VOL. 24: Wayfare to St. Kitts

written by Sandy Lang | photograph by Peter Frank Edwards

The tradewinds follow the curve of Whitehouse Bay, and the paddleboarding is easy. That’s the word from the Hawaiian-born instructor who’s just made his way downwind to the sandy shoreline at South Friar’s Beach in St. Kitts. The busy winter season is fast approaching in the West Indies. At every turn, mountainsides and valleys are lush from summer and fall showers—a landscape that can look much like Pacific isles.

Sitting here, watching the lapping water and the yachts sailing in the distance, it’s easy to feel heady, even without island rum. Last night on the isle’s southeast peninsula, a plum-purple sunset washed across the mountains and gave the Caribbean Sea a deep pink cast, and today, the brilliant blue sky is scattered with the fluffiest of chalk-white clouds—not threatening rain anytime soon.

For a new visitor, St. Kitts quickly feels manageable. From the air, the view is of rainforest-tangled mountains that rise along the spine of the twenty-three-mile-long, drumstick-shaped island. Most worries about maps and navigation disappear when you realize that just one primary road loops around the island’s perimeter. And within the past couple of decades, an extension to the roadway has been built to provide the first modern-day access to the southernmost beaches. This is where the 2,500-acre Christophe Harbour is taking shape, on a peninsula that rises between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

ISLAND DRIVERS

It would be easy enough to stay within close orbit of seaside lodging and perpetual access to icy drinks—and we will do some of that. But we’re also eager to make use of the SUV we rented in the island’s color-drenched capital city of Basseterre. Driving like Englishmen on the “other side” of the road—as is the way here—we stop at Cockleshell Beach on the southeastern tip of St. Kitts for some island flavor, literally. Under the vaulted ceiling at the Spice Mill restaurant, the entire length of the dining room is open to a beach along “The Narrows,” a two-mile-wide span of sheltered saltwater between St. Kitts and Nevis. A waitress offers bottles of island-brewed cold beer—including the famous Carib, Stag (marketed for men), and a milk stout called Mackeson. She doesn’t present a written menu, but suggests we try a burger or a kitchen specialty of steamed red snapper and mounds of Caribbean fungi (pronounced fun-gee), the West African mash of corn meal and okra. It’s over snapper that we decide to sample some of the island’s fish every day, if we can—maybe some hind, mahi-mahi, or more snapper. The restaurant’s shingled beach bar is directly on the stretch of blond sand. Altogether it’s a quintessential Caribbean scene, with songs by Britain’s soulful Sade playing as the backbeat from stereo speakers.

No one on St. Kitts, including us, is in a hurry. But we do want to get to The Pavilion, which is the pool and beach club of Christophe Harbour. Situated down a private drive, where vervet monkeys sometimes scamper past—a remnant of long-ago French colonists—the structure and setting is stunning. Beyond an arched, coral stone entrance of open-air lounges, the view opens wide. The terraced stone patio and infinity pool overlook a sandy crescent known to be the prettiest stretch of secluded beachfront on the island. Feeling the pull of the water, we walk toward the shore and join a group gathered near the poolside bar. Caribbean diversions are well underway. A gentleman from Barbados, an ambassador of all things rum, is leading a connoisseur-level tasting of aged bottles. While the expert speaks, Christophe Harbour members and guests swirl the amber liquor in stemmed wine glasses and talk of distinctive “legs” and the “hints of raisin, and what is that…vanilla?” Meanwhile, a woman who learned to roll cigars in Cuba sits nearby, turning and cutting whole, leathery tobacco leaves into intricately-layered cigars. Chester Brown from Mount Gay demonstrates some of his favorite rum-based mixology, and his creations include a very fresh, muddled-then-strained cocktail of cucumber, cilantro, lemon, lime, sugar, and white rum. The not-too-sweet drink is a pleaser for this linen-decked crowd, and several men and women are lighting their just-crafted cigars. The sunlight gets softer, turning purplish again on the impressive Sandy Bank terrain—an Atlantic-facing bay where waves roll slowly in to the shore, and verdant mountainsides rise directly from the ocean’s edge on either side.

STILL FISHING AROUND

Thank God for the islands and for the beach shack bars and cafés where you can kick off your shoes and sit in the warm breeze with a cold drink while the food is cooking. That night, on the soft-sand beach in front of Mr. X’s Shiggidy Shack Bar & Grill on Frigate Bay, someone has lit the huge, weekly bonfire. Sparks rise into the night sky and the lineup of beach bars continues down the beachfront. A few people swim in the dark waves. On the advice of a couple of locals we’ve met, we settle into a table at a modest shack with the sign “Cathy’s Ocean View.” Nothing fancy here, just vinyl tablecloths, wooden picnic tables under a ceiling strung with nautical flags, and an outdoor grill so near that we can hear the hiss and sizzle of the halved lobsters and pork ribs. The Nevis-born owner Cathy Williams—with espresso-black skin and a ready smile—does much of the cooking herself, and customers often stop by the counter to speak with her. At our table, a waitress in flip flops advises “fish come separate” when she delivers a plate of sides, including sautéed plantains, rice with limas and corn, and curried vegetables. Within another minute, she brings a second plate filled simply with a grilled whole snapper—teeth, tail, eyes, and all. More beers are on the way? Life is very good.

The next morning, Percival Hanley, a St. Kitts-born naturalist, keeps a brisk pace as he leads a group of mostly novice birders on a hike on the southeastern peninsula. We join in with borrowed binoculars, and in little more than an hour, the group spots and often hears the songs and sounds of some twenty-three species. Our day’s list includes a wading willet, two yard-long frigate birds, and a tiny Antillean crested hummingbird with a flash of iridescent turquoise on top of its black-feathered body. Lunch is a burger and a delicious, crispy snapper salad at The Pavilion’s restaurant. By afternoon, we’re beach hopping again. At Banana Bay, not far from Cockleshell Beach, a shorefront ceremony is being held to announce the start of construction for the Park Hyatt St. Kitts, a major investment at Christophe Harbour, with the first phase set to open in 2015. Representatives from Dubai-based Range Developments and Kiawah Partners are on hand—CEO Buddy Darby and Christophe Harbour COO Bill Lee join in the remarks and champagne toasts—and Dr. Denzil Douglas, the Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, deems the project “an investment in paradise, and in a whole country.”

COLOR WASHED

Speaking of the whole country, we want to see more of it. In Basseterre the next morning, teenagers are sweeping the sanctuary of St. George’s Anglican Church, and its tall blue

doors are open. We’re able to walk right in to see the 1840s structure, and a visitor list shows recent guests from Norway, Spain, Australia, and several southern states in the US. In blocks near the waterfront, vendors with fresh fruit and vegetables line the streets in front of colorful buildings of aqua blues, pencil yellows, grass greens, and deep reds. At a tiny bakery on Bay Road, we follow the line of locals and order raisin rolls and coconut rolls—bread dough rolled like pinwheels with filling between each layer. As we walk and eat, a musician with an electric guitar is singing for tips across the street. Away from this buzzing, well-worn city, we drive past miles of nothing but rainforests, ocean views, and small villages. Large parts of coral-stone towers and foundations from past centuries of sugar production are still in place. The coast road leads us to the seventeenth-century, British-built, Brimstone Hill Fortress. It towers more than seven hundred feet above the northwest coast of St. Kitts. We drive up to see the fort, higher and higher on a steep road, past the uniformed security guard with several cats curling up on the ground near his feet, until the driveway leads inside the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Open for touring for a small fee, it offers an incredible vantage point for other nearby islands—St. Eustatius, Saba, St. Barths, and beyond.

Soon we’ll have to depart St. Kitts and its jungles and sunsets, but first we are honored to have garnered a lunch invitation at the home of British-born artist Kate Spencer and her yacht-building husband, Philip Walwyn. The handsome couple lives in a hilltop house on the northern end of the island on what was once a three-hundred-acre sugar plantation owned for generations by Philip’s family. Cane still grows wild along the lane out front, and Philip recalls the scene as a young man on horseback, when he would oversee production during harvests in the late 1960s. Kate’s studio overlooks the ocean, and her finished art is hung all around or still underway—paintings of island landscapes and characters. Her designs are now being translated into feather-light Kashmir scarves as part of a new partnership with Maria Darby of Charleston. As we sit and talk and laugh, we don’t even realize how many sweet, tropical hours have passed. The ease of St. Kitts’s pace has certainly set in. At some point, Kate leans out the window from the second story of the kitchen house and grabs several ripe, yellow carambola fruits from a tree for our dessert—just one more big, juicy taste of St. Kitts before we have to fly. — S.L.

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