St. Kitts, THE ISLAND TOURISTS FORGOT UNTIL NOW
St. Kitts, British West Indies
The best beaches in St. Kitts, one of a cluster of British West Indian islands known as the Leeward Islands, are practically inaccessible. No roads travel down to the white sands of Banana Bay or Cockleshell Bay at the southern extremity of the drumstick- shaped island, which looks across three miles of sea to its smaller sister island of Nevis.
The only "convenient" way to reach these beaches and their hideaway hotels is by a bumpy, 45-minute speedboat ride from the capital of Basseterre (population: about 16,000).
There is another way of getting there: by foot. But it is a long, rugged hike over the mountains where mongooses run wild and the eerie chatter of curious vervet or green-backed monkeys leaping among the branches breaks the dawn's silence.
Nearby Barbados and nevis also have small colonies of monkeys. But they're nothing compared with the 30,000 reputed to roam the dense vegetation on the 65 square miles of St. Kitts.
"They are the only real collection of Old World monkeys in the New World," says a scientist at the McGill University- sponsored Behavorial Science Foundation Primal research Center here.
For the monkeys, the adaptation to St. Kitts is easy. There are succulent fields of sugar cane and rain forests with their cool, moss-backed glades of fern, ginger, and wild orchids. Here live exotic butterflies, hummingbirds, and other birds so tiny that a brace of them could nestle confortably in the palm of your hand. Tumbling streams and rivers rush from the mountaintops and drop precipitously down the steep cliffs to the placid Caribbean Sea or the turbulent Atlantic Ocean below.
A Bostonian in the land managment business who has come to the Caribbean every year for 19 years, never repeating the same island, says of St. Kitts, "It is one of the prettiest, lushest, most primitive islands in the Caribbean. It is undoubtedly the friendliest. The people are genuinely friendly here. that's not true of other spots in the Caribbean. Many, especially those in the 19 to 25 age group, are politically hostile to tourists. But I see none of that here."
Ironically, st. Kitts, which was in the forefront of Caribbean colonization -- it was the first British settlement, back in 1623 -- is about the last to queue up for tourists.
That has its compensations. Old-fashioned values, like trust, persist.
On two occasions, two different taxi drivers drove the writer from the hotel to Basseterre, some 20 minutes away. In each case the driver was requested to return some hours later to take his passenger back.Both times the driver said, "Pay me on the trip back."
"You can walk safely around the whole island," says an American who lives at the other end of the island.
But St. Kitts (population: less than 40,000) is not for the jet set. An assistant hotel manager remarks: "Some young people find it too quiet. They come for the disco. They want to boogie."
Life in Basseterre is unsophisticated. In the town's central park which has the rather ostentatious name of Pall Mall Square, two billy goats butt each other. Another goat stands on its hind legs to nibble the leaves of the spreading bread- fruit tree. At the Palms Restaurant, with its sparkling white tables and chairs, a kittitian waitress is moving among the guests dusting off the tables and unself-consciously singing a sweet melody. She moves to the second-floor window, cranes her neck out, and starts comversing in a loud voice with a friend in the street below.
In Basseterre there are no traffic lights. No neon lights. No condominiums (although they're coming). No chic boutiques. No night shows.No chemically treated water (what you get is pure mountain spring water). No vulgar commercial billboards. Commercial signs are small, unobtrusive, and -- frequently when you're looking for them -- practically invisible. One American visitor, after spending a frustrating half-hour in Basseterre, said half in disgust, half in despair, "There is absolutely nothing to buy here."
Yet tourists are not ignored. A rudimentary sign attached to a wooden lamp pole says: "Give the tourists a clean smile." Another says: "A clean island to the tourist says come again soon."
A taxi fleet owner with the splendid name of Astor Coker says, "When you come here, everything goes backward. The hustle and bustle is over."
The only person who appeared to be bustling on the island was Anita richter from New York, guide and hostess for a charter group, who was trying to sort out her recently airborne charges.
She tries to speak into the microphone at a local hotel. It doesn't work and she decides instead to raise here voice that carries over the palm-fringed swimming pool."I'm here to welcome you to St. Kitts. St. Kitts the beautiful island. St. Kitts the fertile island. Relax. Slow down to the pace here.
"Tomorrow," she goes on scarcely taking a breath, "the traffic commissioner will come for all those who want to rent cars and drive around the island. to do that you must have a St. Kitts driver's license. Costs you four EC dollars [ East Caribbean dollars are worth about 38 cents]. And remember to drive on the left-hand side of the road.
"Now the traffic commissioner will come at 9 a.m. Usually. It may be 9:10. It may be even be 9:40. Just relax. Time is not important here. If you can remember that you'll be very Kittitian and you'll have a great time."
A car is rented for the island -- which is 33 miles long and five miles wide -- from Sunshine Car Rentals on Dieppe Bay Road. It's nothing fancy, and while the rented cars are reliable they look decidedly used. Across the street from the agency, bright-faced children in school uniform with satchels strapped to their backs enter the Salvation Army school. Soon the sound of treble voices singing "Jesus, Sweet Jesus" wafts out of the wide-open doors and over the bright red hibiscus hedge.
A sign along the road proclaims, "Ye Must be Born again." A van roars past. "King Jesus loves you," it says. All over the island small churches dot the landscape.
Apart from the magenta bougainvillea and red hibiscus, most of the landscape is green: deep green for the lush vegetation that hugs the steep mountainside that protects the water-saturated rain forests; lighter green for the palms; and pale green for the miles upon miles of sugar cane that stampedes the sides of the roads and towers above the roof of the car.Suddenly the car rounds a bend -- goats scatter, roadside children giggle -- and the soft green of sugar cane rolls down to a sea of unbelievable blue.
In the National Georgraphic's book on the Caribbean, "Isles of the Caribbees, " author Carleton Mitchell says of St. Kitts: "Nowhere did the sea seem a deeper blue or the clouds a purer white."
Catching a speedboat to the neighboring island of Nevis, which reputable guide books say has some of the best beaches in the Caribbean, you look back on an island luxuriant with vegetation, sparse in population.
Deep blue sea fades to a turquoise green at the shoreline. The town of Basseterre forms a thin line of colonization at the water's edge. Behind that there are no further signs of human habitation -- only a sea of sugar cane rising steeply to Mt. Misery, towering 3,792 feet.
The motorboat picks up speed. The prow rises and smashes down hard on the curling incoming waves. Passengers cling to their seats. Spray plumes up and soaks people sitting at the back of the boat.
Within 30 to 40 minutes the island of Nevis approaches. Above the jetty at the main town of Charlestown, a sign proclaims Nevis as the birthplace of alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the United States Treasury. Nevis was also the watering hole for the ships of Britain's greatest sea lord, Adm. Horatio Nelson. He stayed long enough to meet and marry a young, pretty widow, Frances Nesbitt.The Nesbitt plantation still exists today as a hotel. Its grounds are clothed in majestic royal palms.
Our family has gone to Nevis to spend the day at Pinney's Beach, which everyone says is "wonderful". The beach stretches for miles.There are no hamburger stands, cold drink stalls, or any other kind of public facilities, and very few people.
We've come prepared with a picnic lunch -- pastry-covered chopped beef, some apple turnovers, and a few coconut cookies we purchased from the American Bakery back in Basseterre.We get a taxi to the beach. We ask the driver to return some three hours later. He does.
The beach is glorious. The sand is white and clean and speckled with small seashells. Palm trees march straight- limbed to the beach. But at the edge of the sand some curve out dramatically like arms reaching out of a train window. The water is a translucent green as it flops onto the shore, and invitingly warm. A few gray pelicans swim on the calm surface of the water. Every now and again within a throw of sand from us they pull their bulky bodies out of the water and then with surpising agility fly up, snap their wings shut like a collapsible umbrella and divebomb into the water, emerging with a fish in their bills.
In the distance the mountains of St. Kitts form a dramatic backdrop. Within days the charter plane that brought us to these Robinson Crusoe islands 1,300 miles southeast of Miami will climb above those mountains and head back to Boston -- and, alas, five straight days without a ray of sunshine.
It is doubtful that anyone returning to these islands will find them the same. Tourism is bearing down on St. Kitts- Nevis, which enjoy full self-rule but remain nominally British because Whiteball is responsible for its foreign affairs and defense.
But tourism dollars could pave and pay the way to full independence, and for many islanders that's an incentive.
Last year there were only four charter tours to St. Kitts. This year they expect to get 28. Already in progress are more than $64 million in government development projects, from resurfacing main roads to the building of a new deepwater harbor that will pull in large cruise ships. More than 1,600 hotel rooms are to be built by private enterprise. Condominiums are not far behind.
The St. Kitts advertising and promotion budget has been increased threefold this year to $1 million. Says Tim Benford of M. Silver Associates Inc. in New York. "We're the first PR firm they've ever had. We were appointed only last year. They had no PR material so we had to send down a team of professional people."
Will change spoil unspoiled St. Kitts? "We are the last to go into tourism," says a local businessman. "We hope to learn from the mistakes of other Caribbean islands that built too big and too fast. If the hotels don't get too greedy, we'll succeed."