Saint Kitts was subject to more than the usual colonial intervention. It was initially claimed by Christopher Columbus in 1493, but it became the site of the first British and French colonies in the Caribbean, in the mid-1620s. This gave it the perhaps unenviable title of 'The Mother Colony of the West Indies'. Its position meant that it was easily reached on the currents and it soon became the first port of call for transatlantic expeditions. The English took up the middle, with the French at the top and the bottom. The Spanish took over in 1629, but left again a year later.
The island alternated repeatedly between English (then British) and French control during the seventeenth and eighteenth, until 1783, when the British finally seized absolute power. They already had control of Nevis, which had become a huge centre for the import and export of slaves. St Kitts Nevis became the richest islands in the Caribbean, mainly because of the sugar plantations. They were both part of the British West Indies (to begin with, just in union with Anguilla) until gaining independence in 1983 as a federation.
There's considerable confusion over names. It was thought that Columbus named the island of St Kitts, St Christopher (Cristobal in Spanish). 'after his patron saint'. But it transpires that he actually named it St James and the nearby island of Saba, was supposed to be St Christopher. Similarly, Nevis was supposed to be St Martin. but the Dutch/French Caribbean island was mistakenly called that instead. So, Nevis was named after the cloud around its mountain - Nieves - Our Lady of the Snows in Spanish.
The two islands are separated by a two-mile stretch of sea known as ‘the narrows’. To get between them, you can hop on a five-minute water taxi, to Charlestown, Nevis. Every year, thousands flock here for the Channel Swim, joined by kayaks and fishing boats to keep a lookout for sharks. Or:
A relaxing week being pampered at a plantation hotel in the centre of St Kitts. (Or St Christopher to give it its full name.) Ottleys is a family-owned, former sugar plantation, magnificently situated at the foot of majestic Mount Liamuiga. It is surrounded by stunning vistas, mountain ranges and rolling hills and it has heaps of atmosphere.
The building is a restored eighteenth century mansion house with beautifully decorated in- keeping-with-the-period rooms and views across the manicured gardens. There are swaying palms to the ocean. This accommodation is not cheap. But the really affluent get ' intimate' stone cottages with private plunge pools. There's a gorgeous main pool next to the breakfast café and a gourmet (but expensive) restaurant for the also rans.
There's also a great (but expensive) spa, which overlooks a rainforest ravine, a well, a donkey and other delights, to be discovered in the extensive grounds. The amin downside: wooden floor boards - I'm sure there are elephants stampeding in the room overhead. But the service is excellent and there are much worse ways to spend a week.
Back again in 2023 and this time I've arrived from Trinidad. I'm going Dutch next, - travelling on to Saba and Statia by ferry, but there's going to be time to explore St Kitts again. St Kitts has recently got to grips with modern technology, to speed up the immigration process. Before you arrive, now, you’re supposed to fill in an online customs and immigration form. You give your email address and they send you a receipt with a number that you hand to the relevant two authorities, on arrival. Except that the email never turns up. So you’re in trouble, unless you’ve taken a screen print of your completed form, with requisite number. Fortunately, I have.
As he drops me off at the ferry, so I can travel on to Saba, the taxi driver requests that I go out for a drink with him when I return. It’s a recurrent theme with taxi drivers in the Caribbean, even though I always tell them I’m married with five children. The ferry back to St Kitts from Statia is rammed full. The crew don’t bother telling folk not to sit on the Atlantic side, as there’s nowhere else for the returning Kittitians to sit. They are drenched, as the waves wash over us. One sensible lady crouches under her umbrella. Another couple have brought oilskins. They’ve done the journey before. It’s so rough today that the boat is almost an hour late. And the sun sets, as we drift into Basseterre.
Immigration here is set up to try the most patient of beings. The queue to get into the tiny office (only two officials on duty) snakes down the quayside. The same lady who supervised the outward trip barks orders that no-one can understand and they certainly don’t obey, if they did. I’ve managed to get myself near the front of the queue, thankfully. Then it’s customs. Ther are maybe 20 officers, all wearing reindeer antlers. Insisting on searching every single bag and recording all my details. I tell them they’re still going to be here on Christmas Day. Then, I have to take my belongings through the scanner. It wasn’t like this at the airport. I wonder if there’s more smuggling on the sea routes?
I finally emerge, dragging my bag, to find that taxis don’t operate here in the evening.
Double sided Frigate Bay is touted as the most popular beach on St. Kitts. The beaches aren’t stunning, however. They’re on a strip that joins the tail to the body of the tadpole that is St Kitts. The north-east (Atlantic) side of this is goldenish - the best and widest stretch is in front of the Marriott. There are a plethora of hotels here too, which would mostly explain its popularity. There’s a captive audience. These beaches are also the closest to the ferry port. There are three cruisers in today. However, there’s a constant Atlantic swell and plenty of sea weed thrown onto the pieces of sand not covered by foaming water.
South west, is the section I’m staying on, South Frigate Beach in Timothy Beach Resort. A quarter mile stretch on the Caribbean side. The resort says the sand is golden, Lonely Planet says golden-grey and I say dark beige. It’s because there’s dark volcanic sand mixed in with the lighter grains. There’s a little stone walled harbour, which would be scenic, if it wasn’t for the crane and ugly pier. In the other direction, The Strip, a line of beach bars with the usual paraphernalia of gaily painted but shabby thatched shacks serving ‘Caribbean’ food.
Timothy’s is a typical mid range Caribbean resort. The room is spacious and fine, if you don’t look too closely at the paintwork (there are spatters over everything), with the usual Caribbean wicker and floral drapes. They won’t run to an upgrade, despite the fact they’re nowhere near full. I have a ’mountain view’, which means I look straight out onto the hillside. And I’m a long way up the hill from the beach. That might be an advantage though, as it’s the weekend and I’ve heard The Strip can get quite raucous.
Nevertheless, I’m quite happy, on my beach bed, venturing into the water as necessary, to cool off. There’s a great deal to observe. Strings of jet skis and zodiacs bumping away. 'Are we ready for some fun guys?' A group of women do a fitness class at eight in the morning, buoyancy noodles at the ready, hair covered in flowery bonnets. A gaggle of boys splash, fight, throw sand and find an infinite variety of ways to demonstrate their superiority over each other. A woman with her extensions piled under the tallest swimming cap I ever saw is giving a swimming lesson. It involves a lot of whistle blowing.
Other families gambol happily in the water. A young girl toddles into the water, escaping her mother and waving a mobile phone perilously close to the waves. ‘Papa, your phone is crying.’ So was he, almost. But both child and phone are rescued in the nick of time.
Uncle Marty (who seems to know everyone on St Kitts) is taking me on a Round The Island Tour. (An island tour doesn't take long.) Clockwise of course, round the tadpole body. First, Bird Rock Beach, where the hotel (like one other) prides itself on keeping dolphins captive, in the bay, (they use net barricades) to entertain its guests. I’m not happy to hear that and don’t want to linger.
Next, small houses spilling down the slope, which I’m told are student housing. It looks a pleasant place to live, Lovely views of the southern slopes and Nevis. Cruise ships lurk in all the bays here. I’m surprised to hear that St Kitts is home to two medical colleges and one veterinary college. It’s an enterprising way to make money. The vets are exceptionally beneficial, as they study the local fauna, and raise and tend local livestock.
Dipping down the steep streets to Basseterre, the tiny port capital of St Kitts and Nevis, where about half the population live. Basseterre, is mainly colourful concrete houses, as the original French and British eighteenth century dwellings were damaged, in a fire, in 1867. The town is built around Independence Square, originally used for slave auctions in the eighteenth century. Independence Square was formerly known as Pall Mall Square; it was renamed to commemorate the island’s independence in 1983. Apparently, it’s designed to look like a Union Jack.
There's an imposing grey stone church on the far side. The Catholic Co-cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Independence Square (am I back in Trinidad?) has two towers, like the one in Port of Spain and is suitably ornate. It’s relatively recent. Under British control Catholicism was banned for some time and previous Catholic churches were burnt. Wealthy Catholic families erected cupolas on the tops of their houses, as a sign for other Catholics to come and worship. Two such buildings remain, both on Liverpool Row.
The Anglican Cathedral sits atop Church Street, which is packed with government offices. St. George's is the largest church in Basseterre, but it too has seen several reincarnations. The National Museum is under renovation. Perhaps most famous, is the Glasgow built Berkeley Memorial (1883) – a clock in an elaborate green casing on the centre of a roundabout. There’s a British red phone box off to one side.
Alongside the harbour, the focal point of British Caribbean income in colonial times, past the needle War Memorial and north through small villages, marked with painted wooden signs. Bloody Point is situated to the west of Challengers Village. It gets its name from the Massacre of the Kalinago, which took place in the vicinity. The small river there was said to have run red with blood. One of the few occasions when the French and English fought on the same side - the local Kalinago were warlike and harassed all the settlers, who I’m told were trying to be peaceable. Until they had lost too many lives.
The sprawling old fortress at Brimstone Hill, dating back to the French/British conflict, is somewhat ambitiously nicknamed the Gibraltar of the West Indies, but this is still a large fortress. It is in a prime spot, on a hill nearly 800 feet high, with panoramic views well out to sea (it looks amazing from there too) and Sint Eustatius in the distance and beneath to the coast. It was constructed intermittently, over 100 years, between the 1690s and 1790s. So, it is described as ‘a veritable time capsule of international significance’. ‘One of the earliest and finest surviving examples of a new style of fortification known as the polygonal system’. Its steep slopes took some time to conquer and it is built out of volcanic stone (hewn from the hill) cemented with limestone mortar also quarried and produced on site. I suppose that makes it an eco fort.
Today, Brimstone is a National Park, UNESCO listed and still replete with guns. It's worth going just for the fantastic views, both above and below. But the history is also interesting. The fort was first conceived, as the French had captured Fort Charles on the water’s edge below. So, the British mounted cannons above and took it back. Almost a century later, during the Franco-American/British wars the French seized the island and fortress again, after a month of fighting. A year after that, St Kitts was reassigned to the British, as part of the Treaty of Versailles. The fortress was abandoned in 1852. It’s been beautifully renovated. (I took the last picture from the ferry.)
Turning onto the north coast of St Kitts. More villages: Dieppe Bay Town with its distinctive. red roofed church and picturesque ruined sugar mill. This is the oldest town founded by Europeans in the Eastern Caribbean. In 1538, a group of French Huguenots refugees, from Dieppe, arrived and named the settlement after their home town in Normandy. Sadly, the original town only survived a few weeks, before it was destroyed by the Spanish, but it was re-built in 1625 by more French settlers. Next, foam strewn bays, such as Sandy Bay, with splendid views of the Quill Volcano, on Sint Eustatius. Another village, Saddlers, and another strikingly situated church.
Next stop is Black Rocks, a formation on the north-eastern coast. It’s not quite Giant’s Causeway, but the volcanic flow from Mount Liamuiga, towering above, has created a scenic arrangement of dark boulders and towers, complemented by the spray from the incoming waves. The beaches in the north are all glossy black volcanic sand.
Back south, to the point where the tadpole tail joins the body, behind my hotel. Timothy Hill provides a great lookout spot ,above Frigate Beach. Here, the Atlantic rollers meet the Caribbean, to the south and there are dramatic views of more coves and the gently sloping hills of the southeast peninsula of St Kitts. Equally volcanic Nevis towers in the distance. To the north the Atlantic lashes the eastern shores of St Kitts in the sweeping bay.
Further south, passing coves, Friars Bay North and South (don’t swim on the north), White House Bay (exorbitantly priced moorings for luxury yachts), Sandy Bank Beach (watch out for rip tides). Next up, Turtle Beach. No prizes for guessing how it got its name.
Cockleshell Beach is right at the southern end of the tail. This is really the only contender, on St Kitts, for typical beautiful Caribbean beach. There’s a long sweep of sand which really is golden. At the end, the (everyone has to visit) Reggae Beach Bar.
A ferry across the channel known as The Narrows, to sister island Nevis, where I wander round colonial Charlestown. For a small place, it's stuffed with Georgian architecture and has a very atmospheric high street, ideal for sauntering along the cobbles. There's a church from the 1900s, founded by freed slaves, the historic Bath Hotel (the first ever constructed in the Caribbean) and an atmospheric Jewish cemetery, with graves as old as the 1600s.
After that a stroll (one and half miles) along the coast to Pinney's Beach. There's a long expanse of powdery white sand and a beach bar, at the chain hotel that monopolises this stretch. The whole is framed by the (usually) cloud shrouded Nevis Peak, rising grandly behind. The volcano hasn't erupted for 100,000 years. but there are active fumaroles and hot springs on the island and there's the occasional seismic judder.
The food here is expensive as very little can be grown on this hilly island and most provisions are imported. ‘Do you have yogurt?’, I ask the woman in the little supermarket. No, she says, it will come with the next container. Maybe two or three weeks. They’ve run out of Coca Cola at the hotel bar too. I’ve been sampling my Caribbean favourites here – conch fritters or chowder, coconut shrimp, grilled snapper and grouper, friend plantain (yum) and jerk chicken with rice and peas.
The currency is officially the East Caribbean Dollar. And the conversion rate for my USD (which they are happy to accept at the bar) is awful, so I get ECD from the ATM. To find that nearly everything in the bars and taxis is priced in USD. So now I’m converting the other way. To add insult to injury, the machine in the hotel restaurant won’t accept my card.
(Or read more about St Kitts and Nevis here.)
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