I love nothing more than a tropical island — a small piece of land in the middle of a temperate ocean. But as I get older and more focused on the "trend" (and by trend, I mean necessity) of self-care, my pursuits go beyond plopping down on the nearest beach and not leaving until my plane does. Now, I factor in opportunities for exercise, healthy eating, contemplation and rejuvenation. Yoga retreats and similar wellness vacations are not in my budget, so I sought to design my own getaway, complete with all of the Zen this mid-30s mom desires, on the Caribbean island of Nevis.
Birthplace of Hamilton
Nevis is part of a two-island federation in the West Indies, best known as the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton. There are no direct flights from the United States; visitors must stop in St. Kitts, the "big sister" island, then take a two-mile, 10-minute trip by water taxi across the channel. Once on Nevis, options for traversing the island's 36 square miles include rental car, taxi or the "bus," small passenger vans that are accessible along the 20-mile main loop around the island.
My home base was the Golden Rock Inn, chosen with serenity in mind. With its soundtrack of jungle animals and rustling bamboo, lush landscape and tranquil views, it didn't disappoint. And there are so many nooks and crannies around the 100-acre property that you could spend days without leaving, immersed in your own self-led yoga practice and meditation and fragrant walks through the carefully planned gardens. I took a tour with the master gardener that taught me to identify flowers, trees and some medicinal plants. The on-site restaurant became my chosen breakfast spot; it serves a bowl of local mixed fruit and fresh squeezed orange juice with every menu item.
Nevis, in general, has easy access to healthy food, with tropical fruits such as mango and star fruit readily available and restaurants that really take pride in cooking with ingredients from their land. As I traveled around the island, I passed many roadside stands selling fresh produce — or sometimes even barbecue (comfort food has its place, especially when traveling).
The Tastee Jamaican Bakery, near the public ferry terminal, makes fresh juice using ingredients such as ginger, lemongrass, dragonfruit and soursop. (Nevisians swear the leaves of the soursop tree are a natural sleep aid.)
Montpelier, a boutique hotel built around an old sugar plantation, offers two on-site restaurants, one with a more poolside, casual vibe and healthy menu options: The chef offers fresh, organic foods including mahi-mahi, spiny lobster, gazpacho, cauliflower gnocchi and curried conch stew.
Where the Zen finds you
Relaxation and contemplation are easy to find on Nevis. The Botanical Gardens of Nevis, with 100 species of palms, a couple dozen Buddha statues, orchids, fountains, fruit trees and a Rainforest Conservatory complete with comical parrots, is a place where the Zen just finds you.
I also stopped in Bath Hot Springs, an easy pull-off from the main road, just outside the downtown area of Charlestown. Its volcanic thermal baths have been known for their therapeutic properties for centuries. Next to the springs, a brightly colored shop called Bare Necessities sells local essential oils and other holistic products.
As I wandered in and out of shops in the main town of Charlestown, I experienced firsthand the island slogan of "You're only a stranger once." One of my favorite things about Nevis was the hospitality. I never felt like the people I encountered were just giving me a sales pitch. Instead, I felt that they take so much pride in their home that they want newcomers to feel the same way about visiting it that they feel about living there.
I needed to do more than eat and relax, however — I also had to move. One of the best places to get some exercise is Pinney's Beach, the island's largest. The beach is home to Pinney's Beach Resort and the Four Seasons, where you can rent paddleboards or snorkel gear.
Free beaches — and quiet
All beaches on Nevis are free and public — and, to my surprise, quiet. As I walked along Pinney's three-mile stretch, I took in the striking Caribbean blue water with St. Kitts in the distance and the verdant green of Nevis Peak, a 3,232-foot-high dormant volcano visible from all points. It's possible to hike to the summit, which I'm told is a strenuous, challenging, muddy ascent full of exposed roots. Hiring a guide, which is highly recommended, costs about $40 per person.
Next time, I’m going to opt for a less rigorous pace and sign up for the early morning five-mile hike led by the general managers of Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, a hotel on the island’s north side. I found out about the hike while enjoying a rum punch at the beach bar and chatting with general manager Tim Thuell, who told me that part of the reason he and his wife, Tina, keep the walks going are the conversations they have with guests along the way. This, I could relate to.
When I set off to satisfy my overall well-being, I wasn't sure which aspect of my visit to Nevis would resonate with me the most — would it be the food, the serenity, the physical activity? But it turned out to be how comfortable and accepted I felt there. This, too, I have realized, is an important part of a wellness vacation. And, on Nevis, it's something that doesn't need to come with a hefty price tag or fancy itinerary.
IF YOU GO
Golden Rock Inn. A boutique hotel with 11 private guest rooms, sitting on 100 acres of lush landscape of an old sugar plantation. Rooms from $200. 869-469-3346, goldenrocknevis.com
Montpelier Plantation and Beach. The property has 19 rooms, villas and suite options, as well as two on-site restaurants and a 300-year-old sugar mill available for private rental. Rooms from $235. 869-469-3462, montpeliernevis.com
The Great House at Nisbet Plantation. The restaurant is located on a beachside resort plantation, and has indoor and outdoor dining options. The menu changes often but usually features a local fish, vegetarian option, pasta and a meat. Entrees fixed at $60; a la carte items start at $15. 869-469-9325, nisbetplantation.com
Sunshine's Beach Bar and Grill. Best known for its "Killer Bee" rum concoction and barbecue with Sunny's special sauce, you can sip cocktails while listening to live music as the sun sets on Pinney's Beach. Entrees start at $10. 869-469-5817, sunshinesnevis.com
Botanical Gardens of Nevis. Along with trees, plants and flowers from around the globe, there's a Rainforest Conservatory along with a restaurant, bar and gift shop. Open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sundays, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Admission: $13; kids ages 6-12: $8. 869-469-3509, botanicalgardennevis.com