Island Hotels in Nevis
Published: August 2011
By Guy Trebay
T+L goes in search of the next great Caribbean getaway and finds Nevis Island hotels worth the trip.
Until you’ve slept in Anna Wintour’s bed you can’t imagine how good she is at slipping into your dreams; the Vogue editor has that sort of weird power. It has certainly surprised me how often over the years people—pros traveling a fashion circuit I sometimes follow from New York to London, Milan, and Paris—have confided that they dream of this influential woman.
I’d always assumed the dreams were of the anxiety-provoking sort, given the fearsome reputation attached to the figure that inspired The Devil Wears Prada. But, no, the dreams tend to be domestic, almost never erotic; and the odd fact is that when Anna Wintour came to me in my sleep it was as a selfish bedmate yanking the covers over to her side.
The image startled and woke me. Suddenly I realized that I’d kicked off the cotton bedcover and was freezing. Cold rain beating down on the roof of the room where I slept sounded like the contents of a tack barrel being emptied onto a tin roof. Fine mist sprayed through the jalousie windows I’d left open by mistake.
This was in Nevis. This was in an immense mahogany four-poster the size of a trampoline, a bed that took up much of the loft in a duplex hotel suite built into an ancient sugar mill. This was in a bed where Anna Wintour slept last Christmas, as a hotelier informed me in the reverent, whispered tone generally employed by docents to point out where George Washington once rested his head.
Accompanied by her gentleman friend, the financier Shelby Bryan, and their respective children, Ms. Wintour had taken over part of the small Golden Rock Inn, six pastel cottages containing 11 rooms tucked into the sides of a lush green hill, for the holidays. They stayed through New Year’s. Around the island, as I was informed by locals, Ms. Wintour’s visit commanded as much attention as any since that of Diana, Princess of Wales. Yet if the ill-starred princess had once chosen Nevis as a hideout following her divorce from Prince Charles, Ms. Wintour came with a different agenda: to plant a flag.
She was part of a loosely confederated group of the occupationally chic, the exceptionally wealthy, and the uncommonly well-connected, all gazing on Nevis as a potential escape from their traditional escapes. As the island retreats of yesteryear become spoiled by being too fashionable, new frontiers must be forged.
Forty years ago, islands like St. Bart’s were probably a lot like Nevis: drowsy; clean; basic, in terms of amenities; and unhurried in pace. Nowadays St. Bart’s feels less like a low-key getaway than a Caribbean theme park devoted to Unbridled Excess. A retreat for the quietly well-to-do has devolved into a billionaire ghetto, with oligarchs waddling around wearing wristwatches that look like gold manacles; tycoons moaning about the cost of real estate (a house there recently sold to the real estate developer Aby Rosen for a reported $36 million); trophy wives ostentatiously tossing Birkin bags onto their Hermès towels at Flamands beach; and paparazzi lurking around in the sea grape.
It was time to move on. And so, over the past several years, Nevis has experienced a new wave of quiet colonization. Among the swell types to have made landfall are the millionaire philanthropist Anne Bass and her partner, the painter Julian Lethbridge; the artist Jennifer Bartlett; the model Lauren Hutton; and, most notably, Helen and Brice Marden, painters and unlikely hoteliers.
It was while looking for a new island to replace St. Bart’s, where her family had spent holidays for two decades, that Helen Marden landed in Nevis seven years ago. Tobago, Tortola, Carriacou: none quite passed muster. None, Ms. Marden said, “felt quite right.”
Arriving in Nevis, the Mardens quickly took the measure of the place and were smitten. Soon enough, they fetched up at a timeworn hotel with faded canvas chairs and conch-shell ashtrays and plastic flowers in the window boxes, a vaguely spooky place constructed within the ruins of an old sugar plantation.
“We sat on the patio,” explained Helen Marden, referring to a hotel then called the Golden Rock Plantation Inn. “There was the mountain behind us, the sea in the distance. I had a rum punch and I told Brice, “I want it.”
“I said, ‘You want what?’” Mr. Marden later related to me.
“I want this.”
So it was that the couple came to acquire controlling shares of a 100-acre plantation, and then to decamp from St. Bart’s to become, in Nevis, innkeepers and unlikely conservationists, of both the island’s flora and fauna and its pristine old Caribbean atmosphere.
The reasons why Nevis remains quiet and drowsy are many. Chief among them is the challenge of reaching the place. Few direct flights from the United States serve the island; connections from neighboring islands such as St. Maarten are erratic, to be polite. Slowpoke ferries ply the Narrows, a two-mile-wide strait between Nevis and St. Kitts. But regardless of the route one chooses, a trip from the East Coast of the U.S. eats up most of a day.
Golfers and honeymooners still came, though, headed for the Four Seasons, which opened in 1991 and remains the island’s largest employer. This 196-room-and-suite resort, fitted out with the requisite tennis courts (10 of them), a fitness center, biomorphic pools, and all the usual stylistic signatures of a global hospitality brand, is one among a handful of discreet, high-end properties on the island—the photogenic, Anglo-centric Nisbet Plantation Beach Club is another. The Four Seasons Resort Nevis commands the most pristine stretch of white-sand beach on the leeward side of the island.
Alas, for both beach and hotel, the hurricanes that slam the Caribbean with some regularity have visited Nevis three times during the past 20 years. Damage from Hurricane Omar in 2008 kept the place shuttered for more than two years, a catastrophe that threw 650 people out of work and triggered a local economic slump. As of last December the hotel is open again, the royal palms restored, the greens on the 18-hole golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. irrigated to look like emerald baize. The obligatory ceiling fans paddle warm air as khaki-clad servers portage goofy rum drinks to vacationers in cabanas called, with an excess of thematic coyness, Reggae, Calypso, Merengue, and Soca. The outdoor restaurant again produces a signature spiny lobster salad for guests who often enough look like lobsters themselves.
“People who love Nevis see it as an intimately tiny, unspoiled tropical paradise mostly immune to the commercialism and glitz that characterize much of the Caribbean,” New Yorker humorist Bruce McCall said recently of the island where he has resided part-time for more than three decades. Four Seasons notwithstanding, those people would not be wrong.
There are an estimated 12,000 permanent residents on Nevis, and it is worth pointing out that this number is only fractionally higher than at the time when the island functioned as the thriving administrative center of the British Leeward Islands (which included Antigua, Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts, and the British Virgin Islands) and was a sugar-growing powerhouse. That time would be 1755.
A census recorded in that year documented 9,498 Nevisians in categories that counted as individuals white men, white women, and white children and that lumped together the remaining populace as “slaves.”
There was no category for “genius,” and yet Nevis produced at least one in the person of Alexander Hamilton, most celebrated son of the island and “America’s greatest immigrant,” as he is widely known. Hamilton was born in Charlestown, Nevis, in 1755 to a woman not wed to his father, as historians relate with uncommon delicacy. His childhood home there still stands, a modest frame and stone structure overlooking the wharf and a short walk away from the old slave market. It is perhaps symbolic of the ambivalent feelings Hamilton continues to evoke in locals that his putative birthplace is commemorated in a modest basement museum located in a stone building whose upper floor houses the current government assembly.
Hamilton left Nevis at 10, never to return. Were he to whiz back as a time traveler his eye would surely be startled by alterations wrought over the centuries, although possibly less so by the paved roads, the telephone lines, and the great spinning turbines of an oceanfront wind farm than by the dense vegetation that now blankets the island in a jungle-green mass.
In Hamilton’s day, even the slopes of Nevis Peak were a patchwork of sugar plantations. Almost all arable land was under plow. “Almost every Inche of the Leeward Islands is cultivated,” Sir George Thomas, the colonial governor, wrote in 1754. Carping about the high cost of imported goods, Thomas added that the price of fresh provisions “is double what it is at Jamaica, where they have great Tracts of Pasture Land.”
What still makes for sticker shock at the checkout counters of the island’s few stores is in all other ways a boon. The “primitivism” that renders Nevis alluring to new arrivals is, in fact, a function of a landscape returning to itself. All over the island, wild grasses have reclaimed the degraded soil of dormant cane fields. Up the rain-forest slopes of 3,232-foot Nevis Peak, the dense woods are filled with flamboyant trees, elephant ear, hibiscus, kapok, and soapberry. Ancient but newly discovered sulfur springs bubble away in unexpected places. Packs of wild goats, sheep, and donkeys, the bane of gardeners, wander freely. Troops of vervet monkeys, masked in black like Mardi Gras revelers, skitter along the roads and stone walls. There are long, long stretches of undeveloped coast.
“Donkeys were the mode of transport when we first got here,” said Warren Knorr, whose family came to the islands from Ohio in the late 1970’s. For 15 years, Knorr’s late mother, Vicki, operated a restored plantation called the Old Manor Hotel and also ran the island’s best kitchen, serving green-pepper soup and a papaya pie whose recipe she would never disclose. As Mr. Knorr spoke, a donkey brayed from somewhere up in the hills.
There is good eating on Nevis, most of it simple grilled seafood served at waterfront shacks, although for so-called fine dining, the Golden Rock Inn will doubtless one day provide a promising option—once the kitchen comes up to the level of the setting, a series of stepped terraces created for the Mardens by Ed Tuttle, the Paris-based architect who gave the Amanresorts chain its signature look of Zen restraint. Still, early mornings and cocktails taken at sunset on the terrace of the Golden Rock Inn are inducement enough. A generous panorama from the dining pavilion takes in the hills and the distant ocean, a great shield typically colored a dappled turquoise, although during the rainy days of my visit it was a bleak gunmetal gray.
Somehow even the rain felt welcome. The islands needed the moisture after months of drought, and it freed me to wander through the hotel gardens and choose from a surprising variety of new places to sit and stare into infinity.
The vistas at Golden Rock are anything but natural; they were created by the Mardens with the help of the landscape architect Raymond Jungles, a disciple of the late Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. Great swaths of golden sword-leafed bromeliad surround the cottages. Giant agaves line the drive. Fan-leafed philodendrons twine up the side of the sugar mill. Orchids from a historic local collection Helen bought from its elderly owner are tucked into the crotches of trees.
Even the volcanic boulders placed in the landscape were arranged with an artist’s eye by Mr. Marden himself. “Brice was never happier than when he was moving rocks around,” said Jungles, which in real-world terms is a little like saying that Jasper Johns mows your lawn.
The year-round growing season has created a landscape at Golden Rock Inn so lush, Jungles added, “that there are animals all over the place.” By this he meant the monkeys and goats and donkeys, of course, but also the birds, lizards, butterflies. The forest is alive with critters, all in full voice; each species seemed to take a turn on stage, the mourning doves producing their blue ululations from cocktail hour until lights-out, when it was time to cue the frogs. The bats piped up when the frogs grew quiet, and their high-pitched squeaks were occasionally interrupted by a random hee-haw from a stray donkey wandering the hills. “Helen said she wanted plants that are attractants for wildlife,” Jungles explained, as though such a thing were necessary in a place that seems almost too fecund. ”She also wanted to keep the gardens looking wild and natural, inevitable.”
At this she has succeeded. The changes the Mardens have wrought since taking over the place from an American owner who was descended from 19th-century planters are not subtle. Bold flashes of color appear in unlikely places—brilliant red doors that look borrowed from a Tony Duquette fantasia are set into the bleak stones of old mill buildings. A scrawl of neon orange, the bent-wire Corallo bench by the Brazilian Campana brothers, is parked against a thicket of leather-leaved snake plants, its coiling structure daring you to sit down.
In deference to the local vernacular, the cinder-block cottages for guests are painted in the same giddy colors one sees all over the island. A paint chart I picked up at a hardware store in Charlestown listed the actual colors as Calypso red, Citronella yellow, and Teenage pink.
What few shops there are on Nevis seem to sell mostly necessities, curious items such as Lota pimple cream and “hair mayonnaise,” as well as sweet pineapples and mangosteen. A blackboard sign propped in the door of one grocer’s advertised the specials: “Pig Snout, Pig Tail, Pig Feet, Salt Fish, Ice. Get it now whilst it lasts.” At the threshold to a variety store, another handwritten sign featured a biblical psalm of the day.
On my visit I dropped in on various old plantations remade as heritage hotels and must confess to having experienced the creeping dread brought on by the cloying odor of potpourri. I found that, wherever I went, I wanted to get back to the inn, to its cool rooms and dense but entirely man-made jungles, its 1960’s pool set on a ledge overlooking the distant sea.
One afternoon, I took a long, lazy walk on the single main road, heading through the hamlet of Gingerland and past a Methodist church built in the early 20th century. Dour and foursquare, this worship place was built from blocks of volcanic stone, the same stuff a stone-carver called Marvin Chapman uses to chisel busts that bear a surprising resemblance to Elvis.
Detouring down a side road then, I found myself heading toward the ocean. On the way there I passed one of the few remaining stands of coconut palms on the island (most have succumbed to a lethal yellowing disease) and walked on to the grandstand of a race grounds. It all looked forlorn and yet in a windswept paddock and a cluster of plywood sheds there were dark bay ponies pawing at the dust and flicking flies with their whip-quick tails. A deserted beach at the end of the road looked safe for swimming. I took a quick dip in the waves and hiked back toward Golden Rock. By then the flat sunlight of a late tropical afternoon spread across the landscape, light that, as Jean Rhys wrote in her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, tends to make one sad. That book was set in a fictionalized island modeled on Dominica, where Rhys passed her childhood; Dominica, like Nevis, is a volcanic hump with distinct moods and humors, not all of them rosy. Yet unlike the Rhys character who claimed to hate that island’s mountains and hills, rivers and rains, sunsets of whatever color, I felt far from alienated. My mood was contented and bright.
An armada of slow-moving clouds sailed, bringing with them a cool drizzle. It was not unpleasant, yet I was well-soaked by the time I made it back to the old plantation. I toweled off and climbed back into Anna Wintour’s big four-poster bed. Yanking the covers around me, I settled into the only passably readable book I’d been able to find at the airport on the way to Nevis, the one that has Keith Richards’s gnarled pirate’s face on the cover. A glass of wine in hand and with a hard rain beating down on the roof, I dived into the curious journey that is Richards’s Life.
Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.
When to Go
While weather during hurricane season—which runs from July to early November—can be unpredictable, daily temperatures generally hover in the low to mid eighties. An optimal time to go is between November 15 and December 15, before rates rise.
Regular connections to Nevis are available via San Juan, Puerto Rico. From there, American Eagle offers a nonstop flight to Nevis. Connections are also available from St. Maarten, Antigua, or St. Kitts. Ferry service runs almost hourly from St. Kitts to Nevis ($10); no reservations are required.
Nisbet Plantation Beach Club The 36 cottage rooms are scattered across 30 acres at this beachfront former plantation. St. James Parish; 800/742-6008; nisbetplantation.com; doubles from $670, including breakfast, afternoon tea, and dinner.
Mill at Montpelier Plantation & Beach A converted 300-year-old stone sugar mill is the backdrop for this 18-seat restaurant. Montpelier Plantation & Beach; 869/469-3462; dinner for two $160.
Sunshine’s Beach Bar & Grill A prime sunset beach spot, complete with signature rum drinks, grilled lobster, and views of St. Kitts. Pinney’s Beach, Charlestown; 869/469-5817; lunch for two $65.
See and Do
Alexander Hamilton Museum Set in the house where Hamilton was born, the museum chronicles this founding father’s life and the history of Nevis from colonial times. Charlestown; 869/469-5786.
Indian Castle Race Track Monthly Thoroughbred races also feature live music and local food vendors. Indian Castle; 869/469-3477.