms, a windsurfing shop, a bicycle shop and the SeaLifeEducationCenter, which harbors Crush, an injured sea turtle being rehabilitated. Members of the Yearwood family, which includes country singer Trisha Yearwood, have lived in the Caribbean since 1650.
The next day we lollygagged at the Four Seasons Resort, whose guests include Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa and whose largest shareholder is Bill Gates. Here we had Nevis massages at the award-winning spa and a fantastic dinner of grilled lobster, conch chowder and a huge assortment of other delectables. For lunch we meandered next door to the unassuming Sunshine’s Bar & Grill, a reggae-inspired gift shop, eatery and, most notably, bar serving up huge quantities of the infamous Killer Bee. With walls plastered with photos of John Lennon, Jimmy Buffett, Fidel Castro, John Travolta, Beyoncé and Che Guevara, Sunshine’s bar attracts a standing room crowd to watch the concoction being created. Ingredients include 151-proof rum, passion fruit juice, bitters and a topping of freshly-grated nutmeg.
When we arrived at the airport, we were informed that our flight would be delayed, so we headed to the bar and ordered rum punches. Our little group debated which place we’d visited had the best punch and came up with Hermitage Plantation Inn in first, followed by the airport bar, with Sunshine’s Bar & Grill placing third.
To best assess which punch you deem the best, you’d be well advised to visit Nevis yourself. Purely in the name or research, of course….