The thunderstorms rolled in at about four in the afternoon. I know this because it was time for afternoon tea on the patio and I'd looked outside to see what the sky was doing. One assumes that Mother Nature would take it easy for afternoon tea, leaving it sun-splashed and dry. But sometimes she takes the upper hand, just to rattle things and send a reminder of who's really in charge. Within minutes the coconut palms were whipped by the wind, lightning flashed across a menacing sky and the thunder not so much rumbled as boomed.
Fickle weather, they say, in the Caribbean. You can set the water for tea to boil as the heavens turn charcoal and sheets of rain are pouring down. By the time the pot has steeped, the sky is blue and the only reminders of inclement weather are the puddles. The weather can turn on a dime.
They are well versed in the proper way to do afternoon tea at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club on the island of Nevis. The heritage property was the ancestral home of Fanny Nisbet, wife of famed British naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson, and has been turned into an intimate getaway where the emphasis is on preserving the authentic flavours and hospitality of the Caribbean. Built at the remains of the island's only beachfront plantation, the exclusive resort boasts a screen saver view: long rows of coconut trees lead from the Great House down to an azure oceanfront. In the distance ““ two miles across The Narrows ““ the hills of its sister island, St. Kitts.
Picture what a bona fide tropical island should be ““ and you've got Nevis. A dormant volcano that hasn't rumbled since prehistory rises like a lush, green cone. Several veins of piping hot spring waters release the pressure building underground (Bath Springs near the main town of Charlestown is a popular soaking spot), a hint that somewhere, deep below, things are still brewing. The land is draped with trees, flowers and fruits of every description and the shoreline is fringed by miles of quiet, secluded beach. Only one ““ Pinney's Beach on the western coastline ““ is home to the few thatched-roof beach bars catering to tourists.
That authentic feel is what impressed David Evans, who endured the long trans-Atlantic flight from London's grey skies to catch some December sunshine. “I've been to dozens of Caribbean islands over the years and many are artificial and predictable. Here it's very natural; it's as it should be. It's what people aspire to. I love it.”
Nevis is like a well-kept secret. In early 1607, English explorer John Smith and his flotilla of three ships stopped on the small island for six days before venturing north to settle Jamestown in Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Things stayed quiet until two decades later when the British colonized the island and the soil turned for plantations growing cotton, sugarcane, indigo and tobacco. It was a prosperous era for Nevis, of great wealth in the hands of a very few.
“Sugar was grown half way up the slopes of Nevis Peak. That's why we have the remains of the stone terraces ““ they created as much growing space as possible,” explains island nature expert Lynnell Liburd, whose ancestors were brought to the island as part of the 17th-century slave trade. “At one time, Nevis was a very rich island. In the 1700s the economy of Nevis was larger than the 13 American colonies put together. That's how it came to be known as the Queen of the Caribees.”
In the early days of the plantation era, sugar was so lucrative that it was called “white gold” but after the 20th-century downturn of the sugarcane market, the compact island turned its fortunes to tourism. And as anyone there will tell you, the Nevisians do things on their own terms.
“If someone wants a casino they can cross the channel to St. Kitts,” my taxi driver explains without a whiff of apology. Ditto for high rises, duty free shopping malls and the chain food outlets that have taken hold on many Caribbean islands. The balmy reaches of Nevis are the perfect mélange of nature, culture, hospitality and home-grown diversions. Seductive, and perfectly mirroring the way our northern imaginations like to picture them in a January daydream.
Even in a short stay, it's possible to fill up on the unspoiled natural beauty with an eco-tour, rainforest hike, dip into natural hot springs, or a tame stroll through The Botanical Gardens where the Palm Garden and the Rainforest Conservatory are filled with plants like the needle-covered Burglar palm, orchids and bromeliads.
On the windward side of the island, the Nevisian Heritage Village is an outdoor museum built to preserve and tell the island's history through the evolution of housing styles. Built on the remains of Fothergills Estate, in days gone by a profitable sugar plantation, the cluster of simple buildings is never out of view of the oft cloud-enveloped Nevis Peak.
For Village guide Pat Thompson, the events of the past are close to her heart and her family's history. “The slaves came from West Africa. And when they got here it was a sad story. I learn from yesterday so I can build my today and hope for tomorrow. We must remember it was a journey and we must pass the story of that journey on to our children. So they understand and know where they are coming from.”
Some of the modest buildings look like they'd be no match for the winds of a tropical storm, yet they tenaciously hold their ground. Scattered through a few rolling acres of the museum's grounds are the thatched huts of the Carib Indians, rickety-walled slave dwellings and the wood-sided rum shacks where the community gathered after a long day's work to drink, relax and share news. On slightly higher ground are the remains of the mammoth stone block boiling room and cotton ginnery, both parts of the original Fothergills plantation estate.
Back on the patio at Nisbet's Great House, it's time again for the ritual of afternoon tea. Not a cloud in the sky and Violet Gumbs has stayed true to her traditional Nevisian ways and brewed a perfect pot of ginger and honey bush tea to share with guests.
“My grandma taught me,” she says. “The people of Nevis drink bush tea every day. We did it when we were young and now it is our turn to do this for our own children.”
And that's what there is to love about Nevis: the unique intermingled effortlessly with the everyday. No pressures, no unrealistic expectations, no worries. As I sip my cup of bush tea it occurs to me that this might very well be the perfect Caribbean destination.
If you go
Nisbet Plantation Beach Club
Frequently named one of the best resorts in the Caribbean.