x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hard to stay away for long

My kind of place A few days away from the soft sands and blue waters of his Caribbean abode and Garry Steckles grows homesick.

The tip of St Kitts's southeast peninsula offers beachgoers views of the neighbouring island of Nevis.
The tip of St Kitts's southeast peninsula offers beachgoers views of the neighbouring island of Nevis.

There has to be something unique about a nation that has hosted one of the world's three biggest international sporting events (the Cricket World Cup) and doesn't have a single traffic light. In many ways, the twin-island federation of St Kitts and Nevis, one of a wildly diverse chain of small islands in the eastern Caribbean, is the West Indies the way it used to be, before mass tourism and its inevitable impact altered the character and way of life of much of the region.

I've lived between St Kitts and Canada for the better part of two decades, and our twin islands are places I love when I'm there and miss desperately when I'm not: for the laughter and warmth of its people; the unspoiled beaches you can often have all to yourself; the year-round sunshine; the reggae and calypso that are the soundtrack to life in much of the English-speaking Caribbean; and the feeling that you're somewhere that's rather special and distinct.

Given their size - St Kitts is 168 square kilometres, Nevis 93 - the accommodation options are more than reasonable, ranging from locally run guest houses to a Marriott in St Kitts and a Four Seasons hotel, which is due to reopen in Nevis later this year after suffering extensive damage at the hands of Hurricane Omar in 2008. But you would expect to find something different in these unique islands, and six plantation inns live up to that expectation nicely. The six - Ottley's (www.ottleys.com) and Rawlins (www.rawlinsplantation.com) in St Kitts, Nisbet (www.nisbetplantation.com), Montpelier (www.montpeliernevis.com), Hermitage (www.hermitagenevis.com) and Golden Rock (www.golden-rock.com ) in Nevis - are all distinctly upmarket and are steeped in history. Britain's Admiral Nelson, who was on a tour of duty in the Caribbean as a young captain, married Fanny Nisbet at Montpelier in 1787, while the Hermitage was built around one of the oldest wooden houses in the western hemisphere. Prices are cheapest in summer and highest in winter. A double room at Rawlins Plantation Inn costs from US$221 (Dh812), including breakfast, afternoon tea and taxes. A double room at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club costs from $438 (Dh1,608) including breakfast, afternoon tea, dinner and taxes.

Getting around either St Kitts or Nevis is easy - as long as you have a car or "trans", in the local vernacular. Many of the big international rental companies have outlets. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road, and expect the unexpected - it's not unusual for a couple of motorists to stop for a chat on a roundabout. Island tours by taxi can be the best way to both see all the things you should see on either St Kitts or Nevis and and also to get a handle on what's where. There aren't many roads on either island, and it should not take long to get your bearings. Visitors to St Kitts can also take a spectacular tour of the island on the Scenic Railway (www.stkittsscenicrailway.com), the only one of its kind in the Caribbean. The train leaves from a station adjacent to the Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw International Airport, just outside the capital of Basseterre, and the 48-kilometre circular route takes it through many beautiful and remote parts of the island often inaccessible by car.

Given that there aren't all that many of them (the population of St Kitts is about 30,000; Nevis is around 10,000), it's reasonably easy to strike up a conversation with Kittitians and Nevisians. Many small local grocery stores double as "rum shops" - institutions throughout the English-speaking Caribbean - where a lively crowd will congregate to "lime" and discuss the issues of the day, ranging from island politics to international affairs, from local gossip to the fortunes of the West Indies' cricket team. If you happen to be on either St Kitts and Nevis when there's a cricket match being played - the sport is a passion throughout the region - it's well worth catching, even if the game is a mystery to you. The locals will be more than happy to tell you what's going on. St Kitts, whose refurbished Warner Park ground in Basseterre was one of the venues for the Cricket World Cup in 2007, will be hosting its second full international Test match starting on June 18, when the West Indies play the No 2 ranked South Africans, and a day in the "party stand" - where food, drink, music and dancing compete with the cricket for the crowd's attention - is about as West Indian an experience as you're likely to find.

Eating by the ocean is a special treat in the Caribbean, and both islands have beach restaurants ranging from cheap and cheerful, where you can wrap yourself around a juicy fishburger with your feet in the sand, to the downright sumptuous, with innovative menus and prices to match. Among my personal favourites are Sunshine's (www.sunshinenevis.com) on Pinney's Beach in Nevis, where specialties such as local lobster for about $25 (Dh92) and freshly caught fish $15 (Dh55) are accompanied by big-name people watching (Beyoncé, the cast of the Sopranos and Whitney Houston, to name just a few), and the Spice Mill (www.spicemillrestaurant.com) and Reggae Beach Bar (www.reggaebeachbar.com) on St Kitts's Cockleshell Beach, the former leaning toward an adventurous international menu in luxurious surroundings, the latter decidedly more funky and offering local delicacies such as conch fritters.

St Kitts and Nevis is not exactly a shop-'til-you-drop destination. That said, you can find attractive local crafts and clothes at stalls at St Kitts's Port Zante, and distinctive local pottery at Nevis's Newcastle Pottery, near the airport.

St. Kitts and Nevis's tourist industry is nowhere near big enough to have spawned any genuine tourist traps, although the dozens of duty-free jewellery shops in Port Zante are best avoided if you're looking for something that's actually from the Caribbean.

Brimstone Hill, a magnificent fortress, built in the 1700s when Britain and France were slugging it out for control of St Kitts. The views are spectacular - and, most of all, it is a living monument to the resilience of the African slaves who built it for the Brits. The small museum is crammed with artifacts from a bygone era, when postings to the Caribbean - the fever islands, as they were known - were regarded as a death sentence for colonial soldiers. gsteckles@thenational.ae