On a Sunday night in Basseterre, the capital of St. Kitts, the Jamaica Tallawahs batted against the Barbados Tridents at Warner Park during a Caribbean Premier League T20 cricket tournament. The wicket ignited with an LED flash as a bail tumbled; the crowd, which included the prime minister, roared with approval. A Mexican Wave swept through the nosebleed seats. The Jumbotron projected a close-up of the El Dorado Rum girls shaking their spangled booties. Since when, I thought to myself, did cricket have the sex appeal of Carnival?
This wasn’t the Caribbean I knew. For years I had ignored St. Kitts in favor of its neighbors. The shopping and restaurants are better on St. Bart’s, the sand whiter on Anguilla, and the plantation inns prettier on Nevis, just across the Narrows. But after finally giving the island a chance recently, I found that humble St. Kitts doesn’t have an attitude about itself, and therein lies its charm. Whether it was at the cricket match or at the farmers’ market, I felt welcomed. Most of the 68-square-mile island remains rural, with a handful of fishing villages ringing the perimeter.
What St. Kitts has long needed is a luxury resort, and plenty of offshore investors and real estate developers are eyeing land. Christophe Harbour, on the southeastern end, will be the site of a mega-yacht marina and a future Park Hyatt. The first of the new hotel crop to open, however, is up north. This month, Belle Mont Farm debuts at Kittitian Hill, a planned resort and community spread over 400 acres on the lower slope of Mount Liamuiga. The 84 shingle-and-clapboard guesthouses face west, toward St. Eustatius and Saba, and are the dividing line between grasslands and a rising cloud forest, the domain of vervet monkeys and wild mangoes. This is the work of Bangkok-based architect Bill Bensley, known for sophisticated retreats such as Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Puerto Rico and the Park Hyatt Siem Reap in Cambodia. The style remains rooted in the Caribbean vernacular (louvered shutters; gingerbread trim; botanical paintings by local artist Kate Spencer) and plunge pools compensate for the lack of an immediate beach. Within the Great House, the Kitchen restaurant is surrounded by an edible landscape of banana trees and coconut palms. Walking the grounds, I noticed there was always a cool breeze.
By the time the entire project is complete in 2016, Kittitian Hill will encompass private homes, another 200-room hotel and shopping village, a spa, and a beach club at the former Golden Lemon Inn & Villas, on a nearby black-sand shore. But during a recent sneak peek, it was just me and the tree frogs up there.
The countryside around Belle Mont Farm is especially inviting compared with the sprawl of Basseterre down south. Roads narrow. Minibuses named Love Thug and De Wiggle swerve around sheep. One-room grocery stores sell Carib beer and hot sauce. Abandoned cane fields have gone to grass everywhere. Early Sunday morning, devout ladies cluster outside parish churches, waiting for services. In Dieppe Bay, I pulled off the road to admire St. John’s, a 17th-century Anglican chapter house—one of the first built in the Caribbean.
Cockleshell Bay, on the rocky peninsula below Basseterre, has two miles of white sand and calm blue waters. Sea cliffs provide a windbreak for the snack shacks, and umbrellas shade napping parents as teenagers splash. Next to the Reggae Beach Bar a carved memorial to a pet pig bears this marker: WILBUR. LIVED DE LIFE. RUSHED SLOWLY. Taking this to heart, I tested barstools on the peninsula one afternoon. Spice Mill owner Roger Brisbane poured me a Ting-and-passion-fruit punch to pair with his fried-grouper sandwich. At Shipwreck Bar, on South Friars Bay, I tasted queen conch fritters and Coco López slushies. I found that Salt Plage, at Christophe Harbour, had the best vantage for stalking the green flash at sunset.
Island social life is easy to follow once you know where the party will be on any given night of the week. Wednesdays belong to Sprat Net, in Old Road, where, as one lady advised me, “you can give it a little shake.” Thursdays the action shifts to Mr. X’s Shiggidy Shack, on the Strip at South Frigate Bay. On Fridays and Saturdays, it’s possible to find live reggae or soca in the smallest of rum shops.
One morning, I woke up to the sound of a one-two bounce on the roof of my cottage. Mangoes are the zucchini of St. Kitts. During the season, backyard gardeners leave them on roadside tables. Distiller Brinley Gold Shipwreck Rum produces a mango-flavored rum; farmer Judah Fari sells mango smoothies at his Ital Creations juice stand, in Basseterre. They also arrive in a pot of jam whipped up in the Kitchen at Kittitian Hill, where Normandy-born chef Christophe Letard is experimenting with island-sourced produce for his French-Caribbean menu. (The man is mad for mamey apple; it even shows up on breakfast pizzas.)
Valmiki Kempadoo, Kittitian Hill’s founder, joined me one evening on the Great House terrace. His father and sister are noted novelists, so by natural extension, this worldly Trinidadian is an effusive advocate of regional culture; he wants to host a literary festival and artist-in-residence program at the resort. (Coincidentally, one of his companies also built the cricket stadium.) Kempadoo’s project promises to respect the pace of island life, and deliver a fully inclusive experience comparable to Jumby Bay, A Rosewood Resort, with a splurge-worthy price tag of $2,250 per night.
Mist clinging to the high peaks descended to our elevation. Rain sheared sideways. After chasing the sun for days, my perspective shifted to the wilderness stretching before us. “What I really need is a good forager,” Kempadoo mused, following my gaze. “Can you imagine what’s in there, waiting to be discovered?”
Shane Mitchell is T+L’s lifestyle correspondent.