Every aspect of this moment adds up to make a big, glorious Caribbean cliché. I’m in a beach bar on the island of Nevis. The night air is balmy, waves are crashing, there’s a gentle wind in the palms and I’ve had a few rum punches.
In fact, this island really can drink. The barman is mixing Nevisian snakebites – short drinks made with CSR rum and Courvoisier – then he produces an old wine bottle full of local moonshine, and quietly pours a few of us a shot. We knock back the slightly sweet, scorching hooch.
I ask how it’s made. “A bunch of ingredients, like molasses. You leave it to ferment for a while,” the barman replies nonchalantly. “And infuse it with turtle penis.”
Understandably, I find this really distressing, and can’t stop thinking about Finding Nemo. I Google it later in disbelief, hoping this isn’t actually a thing. But there it is. Infusing rum or other alcohol with ‘turtle toon’ is apparently quite common in the Caribbean, for its supposed virility-enhancing properties. Needless to say I wake up with a bad hangover.
But as well as dodgy booze – consider this a warning, watch out for the moonshine – the islands of Nevis and St Kitts have been steadily gaining a reputation for their food. While the restaurants on St Kitts cater more for tourists, restaurants in the tiny Nevitian capital Charlestown and on the rest of the relaxed 93 km² volcanic isle are far less showy, and much more local – basically a reflection of the island in general.
Nevis can be accessed via ferry from St Kitts, though we arrived on a 15-minute flight in an eight-seater charter plane from Antigua. The island is tiny. A drive along its roads, which are so quiet they don’t have traffic lights, will take you past brightly coloured houses and ruins of 18th-century sugar mills – there’s even a restaurant in one, called Mill Privée – but watch out for roaming goats straying off the verges.
Festivals and events
Music, steel-pan drumming competitions, poetry readings, food and ‘Ms Culture Swimwear and Mr Kool’ contests are held across the island during this lively festival. 23 July-4 August 2016, culturamanevis.com
Nevis International Triathlon
Start on the beach, swim a course in Gallows Bay by Charleston, do two laps of the island (including the ‘Anaconda’ hill climb) and finish with a run through Charleston. November 2016, nevistriathlon.com
Nevis Blues Festival
A small music festival on Oualie Beach, celebrating blues, soul and gospel performed by local and international artists. 7-8 April 2017, nevisbluesfestival.com
Speaking of goats, goat water is the national dish. Its lacklustre name, though, is definitely an undersell. It’s a hearty, ever-so slightly gamey stew of tender meat and potatoes, with extra heat provided by generous helpings of chilli. I order the dish – which comes out steaming, in a terracotta pot – at Bananas restaurant, accessed via a secret tropical garden, illuminated with fairy lights. The purple-walled restaurant is built in the plantation style and also serves a fresh take on the piña colada – a skinny colada made with coconut water instead of cream.
After making some room with beachside yoga, for breakfast we try that Caribbean favourite, salt fish with Johnny cakes – salted white fish cooked with onion, peppers and tangy hot sauce, with doughy, flour-based, deep-fried dumplings. If you see the cryptic ‘tree mutton’ on the menu, it’s monkey. But it isn’t doing the island’s vervet population much harm – there are roughly 24,000 on Nevis, double the number of people. If you walk around the island – say, on a rainforest track up the 985m volcano (it’s a tough walk, FYI) – you’ll see traps ready to catch them.
But seafood is the Nevitian showstopper: in beachside restaurant Sunshine’s we’re served a peppery mahi mahi that came out of the sea 20 minutes earlier. A little way along the sand, Turtle Time (which sparks another pang of guilt) serves up huge plates of shrimp in creamy sauce under the watchful eyes of the vervets. Next door is Lime, for reggae on a Friday night and a live saxophonist on the rooftop on Thursdays. Newcastle Beach is great for fresh fish when the market opens on a Friday and Saturday.
On our final morning, we cycle into brightly painted Charleston. One of our group befriends a stray puppy on the beach that morning, and the puppy decides to follow us. Amazingly, he keeps pace with the bikes, running along, ears flapping, for most of the 4km journey, but we end up losing him just before we reach the town.
Charleston – the island’s tiny capital, with its small supermarket, library, market and small shops and cafés – is coated with fresh pastels and tropical colours, and because of its history as a colony it has an edge of Victorian seaside charm. Just on the outskirts is Culturama Bar, which serves a great chicken roti, big in the region thanks to its Indian influence, but with a Caribbean twist courtesy of the local spices.
For one final pit stop, we head to the easy-going Café des Arts for a notorious (non-alcoholic) ginger beer. It’s freezing cold, but the copious fresh ginger makes it like firewater – strong and refreshing. A few tables over, we spot the same stray puppy we thought we’d lost, lounging in the shade with a new human friend.
Where to stay
This collection of villas opened on the island’s west coast earlier this year, with views of Mount Nevis, the Caribbean Sea and St Kitts. Each thatched villa has a plunge pool, outdoor showers and grill deck, while impressive gardens are planted with ixora, firecracker and hibiscus flowers to attract hummingbirds. Get creative with local produce in the villas’ well-stocked kitchens, or have your meal cooked for you – ask the chefs and they’ll give you a lesson in local cooking. From £680 per villa per night, based on four sharing a two-bedroom villa. paradisebeachnevis.com
Wild at heart
Neighbouring St Kitts is larger than Nevis, and capital of the two-island nation. Much like Nevis, it’s known for its natural beauty, with rainforest-covered mountains and beaches with white and black sand. In fact, a quarter of the island is a National Park, so expect a visit to include plenty of hiking and treks over volcanic peaks. That said, one of the best ways to see the island is on board its coastal railway – the only one of its kind in the Caribbean.