When you arrive on Nevis by boat, slicing through blue-green waters, you're presented with what looks like a New Yorker cartoon of an island: small and perfectly green, ringed by palms and rising precipitously in the middle to a perfect volcanic peak.
Nevis is a Caribbean getaway that feels truly away. The island is just 35 square miles and inhabited by only 11,000 people, with a much more relaxed feeling than its sister island, St. Kitts; the two formed an independent state in 1983. Tourism is the main industry, but the place isn't overrun with visitors, either. You may be more aware of the vervet monkeys, also called green monkeys, appearing and then disappearing again behind hedges.
Development restrictions and the terrain challenges presented by a huge volcano mean that large swaths are undeveloped. One of the rules is that nothing can be built over 1,000 feet high, and that has kept the view of the volcano, called Mount Nevis, pristine. The locals often call Mount Nevis "our baby," taking great pride in its majesty and beauty (luckily the baby hasn't been "upset" in thousands of years).
The residents definitely qualify as a natural resource, too. "We're very respectful to visitors," says Evelyn Henville, the executive director of the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society. "In olden times you opened your door to visitors, and we still do that. There's still a genuineness about the people that makes travelers want to come here."
Certainly the beaches and the warm waters of the Caribbean have something to do with travelers arriving. And while lying on the sand is certainly a favorite pastime, Nevis has a slightly more active vibe than other Caribbean islands. It never gets ridiculously hot -- temperatures rarely get over 85 degrees (and don't really fall below 70) -- and there's always a breeze.
In that climate, it's not only snorkeling and scuba diving that appeal, it's also biking, hiking and horseback riding, all of which are available options. For a dash of contrarian thinking plus an encyclopedic knowledge of the island, you can sign up for a hike with Lynell Liburd of Nevis Nature Tours (nevisnaturetours.com).
Liburd, a native of the island who lived for years on the East Coast of the United States, is full of fascinating lore both general and personal. On his Rainforest & Ruins tour ($30, 2.5 hours), you get to pass by decaying old mansions as well as sites from Liburd's own childhood. You may or may not care to hear his views on the decline of the modern work ethic, but he has the history of Nevis down cold.
Christopher Columbus arrived on the island in 1493, and European interest in the place became acute not long after. It turns out that the sugar cane that came from Nevis was more concentrated than elsewhere, making the island a profitable place to do business, and to colonize -- "the Queen of the Caribees," it was called. The British jumped in and took over, fighting off attacks from the French (and lots of pirates). The era of British rule and gracious sugar plantations also produced one of the Founding Fathers of the United States: Alexander Hamilton was born there in either 1755 or 1757.
"The fact that we're Hamilton's birthplace is still intriguing to lots of Americans," says Henville. The Georgian-era Alexander Hamilton Museum (nevis-nhcs.org, $5), built on the spot where the treasury secretary was born, is now considered one of the most historically significant sites on the island.
Why leave the hotel?
The only question being: Can you be torn away from your hotel to take in some long-ago history? Given the quality of many of the lodgings, it's questionable. Tourism in Nevis has been targeted to the high-end customer for some time, and there are some excellent options. "Nevis has aimed for the five-star client," says Henville. "And it's raised the level of all the properties."
The tone has been set by the 12-year-old Four Seasons Nevis (196 rooms, fourseasons.com/nevis, from $720), the largest and most deluxe of all the lodgings. It's a grand and all-encompassing compound with an award-winning golf course, large spa, vigorous tennis program, several good restaurants and an ideal slice of historic Pinney's Beach. If you're feeling adventurous try flyboarding, involving a James-Bondian jet pack that shoots seawater from your boots and lifts you in the air.
Another deluxe option on a more intimate scale is provided by the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club (nisbetplantation.com, from $620), a string of 36 cottages on the north side of the island. Generally plantations are up high, so the hotel boasts that it's the only historic Caribbean plantation inn situated right on the shore. A Salt Glow scrub ($117) at the on-site Palms Spa will help you prepare for sunbathing.
If that's too dear, a more budget-friendly option is Oualie Beach Resort (34 rooms, oualiebeach.com, from $175). The waterside cottages all have gingerbread-style details, and there's live music twice a week in the restaurant.
The views are a primary attraction at the Mount Nevis Hotel & Beach Club (32 rooms, mountnevishotel.com, from $350), founded 25 years ago by a couple from Tarrytown, N.Y. It's on the hillside site of a 19th century lime plantation, and the owners take particular pride in their kid-friendliness. Bright colors and patterns enliven all the rooms.
Getting to Nevis to unwind at these properties has generally been a plane-to-boat-affair, because only the St. Kitts airport (SKB) can handle international jets. "Limited air access has helped it remain exclusive," says Henville -- and the water approach is mighty scenic, too. But now Seaborne Airlines (seaborneairlines.com) has just added regional service, becoming one of a few carriers flying to Nevis directly. Generally it requires changing planes in San Juan.
The mode of transportation, though, may be irrelevant. In the case of Nevis, getting there is not even close to half the fun.
ALL AT SEA
It makes sense, given Caribbean geography and the expense of air fare, that the string of islands starting with Puerto Rico and heading south to Trinidad and Tobago is crisscrossed with ferry lines. As it happens, it's also a fun and scenic way to get around -- even if you're just in it for the ride. These trips can be a couple of hours, depending on the distances, but they are also as quick and cheap as the 50 minute, $55 ride from St. Thomas to Tortola. For some more of the shorter options, check out vinow.com/general_usvi/interisland_ferry.