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Nevis: A Hidden—and Happy—Paradise
by David Yeadon

It's 7:30 a.m. on a brilliant blue morning and I'm in a "pocket a' mumps" mood anticipating yet another day of doing nothing in particular, living very much in-the-now, and sensing not a scintilla of guilt or urbane angst. Smiles come easily and long here. Sighs are sighs of contentment accompanied by soft breezes that rattle distant palm fronds. The sun, already hot, filters through exuberant sprays of swaying frangipani and bougainvillea onto crisp white tablecloths neatly laid for breakfast at the Mount Nevis Hotel. Close-cropped lawns ease down the hillside to a riotous fringe of flower-decked scrub against a conelike backdrop of jungled mountain rising to a peak topped with ice cream scoops of puffy clouds. Far far below the ocean simpers and sparkles in a silver-blue haze. The silence is almost tangible except for occasional giggles from the honeymoon twosome in the pool, frolicking at the deep end. Everyone else seems to be asleep in their elegant suites scattered around the flower-filled estate. My favorite time of day.

A bright green chameleon gazes at my breakfast from his perch on the end of an oleander branch. Centerpiece is a basket of fresh passion fruit, custard apples, soursops, mangoes and guavas; two sparrow-sized sugareaters wait patiently by my coffee cup for bits of leftover sweetcorn fritters and johnnycakes smothered in homemade kumquat marmalade.

I'm in paradise (or pretty close), living the lazy Caribbean life for a while on Nevis, a little gumdrop-shaped volcanic island only 6 miles across and 18 miles around. Nevisians would say I was in a "pocket a' mumps" period, which roughly translates as a good-spirited goof-off, and Nevisians are rarely wrong about that kind of thing.

Together with its sister island of St. Kitts, these two green-peaked blips, floating between St. Maarten and Monserrat, gained their independence from Britain in 1983 and are now a new nation-in-miniature offering all the charms of the "Old Caribbean" — hidden beaches, unexplored rainforests, friendly cricket-loving residents strolling the country lanes at sugar-cane sucking pace, and remnants of the British "plantocracy" in the form of genteel inns at restored "Great Houses" on the old sugar and cotton plantations. All in all, a rhythm of life so gentle that a day's dallying here does as much good to the soul as a week at one of those overcrowded, overpriced "in" islands.

Of the two islands, Nevis is wilder — an exuberant rampage of trees, creepers and giant ferns as you meander along the single round-island road out of the sleepy capital of Charlestown (population a very intimate 1,400). While St. Kitts offers a remarkable array of hotels, including a Jack Tarr resort complete with casino and golf course, Nevis until recently shunned such extravagances and invited you instead as a houseguest to lovely old inns with names like Golden Rock, Montpelier, Croney's Old Manor, The Hermitage and Nisbet Plantation, all in settings that have hardly changed in the last two centuries. But then came the islands latest attraction — the sophisticated, sumptuous, sprawling Four Seasons Resort on Pinney's beach which I decided to dangle like a fat carroty enticement — a hedonistic reward at the end of my island explorations.

Resisting the temptation of short-hop flights to Nevis from St. Kitts airport I come the exotic way — in a wallowing, overladen ferryboat which chugs across 12 miles of choppy ocean with a cargo of eighty sweltering passengers, two crates of chickens, four squealing piglets, a mini-mountain of electronic gear for a Rastafarian Reggae band, three sozzled sailors sharing a bottle of spiked "maubi" (a local drink made from the bark of a tree), and one ancient man who never stops sipping his "goat-water" (a thin soup of goat meat and vegetables) all the way across.

Charlestown emerges from its palmy setting, a laconic sprawl of pastel walls, tin roofs and shady gardens. We bump against the pier; a hand-painted sign reads "Welcome to Nevis. Birthplace of Alexander Hamilton" and before I know what's happening my bags are grabbed by a wiry old islander who introduces himself as "Harbor Harry" and gives me an instant monologue of Nevis history. "It's true man, not just your tourist baloney, this is where your Mr. Hamilton was born, just down the road, can't miss the place — it's a little museum now — in 1777, that was, but they all left fast when he was justa boy on account of his dad got bankrupt and that was 'round the time they built the old Bath Hotel — you see it up on the hill, bit of a ruin now but you can still get your sulphur bath though I don't like the smell myself." He stops suddenly. "You sure you're getting all this stuff?" And then he's off again. "This was a real society place back in those days — fancy dances and all that stuff and Lord Nelson himself playing with all the ladies and marrying Fanny Nisbet here in 1787. Some kind of place it was back then, sure was, and all because of Christopher Columbus who came here first and named it in 1493, and before that there was . . . ."

Such a small place with so much history?

Harbor Harry is still giving his running commentary as he bundles me into my hired car. "Saturdays now, that's the best day, with the market and all and everyone comes. Best fish and lobsters in the islands here. You come down and see. OK?"

At last I'm alone and driving by the clustered, verandahed houses and stores of Charlestown, past tiny clapboard homes with high-pitched roofs and door frames painted blue to keep out the "jumbie" spirits in accordance with ancient "Obeah" voodoo customs. (Such customs, I'm told later, still endure here: "myal" men still use ancient herbal cures and Nevisians retain their respect for the mystical powers of big fat toads — the crappos.) A domed brick oven stands in an earth yard where chickens scratch for tidbits; a small garden brims with yams, cabbages, sweet potatoes and a couple of dusty pumpkins. The Creole aroma of pork stew — "souce" — eases up through the trees; a little girl in a bandanna-red dress pounds pumpkin chunks into an orange goo and adds flour, fresh lime juice, onions and a sprinkle of hot pepper sauce (a Nevis specialty) to make spice fritters for dinner.

A man sits outside the house on a broken bamboo chair sucking the cottony white flesh of red "fat pork" berries and talking cricket-talk to a neighbor. A couple of split fish he caught in the early morning with a surf net hang against the wall of the house, turning gold in the sun. The trees are heavy with ripe fruit and life seems very simple and good in this pocket of tranquil self- sufficiency. You sense new truth in the old saying that "less is definitely more."

I pause briefly at lovely Fig Tree church to see Nelson's marriage registry signature and then visit the island's new Nelson Museum which offers fascinating displays of "Nelsonia" in the form of maps, model ships, mildewed prints, ornate costumes and memorabilia, most donated by Dr. Robert Abrahams whose nearby Morningstar Estate was once the island shrine to "Nelson and Emma (Hamilton)" admirers. Nearby sits the enormous stone pile of the 1778 Bath Hotel, the Caribbean's first resort hotel, that enticed affluent guests from the islands and even from Britain to "take the waters" and bathe in hot pools "guaranteed to dispel the bodies of obnoxious elements and re-vital the circulation." Times have changed. The exotic estate, once landscaped as a recreation of "The Gardens of Jericho" is now a scrubby hillock, the hotel a police station and the baths, while still open, a little too hot and too noxious for my tastes. "You feel very good after," says the smiling girl at the check-in counter, waving a bright yellow towel," I feel very good now," I reply, but promise to reconsider my decision later.

The breeze blows strong, full of morning perfumes, as I zig-zag along the narrow road eastward around the island past bursting bushes of bauhinias shrouded by wild almonds and hoary, bark- dripping gum trees. Spine-laden trunks of sandbox rise out of tangled creepers and lantana in an abundance of wild fecundity. What were once huge plantations of sea island cotton have now returned to scrub punctuated by the scattered gardens of islanders on the slopes of Nevis Peak.

A familiar sign by the roadside reads: Clay Ghaut Estate, The Eva Wilkin Gallery. On a previous visit here a few years back I'd driven the same rough track through scrub to an old stone plantation house shaded by banyan trees to meet this elderly lady artist with an impeccable English accent who greeted me like a long-lost relative. We had strolled over to the old sugar mill which Eva used as her studio since her father's plantation declined in the 1940's. All her artworks — evocative pastels and watercolors of Nevis life — were strewn over rickety tables. Her favorites — and mine — were the ones of saucer-eyed island children whose shy smiles would melt the most world-weary heart. "They're rascals at times," she told me pointing to a smiling boy in a huge straw hat — "He's a devil nowadays — a real roustabout. But I love them all. I just wish I could paint like that today but my fingers don't hold brushes like they used to. There's so much more I want to do . . . ."

Unfortunately the place is locked up now and no one seems to be around. Eva had apparently passed away during my long absence from the island. It is now run by a Canadian couple as a memorial gallery to this unique individual and as a center for contemporary Nevisian art. Some of the brightness seems to go out of my drive on the round-island road through Zion, Brick Kiln toward Nevis' little airport.

What I need is a rum punch and a plunge in a cool pool. And — voila! — there I am minutes later, shaded by swaying palms, sipping potent nectar from a tall frosted glass by the talcum-textured beach and inviting pool at the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, one of the islands most popular historic inns. Once the home of Nelson's bride, Fanny Nisbet, the immaculately restored 18th century Great House overlooks vast lawns dotted with vacation cottages and an avenue of stately palms that leads to the half mile long white sand beach. Peace, grace and charm are found here in abundance and my serendipitous mood soon returns.

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