Close your eyes and say it softly and slowly, like a mantra:
This was the old Carib Indian name for "the fertile isle" of St. Kitts, which together with nearby Nevis forms a newly independent Caribbean nation -- two tiny green volcanic blips floating between St. Maarten and Montserrat in the eastern curl of the Leeward Islands chain.
You can almost hear the balmy, palmy breezes, the gentle skittering rhythms of surf across blond-sand beaches, the tranquility of this place far removed from city life -- a place where the pace and shape of existence has hardly changed in a couple of centuries. The whole essence of the "old Caribbean" in a single word:
Imagine empty beaches, where more than a dozen visitors feels like an invasion; friendly, cricket-loving residents strolling the country roads at sugar-cane-sucking pace; remnants of the old British colonial "plantocracy" in the form of genteel inns at restored "Great Houses"; and a rhythm of life so leisurely that a day's dallying does as much good to the soul as a week or more on one of those overcrowded, overpriced, condo-littered "in" islands.
Dream of mild, breeze-buffeted days under shady fig trees enveloped in the scent of frangipani, with nothing much to do except swim, sunbathe, windsurf, snorkel and play a lazy game of tennis (or even croquet), before a buffet lunch of spicy West Indian dishes, or a dinner of conch chowder, poached parrotfish with grilled yams and creamed Christophine squash, and the freshest of fresh fruit ice creams.
Independent from Britain since just 1983, the two islands are dealing peacefully with the challenges of their go-it-alone economy, and still maintain an affection for their mother country. In fact, Queen Elizabeth II visited St. Kitts two years ago, and her portrait continues to grace island bank notes. The 44,000 or so residents were delighted by her comments on the unspoiled beauty of the little nation, an opinion also shared by the explorer Christopher Columbus, who named the larger of the two islands after his patron saint in 1493. The title was later shortened to St. Kitts by British tobacco planters, who ignored Spanish claims and moved in with their African slaves while the Spaniards pursued their passionate search for South American gold. The French also settled on various parts of the island and even helped the British wipe out most of the local Carib Indians before being ousted themselves, following the 1783 Treaty of Versailles.
The British are still around. Along with their American counterparts, they run many of the inns and hotels on the two islands.
I met my first Britishers (of authentic plantocracy stock) on my first evening here, after landing at Golden Rock Airport at Basseterre, capital of St. Kitts. A taxi took me 15 miles, halfway around the 68-square-mile island, through villages of tiny pastel-colored homes. The high-pitched chirping of crickets and tree frogs filled the evening air as we meandered slowly past Kittitians gathered in the streets at simply stocked stores, doubling as local pubs. Pigs, chained like pet dogs, nosed among the bushes outside lopsided wooden cottages. Away in the distance, head-high rows of sugar cane rose up the steep slopes to the dense, tangled rain forest around the volcanic cone of the 3,792-foot Mount Liamuiga (formerly Mount Misery).
A cooling breeze (there's always a breeze here) rattled the green sugar cane fronds as we suddenly left the road behind and ascended a rutted track high up the mountainside to the old Rawlins Plantation, now an inn complete with pool, tennis court and guest cottages, set in landscaped grounds among the ruins of old sugar-making plants. Bits of old lava stone walls remain, along with a couple of "coppers" (huge round-bottomed vats for boiling down the cane's sugary syrup) and a 45-foot-high stone chimney.
The tall palms creaked in the evening breeze as we sat with our sundowner cocktails and bowls of fresh-roasted coconut chips overlooking the ocean and the nearby pyramidal profiles of St. Eustatius and Saba islands. After a leisurely dinner of Creole pumpkin soup, ginger chicken with breadfruit fritters and fresh mango ice cream, we chatted over liqueurs, as the moon played hide-and-seek among the elephant's ears and sandbox trees.
After a day or two of indolent hedonism, an island tour was in order: You can opt for renting a car (remember to drive on the left) or taxi. We paused to photograph old churches and sugar mills, to marvel at the remnants of ancient lava flows worn into writhing shafts by the ocean at Black Rock and to read the eloquent, if slightly effusive, epitaph to Sir Thomas Warner, founder of the island's first colony here in 1623, on his tomb in the Middle Island churchyard.
Nearby Brimstone Hill is history writ large atop an enormous volcanic plug of andesite edged by limestone protrusions. Begun in 1690, the fortress was confidently known as Britain's "Gibraltar of the West Indies" until its humiliating capture by the French in 1782, just prior to their final ejection from the island a year later. Today a series of small museum rooms give a useful overview of island culture and history for the tourists who climb the long flight of steps to sit among the cannons, admire the broad blue vistas, and wait expectantly for the appearance of the local (and very elusive) vervet monkeys. I only saw lizards and fat blue butterflies.
High above the fort, the rain forest begins abruptly -- a deep green line fringing the sugar cane fields. Those enjoying the security and companionship of a group usually join one of various organized walking tours to the 750-foot-deep, picture-postcard volcanic crater of Mount Liamuiga, or take a jeep trip to the remains of Chuck Norris' "Missing in Action" movie set, hidden in the hills above Sandy Point.
Others, willing to endure the tensions and tribulations alone, follow sinuous paths up through the cane and enter the gloom where the balmy trade wind breezes suddenly cease. The path quickly narrows to a series of tight toeholds between roots and thick patches of ferns; vines hang like snakes from towering banyan trees; buzzings, slitherings and rustlings in the undergrowth suggest a lively retinue of jungle residents. Although few creatures have the audacity to reveal themselves, solo voyagers sense watchful presences in the shadows. And it's very hot. Pools of fetid air fill the tight spaces between the trees; sweat douses the body. Breath becomes shorter; lungs resist the soupy intake; paths keep disappearing, bringing panic -- the fear of being lost forever in this dank tangle of vegetation.
After this lonely kind of adventure, St. Kitts' capital of Basseterre (population 15,000) seems to boom with an irrepressible West Indian vigor. Crisply dressed traffic police sort out the snarls at the intersections around "The Circus," where an ornate, cast-iron clock tower, the Berkeley Memorial (painted a ghastly Victoriana rust-brown), regards the swirling scene with the pompous aloofness of a colonial plantocrat. Reggae and a dozen skip-beat variants blast from stores and cafe's; visitors and locals peer down from the balcony of the Ballahoo Cafe' at the frenetic salesmanship of city cab drivers ("Man -- you gotta want a taxi -- 's'way too hot to walk, man"); everyone seeks shards of midday shade along the narrow sidewalks.
Down along Bay Road, just by the nondescript strand of gray sand, an impromptu fish market draws a crowd of choosy buyers who nudge, poke and sniff the bonito, snapper, grouper, king fish and fantasy-colored parrotfish. The official government-run market across the road is almost empty.
Founded by the French, Basseterre became the official British capital in 1727, was decimated by fire in 1867 and rebuilt in the kind of Franco-British colonial style with such delightful Caribbean nuances as high pitched, no-awning roofs (to lessen their vulnerability in storms), shutters (to reduce sun-glare but retain the essential movement of air through the hot interior spaces) and occasional self-conscious outbursts of carpenter gothic trim. A dash of fresh paint, a few more boutiques, bars and fancy restaurants, and Basseterre could blossom into your typical Caribbean nexus for weary Westerners.
But the residents seem to prefer the place the way it is. They like the chickens and goats nibbling at scraps in the narrow alleys, and the raggle-taggle jumble of colorful fishing boats on the narrow beach. They relish the smell of island cooking -- goat dishes, fried plaintain, Creole red bean soup, conch chowder and boiled saltfish stew -- from local bars and such restaurants as Bistro Creole, the Georgian House (a superb stone house on the west side of Independence Square) and the always lively Fisherman's Wharf.
To Caribbean connoisseurs, the town may appear a little down-at-the-heels, lacking the monied sparkle of other more highly developed resorts. Critics will point out the lack of a marina and bobbing boats in the harbor ("terrible place for a yacht -- sea never stops running"), the rusting remains of a launch beached in a long-gone hurricane and a bedraggled waterfront devoid of the usual touristy fripperies. But the locals ignore such nigglings and continue to enjoy the "lyming" (lazy) life, the laid-back, stop-for-a-beer-anytime spirit, the "pocket o' mumps" attitude that suggests a pocketful of wages is cause for abandoning work for a while and enjoying the fruits of labor. To them the place is "jus' 'bout right" the way it is.
Eventually you'll decide to visit Nevis (pronounced Nee-vis). For days I had seen its majestic cloud-capped volcano off the southern tip of St. Kitts, and heard intriguing tales of Lord Nelson and Alexander Hamilton's association with this six-mile-wide gumdrop of an island (population 14,600). So I boarded the crowded 8:30 a.m. "Carib Queen" ferry at Basseterre harbor and we chugged off across 12 miles of choppy ocean -- 80 passengers, 21 chickens, two squeaking piglets, a mountain of electronic gear for a reggae band, three sailors passing a bottle of spiked maubi (a local drink made from the bark of a tree) and one ancient man who sipped "goat-water" (a thin soup made from goat meat and vegetables) all the way to Nevis.
Charlestown (population 1,300) emerges from its palmy setting, a colorful sprawl of pastel walls, tin roofs and shady gardens. The capital retains a quaint dignity and architectural unity in its high-roofed, veranda-shaded buildings on Main Street and around Walwyn Plaza. Hucksters sell vegetables and trinkets near Don Williams' Longstone bar, where expatriates congregate for darts, devilish island cocktails and Don's irreverent daily monologues on island life and scandals. Nearby, at the Nevis Handicraft Cooperative Society, local fruit wines -- pawpaw, sorrel, genip and gooseberry -- and fiery homemade pepper sauce are for sale in old soda bottles. Around the corner at the Nevis Philatelic Bureau, visitors flock to buy frequently issued first-day editions of colorful Nevis stamps (a useful source of revenue in this subsistence-economy island). And on Saturdays the place is bursting with life by 7:30 a.m. as Nevisians pour in for the weekly fish, meat and vegetable market down by the docks.
This 36-square-mile volcanic island is a sleepy, pastoral place. The 18-mile-long road around the circumference meanders up past the shell of the once-fashionable Bath Hotel (the subterranean sulphur baths are still open to visitors), and wriggles past bursting bushes of bauhinias, shrouded by wild almonds and untidy, bark-dripping gum trees. The spine-laden trunk of a sandbox rises out of a tangle of Mexican creepers and lantana. The exuberant fecundity here contrasts with the openness of the roads on St. Kitts, which are bounded by endless fields of sugar cane.
Sea island cotton was once found here in large plantations, more than 3,500 acres in the early 1950s, but today less than 150 scrawny acres remain. Much of the land has returned to scrub, punctuated by the scattered gardens of islanders on the long slopes of Nevis Peak.
The spanking new, air-conditioned villas of the emerging "American colony," hidden in cool folds high up near the rain forest, seem far removed from island culture. At the tiny Newcastle pottery near Nisbet Plantation, local clay is fashioned in the traditional Caribbean manner and fired over coconut husks in the open air. A nearby T-shirt factory is regarded by the locals as a curiosity, but not much more. On the north and west coasts beautiful white beaches, fringed by palms and mangoes, are quiet and deserted -- ideal places to relax, Robinson Crusoe fashion, and watch the hummingbirds among the wild orchids.
Visitors, however, are not entirely uncared for. History buffs make straight for Alexander Hamilton's restored birthplace, a ponderous lava stone house furnished with period pieces, Hamilton memorabilia, a library and exhibits of island history, and the Nelson Museum, an elegant shrine to the British admiral complete with original letters and papers, portraits and artifacts. Just up the road is the stone-built St. John's Church, where the admiral's marriage to Fanny Nisbet in 1787 is formally recorded.
Jaunts off the circular island road along the narrow byways provide insights into Nevisian life. Down Buck's Hill from Taylor's Pasture, for example, a narrow track winds toward the hidden beaches of White Bay, past pockets of tranquil self-sufficiency. A tiny, lime-washed house -- with tin roof, door and window frames painted bright blue to discourage "jumblie" spirits -- hides in a dell, shaded by coconut palms and breadfruit trees. A domed brick oven stands in the earth yard, where chickens scratch for tidbits; a small garden brims with yams, cabbages, sweet potatoes and a couple of dusty pumpkins. The Creole aroma of a pork stew -- "souce" -- eases up through the trees; a little girl in a bandana-red dress pounds pumpkin chunks into an orange goo and adds flour, fresh lime juice, onions and a sprinkle of hot pepper sauce (a Nevis specialty) to make spicy fritters for dinner. A radio plays -- a fire-and-brimstone American preacher.
A man sits outside the house on a broken bamboo chair, sucking the cottony white flesh of red "fat pork" berries and talking cricket with a neighbor. A couple of fish he caught in the early morning with a surf net hang against the wall of the house, turning gold in the sun. The trees are heavy with ripe fruit.
Those visitors who take time to dawdle these island byways often leave a touch wiser, contemplating the timeworn adage that "less is more."
In the evenings at the old Great House inns,the chirpings begin below the rain forest around Nevis Peak, which may (on rare occasions) lose its cloud cap and turn crimson in yet another perfect sunset.
On the lower slopes, shadows ease across a patchwork of tiny fields and gardens surrounding the scattered hamlets. Sounds carry far in the stillness. You can hear the voices of islanders hundreds of feet below, and the crackle of a misfiring moped. You might even see lights glowing in Dame Eva Wilkin's home on Clay Ghaut estate. The island's beloved "artist-in-residence" began her residency in 1918, when she came to live on her father's sugar plantation and eventually took over the windmill as her studio when operations declined in 1940. Now well into her eighties, the diminutive Eva still creates her evocative pastels and watercolors of Nevis life and tells her tales of earlier island escapades to a stream of daily visitors who drive up the rough track from the main road in their open-sided mini-moke hire cars.
Further around the island in Butler's Village, Dick's Bar Disco shifts into high gear 'round midnight with a live "steel-reggae" band in the open courtyard. A couple of hundred young Nevisians (many of whom have walked more than five miles for the high times) dance on into the dawn. Across the road there's an aromatic trade in "hub-cap chicken," which is precisely what it sounds like -- chunks of chicken dipped in spiced batter and deep-fried in dented truck hubcaps by two enormous women whose sweat drips rhythmically into the boiling oil, making it spit and crackle.
And way at the northern end of the island, lovers stroll the long curved beach at the Nisbet Plantation, a sensitive restoration of the 18th-century Great House. The sand shimmers in silver moonshadows, night breezes keep the palm fronds clicking (and the coconuts falling), and the surf sparkles with luminous phosphorescence. It's hard to imagine a more idyllic setting for romantic trysts, straight out of a Harlequin novel; a short distance away up the tree-lined walk from the beach is a cozy bungalow with fans slowly turning, night doves cooing, stars in the windows, and crisp linen sheets turned down invitingly ...
I spent my last day back in St. Kitts at the Ocean Terrace Inn (air conditioning and TV for the first time!), lounging by the pool with a fresh fruit punch. Far below, the arc of Basseterre's beach was littered with red and green fishing boats, and pelicans dive-bombed the shallow surf for snacks.
So why doesn't everyone eventually end up on these two idyllic islands? Well, there are a few snags, including the lack of abundant "package" tours, the relatively expensive rates of the old plantation inns, the lack of frantic nightlife activities, a limited range of beaches with occasional "dark" volcanic sands and a government policy of carefully controlled tourist development.
But if the quiet life appeals, if you long for the gentle pleasures of the "Old Caribbean," St. Kitts-Nevis awaits you with a smile as sweet as a sugar-apple.
David Yeadon, author-illustrator of many travel books, is currently traveling around the world preparing a series of articles and a book titled "Time Out: Wanderings in the Wild Places."