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.