By David McKay Wilson
The Queen of the Caribbean has hiked up her skirt and discovered biking.
On Nevis, that lush speck of land on volcanic rock in the Leeward Islands, cyclists ride on well-paved roads that circle the island and explore its inner reaches on mountain trails that wind along paths that once connected 18th-century sugar cane plantations. Blessed with peppy rental bikes and a friendly cycling community, Nevis is now a popular destination for those who like to vacation on two wheels.
Neighboring St. Kitts, part of the sister-island Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis, has great cycling terrain as well, especially if you take the Sea Bridge Ferry from Nevis’ Cades Bay to Cockelshell Beach on St. Kitts and test your legs on two mountain peaks along the peninsula as you head north.
We arrive in Nevis in mid-November just as the local tourist industry gears up for its winter season. There’s optimism in the balmy autumnal air. The island’s premier destination, the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, is set to reopen in mid-December after being shuttered for two years. And American Airlines will resume flights into the island to coincide with the Four Seasons’ rebirth.
We fly to neighboring St. Kitts, take a cab to an awaiting water taxi, which whisks us across the 2.5-mile strait that separates them.
We land at Oualie Beach, where, at the end of the dock, we meet Winston Crooke, owner of The Wheel World, the island’s bike-rental shop, which has an ample selection of mountain and road bikes, made by Trek. He’s an enthusiastic chap who smiles broadly and gives the thumbs-up when happy. We change into our cycling togs, get outfitted for our bikes, leave our bags to be transported by taxi, and ride two miles into the wind to the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club. There, we stay for four nights at the sixth best hotel in the world for 2011, and the Caribbean’s top hotel, according to Travel + Leisure’s 2011 rankings of The World’s Top 25 Hotels.
Nevis was once a British colony, so along with teatime at 4 p.m., you ride, with the cars, on the left side of the road. This takes some getting used to. But the motorists are quite considerate and in no huge hurry on island with 10,000 residents, 71 churches, and a medical school. Drivers beep softly to alert you they are coming up from behind, and often slow to 15 miles per hour to keep pace with the bike, until they round a corner to pass with ample leeway.
There’s not much traffic, even on the main road that rings the island in a 20-mile loop. Development has yet to hit Nevis with much of a wallop. Several small resorts are located in gracefully restored plantation buildings. There are a few restaurants and bars around, sheep and goats graze openly, and monkeys scurry about on all fours.
While riding the 20-mile loop isn’t hard to figure out, you’ll need a guide to negotiate the mountain paths that criss-cross the fields in the Nevis back country. On our second day on Nevis, we meet Reggie Douglas, the international triathlete with dread locks, a kind voice, and a heart filled for his homeland. Douglas, who will be among 500 competitors in the Tristar 111 triathlon in Nevis on April 2, has a following on the island, and as we start our ride one afternoon, kids in school uniforms chant his name when we ride through Newcastle village streets.
He takes us up past the Mount Nevis Hotel to the ruins of the Cottle Church, built in 1824 by a Nevis Anglican priest who wanted a church where slaves and their owners could pray together. We follow an overgrown path from the church, riding our mountain bikes on sugar-cane roads through fields swaying with foot-high grass in the afternoon breeze. Then the road steepens, the gullies grow deeper as we ride steadily up over the rocks, spinning our way up until we came to the mountain village of Fountain. We pass sugar mills, ubiquitous in the 16th to 18th centuries, when Nevis was one of the Caribbean’s biggest sugar producers. The two-hour tour eventually takes us out to Potworks, on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic. We ride past eight windmills gently whirring at Maddens Estates, providing 2.2 MW of power – about 20 percent of the island’s power. In 2011, the geothermal plant being built at Spring Hill will go online, producing another 8 MW, enough to power the entire island with carbon-free energy.
The next day we visit old plantations transformed into hotels – Golden Rock, up a steep drive, with its honeymoon suite in a sugar mill, and terraced ponds on a stone-faced dining area that was just completed this year. After stopping at the Montpelier Hotel, we descend Round Hill past the Botanical Gardens to Charlestown before heading back to Nisbet, where a massage awaits at The Palms Spa.
Later in the week, we ride around the island – going counterclockwise so we go down, not up, Zion Hill – and stop at Mansa’s Last Stop, a local market and restaurant that features two Nevis specialties – a spicy stew called Goat Water, and a mélange of chicken, pork, beans and rice that’s known as Nevis Cook-Up.
With 37 units along the Atlantic shore, Nisbet Plantation is a welcoming boutique resort that features buildings once inhabited by Lord Horatio Nelson when he ruled the Nevisian roost in the late 18th century during colonial days. Dinner nightly is served in the Great House, the now-restored home where Nelson entertained his colonial peers before heading out to sea to defeat Napolean’s fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar. And after a day on the road, the exquisite cuisine and fine service, savored with a bottle of Merlot, is exactly what we need to prepare us for another day on two wheels in paradise.
David McKay Wilson has written on travel over the past 30 years as a freelance journalist, with his travel stories appearing in The Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, New Haven Advocate, and Gannett News Service. An avid cyclist and skier, Wilson enjoys vacationing in the mountains and by the sea. His articles on public affairs have appeared regularly in The New York Times. He’s currently the nation’s top freelance writer for university alumni magazines, with his work appearing in publications at 81 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown and the University of Chicago.