Story by Julie Hatfield
Photos by Tim Leland and Julie Hatfield

The gorgeous road from St. Kitts to the Nevis ferry is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the left and the Caribbean Sea on the right.

You can’t jet to Nevis, but you can swim there — if you first fly to St. Kitts, Nevis’ sister island. 

Most people take the 20-minute ferry from St. Kitts to Nevis, its tiny West Indies island neighbor, after jetting to Kitts on a commercial flight. But once a year, hundreds of swimmers jump into the Caribbean Sea in the annual Cross Channel Swim and cover the 2-1/2-mile- trip through “The Narrows” on their own steam. They leave their luggage behind, of course. 

We came to Nevis on the advice of a friend who had traveled here to play golf at the luxurious Four Seasons Resort and fell so in love with the island that he considered buying a home there immediately. We certainly wanted to play a round of golf at the plushy Four Seasons, but we also wanted to explore accommodations that provided more Nevis flavor than that of a huge, globally owned and managed property.  

The view of St. Kitts from the patio of Mount Nevis Hotel.

Our first stop was the Mount Nevis Hotel, in a wide-open 17-acre spread of 32 villas with stunning views of the Caribbean Sea and St. Kitts in the near distance. Eating dinner there on an outdoor deck, overlooking those views at sunset as the moon rose in the night sky, was one of the highlights of the trip — as were our dreamy swims alone in the pool of our next accommodation, Golden Rock Inn, a tropical garden high up on a hillside with private cottages in a setting that makes you feel you’ve fallen into “The Jungle Book.” The pool was surrounded by tall Norfolk pines and flowering bromeliad.  

At Drift Restaurant you can dine practically on top of the water.

Every experience we had that week in Nevis was a planet apart from our city life at home, beginning the first night, lying in bed in the dark after turning out the lights and listening to the distant braying of wild donkeys, the chatter of vervet monkeys in the trees outside our window, the delicate singing of the tree frogs in the jungle around us.  

Nevis is a 36-square-mile island — “50 square miles before erosion,” according to one Nevisian, — that is part of the Leeward Islands chain in the West Indies. No building on Nevis is taller than a coconut tree, and no drive from one place to another on Nevis takes longer than 30 minutes. It is the smallest country in the Americas, both in area and population. It doesn’t have any fast food restaurants on it, or a single traffic light, either. (“The wild donkeys wandering the roads are our traffic lights,” says John Ford Parris, our genial taxi driver).  

Wild donkeys roam the Nevis land.

Parris contends that most of the 12,000 residents of Nevis are interrelated in one way or another, and we saw evidence of that as he drove us around the island, waving hello to everybody along the way. It’s an incredibly friendly island — and statistically one of the safest places in the world. Parris added that on a first visit to Nevis, you may be a stranger, but ever afterward, “you are considered family.” 

Ever since the success of the Broadway production of “Hamilton,” the first thing tourists want to do on Nevis — after hitting the beaches — is visit the home of the island’s famous native son, Alexander Hamilton. It’s hard to believe that the first U. S. Secretary of the Treasury and Gen. Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War was born on this faraway speck of an island . . . but he was. The head of the local Hamilton museum, 24-year-old Eli Ramirez Dorsett, notes a huge uptick in tourist visits since the success of the play.  

The Alexander Hamilton Museum in Nevis gets more attention since the Broadway play of the same name appeared in New York.

Dorsett is a knowledgeable Hamilton scholar who is happy to give museum visitors a short-form lecture on all the known facts about Hamilton: That he was considered a bastard by the citizenry because his parents conceived him out of wedlock; that he attended a local Jewish school because he was refused entry into Christian schools; that he was orphaned as a pre-teen; that he was befriended by a Catholic priest who sent him to the United States for college.  

Hamilton’s life story would make a great play. Maybe even a musical. 

Ancient ficus tree at the entrance of Montpelier Inn and Beach.

Nevis is dotted with the ancient ruins of sugar plantations that mark that sad period of slave labor in its Colonial history. Today, some of the ruins have been put to use: The bar and several of the cottages at the luxurious Golden Rock Inn are plantation buildings, or parts of them, that have been restored. The second hole of the Four Seasons golf course runs by an enormous plantation ruin with bougainvillea bushes growing nearby. Diners at the popular Montpelier Plantation can request a private candlelit meal inside a former processing mill. Huge copper pots originally used to cook sugar in colonial days now grace the fountain of the beautiful Nevis Botanical Gardens, an 8 1/2 acre oasis of tropical plants, flowers, fruit gardens, lily ponds, parrot houses, and orchid terraces. 

Hole 2 at the Four Seasons Golf Course Nevis runs by an ancient sugar plantation structure.

Nevis is itself a huge tropical garden, with flowers growing along every road. The volcanic soil from its geologic origins produces an amazing farrago of agricultural riches, including 50 varieties of mango fruit. Golden Rock Inn has developed 40 of its 100 acres into a lush collection of 65 species of palm trees, ylang-ylang, bougainvillea, trumpet flowers, gardenias, gigantic philodendrons, bromeliads, and a whole group of plants with health benefits to humans, such as the “Nonie” from Nigeria, which helps those with diabetes, the “hangover” tree, and other plants which aid with digestion. The garden architect from South Florida who designed the collection is named, poetically, Raymond Jungle. 

The yellow blossom is part of the enormous botanical garden that surrounds Golden Rock Inn.

Visitors who are inclined to hike are tempted by the 3,232-foot Nevis Peak, which dominates the scenery of the island. Unless you’re an experienced hiker, however, you should probably stick to the areas below the peak. Ivo Richly, general manager of Golden Rock Inn, climbed it when he first arrived and said it took 12 ladders, and a lot of rope, among other things, to get to the top. There are plenty of other, slightly easier hikes to take on Nevis if you don’t want to deal with ladders and ropes. 

The last time Nevis Peak erupted was 1,600 years ago, but active fumaroles and hot springs are signs of the thermal heat beneath the surface, and the springs are a delight to locals and visitors alike. Wearing their bathing suits, they bring picnics to the healing pools in downtown Charlestown that are said to assuage any pain and relax any stress at any hour of the day or night. It’s free to everyone. 

The beautiful pavilion at Golden Rock Inn Nevis is the place for private lunches and dinners.

Getting around Nevis is easy (not including swimming). You can rent a bicycle and explore Nevis on two wheels with or without a guide, or you can take a “Funky Monkey” ATV tour and explore that way. All beaches on the island are open to the public, but when Princess Diana came here with young Princes William and Harry, she purposely stayed at Montpelier Plantation because she knew that the beach near that property was so hidden by its tropical growth that no paparazzi could find it. You can ride horses on the beach, incidentally. 

Nevis may not have any fast food restaurants, but it has a surprising number of exceptional gourmet restaurants: There’s “Luna,” with its roof open to the night sky and a talented chef from Calcutta. The quirky “Bananas” restaurant sits at the top of a hill on an impossibly winding road; it’s owned by a British ex-pat who has taught her cadre of local chefs to cook Creole/Mediterranean/Moroccan specialties, served in a setting that diners liken to “eating in a tree house.” Mount Nevis Hotel brought Chef Liam Haddow, a specialist in patisserie from Great Britain, who presents arriving guests with chocolate welcome pastries and provides his own luscious from-scratch red wine sauces for rack of lamb. 

Scrumptious dessert at Mount Nevis Hotel.

 The settings of these and other restaurants are spectacular, from the candlelit gazebo dinners at Golden Rock overlooking the koi pond to Drift’s whitewashed bead-board cottage hanging over the sea to private dinners inside the 300-year-old sugar mill at Montpelier Plantation Resort. If artist Vicki Fuller’s dramatic paintings of Nevis fauna have not all been sold out again from the walls of Drift, as they were when we visited, you can take home a stunning memory of the island to hang on your wall. 

The chefs all make use of Nevis’ rich bounty, which includes the many kinds of mango grown here; the goats for their favorite stew (which they call, unappealingly, “goat water”); coconut, pumpkin, pea shoots; fish (often delivered to the restaurant in person by the men who caught them the same day) — and, of course, the local standby, rum.  

My husband and I can’t wait to return to this pretty little floral oasis in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. We’ll no longer be strangers then. We’ll be Nevis’s “family” for the rest of time.

A typical breakfast at Golden Rock Inn is always special.