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Paradise Awakes

While package tourists head to better-known Jamaica or Antigua, and luxury yachters sail down to the British Virgin Islands, the seasoned Caribbean traveller chooses St Kitts: a very different – and far more "real" – island getaway, just emerging from its troubled past.


christened by Columbus but for years has lain off the traveller’s map. Indeed, arriving on the tiny island nation of Saint Christopher (St. Kitts) and Nevis feels a little like stepping back in time. Perhaps not as far as the ancient explorer but certainly a decade or two behind the rest of the Caribbean.

The airport is new (built with French cash) but to get there you have to fly in by turbo-prop on local LIAT airlines which, locals joke, stands for 'Leave Island Any Time'. By the time I was ready to leave St. Kitts and Nevis it took a 24-hour delay while an engineer was flown out to fix our plane. Heathrow and punctual this is not.

Yet after the 'touristy' excess of other Caribbean islands, you could certainly say that the lazy, tumbledown feel of St. Kitts is a change. Flying in from the yachting paradise of the British Virgin Islands, and before that the well-heeled streets of Antigua, the faded glory of St. Kitts' capital, Basseterre, and native splendour of a relatively-untouched landscape is something of a surprise – and a relief. There are no high-rises, few traffic jams and whilst it may lack some of the natural wonders of its neighbours, there's still a 'slower' sense of time here than most other places I've travelled.

The verdant slopes of Mount Liamuiga loom wherever you look: a volcano that tops out at nearly 3,800 feet, dominating the Kittitian landscape. It is also known as Mount Misery, a well-deserved nickname, as anyone who has climbed it can attest. North is the jutting volcanic shape of Sabre, a French dependency; to the south are two crossings to Nevis, the less-populated isle, where each year hundreds of youths attempt the four-mile swim in an annual competition. Also on Nevis is the famous Four Seasons hotel and several plantation inns, popular with upmarket visitors.

Decamping via the cavernous, Disney-like Marriott (complete with casino and wildly enthusiastic timeshare sales reps) I meet Bert David, a popular radio show host originally from Birmingham, England. His thick Brummy accent is instantly recognisable; his weekly questioning of government figures and chasing suspected corruption have made him a national figure, highly popular with listeners.

Driving up through the steep, potted streets of Basseterre in his 4x4, we suddenly stop beside a large, whitewashed villa. "That there," says Bert, "is the house our Prime Minister rents out to the Taiwanese ambassador. Impressive eh?"

He winks, mischievously. Gleaming through the sticky afternoon the Prime Minister's house, one of many properties he owns on the island, does indeed stand out. Of course, in any other country, such a building might be off the tourist agenda. But in the rapidly-changing St. Kitts, everyone, it seems, is arguing about debt and corruption. As Bert goes on to explain, the PM Denzil Douglas and the main political opposition, the People's Action Movement (PAM), are locked in a furious row about the amount of money the PM makes from renting it to the Taiwanese.

Leaving behind the affluent suburbs, we head down into the Port Zante harbour area and take coffees on a rooftop bar overlooking the new cruise terminal (300 ships a year dock here). It looks rather forlorn today, with no ship in town. It's just a short walk through the humid heat into the centre of Basseterre. It may seem a museum of flaking plaster, but there is a rusty colonial charm here: an ancient jail is still in use and the old town square where slaves were once traded possesses both a Victorian quaintness as well as a grim sense of history.

The law here holds that no building here may be taller than the surrounding palm trees, so there are no concrete tower blocks to contend with. The nearby Marriott is the first of the luxury international chains to have entered the country – you can stay for a fraction of the cost of a typical five-star resort elsewhere, complete with beaches, saunas and whirlpool baths – but the Ocean Terrace Inn, draping the side of a hill overlooking the city bay, has more of the boutique 'chic'.

Driving onwards through dusk, we circumnavigate the entire island in just three hours, passing the one-street villages and small townships that make up the majority of its 38,000 citizens' homes. As you escape around the coast, villagers sit under the shade of palms, escaping the searing heat that lingers even as the night's insects start their serenade. Meanwhile, Bert points out two separate failed resort developments and there are numerous PAM billboards which read: "$2 billion!", a reference to the national debt.

St. Kitts remains one of the least-developed economies in the island archipelagos which emerged from British colonial rule: among its recent successes have been hosting the England cricket team during 20 20 matches … until disgraced sponsor Sir Allen Stanford was named in connection with a suspected $8 billion fraud. A spate of recent murders have also soured the national headlines.

Money, or lack of it, seems a national obsession too. Which is a shame, as St. Kitts is a little-known gem much more deserving of visitors than it currently gets. Everyone I meet is friendly, sharing up traditional Caribbean stew, Carib beers or a tale of their aunts and uncles working overseas (the country still relies a great deal on these foreign earnings and visits). Most will regale you with tales about their days in the sugar industry. Since the collapse of the state-owned industry, the search for tourist dollars has taken precedence. Sugar production began when British and French planters shipped in thousands of Africans as slaves in the years after 1640, and continued beyond independence (from Britain) in 1983. Former sugar workers are still awaiting their share of the expected EC$16 million (US$6 million) severance payments.

Struggle, in fact, seems written through Kittian history. Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, St. Kitts and Nevis was the first of the British West Indies to be settled by Europeans (in 1623). The twin islands then saw brutal fighting between English and French troops, before witnessing massacres of its native Carib population. Four hundred wrecks litter its deadly reefs, which today make for spectacular dives – there are few other divers to spoil pristine conditions. Only 15 years ago a violent split with the third island of Anguilla (back to British dependency) cemented the birth of the new St. Christopher and Nevis state, often shortened to 'St. Kitts'.

However, things are changing. Whilst it may be more used to corrugated shacks, brilliant-green volcanic slopes and wandering goats than luxury spas or golfing holidays, St. Kitts is undergoing rapid construction and change. Although the sugar plantations are abandoned, there are signs everywhere for elusive Taiwanese sponsors – blazoned on sports stadiums, on colleges, in front of agricultural research sites – funding this micro state as part of a wider diplomatic struggle for Taiwan's international recognition. Of the Taiwanese themselves, I can find no sign. I'm told they're popular for their singing in certain restaurants in downturn Basseterre on a Friday night.

From atop the mountains overlooking the popular Frigate Bay, you can gaze over a rough-hewn gem that is already being shaped for the luxury traveller: the entire south-east peninsula of St. Kitts is changing, lorries ploughing up and down the coast roads, as several eco-friendly resorts are constructed. Large chunks of the protruding, undeveloped peninsula remain an area of high natural beauty and ecological diversity, but for how long they stay a secret is unsure, as investors and resort developers snap them up for the higher, more exclusive end of the tourist market.

The popular Turtle Beach has been bought by the Auberge hotel group and renamed The Beach House: it now hosts dinner parties on its sun-kissed verandas, whilst guests sit in their 'infinity pools' and watch the sun sinking below the horizon. We opt for one of Bert's local recommendations: a small café nearby to Turtle Beach, where we wash down delicious fresh lobster burgers with local Carib beer. On the nearby beach I take stock, looking across the waters at Nevis, whilst a small herd of cattle gently grazes the dunes near the (still rare) private yachts bobbing just offshore. Such is the paradox and beauty of this tiny twin nation.

Wild goats, poor roads and poverty aside, as a long-time American resident of Basseterre tells me as we sit sipping local rum in a beach-side shack: "This place gets under your skin. This is the real Caribbean. There's no way I'd ever leave it."

This story was commissioned for The South China Morning Post © 2009



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