“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.”