Enraptured Escape: Savoring the Island of St. Kitts
written by COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY | photos courtesy of COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY; ST. KITTS MARRIOTT RESORT AND ROYAL BEACH CASINO; DIAMOND PR
The only passenger in my row aboard an otherwise crowded flight, I scooted toward the window with a sly smile and anticipated sailing through the sky over 50 shades of turquoise Caribbean waters. Waves of excitement washed over me, even before the pilot announced, “The weather looks like we’re in for a smooth flight, and it’s going to be another gorgeous day in Basseterre.” If the extra elbowroom was any indication, I suspected this island escape to St. Kitts would provide ample space to relax and explore.
Awaiting my arrival was a Porsche, which whisked me to the luxurious YU Lounge — a private airport terminal, where a glass of Veuve Clicquot, a renowned French champagne, is customary to pass the time while concierge services handle baggage as well as expedite immigration and custom formalities. This warm welcome comes compliments of the VIP Experience package available to guests staying at the St. Kitts Marriott and Royal Beach Casino, the largest luxury resort option on the island.
During the 15-minute drive to the hotel, my eyes stayed glued to the window. As one of the Leeward Islands, the culture is a unique blend of predominantly French, American and English, including one characteristic instantly recognizable on the road. Our driver sped along the left side of the road with few exceptions, as only stop signs — no traffic lights — dot the 23-mile-long, 5-mile-wide slice of paradise.
The lush, hilly gradient of green seemed to rise from the surrounding blue waters and behind a thin layer of mist, maybe clouds in the air, making the whole scene surreal. Brightly painted houses hugged the hillsides along the coast, appearing like Batik hung on a clothesline, and I wondered how Christopher Columbus felt when he first spotted the island in 1493. I felt as if I’d traveled to a different planet. The landscape is so different than Georgia’s Piedmont, as is the laid-back lifestyle.
Reconfirming I was, in fact, in the middle of the West Indies was the map mural behind the front desk of the open-air, sunshine-yellow St. Kitts Marriott. Express check-in was made breezy thanks to the hotel’s VIP Experience, which includes a bottle of sparkling wine waiting in your spacious Royal Ocean View Suite in addition to arrival and departure perks at the YU Lounge.
Before heading to my room, I reveled in the island’s balmy air and tried to take it all in. Flanking the main building are several three-story garden houses that offer one and two-bedroom suites, while nightclubs, the pool and miles of beach preside ahead. I watched a bellhop greet a fellow group of guests as if they were long-lost friends. Purchasing packages isn’t the only way to get special treatment; friendliness is as common with Kittitians as spice is in their food.
TASTING THE DIFFERENCE
Caribbean flavor sets the tone in the eight restaurants and three lounges on property, and one glance at the menu reveals a few surprises. Before bananas ripen, Kittitians refer to them as “green figs” – a local favorite that can be boiled, steamed or mashed like potatoes with milk and butter. Pumpkin soup is not just a trendy dish served in October, but rather a staple since the squash grows year-round in the island’s fertile soil.
I was taken aback, however, by dishes expected to be familiar such as a spinach and feta croissant at Café Calypso and later, the butter-poached Frigate Bay Reef lobster at Blu Restaurant. Each bite is packed with extra oomph.
“We have to remind you that you are in St. Kitts,” Lavern Stevens often said with a big grin at meals. Stevens is the resort’s public relations manager, but also the unofficial mayor it seems, since everywhere she goes, she greets others with hugs. A native of the island, she was a helpful walking encyclopedia, especially when it came to spotting fruit on trees and knowing where to eat. She told stories of farmers that scratch their heads when asked if they grow “organic” or not because they don’t know any other way.
Of course, any local you ask has a different little shack they claim to be a “must visit.” The longer I stayed, the longer my list grew — pork chops from Rock Lobster, paper-plated seafood at Sprat Net, conch fritters at Ballahoo — but with Stevens as my guide on and off the resort, we opted for elegant coastal spots like the Carambola Beach Club on South Friar’s Bay and Spice Mill Restaurant on Cockleshell Beach. Hours could easily pass on the day beds, lounge chairs and love seats outside the hacienda-styled Carambola restaurant.
After the most savory pumpkin soup I sampled on the island, Carambola’s culinary shock came in the form of incredible sushi. Since fresh catch can go fast, my ordering decision wasn’t difficult at Spice Mill: I snatched the daily special of seasoned red snapper with jasmine rice. This time, Stevens didn’t have to remind me. By the end of the meal, I was well aware I was in St. Kitts. Spice Mill operated on island time, so even if you have a reservation, chances are you’ll enjoy a Carib lager, “Ting with a Sting” or fruity concoction at the bar before being seated.
On the flip side, I’m guessing their staff will also understand if you’re running late because you had to kick off your shoes for one more stroll on the sand.
When the entrance to the largest Vegas-style casino in the Caribbean and recently renovated Ultra Lounge is located just off the St. Kitts Marriott lobby, exciting opportunities abound.
If splitting aces doesn’t get your heart racing, head outdoors, where thrilling adventures include safaris to Mount Liamuiga Volcano, panoramic photo ops at the top of Brimstone Hill Fortress, zip lines above banana trees and bougainvillea or living history lessons. Once owned by ancestors of President Thomas Jefferson, Romney Manor is a striking estate, rich in colonial history of the island’s valuable sugar trade and covered with tropical plants and a 400-year-old Saman Tree. Today, the manor is home to the Caribelle Batik Factory, where visitors can discover ancient Indonesian methods used to craft spectacularly dyed fashions and colorful wall hangings.
Aside from open-air dining and waking up to ocean views, my favorite excursion was being out on the water. We departed from Porte Zante on a catamaran early one morning, but the crew was already blasting the reggae music and mixing cold drinks before we set sail to Nevis for snorkeling and a barbecue lunch. Known as St. Kitt’s sister island, Nevis is one of the most unspoiled and relaxed islands in the Caribbean Sea.
The lack of pretentiousness is no more apparent than at Sunshine’s. The funky beach bar and grill is equally popular among the locals as the superstars who have visited over the years — photographs of their recognizable smiling faces wallpaper the shack’s interior — so you never know who you might spot in the neighboring cabana. Sunshine’s infamous “Killer Bees” rum punch is made from a secret recipe that will keep everyone buzzing. Our catamaran captain let us off with two warnings: to not have more than one (okay, maybe two) Bees if we wanted back on his boat, and to keep an eye on the cunning monkeys. We arrived back in Basseterre with the late afternoon daylight casting a glow on the colorful landscape that may scientifically be impossible to see without smiling.
When your body starts to feel like a rum cake baked in the sun, rejuvenate at the 15,000-square-foot Emerald Mist Spa inside the St. Kitts Marriott. Their signature bamboo massage uses a deep tissue technique enhanced with warm bamboo stalks to revive poor circulation, ease sore muscles and realign the mind, body and spirit.
Funny how island time suddenly speeds up when you have a plane to catch. With souvenir plush monkey and bottle of locally distilled rum packed safely in my luggage, I took one more deep breath of the balmy, ocean air. My phone was full of photographs and I had already mentally redecorated my kitchen back home with West Indies flair: white walls, pops of color and a well-stocked spice rack. I may have had a direct flight on the way home, but I was already dreaming of different excuses to come back. Intoxicating natural beauty, sunny skies, warm waters and white sandy beaches are the reasons many travelers come to St. Kitts, one of the most seductive spots in the Caribbean. Regardless of what brings you here, leaving with just one taste of St. Kitts is one you won’t soon forget.