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St Kitts and Nevis

Both islands have historic plantation inns with personality and character, and their sugar production was once unrivalled in the Caribbean. But although they also share a St. Kitts-based government, beyond that they go their separate ways.

Nevis, the smaller of the two, gave up its sweet tooth for sugarcane cultivation in the 1960s, allowing the island to initiate a casual embrace of tourism. Five plantation inns thrive today - only one of them on the shore, the others straddling the lush shoulders of conical Nevis Peak. The 1991 debut of a 196-room Four Seasons Resort dramatically altered the landscape. The various accommodation options complement one another more than they compete, although the island is notably short on lodging facilities for the budget-minded. Nevis does not court cruise ships, but it became more accessible with the debut of American Eagle service from San Juan in 2003.

Visitors partake in water sports on Pinney's Beach (home of the Four Seasons) and Oualie Beach, plus there's mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, diving and snorkeling trips. The local botanical garden contains one of the largest collections of palms in the region, and the Four Seasons golf course and tennis facilities are among the Caribbean's finest. 'Liming' - relaxing - at the various beach bars is worth a few lazy afternoons, while evenings are best spent on gourmet dining.

The island also boasts important historic sights: Nevis is the birthplace of American statesman Alexander Hamilton, and his former home is now a museum; Great Britain's famed naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson met and married Nevisian Fanny Brice here in 1787, and their marriage license is recorded at Fig Tree Church.  

Narrow Escape

The history is no less rich on St. Kitts, which is almost twice the size of sister Nevis; they're separated by a two-mile channel called the Narrows (you can take day trips from one to the other easily on the local ferry). Christopher Columbus named the island St. Christopher after the patron saint of travelers, and the appellation was eventually shortened to St. Kitts. Nine forts guarded the island's coastline, none more impressive than the massive Brimstone Hill Fortress; it is a wonderfully preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site today and well worth exploration. In 1782 Brimstone Hill survived bombardment from 8,000 French troops, and a tour reveals the fort's hospital, ammunition stores, officers' quarters and citadel, plus sweeping vistas. The island was fought over by the French and British until 1783, when the British took over for exactly two centuries. St. Kitts and Nevis gained independence in 1983, emerging as the smallest nation in the western hemisphere. 

Activities beyond historical tours can be organized in Basseterre, the island's capital. Particularly memorable are rainforest hikes to Carib Indian petroglyphs and treks to the crater rim of 3,792-foot Mt. Liamuiga. For beaches and water sports, you'll head south to Frigate Bay, where most of the hotel rooms are located, or just beyond, to the Southeast Peninsula, a heretofore undeveloped finger of land pointing towards Nevis. The island's best white-sand coves ring the peninsula's rolling hills and salt ponds. Plans are afoot for resorts and other big projects here, but for now it's blissfully natural, save for a few appealing beach bars. It's also the place where you are most likely to encounter monkeys scampering across the road, dodging into bushes or looking for a handout at Turtle Beach.

Bird-watchers will delight in St. Kitts' treetops, where one might spot brown boobies, magnificent frigate birds, cattle egrets, black-faced grassquits and black-whiskered vireos. Golfers enjoy the 18-hole course at the St. Kitts Royal Golf Club, where some holes overlook the Atlantic Ocean, others the Caribbean. Scuba enthusiasts, from beginners to experienced divers, will enjoy St. Kitts' wrecks, reefs, walls and caves. And leisure travelers never tire of catamaran cruises.

St. Kitts tourism shifted into high gear in 2003 with the arrival of the 636-room, seven-story Marriott resort and casino in Frigate Bay. Targeting convention and incentive groups, the hotel - claiming to be the Caribbean's largest east of Puerto Rico - has ramped up the island's development. But St. Kitts also has three historic plantation inns, which are intimate and run by attentive owner-operators.

One other noteworthy change to St. Kitts is bittersweet: In 2005 the island ceased production of sugarcane, a 360-year old industry that required government subsidies in recent years and was no longer profitable. Although much of St. Kitts is still robed in waving stalks of majestic cane, other projects are on the drawing board for the fields. But one delightful element of the sugar industry remains: The narrow-gauge railway tracks that ran through the fields to haul the cut harvest to the factory have been converted into a tourist attraction. A 17.5-mile scenic train ride along the tracks is offered from October to May, allowing visitors to experience a memorable and historic excursion - it's the only train operating in the Caribbean outside Cuba.

As you ride the rails of the scenic train, bobbing and weaving as if on a ship on the open sea, it's not hard to get the sense of a bygone era, and that's an attribute of which St. Kitts and Nevis is justifiably proud



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