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Cruising St. Kitts

The "Mother Colony of the Caribbean," along with sister isle Nevis, is quietly becoming a cruise-passenger favorite. Click here and save up to 60% on your next cruise.

Columbus discovered St. Kitts and Nevis --two tiny islands in the Caribbean Leeward chain--during his second voyage to the New World in 1493. He admired the beautiful isles, but didn't bother to land. Historians surmise he was too intent upon cruising the uncharted waters seeking the mythical passage to the riches of China and India.

And his Leeward Islands discovery failed to spark immediate interest by European nations. More than a century later, in 1623, the English finally arrived, followed by the French in 1627. Initially they cooperated, divided the islands, and jointly managed to wipe out the local Carib Indians--and withstand repeated attacks by the Spanish unhappy with their presence. However, eventually the British and French began brawling, and continued fighting for a century-and-a-half over the islands, which had become very important sugar producers. The English gained permanent possession in 1783 under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, yet the capital of St. Kitts still retains a French name--Basseterre.

Although Columbus sailed past, he did name the islands. The largest he called St. Christopher, either in his own honor, or to honor the patron saint of travelers. However, when the British arrived, they promptly began using the nickname St. Kitts, which finally became official in 1983 when the two islands became independent. Columbus named the other isle Las Nieves, Spanish for "the snows," because of the snow-white clouds clinging to the 3,232-foot-high peak of its extinct volcano; the English named it Mount Nevis, and the island Nevis.

St. Kitts became known as the "Mother Colony of the Caribbean." From here British settlers sailed to Antigua, Barbuda, Tortola, and Montserrat, and the French sent colonizing expeditions to Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, St. Barts, and Les Saintes. Now five centuries later, the sister islands are quietly becoming a popular port-of-call, with an increasing number of cruise ships docking at St. Kitts, and offering excursions to Nevis, which is separated from the southern end of St. Kitts by a two-mile-wide channel called the Narrows.

As your ship approaches, the rugged, mountain chain creating the backbone of St. Kitts dominates the horizon, looming larger and larger as you near Basseterre. St. Kitts' highest peak is Mount Liamugia (3,793 feet), rising from huge sugar cane fields; its name means "the fertile land" in the Carib language. You dock at the deep-water pier two-and-a-half miles from the center of town. There are plenty of taxis available if you aren't on a ship's tour.

On our latest visit--our fourth to the island--we took a taxi into Basseterre and again sampled the town. The ship offered a choice of 11 shore tours, such as helicopter flights, catamaran sails, snorkeling, boat trips to Nevis, volcano summit hiking, mountain bike tours, Brimstone Hill Fortress, Romney Gardens, and Caribelle Batik. All are interesting, but unfortunately a port call isn't long enough time to take more than one.

Basseterre is a West Indian town, naturally with British overtones because of its history. It's ideal for strolling to get the feel of the island. There are no vendors prowling the streets, and the local residents are amazingly friendly. Never before have we experienced so many "good morning" greetings from fellow pedestrians--islanders just following their daily routines. As we wandered the center of town, we could see Basseterre has some excellent examples of West Indian architecture.

The Circus in the center of town won't remind you much of Piccadilly in London, but the left-hand driving will. It's a picturesque hub of activity. Here you find the island's "Big Ben," an ornate, cast-iron Victorian clock tower with four faces, coats of arms, and a fountain. A few blocks away is Independence Square, a park that was once a slave market. Several antique townhouses surround the Circus with small, fenced gardens in front, first stories of cut volcanic stone, second stories of shingled wood bordered by wide, gingerbread trimmed porches and steep roofs.

St. Kitts is noted for its locally produced clothing made of beautiful batik. Other local products include hand-embroidered goods, straw articles, and ceramics. You also find such duty-free items as perfumes, jewelry, crystal, and porcelain. The main shopping stores are found along Bay Road, Liverpool, and Fort Street, all near the Circus.

The island, when seen on a chart, is often described as shaped like a cricket bat. The largest and widest part of St. Kitts points northwest towards the Dutch island of Statia. The narrow peninsula dangling southeast points towards Nevis. St. Kitts is only five miles wide, and 23 miles from tip to handle, comprising 68 square miles. Nevis is smaller, just 36 square miles.

Beaches along the shores of the widest part of St. Kitts are fine, black sand--the result of volcanic actions eons ago. Until the modern, two-lane highway down the twisting peninsula was completed, this beautiful area was reachable only by enthusiastic hikers. The road, winding through rugged terrain, provides the island's most spectacular scenery. The peninsula is developing as St. Kitts major resort area with modern hotels on or being built on Frigate Bay, Friar's Bay, and other beaches.

If you make the southern excursion, don't be surprised if your guide or driver suggests, "Watch out for the monkeys." He's serious, for St. Kitts is populated by wild, green vervet monkeys, which local wags say outnumber the island's 36,000-odd human inhabitants. The simians might, for they're uncaged, uncounted, and wild.

However, if you want to be guaranteed a chance to photo them, make certain you stop at the O.T.I Turtle Beach Bar & Grill at the tip of the peninsula. The monkeys are fed scraps from the kitchen, and they know when it's chow time. They come out of the brush like termites out of woodwork. Just watch--don't try to be playful--they're wild and can bite! The monkeys are descendants of those brought to the island as pets centuries ago by the French.

Two other points of interest you shouldn't miss are the Brimstone Hill Fortress and Caribelle Batik. Both usually are included on ship tours, but if not, hire a cab; roundtrip fares are moderate, about $50 for a car and one to four passengers.

Brimstone, whose name came from the sulphur odor seeping from nearby volcanic vents, is located nine miles west of Basseterre and was known as the "Gibraltar of the Caribbean." The British began building the fortress of volcanic rock and limestone mortar in 1690, finishing in 1792. Standing at the foot of Brimstone Hill studying the site rising 800 feet above the sea, you're amazed. After the nerve-tingling drive up the tortuous, narrow road to the lower fortifications, you're even more surprised that such a defensive position could be conquered. However, 8,000 French troops succeeded in overwhelming a small British garrison after a month siege in 1782. Ironically, the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 returned the fort and the island to Great Britain. Today the restored fortress is centerpiece of the national park featuring nature trails, with a variety of plants and animal life including wild deer monkeys.

It's seldom that a sightseeing attraction does double duty as a shopping goal, but Caribelle Batik does. It's located on five acres of carefully landscaped grounds of the great house of Romney Manor, established in the 17th century. The gardens feature 30 varieties of hibiscus, rare orchids, huge ferns, and a Saman (rain) tree estimated to be 350 years old. In the house you can watch Caribelle's island artists handprinting fabrics by the 2,500-year-old Indonesian method known as batik. Caribelle offers a full range of distinctive clothing and wall hangings. The fabric is 100 percent Sea Island cotton, the colors and designs flamboyant, and the styles wide-ranging.

If you choose to visit tiny Nevis, you can enjoy a catamaran and beach barbecue utilizing Pinney Beach, the island's most famous, almost four miles of white sand backed by a grove of palm trees. It faces the calm Caribbean sea.

Or you can tour the island's scenery and history. It was here Lord Nelson, Britain's famous admiral, married Fanny Nesbit; he was then stationed at English Harbour on nearby Antigua. Here also Alexander Hamilton, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers and George Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, was born; you may recall he was killed by Aaron Burr in a stateside duel. The Nelson and Hamilton museums are each worth a visit.

St. Kitts and Nevis have it all--beautiful beaches, gorgeous scenery, tropical weather, fine shops and restaurants, and five hundred years of history--complete with a laid-back, easy-going attitude.

Ships That Call: Depending on the season, ships from the following cruise lines call on St. Kitts--Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Crystal, Cunard, First European, Holland America, Norwegian, P&O, Premier, Princess, Radisson Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Windjammer, and others; additionally, Nevis enjoys calls by ships from Radisson Seven Seas, Seabourn, Windjammer, and Windstar.

Weather: Tropical all year long, with average low temperatures in the mid to upper 60s, highs in the upper 70s/low 80s. An annual rainfall of 50 to 80 inches is pretty well distributed throughout the year. The summer and fall months are wetter and slightly warmer. Hurricanes are most likely to develop between August and November, and can add significantly to the rainfall.

 

 


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