French settlers brought their pet monkeys to the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis in the 17th century. Soon after they promptly escaped and began multiplying (the monkeys, not the French), wreaking simian havoc wherever they went. The marauding apes now outnumber humans and routinely devastate crops in dawn raids, munching their way through entire fields of produce and stripping trees of fruit.
A boisterous guide on the St. Kitts Scenic Railway joked that every visitor to the island gets a free monkey to take home, whether they want one or not. Nevertheless, as maligned as these pests are, the tourists adore them. Imagine watching somebody chase a greasy pigeon around Trafalgar Square, laughing and trying to take its picture, and you begin to understand what it must be like to live on this tiny West Indies island.
Nevis is one of those paradise islands that repeatedly forces you to take stock of absolutely everything in your life. It is the metaphorical monkey in the carry-on, leaping out when you least expect it and taking several minutes and a couple of air hostesses to contain. Turn any corner on this five mile wide island and you’ll be slapped in the retinas by the ridiculous natural beauty of this part of the planet. Nevis is a lush green cone rising from the navy-teal seam between Atlantic and Caribbean waters, a “potentially active” volcano around which dirt roads wind like dusty brown ribbons. Clichéd as it is, it’s as if you’ve tumbled into an impossibly picturesque postcard.
Somewhere on this postcard is Paradise Beach Nevis, where the constant presence of monkeys is felt not in their long-term agricultural impact on the island, but in their short-term perviness. Each morning a family of them would watch me intently from a nearby tree as I scrubbed myself clean in the outdoor shower – my own unwitting peep show for the invasive locals. Some dirt doesn’t wash off.
Watch the sun dip below the horizon from your private pool at Paradise Beach and try to muster a single stressful thought. You cannot. Things matter so little here, reality is so all-encompassingly perfect, that you feel at risk of losing your physical form and floating away on the breeze like a really good smell. You’ll turn to your partner and, in a knowingly understated way, say “well this is sort of alright isn’t it?” between three and four hundred times during your stay. Being anywhere else now feels like some kind of cruel hell.
Paradise Beach comprises seven luxurious and secluded villas on a small private strip of the coast. The beach bar is permanently staffed, even if you’re the only guests there, just in case you happen to wander down in search of a rum punch.
A friendly concierge attends to your every need, arranging your groceries, summoning the in-house chef to cook for you and calling the local taxi driver (the no-nonsense Tin-Tin, whose car smells like the fish soup lunches he eats every day) when you decide to wander out. They’ll give you a walking tour of the island, sharing its history – which is largely sugar plantation based – and advise you on local spots to eat and drink.
The Killer Bee is the island’s most infamous cocktail, a rum punch that’s renowned for inspiring those who sample it to take off all their clothes and run into the ocean, often never to return. At Sunshine’s – one of those bustling, saltwater-beaten old beach huts held together by flags, red paint and high spirits – they mix it behind the bar to protect the recipe (and perhaps their licence too, as the drink is rumoured to contain bootleg rum smuggled in from the next island).
If chugging hooch in a shed isn’t your bag, the island’s only wine cellar is to be found in the more sophisticated Coconut Grove. It’s in this beachside enclave that you’ll find one of the very few pieces of beef available on the island too, imported from the US for homesick travellers. The island’s traditional cuisine is naturally more focused on daily catches of grouper, snapper and lionfish.
The latter is an invasive species threatening the local ecosystem, so you’re encouraged to wolf down as much as you can. There are even festivals dedicated to coming up with new and inventive ways to prepare it.
The highly awarded Coconut Grove is run by US-born and France-raised Gary Colt, a round-the-world skipper. When I tell him where we’ve come from, he fondly recalls his prized boat moored back in St. Katharine Docks. Many of the restaurateurs and hoteliers I spoke to seem vaguely restless here, driven to cabin fever by the island’s oppressively blissful pace. Paradise can be an unwitting prison for adventurous entrepreneurs, doomed to live out their days surrounded by unparalleled beauty, and to envy the likes of me showing up to chase the monkeys and then fly away again.
As far as problems go, I can think of worse. Nevis is about as scenic and exclusive as Caribbean island retreats get, the more luxurious offshoot of the popular St. Kitts, and obscure enough a spot that most people mispronounce its name (it sounds like “Beavis”, rather than like the Scottish mountain). We were in good company here too. The Canadian prime minister had been the last person to stay in our villa at Paradise Beach, spending New Year’s Eve on the beach with his family.
To think that the same monkeys that watched me shower had also watched Justin Trudeau brought me a great sense of peace and fulfilment. A shared experience captured in simian eyes – a profound unity of soapy men – now forever a part of this island’s continuing story.