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Caribbean island hideaway is a playground for celebrities, ex-patriots

| Sunday, March 9, 2003

CHARLESTOWN, Nevis -- Picture this sweet little island, called the "Queen of the Caribees," as a sombrero floating in a turquoise ocean. Well, two oceans -- the Caribbean on one side, the Atlantic on the other.

Smack in the middle of the island's 36 square miles is 3,232-foot Mt. Nevis (or Nevis Peak, as some call it), a dormant volcano whose peak usually is hidden in clouds, its slopes and rain forests leveling off to stands of coconut palms, lush foliage, flowers and vegetable fields where once there were sugar plantations, among the most prolific and profitable in all the Caribbean.

It's said that when Columbus sighted the island in 1493 he named it "Nuestro Senora de las Nieves" (Our Lady of the Snows) because of the white shroud.

Today, the island is a hideaway for A-listers, a playground for sun-seekers and diving enthusiasts, and the adopted home a of a sizable colony of ex-pats, mainly from North America and Europe. It was here that the late Princess Di retreated with her two boys in 1993 after her separation from Prince Charles. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones vacationed here, as did Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake -- before they split.

But more visible are the goats and sheep and donkeys that forage at will along the roadways and in the parks and estates -- even on the streets of Charlestown, the capital -- and somehow manage to find their way home at night, as though this island is just one big pasture. None of the island's 9,500 residents seems to mind much, except when they nibble on the abundant flowers and blooming vines -- bougainvillea, hibiscus, cassia, various lilies among them -- and not one would dare to steal a goat or sheep or donkey.

A goat thief on this little island, where most folks know each other, would be immediately ostracized, shunned and shamed.

The green vervet monkeys in the rain forests up in the hills are more of a problem. They raid backyard vegetable gardens and pay no heed to fences. Some gardeners even resort to putting netting over the top of their plots. (These alien monkeys of African origin were introduced to Nevis as pets by European colonists, probably sailors. As usual, the English blame the French, the French blame the Brits.)

But the sweet people of Nevis don't organize monkey hunts, or anything of the like. They're too busy having fun, pampering tourists by day and dancing the night away at beachside bars, to the beat of reggae and calypso.

If you've never heard of Nevis (pronounced nee-vis), it's a sister island of St. Kitts, across a channel 2 miles to the north, part of the Leeward Islands in the British West Indies, roughly 1,200 miles from Miami, 1,600 miles from New York and 4,000 miles from London. Nevis and St. Kitts share a federated government, each with its own local governing body.

Several of the former sugar plantations here are now inns, each with its own Great House and charming cottages, but with modern amenities. Miami Beach it's not, except for one five-star resort.

I was introduced to the island by Marlon Brando. No, not the movie star. Wrong island, wrong ocean. My Marlon was a taxi driver, a native Nevisian who, as a boy, lived next door to a movie theater.

"My mother was a big fan of Marlon Brando's, so that's what she named me," he explains as we set out on a 21-mile tour of the perimeter of the island, over roads sometimes pocked with potholes and where drivers (on the left hand side of the road) speed around tight curves and stop wherever the please, in the middle of the road or not.

Names seem to be important to Nevisians. Another local is named Calvin Klein. Two names you will be constantly reminded of in Nevis are out of history -- Alexander Hamilton, the American patriot and statesman who was born here, and Adm. Horatio Nelson, the 18th-century British naval hero who was stationed here during skirmishes with the French and married the widow Fanny Nisbet of one of the wealthy sugar plantation families.

Much more recently, vacationers here have included bold-face names such as Beyonce Knowles and rapper Jay-Z, Michelle Pfeiffer and David E. Kelley, Mick Jagger, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Oprah Winfrey, the cast of "The Sopranos," mystery writer John Grisham and Charles Gibson of "Good Morning America."

Many of these celebs stayed at the five-star Four Seasons Resort, and some found their way a short walk down the beach to Sunshine's, a definitely no-star, thatched-roof shack on the beach with painted wooden picnic tables, cold Carib beer, potent rum punch drinks called "killer bees," and some excellent fresh seafood. It's been rated among the top beach bars in the Caribbean by some travel magazines.

It was the first "pit stop" on my island tour with Brando. I tried the grilled "catch of the day," which in this case was red snapper, and it was fresh and excellently prepared.

Rasta man Llewellyn "Sunshine" Caines opened his bar in 1991, the same year as the neighboring Four Seasons opened, and since then his shack has been blown away five times by hurricanes, the latest in 2000. He always rebounds.

One thing Sunshine won't talk about is his recipe for "killer bees," other than to say it's basically rum and passion fruit. The other ingredients, he says, are "a secret recipe passed on by my grandmother."

Is it potent• "One and you're stung, two you're stunned, three it's a knockout," Sunshine says.

With Nevis and the rest of the Caribbean suffering a serious slump in tourism, there are bargains to be found in airline fares and hotel rates. Keep an eye out for discounted packages on the travel Web sites.

There are approximately 400 hotel rooms and a number of villas on Nevis, 160 of them at the Four Seasons. But many of the lodgings are in the restored 18th-century Great Houses and their accompanying cottages on the former sugar plantations scattered about the island.

One is the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, the only former sugar plantation in Nevis directly on a beach. In addition to the Great House there are three categories of accommodations in several Bermudian-style cottages, all with patios, vaulted ceilings, tile floors and modern amenities such as coffeemakers, irons and hair dryers. They sit along a grassy promenade lined by coconut palms leading down to the beach. The inn, now run by Don and Kathie Johnson, formerly of Bermuda, has earned the AAA Four-Diamond Award each year for the past four years.

One of the reasons is the friendly and capable staff, people such as restaurant manager Patterson Fleming, the man one magazine called "The Prince of Ties." Why• A dozen or so years ago, a couple of restaurant patrons were razzing Fleming about his drab ties and when they got home sent him some sharp new neckwear. The word got around, and other guests started doing the same.

"I now have more than 1,800 ties, all sent by guests," Fleming says.

Another popular plantation estate is the hillside Hermitage Plantation Inn, whose 250-year-old Great House is said to be the oldest wooden house in the West Indies. Guest quarters are in gaily painted gingerbread cottages collected from around the island and refurbished. They are decorated with antiques and four-poster canopy beds. Some have full kitchens, TVs and a view of the ocean down below. Here you can saddle up or take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage.

Iron gates guard the entrance to the intimate Montpelier Plantation Inn, where Princess Di stayed. Scattered about the grounds are the remnants of old sugar mill machinery, including an imposing stone windmill standing adjacent to a modern swimming pool. A free shuttle transports guests to Pinney's Beach, where the estate has a private three-acre parcel with a pavilion.

There also are several less-expensive hotels such as Hurricane Cove Bungalows, The Inn at Cades Bay, Qualie Beach Hotel and Pinney's Beach Hotel.

While goat meat is popular in many Caribbean islands, on Nevis and St. Kitts, its the main ingredient in what generally is regarded as the national dish -- goat water, a spicy soup brimming with chunks of tender goat meat, vegetables and small dumplings known as "droppers."

But for reasons known only to the locals, goat water is made and served only on Saturdays, at places such as Sunshine's Bar.

If you want to make your own, Don Johnson of the Nisbet offers this recipe: "Marinate goat meat with thyme, garlic and pepper and boil for a couple of hours. (Goat meat is very tough.) Add breadfruit and dumplings and, if you want to thicken it, brown flour."

Not surprisingly, fresh fish and other seafood are popular and plentiful on the island. That perfectly grilled snapper I had for lunch at Sunshine's probably came from the small wooden boat of a fisherman passing by that morning.

A big social event every Thursday evening is the seafood barbecue at Nisbet's beachside bar, Coconuts, where the chefs grill copious amounts of wahoo, snapper, mahi mahi, jumbo shrimp, ribs, chicken and alligator, served with a variety of salads, rice, baked potato and a selection of 10 desserts.

Another pleasant gastronomic experience on the island is dinner on the verandah of the Great House of the Hermitage, with its 18th-century furnishings. As guests and their friends are enjoying cocktails, surrounded by a lush rain forest, two rings of a bell announce the call to dinner as they have in the West Indies for centuries.

Nevis


GETTING THERE

It wasn't easy to get to Nevis in 1493 when Christopher Columbus arrived, and it's still a bit of a hassle. But it's getting easier. Most visitors from North America and Europe fly to gateways in San Juan, P.R., Antigua or St. Maarten on major carriers such as American, U.S. Airways, Jet Blue, British Airways, Air Canada, Air France or KLM. From those airports it's a short flight to Nevis' new Vance W. Amory International Airport on feeder airlines such as American Eagle, LIAT, BWIA, Nevis Express, Carib Aviation, Winair or Caribbean Star.

GETTING AROUND

Taxi stands are at the airport, (869) 469-9790, Seaport and Charlestown, (869) 469-1483 or (869) 469-5631. Your hotel can arrange for a half-day or full-day tour, probably for around $50 a day.

Rental cars and scooters are available. In addition to a valid driver's license from home, you will need to obtain a Nevis driver's license from any of the rental companies or the police department. The cost is $20 for a three-month license.

Remember to drive on the left, British style, and be careful on the twisting, hole-pocked roads traversed by speedsters who come to a complete stop when and wherever they choose, not to mention the goats, sheep and donkeys.

Privately owned minibuses, the island's version of public transportation, circle the island on the main road. Fares are inexpensive.

WHEN TO GO

In this tropical climate, the temperature never falls below 60 degrees nor rises above 90, with little difference between winter and summer. Low humidity and northeast trade winds keep the island comfortable. November to May are the driest months, with the annual rainfall in Nevis totaling about 48 inches.

LODGING

Four Seasons Resort: Rates range from $340 to $4,530 a night, depending on the season and the type of accommodation. (869) 469-1040 or www.fourseasons.com .

Nisbet Plantation Beach Club: Published rates are $500 to $670 a night in the high season, $290 to $390 in the off season. That's on the Modified American plan, which includes breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner. (869) 469-9864 or www.nisbetplantation.com .

Hermitage Plantation Inn: Rates are $325 to $790 in the high season and $170 to $650 in the low season, including breakfast. (869) 469-2481 or www.hermitagenevis.com .

Montpelier Plantation Inn: Rates are $320 to $410 (high) and $200 to $300 (low). (869) 469-3461 or www.montpeliernevis.com .

There are several less-expensive hotels such as Hurricane Cove Bungalows , $190 to $495 (high) or $135 to $325 (low); The Inn at Cades Bay , $195 or $150; Qualie Beach Hotel , $195 to $345 (high) or $105 to $165 (low); and Pinney's Beach Hote l, $170 to $215 (high) or $105 to $160 (low).

DINING

Not surprisingly, fresh fish and other seafood are popular and plentiful on the island. That perfectly grilled snapper you're having for lunch at Sunshine's probably came from the small wooden boat of a fisherman passing by that morning.

While there are any number of restaurants from cheap to chic, the dining rooms at the Great Houses offer excellent food in romantic surroundings. A five-course dinner will run $50 to $60.

For breakfast, it's hard to beat the Coconuts on the beach at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club .

INFORMATION

The Nevis Tourism Authority can be reached at (866) 556-3847 or www.nevisisland.com .

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