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.