The island is only about the size of Washington, DC and from the air it resembles a somewhat chubby baseball bat. It shares a common history and government with its even smaller sister island located a scant two miles away, as a federation within the British Commonwealth.
Like tiny Nevis, St. Kitts offers the attractions that lure people to the Caribbean seeking sun, sand and relaxation. Unlike its more laid-back neighbor, St. Christopher as it’s formally named offers a wider choice of opportunities for sightseeing, an inviting variety of active pursuits and its own distinct personality.
Both islands were settled first by the peaceful Awarak Indians and later by the more ferocious Caribs. After Columbus sighted them during his second voyage to the New World in 1493, he named the larger of the two St. Christopher, although it’s not certain whether that referred to the 3rd century BC religious martyr or to Chris himself.
English and French settlers arrived in the early 1600s and established a lucrative sugar trade which spanned two centuries, and accounted for an influx of slaves from Africa. England eventually wound up with control of the islands, which achieved their independence in 1983.
Given the history of St. Kitts, traces of British influence are comingled with elements of African and indigenous cultures, providing a rich mosaic which touches many aspects of life. For example, to the consternation of many visitors from the United States, vehicles drive on the left side of the road. I managed to meet that challenge by repeating in my head the mantra: “Stay to the left. Stay to the left.”
Cricket is the most popular sport, the Anglican Church retains a strong foothold among residents and some restaurant menus meld Caribbean and African fare with touches of England.
Geographically St. Kitts is volcanic and is overlooked by a dormant volcano. Its most beautiful sand beaches are concentrated on the southeastern peninsula of the island
Another interesting feature is a population of green vervet monkeys, which were introduced by French plantation owners some 300 years ago as pets for their families. These endearing creatures, which are named for their golden green fur, prefer to hang out in high elevations, peering inquisitively at intruders through the dense foliage.
Some adventurous monkeys venture down to more populated low-lying areas, especially where there are sources of food and people who will toss them an edible handout. While there’s no way to know how many of these simians share the island with their human cousins, some residents claim that there are more monkeys than people.
The romance of St. Kitts and its sister island with sugar began around 1640 at a time when its use to sweeten food was increasing around the world, along with the added benefits of producing molasses and rum. The rich volcanic soil and perfect climate prompted the proliferation of plantations which sprouted like the cane that they cultivated. St. Kitts was blanketed by some 200 plantations that grew cane, which was processed at close to 80 sugar factories.
But that heyday could not, and did not, last forever. Over time, overplanting impoverished the soil, competition increased and external economic conditions brought an end to the era of sugar. While some cane still is grown and processed, tourism and light manufacturing are the basis of the economy today.
Visitors still may relive the heady days of sugar wealth by exploring the remains of plantations. Ruins of cone-shaped stone windmill towers, rusted steam-driven cane crushers and huge copper bowls in which the juice was boiled lie half-hidden in the vegetation and are among reminders of the once-thriving sugar economy.
A good way to recall the sugar plantation life is aboard the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, which offers a 30-mile, three-hour tour by train and bus along the northeastern coastline. In the past, the train which rolled along the narrow-gauge rails delivered cane from plantations to the sugar factory in the capital city of Basseterre. Now passengers in double-deck cars enjoy views of the sea, pass through tiny villages, skirt lush rain forest terrain and spot long-abandoned windmills and chimneys of former estates.
Given past efforts by European nations to colonize and control the Caribbean islands, and the sugar wealth of St. Kitts, it’s not surprising that forts were built to provide defense against attacks. Construction of the massive Brimstone Hill Fortress was begun by the French in 1690 and completed intermittingly over a 100-year period by the British, using slave labor. The complex, perched atop an 800-foot-high rise, sprawls over 38 acres, and the restored structures include officers’ quarters, barracks and a hospital.
References to British, French and other influences also abound in town names and histories. The village of Bloody Point is where, in 1629, French and British soldiers joined forces to repel an attack by the Caribs. The town of Sandy Point is characterized by typical West Indian-style cottages.
Basseterre (“lowland”) and Belle Tete (“beautiful head”) are among place names reminiscent of the French era. Dieppe Bay is believed to have been the first French town, while Challengers Village was the first “free” town, where ex-slaves were permitted to purchase small parcels of land.
The choice of inviting palm-lined beaches, combined with the multi-cultural history of St. Kitts, provide reasons enough to consider checking it out. Throw in a handful of small but interesting museums along with the allure of casino gambling. Complete the picture with the added appeal of a sister island which, while close in distance, offers a very different travel experience.
For more information about St. Kitts, call 1-800-582-6208 or go to stkittstourism.kn