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Trip Report Trip Report: Nevis (Nisbet Plantation) and St. Kitts (Ottley's Plantation)

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Doubting Tomas

The last time I went to Nevis, two years ago, it was on a day’s notice. http://islandtime.homestead.com/Nevis2008.html. A planned trip to the Bahamas Out Islands was cancelled due to a hurricane, so I booked the next destination on “The List” a day before departure. Travel snafus ensued, but in the end, we loved the island of Nevis and Nisbet Plantation, and felt it was worthy of a return visit.

This time around, I invested a lot more effort into my travel planning, having months to do it, not hours. I researched; I arranged for “necessities” (Mt. Gay rum, for one) to be in our room on arrival; I booked a rental car; I planned for transfers from the St. Kitts airport to Nisbet Plantation. Thinking (mistakenly, as it turned out) that we’d want a change of scenery after 4 nights in Nevis, I also booked 3 nights in St. Kitts at Ottley’s Plantation.

Me being me, could things go according to plan? Hurricane Tomas proved to be a big ol’ storm barreling right for the Windward Islands right about the time we were to arrive in St. Kitts … a big enough storm that we had to be prepared for anything. So, as I left the office on Friday and people asked me where I was headed, the answer was: “Nevis. I think.” I had Plans A, B, C and D in mind should Tomas initially track further north than forecast, or make its anticipated eastward turn midweek further south than forecast. As it turned out, Tomas took a big swipe at St. Lucia, and later at Haiti, but the only impact on my travels (besides worry) was that I needed Dramamine for the MIA-SKB flight and the water taxi from St. Kitts to Nevis (the seas were sloppy, to put it mildly).

Aside from Tomas, travel was a relative breeze. We had to get up at the ungodly early hour of 3 a.m. to make a 6:15 a.m. flight from DCA to MIA, but that flight and the MIA-SKB flight were right on time. When we finally cleared customs and immigration at SKB (delayed, due to the JFK-SKB flight arriving at the same time as ours), Nisbet’s driver, Isaac, was waiting for us at the curb. Isaac shuttled us through the rutted roads of southeastern St. Kitts to Cockleshell Bay (Reggae Beach), where we boarded a high-speed power cat for the 6-minute ride to Oualie Beach (complete with complimentary Carib … welcome to de islands, mon). Another driver met us at the dock, and within 5 minutes we were in the welcoming arms of Nisbet Plantation.

As I’ve said before, sometimes the only thing better than visiting a place like Nisbet Plantation is coming back. Our first visit was superlative; this time, we were treated like an even more precious commodity: returning guests, greeted by name from the moment we stepped out of the van that delivered us. Wet towels were dispensed, rum punch poured, and we were soon escorted to our oceanfront lodgings, Pembroke. Same set-up as last time, but a bit closer to the sand and the beach bar, and a hand-written note welcoming us back. We shucked our travel clothes and made our way to Coconuts for a few rounds of drinks and a look around, making the acquaintance of bartender Allison. A few other guests were around, and in no time we slid into island mode (with the assistance of a tropical cocktail or two).

On this particular trip, island mode was particularly lazy. In recent years, it seems like we’d lost the ability to give in totally to sand gravity, and planned our trips to destinations where we’d have more activity. Not the casino/shopping/group tour type of activity, but sailing, kayaking, diving, snorkeling and exploring deserted beaches type of activity. Perhaps this time around we were just more stressed out and tired than we have been in the past, but sand gravity took hold on this trip. Our daily routine was decidedly un-ambitious.

I’d typically start the morning, around 7 a.m., with a Diet Coke on our balcony, looking out for monkeys, listening to the surf, and writing in my journal. Shortly after 8, we’d mosey on down to the beach restaurant for breakfast, where we’d be greeted by Angela or Violet (or Patterson one morning), and the ladies knew that Rick wanted coffee and I wanted English Breakfast tea. After that, we’d go back to the room, apply sunscreen, and then take our places on the beach – which seems to have lost a bit of sand in some spots from the season’s storms. With the steady trade winds, we never got too warm. We’d rouse ourselves from our reading for a walk along the sand or a swim in the still-warm water.

Lunchtime was the only time we availed ourselves of the car we’d rented from Parry’s. Going back to my second home on Nevis, Sunshine’s, was an absolute necessity. On Monday, we were the first arrivals to this hallowed spot on Pinney’s Beach. We settled at one of the cushy tables, ordering Killer Bees and lunch – lobster for Rick, conch for me. Sunshine himself welcomed us back, saying he remembered Rick from our past visits, and thanking us for our business. Things got a bit busier as the afternoon wore on and we got more and more mellow. We came back on Wednesday as well, this time taking our Killer Bees on a walk down the beach to check out the progress at the Four Seasons, which is still rebuilding after Hurricane Omar from 2 years ago. The Four Seasons is slated to re-open shortly, but who knows whether that’s in real time or Island Time.

Another day, we went back to Golden Rock Plantation for lunch. Golden Rock is up in the mountains, as are all the plantation inns on Nevis and St. Kitts other than Nisbet. It’s visually striking, built among the ruins of a sugar plantation and looking out through lush vegetation over the sea to Redonda (which we could see), Montserrat and Antigua (which we couldn’t, due to cloud cover). Since our last visit, stone terraces and pools had been added to the grounds, but the fish sandwich was the same as before: fabulous. Sometimes getting into a rut isn’t so bad, when the payoff is a beautiful setting and memorable food.

On Wednesday, we went to Lime, the restaurant owned by Nisbet’s maître d’ Patterson. Located on Pinney’s Beach near Sunshine’s and Chevy’s, the location is a promising one. Patterson swore that his grilled grouper was the best on the island, and it was awfully good; I had lobster salad with a dill mayonnaise, which was excellent as well. Patterson is doing a good job of public relations, since many tables were full for lunchtime, some of whom we recognized as fellow Nisbet guests.

After our lunches away from the plantation, we’d return to the hard work of lounging on the beach. By late afternoon, sundowners were in order, and we’d slowly ready ourselves for the evening. One evening, we were invited to general manager Jamie Holmes’ cocktail party for returning guests, which was a fun opportunity to meet other guests. A very small amount of prospecting typically reveals that we have things in common, beyond choice of vacation destinations. In the absence of a planned event, we’d pop into the Great House lounge for a pre-dinner drink and a little visiting, while appetizers were passed. Then, onward, to the beautiful dining porch for dinner. Chef Tony’s offerings ranged from continental to West Indian, and we feasted on pepper pot, local lobster, tuna tataki, decidedly un-local duck and – on our last night, at my request – goat stew. The goat stew was definitely my favorite meal, but it was made to look far more elegant than other curried goat meals I’ve enjoyed throughout the Caribbean.

On our last day at Nisbet, we reluctantly peeled ourselves off our beach loungers and headed to lunch at the beach bar. Angela and Violet were giving us grief for leaving so soon, and it was certainly tempting to chuck our plans to go to St. Kitts and hang around Nevis a bit longer. But we were excited to spend time on a new island, and by all accounts, Ottley’s Plantation would be an excellent home base.

Columbus Liked It So Much, He Named It After Himself

As we boarded our water taxi from Oualie Beach, it started to rain; soon, there was no hiding from the downpour. Luckily, we only had a few steps from the dock to the van sent by Ottley’s to meet us, driven by Chiefy. The rain came down in buckets; the volcanic rocks and soil of this part of St. Kitts don’t absorb the rain but channel it downhill, so the roads were running with streams of rainwater, making the bumpy ride that much more challenging. It seemed to take nearly an hour to reach Ottley’s from Cockleshell Bay (including a quick stop at the bank in Basseterre).

We knew that Ottley’s would have a tough act to follow, since we are such enthusiastic fans of Nisbet Plantation and Nevis. Of course, I wouldn’t be comparing apples to apples, since Ottley’s is on a different island, and is located inland, in the mountains, rather than on the beach. Happily, our visit was equally satisfying, albeit different. And the rain did not spoil our arrival. The entrance drive to Ottley’s is bordered by a stand of tall palms, and white egrets dotted the expansive lawns; Mt. Liamuiga, which towers over the property, was wreathed in heavy clouds, a dramatic sight. We were met at the office in the yellow-and-white Great House by Mary, who handed us wet towels and offered a welcome rum punch. There we also met co-owner Art, and were invited to a rum punch party in the evening.

We chose to stay in one of the stone cottages downhill from the Great House, which are not only roomy and attractively decorated in English colonial style, but also have large patios with private plunge pools (this makes up for me, somewhat, not being on the beach). The fruit trees bordering our patio – soursops? – were a huge draw for the many resident green vervet monkeys, which are said to outnumber island residents. We could count on their entertaining us in the early morning and before sunset. Our view out over the lawns and down to the sea was beautiful, and at night we were lulled to sleep by the sound of tree frogs and breezes clattering in the palm and banana trees. The room was air-conditioned, but we never needed it; we had all amenities we could have wanted, and lacked the ones we didn’t want (e.g. TV).

At cocktails our first evening, we met the rest of the ownership/management team of Marty and Karen, who chatted with us from time to time throughout our visit. They were charming conversationalists, made sure we were well taken care of, and clued us in on activities and sights on the island which would suit our wishes. Meals were served in the stunning remains of the sugar boiling building, into which a beautifully sited pool, and open-air bar and dining room are tucked; truly one of the prettiest dining spaces I’ve ever seen. Though I might have wished for a bit more West Indian flair in the food choices, the food was certainly up to the standards established by the attractiveness of the site.

With only two full days available for us to explore St. Kitts, we kept our ambitions modest. On Friday, the Avis van picked us up and drove us to the office in Basseterre, where we quickly picked up our Daihatsu Terios (be warned: rental cars on St. Kitts are way pricier than on Nevis, but are likely to be newer as well), being able to dispense with getting a local driving license, since Rick had already gotten one in Nevis. Our initial destination was South Frigate Bay, home of the Shipwreck Beach Bar and Grill.

Shipwreck had the potential to be on our list of great island beach bars except for one factor – which we should have taken greater note of when in Basseterre: it was a cruise ship day. St. Kitts is a small island, with a limited number of traditional “attractions” beyond the Port Zante complex in Basseterre designed to separate visitors from their money in pursuit of so-called bargains on luxury goods. As a result, many taxi drivers and tour operators include a beach stop on their itineraries, depositing crowds of visitors on the sand (or, optimally, beach chairs that can be rented for a few hours). So, rather than the laid-back beach bar experience we prefer, our short visit at Shipwreck was shared with a crowd of busy, hurried daytrippers competing for the attention of the bartender and server.

After a lunch of mahi mahi sandwiches, we decided to visit the Caribelle Batik factory en route to a circumnavigation of the island. The factory store is on the site of Romney Manor, a former sugar plantation. The grounds include a “ghut” or “ghaut” – a sort of ravine carved by heavy rains flowing down the mountains. It’s always wet in the ghuts, so the vegetation riots: dangling vines, giant elephant ears, lush palms. The Caribelle store is in a colorful gingerbread cottage, and honey scent of the beeswax used to make the batik fabrics wafts through the air. As much as I enjoy batik – and the Caribelle stuff is lovely, often sporting many colors – I didn’t buy any. I find its use limited to island vacations, and got my fill at the Androsia factory during last year’s trip to Andros in the Bahamas. (Like Shipwreck, there were lots of visitors at Romney Manor.)

We continued on our trip around the island. St. Kitts is an exceptionally pretty island, with the green peaks of the mountains scraping the clouds that seem always to hover, and flatter plains near the sea with waving fields of sugarcane. The picturesque ruins of sugar mills dot the landscape. The many villages and settlements along the main road tumble down the hills, combining snug houses and corrugated roofed shacks. There are steep drops into the water, and the sea heaves with heavy surge, with few (if any) hospitable harbors – believe me, as sailors, we’re always looking.

We drove past Brimstone Hill Fortress, but decided we were too lazy to get out and check it out. Off to the northwest, the volcanic cone of Statia loomed in the distance, across the water. On the northeast shore, we pulled off the road to check out a site known simply as Black Rocks. Here, a pile of volcanic boulders fell long ago into the sea, creating a dramatic clash of black rocks, blue sea, and white spray. There were stands set up around the parking area, evidently readying for Guy Fawkes Day (the celebration of which, marked by fireworks, continues for several days). Alas, we couldn’t get a Ting for love or money, but were offered many Caribs … “for the road.”

Our sole goal for our last full day in St. Kitts was quality beach time. Following Karen’s suggestion (heartily seconded by Marty), we loaded up some beach chairs and towels and headed to Sandbank Bay, on the southeastern coast. Someday, this lovely beach will be part of the Christophe Harbour complex currently under development; but for now, we only had to share it with a handful of other visitors. The beach is embraced by a pair of volcanic cones, and accessed by sliding down a small seagrape-covered dune. Golden sand is packed hard (but watch out for the seaweed, which is inhabited by noseeums), and the water is shallow for some distance, without rocks, weed, or shells. On Saturday, there was a good bit of surf – 3-footers with occasional larger swells – this is the Atlantic side of the island. But once the waves broke, we were awash in effervescence. It was like swimming in cool champagne. Heaven.

At lunchtime, we decided to give Reggae Beach a try. At last, we found beach bar satisfaction in St. Kitts (at least this day, with no ships in port). Mellow vibe, cold Carib, good food, the obligatory “Jimmy Buffett Was Here” photographs, a reggae soundtrack. We hung out for a bit, but then succumbed to the allure of the beach, returning to Sandbank – it was just the thing for our last day in paradise. But even paradise has rain, and a light sprinkle soon turned into a heavy shower. We didn’t care about getting wet ourselves, but our electronic toys (Kindles, digital camera, iPod) didn’t much appreciate it. Since it was nearly happy hour, we headed back to Ottley’s.

As with many of my favorite places in the Caribbean, at Ottley’s, we didn’t feel like a client to be processed and dealt with in a cookie-cutter room. Rather, we felt warmly welcomed in the casually elegant and beautiful home of new friends.

The Price of Paradise: Going Home

There must be a conspiracy afoot in the islands: if the last hours of vacation are bad enough, the transition to going back to work isn’t that hard. Or so it seems. This time, the bad actor was Avis in Basseterre. We returned our rental at 9ish, and were prepared to take a taxi back to Ottley’s to enjoy the rest of the day (we didn’t have to leave for the airport til 2 p.m.). The assistant manager told us the Avis shuttle would take us back “in a few minutes.” A few minutes turned into 45 minutes, and as we moved towards a taxi, she assured us that the shuttle driver was on his way and would be there momentarily. Time passed us by, and finally a driver came. All told, we wasted over 2 precious hours with Avis, and I’m not sure why the assistant manager felt the need to hold us hostage for a free shuttle when we were more than willing to take a taxi and get on with it. The limited time we had left allowed us to have a quick lunch, and an even more brief walk through the rain forest on the Ottley grounds – I would have enjoyed a more in-depth exploration, but that was out of the question given the time.

Of course, by now we are accustomed to the inefficiencies of airports in the Caribbean, and the one in St. Kitts was no exception. On Sundays, American Airlines has jet service to both Miami and New York, as well as several Eagles to San Juan, so there was lots of traffic in the airport – and that’s just one airline. Miami is my least favorite of US airports, and some changes in the layout in the airport (allegedly temporary) have made the immigration and customs process even more time-consuming; at least we had plenty of time to connect (and, as it turned out, my flight was delayed as well). Compared to travel home, going to work Monday morning was almost easy.

Why The Caribbean?

Whenever I have a chance to travel, I can’t resist the siren song of the West Indies. There are other places in the world, even in the U.S., that are of interest to me, but when I want a break, it’s always De Islands for me. As long as Rick and I work as hard as we do, we need our vacations to allow us to kick back while enjoying many of the things we love: sun, sand, sailing, the sea, rum, a warm welcome, natural beauty, unique lodgings. It also helps that many of the islands are relatively easy to reach from our home port. Despite having a geographical proximity, and many things in common, each island is different and has a unique personality. Even within tiny St. Kitts and Nevis, each of these sister islands is distinct from the other. While we have visited many islands in the Caribbean, there are others that we’ve yet to explore, and for now, we plan to keep returning.

Simply put, the Caribbean is my heart’s home.

Photos: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=332411&id=731677785&l=5acf615a55

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