Friday, 26 May 2023, 12:46
The downpour ceases as quickly as it began. The sudden summery deluge laced the warm evening air with a seductive aroma, while the sound of the water dripping from the palms of the lush tropical gardens provided a natural accompaniment to with the rhythmic sounds of the creole jazz band playing in the restaurant. I'm marking the end of a memorable stay on Nevis much like I started - eating and drinking. This diminutive Leeward island of less than 100 square kilometres is a sociable place where residents enthusiastically share local specialities and intoxicating tipples.
My travels often seem to be about fancy food and hip hotels, but here on Nevis everything resonates with natural, unpretentious authenticity.
My last night is enjoyed at one of the best-known places to eat on the island and I'm tucking into a spicy, flavourful 'goat water stew'. This hearty Western Caribbean dish of local goat in a gravy made with vegetables, molasses and spiced with chili and clove is a popular choice here at the evocatively named 'Bananas Restaurant'. This charming plantation style boutique property was created by Gillian Smith, who first visited Nevis 25 years ago, and stayed. I can imagine way. The island is captivating, the quintessential West Indies hideaway, evocative of the Caribbean before generic luxury resorts and mass tourism transformed much of this sought-after archipelago.
Neighbouring Saint Kitts, the partner in this two-island independent Federation of Saint Christopher and Nevis, welcomes cruise liners and has a landmark international resort. Yet Nevis has resisted similar tourism development and for that, it is a very special place, perfect if your desire is to go slow, eat local and be immersed in the destination.
Within moments of arriving, one senses a different pace. Walking across the tarmac from the aircraft to the terminal, the warm humid air embraces you, slowing you down. Robert L. Bradshaw Airport is a modest terminal, and arrival formalities are swift and most noticeably for me, peaceful. Soon enough, after a short taxi ride, I have made it to the port just as the water taxi was pulling up along the quayside. As I take my seat for the short, speed boat ride across to Nevis, I am offered a chilled bottle of locally brewed Carib Lager. I am quickly settling into the welcoming island lifestyle.
From the water you can see how the island is dominated by Nevis peak, the dormant volcano that is verdant with rain and cloud forest. The clouds that typically cover the peak like snow inspired the island's name when 16th-century Spanish explorers christened it Nuestra Señora de las Nieves. The mountain remains home to a wealth of flora and fauna left untouched despite the centuries of economic exploitation of the island by the French and British, that used enslaved people from Africa to farm more than 30 sugar cane estates.
My destination, and home on the island was the Golden Rock Inn, a bohemian boutique bolthole on the slopes of Mount Nevis. This restored sugar mill, built of elephant grey volcanic stone, with heavy wooden window shutters painted in imperial red, looks spectacular set among glossy green palms and flowering trees. There are 11 guest rooms set in cottages and bungalows almost hidden within lush jungle-like gardens, as well as a spacious suite in the original mill tower. The sheltered hillside location affords privileged views of the Caribbean Sea and the island silhouettes of nearby Antigua and Montserrat.
It's an extraordinary place, redolent of the island's history, as well as having a creative, artsy vibe. Understandable when I learn it is owned by the celebrated US abstract artist Brice Marden and his artist and photographer wife Helen. The couple have created a bespoke guest experience, transforming the estate into a living canvas of colours, textures and flavours that are evocative of the West Indies.
I was welcomed by General Manager Ivo Richli who proffered a glass of chilled rum punch, one of many I would indulge in over the coming days. This refreshing cocktail, made with rum and fruit juice, with a dash of bitters and grated nutmeg on top, is synonymous with the West Indies, and disarmingly easy to drink.
Whether because of the spicy rum, the calming ambiance of the inn, or a bit of both, I soon slumped into a chic Patricia Urquiola chair, lost in the moment, listening to the natural soundtrack of the estate's wildlife, a harmony of croaking frogs, cooing doves, and songbird melodies.
The magnificence of the gardens and the simplicity of the inn indulges the slow traveller, encouraging you to forget the outside world (don't expect a phone, TV or air-conditioning in your cottage). Guest rooms are simply furnished and decorated with bold Caribbean colours and homespun touches like a bougainvillea bloom set upon a basket of fruit, beside a generous jar of cookies.
It's a property that has become renowned for its relaxed, outdoor restaurant, The Rocks, which welcomes the public throughout the day. Visitors to the island seem to enjoy restaurant- and bar- hopping, eating their way across the island, and the food of Chef James Eaton has become a favourite. Breakfast at the inn means a leisurely start to the day, usually shared with inquisitive birds that attempt to steal a morsel of the hearty dishes like Golden Rock Benedict of poached eggs with local smoked wahoo fish, or lobster hash with local seafood over poached egg potatoes, onions, and peppers.
Then after a day idling by the swimming pool, reward yourself for taking it slow, with dinner under the stars, starting with a chunky conch chowder, or coconut crusted shrimp before a tempting plate of local Caribbean spiny lobster tail, or Moroccan chicken, a dish inspired by the well-travelled owners.
To further satiate your palate, it's also easy to create your own island food tour with the help of a guide, or one of the knowledgeable local taxi drivers, who will be happy to take you around the island, while they honk their car horn at passers-by as if they seem to know almost all the island's 11,000 residents. Alternatively, hire one of the rugged 4x4 buggies from local adventure specialists Funky Monkey Tours, opening up the wilder side of the island from its unspoilt beaches to the fascinating ruins of the old sugar cane estates.
For an insight into the island's history, I paid a visit to Nevisian Heritage Village estate, where traditional buildings help tell Nevis's story. Here experienced cook and charming host Sofia Wallace has recently created the Heritage Café. I wanted to try the local shellfish, and devoured some light and fluffy conch fritters, with a satisfyingly crispy outside, just perfect for dipping in the spicy guava mayonnaise. I couldn't resist a side dish of fried, caramelised plantain with cinnamon - flavours so evocative of the West Indies. The homemade fiery ginger beer was the perfect accompaniment.
Next, I visited Passion Bar & Grill, in Cox Village, famous for its Guinness rum punch. I sought out a table in the shade of a mango tree and enjoyed tuna fish fritters, and a plate of tasty aubergine with caramelised onion, prepared by owner Karen Belle.
If you have time to visit Charlestown, the capital of Nevis, seek out the legendary Wilma's Diner on Main Street. Chef Wilma, who once cooked for the Princess of Wales during her island visit in the 1990s, suggested I savour some classic rice and peas, and a flavoursome curry with a meaty texture, made using local breadfruit. This island staple grows on trees and can be enjoyed unripe like a vegetable (I'm told it is as versatile as a potato) or sweet as a fruit.
It was a deliciously satisfying experience getting to know Nevis, devouring cuisine cooked with love, exploring its natural beauty, and meeting some islanders - and all enjoyed in an unhurried and relaxing way. It is a powerful reminder to live in the moment, and as I was recommended by the locals, please "rush slowly".
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