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Nurturing conservation naturally in the twin isles.

Climbing the windy road to Brimstone Hill Fortress on St. Kitts, the taxi driver sounded his horn long before he reached the bend. There's no seeing around the turns, and it's one way up and down, so announcing your arrival is imperative. Ascending the 800-foot hill was no mean feat even by car, and one could begin to understand how, nearly 300 years ago, vastly undermanned British troops holed up in the massive fort and held off a French onslaught for weeks. But not until getting out and roaming the nearly 40-acre grounds, looking clear out into the Caribbean at no less than five other islands, does one truly appreciate such a violent masterpiece.

Tiny volcanic flecks floating in the eastern curl of the Caribbean, St. Kitts and Nevis are separated by a channel two miles wide. These sister islands were once bitter objects of turmoil between the eighteenth-century French and British expansionist empires. Their copious sugar crop and strategic location along West Indian trade routes made them key pawns in colonization campaigns.

Given their historical importance, it is ironic to saddle the siblings with so many "un-" adjectives: unspoiled, undiscovered, undeveloped. But it is also appropriate: Tiny Nevis receives no direct flights, and its smudge of an airstrip is equipped to handle only small charter planes. Wild monkeys are more common than people in certain spots, and nightlife is sparse enough on both islands to make youthful natives dream of places like New York, Boston, and Washington.

The islands are in many ways the antithesis of their Caribbean neighbors. A relatively high standard of living--coupled with a coordinated effort between far-sighted local governments, savvy hoteliers, and a conscientious population--permits St. Kitts and Nevis the flexibility to carve their own niche in the tourism market without sacrificing their natural resources.

Ecotourism is in exemplary form here. The islands' volcanic origins, tropical climate, and historical significance bequeathed a legacy of rain forests, exotic wildlife, and stately industrial remains. These are marketable traits which, along with a location that's out of the way, are appealing to growing

numbers of discerning travelers who are willing to spend money for an experience that is unique.

One reason the two islands have not fallen prey to overdevelopment is that they have harbored, over the years, a number of expatriates from England, the U.S., and other western countries. The foreigners often took vacations to the islands before settling down for good--Nevis has been accommodating wealthy Europeans since the Bath Hotel and Spring House were constructed in 1778. The more they came, the more the visitors appreciated the natural beauty and sought to preserve it. Some purchased aging sugar plantation estates and converted them into small inns. Others opened businesses and became involved in local historical and renovation projects. The islands remained under British rule until 1983 when they gained independence. Still today the islanders maintain much of their colonial heritage and express an affection for the mother country. Queen Elizabeth Il was a visitor last October and her portrait continues to grace island banknotes.

David Rollinson, a Robinson Crusoe type originally from Nottingham, discovered Nevis five years ago and moved on permanently in 1990 with his wife Nancy. In the short time since his arrival, Rollinson has had a marked impact on the islands' environmental movement. He runs the Nevis Academy which, along with his other outfit called Eco-Tours Nevis, offers "learning vacations" that range from two-hour hikes through sugar plantations and Amerindian sites, to week-long vacation packages for nature lovers, photographers, and painters. Rollinson works with travel agents, individuals, and specialized groups to offer ecology-based vacations, including accommodations, meals, the services of an instructor and/or a guide, and even a list of suggested reading. He also offers shorter excursions--like a three-hour trip to the Great Salt Pond on St. Kitts--to those who don't enroll in the week-long programs.

While profiting from the islands' ecotourism industry, Rollinson also dedicates a great deal of energy to conservation causes. A member of the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society, he is coordinating a joint venture with the government to create the first national park on Nevis. The 240-acre site encompasses two sugar and cotton plantations--New River Estates (dating back to around 1680) and Coconut Walk Estates (circa. 1717)--whose windmill towers, steam engines, and distilleries are mostly intact. The site is also an Amerindian ground. Remains and artifacts from ancient tribes can be found throughout the area.

Rollinson is convinced the project can work and is wholly committed to it. During the fall he could be seen, machete in hand, hacking and hauling away dead brush under scorching heat to clear away some of the massive area. The plan is to make the site a working field study center. It has important historical significance and professionals will be able to utilize it for archaeological digs and land surveys. On any given day visitors and locals can come down and actually participate in the ongoing work, free of charge. This will, as Rollinson says, "provide a bit of free labor" and foster open exchange on the island's environment.

Exploration and discovery are key components of the islands' ecotourism program, and to that end four small hotels recently formed their own association, the Plantation Inns of Nevis. As part of a grand plan to increase their marketability, the keepers of these family-owned inns devised a walking tour connecting the four estates. Guests can visit the different properties and tour the grounds, often accompanied by the owners themselves, or they can participate in exchange lunches or dinners.

On her recent trumpeted visit to Nevis, Princess Diana skipped the island's only luxury resort--the Four Seasons--and stayed at Montpelier Plantation Inn, a 16-room property delicately situated on the slopes of Mr. Nevis in the southeast. Two pillars at the entrance to the estate mark the remains of the original great house, which once hosted the marriage of British Naval commander Horatio Nelson and Fanny Nisbet.

Near Montpelier is Golden Rock Estate, presided over by a stern-looking but friendly Philadelphia native, Pam Barry. Barry escaped to Nevis 22 years ago and has been running Golden Rock for 17 of them. She exudes calmness, and is as much at ease with government officials who stop by unexpectedly for dinner as she is with tourists needing directions to the beach. She seems completely at home in a place where the pace is about as quick as a slow crawl through downtown traffic.

Barry is not the first of her clan to settle here: her great-great-great-grandfather built Golden Rock's main house nearly 200 years ago. On an island which boasts intriguing accommodations, her inn is one of the most outstanding. An old sugar windmill, completely intact, sits on the grounds of her property. It is now a two-level suite with a winding wood stairway and dramatic ocean views that is a favorite among honeymooners.

Golden Rock is within walking distance of the rain forest and Barry will happily furnish a map that, directs visitors along a self-guided walking tour. The walk is a great opportunity to catch sight of the elusive wild monkeys, although some patience is required. At one point along the tour--which lasts two or three and a half hours, depending on how far you go--visitors come across a series of low stone walls and two trees. Below the trees are scattered framed photographs, one of which is a portrait of some local people. The other has been described in many ways, and seems to resemble people floating strangely in water. No one can quite put a finger on it. There's also a collection of pottery that's often been mistaken for a cemetery or some sort of voodoo offering. Actually, all of the items belong to English, an eccentric native who promised Barry an "open-air gallery" for her guests, completely free of charge. If he is in the area, English will sit on a stone bench and exchange idle chit-chat with hikers passing by.

Nevis has its Plantation Inn Association and an impending national park, but, the only existing national park on the two islands is the Brimstone Hill Fortress on St. Kitts. Standing over its massive battlements and staring out into its endless turquoise waters, one can't help but feel vaguely insignificant. Built by the British, the fort was the scene of several historic battles as control of the island see-sawed between French and British hands. On January 11, 1782, 8,000 French troops invaded Basseterre, the capital of St. Kitts, and began the famous "Siege of Brimstone Hill." Barely 1,000 British troops, including armed slaves, held the French at bay for more than a month, even after food and supplies were cut off. When British troops finally surrendered on February 12, their two commanders were set free and allowed to continue their service to the Crown, as a sign of French respect for their courage. The French were not in possession of Brimstone Hill and St. Kitts for very long, however. Under the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, St. Kitts was returned to English hands.

Whatever balance the two islands may have achieved between environment and development in the past, their greatest challenges are yet to come. The Four Seasons, the first luxury resort of its kind on Nevis, opened in 1991. Its 196 rooms, which are almost always filled, bring in a wealthy clientele of a different sort than those who tend to occupy 12- and 15-room family inns. The number of new visitors to Nevis is increasing rapidly, as evidenced by the recent changes to the tourism department office. Once a dingy, windowless cell, it has been aesthetically redesigned. Walls were knocked out and a new tile floor was put in. The sign outside reads "Department of Tourism" in four different languages. As its number of tourists grows, Nevis faces the task of expanding its ecotourism industry to accommodate the new arrivals.

St. Kitts faces its own obstacles. Only a few years ago its southeastern peninsula was considered largely inaccessible. The concept of any major development projects in the area were mostly written off. Today a major road--built with U.S. financial and technological assistance--stretches its entirety. Driving along past grazing cattle, one sees massive steel shells, soon to house luxury hotels like the Jamaica-based Sandals and the Anguilla-based Casablanca. Many questions about the effect on wildlife and the environment were raised when developers began making inroads into the peninsula. But utilizing this area represents a sort of compromise: by expanding on areas once considered useless, existing regions, whose historical and cultural value have already been recorded, can be left alone.

The careful and deliberate approach to tourism on St. Kitts and Nevis can serve as a model for countries throughout the Caribbean. Rather than succumbing to alluring tourist dollars, they are profiting from their inherent beauty. Buoyed by a thriving ecotourism program today, the tiny islands are well-equipped to handle the environmental challenges of the future.

Mike Harms is the editor of The Affordable Caribbean published by Caribbean Travel & Life, Inc.
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Title Annotation:St. Kitts and Nevis Islands in the Caribbean
Author:Harms, Mike
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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