St. Kitts and Nevis: Small in size, big in appeal
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
BASSETERRE, St. Kitts - “What’s up, my man?”
The bellman extended his hand, welcoming me to the St. Kitts Marriott Resort with a pleasing informality that captured what St. Kitts is all about. There was no over-rehearsed “Welcome to the St. Kitts Marriott, sir.” No wooden “I hope you enjoy your stay, sir.” Just a big smile and “What’s up, my man?” Perfect.
I’d been on the island for 20 minutes, and already I liked the place.
Some Caribbean resorts sand-blast the personality from their staffs to the point where guests arriving in shorts and flip-flops are treated like CEOs showing up at the Waldorf for a white-tie affair. Not so on St. Kitts, where the bellman’s gregarious greeting captured the easygoing nature of the locals.
“Within an hour or two of being on this island, you’ll feel like you know everyone here,” said Mike Prendergast, a transplanted Brit who was enjoying drinks at the Bamboo Lounge, just down the street from the Marriott.
The neighboring West Indies islands of St. Kitts and Nevis form the smallest sovereign state, in size and population, in the Americas. The islands are separated by a 40-minute ferry ride across a body of water known as “The Narrows.” This makes it convenient to play the lone golf course on each island: Royal St. Kitts at the Marriott and the Four Seasons Nevis.
(At least two other golf courses have been proposed on St. Kitts, but it’s not clear when, or if, those projects will be completed.)
For centuries, St. Kitts and Nevis were major sugar producers, and Spain, France and Great Britain spent much of the 18th century fighting for control of these lucrative islands. Evidence of that era still can be found, most notably at Brimstone Hill Fortress, a large and well preserved military fort on the northeast side of St. Kitts. Aside from helping to understand this region’s history, Brimstone Hill is a great spot for sightseeing, with views up and down the coast and of Sint Eustatius to the north.
In 1958, Nevis stopped production of sugar, and St. Kitts followed suit in 2005.
Now the economic focus on both islands centers largely on tourism, which is well-suited to residents’ welcoming manner. Both islands also have a healthy population of young students who matriculate at veterinary and medical schools located on the islands.
Locals, known as Kittitians and Nevisians, like to say that they “rush slowly” or that they’re “limin’ ” – that is, hanging out like a lime on a tree. There’s a running joke that Liat, a Caribbean airline that services St. Kitts, is an acronym for “left in airport terminal.” (There were no such problems with my American Airlines connection through Puerto Rico.)
When Sean Gradomski, director of golf at Royal St. Kitts Golf Club, arrived here fresh out of Ferris State University’ Professional Golf Management program in 2003, he learned quickly what “island time” is all about. But Gradomski runs a tight ship; he was Marriott Golf’s professional of the year in 2011, and Royal St. Kitts has the highest customer-satisfaction rating among all courses managed by the company.
Royal St. Kitts Golf Club originally was designed by Peter Thomson and opened in 1976. When Canadian entrepreneur Vic De Zen acquired the resort 10 years ago, he brought in fellow countryman Thomas McBroom to redesign it. The island is roughly shaped like a whale, with the St. Kitts Marriott situated on the Atlantic Ocean. The golf club sits across the street on an exposed site between the Caribbean and Atlantic, and wind is a constant challenge.
McBroom benefited from De Zen’s purchase of a parcel of land on Half Moon Bay, where he was able to design three new holes, Nos. 14-16, which anchor the strongest stretch of the course. The 14th is a short par 4 with lots of options. On the par-3 15th, McBroom indulged his artistic bent, with greenside bunkering that is intended to mimic the waves lapping against the beach just beyond the green. The next two holes wrap around Half Moon Bay, with the 17th green shoehorned between the bay and Muddy Pond. The wind howling in your face off the Atlantic is enough to make one forget that St. Kitts is supposed to be a place for relaxation.
Aside from the golf course, the 393-room Marriott has a 35,000-square-foot casino, the largest in the Caribbean. If you do feel the need to explore, the hotel is convenient to the shops in Basseterre.
That’s where I caught the Nevis ferry, which docks at the Four Seasons. The 196-room beachside resort is running at full strength after being shut down for two years because of damage from Hurricane Omar in October 2008. This is a fact of life in the islands. After Hurricane Lenny shut down the Four Seasons 12 years ago, Mac Kee France, the resort’s director of recreation, did a three-month stint at the company’s sister property in Dallas. One day during the Byron Nelson Championship, he found himself on a treadmill next to Tiger Woods and was inspired to take up golf. He’s self-taught, plays a tidy game and always is in good spirits. He even marks his ball with a smiley face.
The Nevis course is a true jungle layout, complete with green vervet monkeys frolicking in the dense foliage, but the course has plenty of width for playability. Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s routing is set against the base of Nevis Peak, the 3,232-foot mountain in the center of the island that is sometimes called “The Sombrero” or, ironically, “The Snowcap Mountain” because of the clouds that enshroud its peak. Caribbean views enhance the experience thanks to 400 feet of elevation change.
Jones has a knack for designing memorable short holes, and that’s evident here on the five par 3s, which require exacting mid- and long irons. The hole that leaves everyone talking, both for its challenge and scenery, is the par-5 15th. The back tee calls for a 240-yard carry across a 150-foot-deep ravine to a fairway that bends right and plays downhill. The ramrod-straight 18th makes a beeline to the ocean, culminating not far from the dock.
Post-round, guests can choose from a variety of water sports, including a new Dive and Dine program that allows them to bring their catch to Mango Restaurant to have it grilled tableside.
If time allows, it’s worth making the 21.5-mile drive around the circular island’s exterior. You’ll see the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, the United States’ first treasury secretary, remnants of the hot springs that used to be a major attraction and The Botanical Gardens. (There’s even, oddly, a small, seaside drag strip on the west side of the island, the fulfillment of a 2006 campaign promise, proving that government waste knows no geographic boundaries.)
An island tour takes only a few hours. Upon returning to the Four Seasons, I tried to tip my driver and tour guide, but they insisted that wasn’t necessary. They were just happy to show a little island hospitality.