The smallest nation in the Americas still looks, in many respects, the way it must have looked in 1492, when Christopher Columbus glided by.
One of the islands resembled St. Christopher, to his way of thinking, so Columbus named it after himself. The other, a volcanic peak capped with frothy white clouds, looked snowy from afar — “nieves” to the Spanish crewmen.
St. Kitts and Nevis, as the two-island country is known today, saw plenty of excitement over the ensuing centuries. The native Arawak and Carib tribes jousted for control, as did French and English colonizers later on. Lord Horatio Nelson, British hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, fell in love and married here, using the islands as a base of operation.
And a settlement of Sephardic Jews expelled from Brazil in the 17th century, which at one point constituted a quarter of the local population, spearheaded the mighty sugarcane industry.
But the age of empire is over. No longer a strategic way station, St. Kitts and Nevis have reverted to their peaceful origins as a tropical paradise, an oasis of rainforests and volcanoes surrounded by warm green sea.
These twin islands — just a bit under the tourism industry’s radar — are for those who find St. Barts too rarefied, Anguilla too pricey, Puerto Rico and Aruba too populated. The West Indian winter is just as reliably warm on St. Kitts and Nevis, but crowds are thin and prices surprisingly gentle.
Nevis, in particular, feels largely bypassed by the tide of development that has transformed large swaths of the Caribbean. I wouldn’t be surprised if clocks actually ran a little slower in Charlestown, the sleepy main city, where quiet colonial lanes appear to have changed little since Nelson’s day.
St. Kitts is the bigger and livelier island. There’s a calypso-fueled nightlife scene, as well as a few casinos and the steady hum of cruise-ship activity. The beach bars along Frigate Bay are always hopping, though a short taxi ride takes you into the heart of an unspoiled rainforest teeming with rare birds. And most lodgings cluster along the southeastern peninsula of St. Kitts, where you can go four-star — or find a rustic guesthouse for under $200.
With sands that range from silvery-white to ashen black, these aren’t necessarily the most iconic of Caribbean beaches. But they are plentiful, clean and frequently picturesque, with spectacular mountain panoramas and hidden coves.
An $8 ferry ride takes you to Nevis in less than an hour — a cruise so pretty, it’s worth doing just for the views. Nevis Peak, a dormant but impressive volcano, rises over lush green hills and palm-fringed bays. It’s still a wild, untamed landscape, where monkeys and birds and tropical fish seem to outnumber residents.
But serene, lovely Nevis is haunted by ghosts — the ghosts of history. In Charlestown, you can visit 300-year-old tombstones in the Jewish Cemetery, the only visible remnant of a vanished community. The Nevis Jews’ more durable legacy is the sugar industry, which Sephardic merchants initiated with knowledge imported from Brazil.
They arrived in the 17th century, bearing Hebrew names and Portuguese surnames. In the easygoing society of the British West Indies, the Sephardim established a synagogue and made their fortunes in sugar cane. By the late 18th century, the Jews were already moving on to the wider shores of North America.
Nobody is certain where their synagogue once stood, but many think it was along the little path today referred to as Jew’s Walk, which leads off from the cemetery. Nevis officials have taken pains to preserve the cemetery’s nearly two dozen headstones, engraved in English, Hebrew and Portuguese, and it is now one of the country’s main historical sites.
The sugarcane plantations, too, are largely a thing of the past. Some of them lie quietly in ruins, their graceful stone arches overtaken by vines and flowers.
One noteworthy vintage homestead is the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, our founding father, who spent his childhood here. The estate is now the Museum of Nevis History, and there’s quite a bit more history than Nevis’ size would suggest.
Further evidence is on view at the Horatio Nelson Museum. The bequests of American collectors led to the opening of this oddly compelling exhibit of frilly waistcoats, vintage porcelain and other imperial perks belonging to the great British admiral and his wife.
Nevis historians still reminisce about the couple’s flashy nuptials the way Brits look nostalgically on the wedding of Princess Di. “Nevis in the Time of Nelson,” the museum’s permanent exhibit, takes visitors back to the island in the late 18th century.
When he defeated French and Spanish forces at Trafalgar, Nelson toasted with rum, his beverage of choice. He could thank his Jewish neighbors for the locally produced bounty: rum, distilled from sugar-cane molasses, was invented on these Caribbean plantations.
Legend has it that Nelson’s body was preserved in rum for transport back to Europe when he died — and that his thirsty brigade drained the casket before he ever set sail.
That’s all speculation. But it gives rum punch, that favorite cocktail of St. Kitts and Nevis, an extra dash of Caribbean spice.