Vintage charm on the tiny island of Nevis

GOOGLE “Nevis” and you’ll find very little about it on the internet. It’s a tiny Caribbean island, barely seven miles long, south of St Kitts and west of Montserrat, which harks back to a West Indies of 200 years ago. This is a place of sugar plantations, wooden Georgian cottages and Negroni-red sunsets – an ideal getaway for those who want the Caribbean but don’t want rum punches and Rasta flags.

Nevis Peak, a dormant volcano, lies at the island’s heart casting a fatherly eye over the green hills, dark beaches and pretty pastel buildings of Charlestown, Nevis’s main town.

Once upon a time it was the wealthiest island in the Caribbean thanks to its sugar plantations, but when the industry collapsed, mills were abandoned. Little has changed since: Nevis is like one giant heritage site; a sweet-smelling Wild West overflowing with hummingbirds and yellow bells. Buildings sit in disrepair, cogs and wheels from sugar presses litter the landscape and there isn’t a high-rise or neon sign to be found no matter how hard you search. Best of all, once-abandoned 17th century plantation inns now provide visitors with fabulous four and five-star living (see Where to Stay panel).

There’s plenty to see and do on the island (the beaches are nothing special), from hiking, mountain biking and kayaking, to roaming around ruins. A visit to the Bath Spring House, once a playground for the rich and famous, is a must. You can still dip your toes in the piping hot spring water plus there’s a small museum to explore. There’s also the Horatio Nelson Museum, rammed with memorabilia connected to the British admiral who visited in the late 18th century and married Fanny Nisbet in the shade of a cotton tree.

Nevis is also home to some of the oldest churches in the Caribbean, one of which, the St James Windward Anglican church, bears a black crucifix at the altar – there are only five of these in the world so it’s well worth the expedition.

Best of all though is doing the rounds of the converted sugar plantations on the island. There are more than a dozen scattered among the hills, all beautifully restored, their wooden exteriors and chintzy interiors all perfectly intact. One or two are so unchanged, they have a positively eerie feel to them with polished blue and white Wedgwood china, lace curtains and gramophones still in place.

Most of them operate an open door policy. You’ll be welcomed in, shown around and invited for afternoon tea or to make a reservation for lunch or dinner, which is well worth doing. Your hotel will most likely offer you an island tour incorporating a number of other hotels (Nevis works on a kind of “I’ll scratch your back” basis) but it’s just as easy to hire a car and see them for yourself – there are only about three roads on the island.

Alternatively, Charlestown has plenty to offer. Its streets boast some of the best remaining examples of colonial-era Georgian buildings in the Caribbean. Many of the grandest buildings are now restaurants. At the Riviere House, a new non-profit restaurant-cum-art-gallery occupying a pretty garden cottage, you can get clam chowder and saltfish cakes just like mama used to make. It’s an ideal lunch spot.

For killer cocktails, head to Sunshine’s beach bar, a barefoot beach hangout where pictures of everyone from Britney Spears to Catherine Zeta Jones plaster the walls (all visiting from next door’s Four Seasons hotel). Here, you can chow down on platters of fresh-grilled lobster, spicy ribs and generous bowls of rice and beans. Alternatively, mingle with the locals at Miss June’s. She’s been welcoming guests into her home for ten years and Caribbean fare doesn’t come much better.

For somewhere to stay, you can’t beat the Montpelier Plantation & Beach Resort (www.montpeliernevis.com). Perched at the top of a hill overlooking Nevis Peak and the Caribbean Sea beyond, this little-known Relais & Châteaux hotel is the epitome of plantation chic. The site, an abandoned 17th-Century mill, is on the estate where Captain Horatio married Fanny in 1897 and you can visit the cotton tree where they exchanged vows today.

Nineteen traditional wooden cottages with verandahs are spread across nine acres of rambling tropical gardens, each of them simple yet elegant with four-poster beds, some so high wooden steps are provided. Tim Hoffman, the affable American who runs the place with his wife and mother, has recently added a small spa on the premises and beach huts on a private volcanic beach 15 minutes away. “We purposely avoid using signposts around the property to encourage people to explore,” he says. And that pretty much sums up Nevis: it has so much natural charm, why interfere?

BA (ba.com/stkitts; 0844 4930758) offers seven nights B&B at Montpelier Plantation & Beach Resort from £1,269pp including return flights from Gatwick via Antigua.

CLASSIC ANTIGUA
Curtain Bluff celebrates its 50th birthday this season (on 1 February 2012). The Joan Collins of Caribbean resorts, it perches on a promontory on the south coast of Antigua, looking as grand as it did the day it was built. This iconic hotel is a true Antiguan stalwart, think Kellermans (from Dirty Dancy) meets the Hurlingham Club. Everything from the motifs on the drinks mats to the concertina floor-to-ceiling window blinds reeks of the glamorous 1970s when Paul and Linda McCartney strolled its tropical walkways.

We love Curtain Bluff’s “no-key” policy – rooms are left open (with safes for valuables) and never in five decades has there been a whisper of a theft. Service is excellent, and unlike many five-star resorts, you can tell the staff really love the place. Half of them have been working there since day one and speak fondly of Howard Hulford, the American who built the place in 1962, who lived there until his death in 2009. Hulford’s spirit lives on in his sparkly wife Chelle who continues to greet guests like old friends at weekly cocktail parties from her home on the estate or can often be seen waltzing across the dance floor.

Great for all the family, they don’t make them like this anymore…

BA offers seven nights for the price of six from £2,359 per person based on departures in November including flights from Gatwick and all-inclusive accommodation. Visit ba.com/antigua or call 0844 4930758. www.curtainbluff.com.

NEVIS | WHERE TO STAY
● Golden Rock Inn
A converted plantation inn set high up in the rainforest with breathtaking views and a modern twist. Expect to be greeted by dozens of vervet monkeys. Quirky rooms and a Japanese garden. www.golden-rock.com

● Nisbet Plantation Beach Club
A lovingly restored beachfront plantation inn built in 1778 oozing colonial charm. Once the family home of Fanny Nisbet.
www.nisbetplantation.com

● The Hermitage
The oldest operating building in the Caribbean (built in 1660) offering simple wooden planter’s cottages with all the lacy trimmings.
www.hermitagenevis.com

● Four Seasons, Nevis
The island’s newest addition offers an enviable beachfront location and plenty of activities making it ideal for families – it also has one of the best spas in the Caribbean.
www.fourseasons.com/nevis