“Life is oh so sweet on Nevis,” croons my taxi driver, Vernal, as he makes an unexpected detour off the side of the road. “It’s gonna be a good sunset, so let’s pause and appreciate,” he says with a wink and broad smile. My dinner reservation at Montpelier Plantation is at 6:30, but I embrace the island mantra, “rush slowly,” and agree to join Vernal on a bluff above Pinney’s Beach to watch a fiery orange sun disappear into the sea.
Sweet is the perfect adjective to describe Nevis, an island whose history and early fortune were rooted in sugar and whose plantation-style homes
are painted in macaroon pastels with icing-sugar trim. The delicate scent of ylang-ylang perfumes the warm, tropical air and trees hang heavy with ripe mangoes and papaya, or what Vernal calls, nature’s candy. Troupes of green vervet monkeys play in the treetops and donkeys once used to haul mounds of sugarcane now roam wild. But it’s the people who are sweetest of all, exuding a genuine warmth and happiness.
The oldest British colony in the Caribbean, Nevis spans just 36 square miles and feels slow and sleepy even by Caribbean standards. Neighboring big sister, St. Kitt’s, for example, has 53,000 residents, an international airport, cruise terminals, and massive chain resorts. Nevis, home to barely 11,000 people, has no cruise traffic and the Four Seasons is its only brand-name hotel. And because it requires a bit of effort to reach (if not arriving via private plane you fly to St. Kitts and transfer by ferry), the island maintains a hushed vibe that attracts bold-face names (Princess Diana holidayed here and it’s now Prince Harry’s go-to escape) looking to embrace discreet barefoot luxury.
EXPATS & ISLAND FLAVORS
“People here have traveled the world, but Nevis is the place that captures their heart and imagination,” quips Gillian Smith, the English-born owner of Bananas, an island institution tucked above the Historic Hamilton Estate. Her shop just below the restaurant is proof of her wanderlust, stocked with Portuguese linens, Tahitian pearls, and other treasures from her travels. At the bar, I eavesdrop on expats gossiping as I savor bites of a hearty, British-influenced fish pie topped with parmesan and creamy whipped potatoes. Smith arrived in the late 1990s along with a crop of other expats who reimagined old plantations into intimate hotels and restaurants.
Now, a second renaissance is afoot. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see a place with fresh eyes. As such, a new crop of expats from England, Colombia, Canada, and beyond are re-invigorating the island with fresh flavors. Long reliant on imports, the pandemic was a wake- up call for the island to start growing more of its own food. This hasn’t been lost on Jack Boast. The talented new chef at Paradise Beach Nevis cut his teeth at London’s Michelin-decorated Galvin La Chapelle but much prefers island life. When he’s not in the kitchen of the 13-room, beachfront hotel, he’s spearfishing, scouting rum shacks, or connecting with the island’s best farmers and fishermen.
The ebullient chef allows me to join him on a sourcing trip. Our first stop is the farmer’s market in the island’s main town, Charlestown, a short walk from the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, now the Museum of Nevis History. As he examines exotic-sounding produce — bitter gourd, soursop, and a starchy root called tannia — he tells me he’s on a mission to challenge the palates of visitors beyond the typical English inspired Caribbean fare.
Yes, he offers a Caesar salad and burger at lunch to satisfy fussy Americans, but dinner is curated down to two starters, two mains, and one dessert with offerings that might include jerk BBQ pig tail, crispy fried okra, and a gussied-up riff on local roadside staple, Nevisian goat water, that he transforms into a deliciously rich, gravy-like stew.
SUGAR MILLS & NEVIS PEAK
Luckily there are multiple ways to work up an appetite on the island—from standup paddleboarding and kayaking on the turquoise water fronting Paradise Beach to horseback riding and summitting 3,232-foot Nevis Peak, the highest point on the island. The latter is more jungle climb than a hike, and not for the unfit, requiring just as much upper body strength to haul yourself up near-vertical ropes. But the island views are worth the effort.
Nevis is also home to one of the only expanding rainforests on earth, and across the island, expats have rescued historic plantations from the ever-encroaching jungle. One of the most storied, Montpelier Plantation, was reinvented as an elegant boutique hotel that hosts five-course meals in a candle-lit, 300-year-old sugar mill. More recently, New York artists Helen and Brice Marden transformed old stone ruins at the foot of Nevis Peak into an 11-room, 40-acre retreat called Golden Rock. Shrouded in giant philodendron, fragrant jasmine, and 50 species of palms, the hotel doubles as a gallery while its terrific restaurant serves a sumptuous toasted coconut-topped lobster salad.
Just down the road, the Hermitage Inn, one of the oldest wooden homes in all of the Caribbean, has for decades thrown a weekly pig roast attended by both locals and visitors. The beloved buffet’s staple West Indies recipes, like rabbit pie, tannia fritters, and johnnycakes, pay homage to the island’s grandmothers. New Chef Alejandro Cadavid hails from Colombia and has worked at some of South America’s top restaurants. He won’t mess with tradition but has refined the dishes just a touch. He’s also created a new tradition — every Friday Cadavid fires up the stone oven with acacia wood for pizza night and showcases island ingredients on tasty thin-crust pies.
KILLER BEES & LOCAL LIVING
For years, the island’s culinary nexus was inland, and its shores were best suited to laidback, low-frills beach shacks like Sunshines, a legendary hangout named after its always smiling owner Llewellyn “Sunshine” Caines and notorious for its Killer Bee rum punch. But tides are turning.
I can see Chef Boast fishing along the shores of Paradise Beach as I dingy in from a morning of sailing and snorkeling. Talk about a fresh catch — he’s angling for the snapper to turn into fresh sashimi for lunch. Chef Boast is the expert when it comes to rum shacks around the island, but Paradise Beach Nevis’ award-winning mixologist, Kendie Williams, is the resident rum connoisseur. Over lunch, she treats me to a rum tasting. We sample Clifton Estate, a Nevis-made spiced rum that she aptly describes as “Christmas in a glass” against Diplomático, a Venezuelan rum as refined as a sherry, but with a touch of sweetness.
Later that evening, I swap my straw hat for a free rum punch at Drift. Set on the northern tip of the island, just 10 minutes from Paradise, this darling new beach bar was recently opened by Canadian artist Vikki Fuller and her husband, Mark. Vikki’s paintings of the island’s donkeys and monkeys grace the whitewashed walls. And now, so does my hat. Vikki came up with the clever hat-for-a-drink exchange, one of many whimsical features of the restaurant.
My Nevisian waitress, Renita, insists I try the West Indies curry studded with just caught mahi. Mark and Vikki join me at my table and tell me about their latest project, a sister restaurant Luna, located just up the road and helmed by Michelin- trained Indian chef, Kamal D’Costa. Mark cuts himself off to point out a hawksbill turtle bobbing nearby in the water, and we all pause to admire the ombre blues of the sea.
“Every island in the Caribbean is known for something — best beaches, best diving, best beach bars,” muses Mark. “People forget Nevis because we don’t stand out for just one thing. The secret is that this island has it all.
PARADISE IN A GLASS JAMES’ FAVORITE: THE RUM PUNCH
Named after the owner of Paradise Nevis Beach, James Cabourne, this unique riff on the island’s ubiquitous rum punch is the special recipe of the hotel’s mixologist Kendie Williams.
2 oz Mokojumbie Gold Rum
1 oz Shipwrecks Vanilla Rum
1 oz Tamarind Purée
1 oz Guava Purée
1⁄2 oz Lime Juice
Combine ingredients in a shaker and add ice. Shake vigorously. Pour in a rocks glass, add Angostura Bitters, and grate nutmeg on top. Garnish with lime. Cheers!