The calm beneath the storm

As the Caribbean islands are battered by hurricanes, Kerri Sharp recommends St Kitts - in February
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The Independent Travel

If a graph could be drawn charting the amount of time a person spends thinking about a particular destination, mine would show a notable concentration of brain activity on the Caribbean islands of St Kitts and Nevis in the years 1969 and 2004 - with, I have to confess, scant activity in between. In 1969 the islands had an empty page in my Stanley Gibbons stamp album, and I would devote many hours to wondering what went on in this chicken drumstick-shaped tropical outpost whose stamps I so ardently coveted. In February, St Kitts was my chosen destination for a week's cheap winter sun and underwater exploration. Somehow over the course of 35 years a shy and gawky philatelist had evolved into an enthusiastic scuba diver. But would the reality of underwater life around the islands today compare with the exotic creatures that graced those colonial first day covers? I was keen to find out.

If a graph could be drawn charting the amount of time a person spends thinking about a particular destination, mine would show a notable concentration of brain activity on the Caribbean islands of St Kitts and Nevis in the years 1969 and 2004 - with, I have to confess, scant activity in between. In 1969 the islands had an empty page in my Stanley Gibbons stamp album, and I would devote many hours to wondering what went on in this chicken drumstick-shaped tropical outpost whose stamps I so ardently coveted. In February, St Kitts was my chosen destination for a week's cheap winter sun and underwater exploration. Somehow over the course of 35 years a shy and gawky philatelist had evolved into an enthusiastic scuba diver. But would the reality of underwater life around the islands today compare with the exotic creatures that graced those colonial first day covers? I was keen to find out.

Since qualifying as a PADI Open Water diver 18 months ago, I hadn't been near the kind of sea one might want to dive in, and was craving that tropical fix of sparkling turquoise ocean, colourful coral and the freakish magic of the subterranean world. I considered and rejected Costa Rica after reading that its water clarity is often not great, and opted for a last-minute package to St Kitts. An internet search on the island's diving potential threw up the promise of excellent visibility, with the bonus of whale sharks, turtles and colonies of stingray gliding over rare black coral. The Bird Rock Beach Hotel even boasted a dive enterprise of its own - Dive St Kitts. It was looking good.

Bird Rock is about 3km east of the capital, Basseterre, and is a complex of quiet and spotless two-storey condominiums right on the rocky shore, where pelicans bob around and intermittently dive-bomb the plentiful sea. The majority of visitors to the island are Americans, who favour the guaranteed opulence of the Marriott Hotel in Frigate Bay - a hotel so grand that it employs roughly one in three of the island's workforce and boasts one of the swankiest casinos in the Caribbean. I felt more at home with the modest comfort of the Bird Rock. I wanted to save my money for diving trips, not take my chances with cigar-chomping high-rollers at craps tables.

My undersea adventures were with Pro Divers, based at Fisherman's Wharf, just north of Basseterre and five minutes' stroll from the joyful bustle of the port-side fruit and vegetable market. In one respect, diving is very much like hitch-hiking: you develop an intuition for trustworthiness and can sense danger at ten paces. I instantly felt in safe hands at Pro Divers, because of the warm welcome I received from the owner, Austin, and his wife and friends. A firm handshake and good eye contact is all it takes to put an inexperienced diver at ease, yet such simple reassurances are often neglected by more cavalier outfits. I signed up for two half-day dives to Green Point Reef and the River Taw Wreck. I'd never done a wreck dive before, and this was the perfect place to start.

The Caribbean's marine life has some 500 years of shipwrecks to congregate around. The islands of St Kitts and Nevis have changed hands many times, and their beaches and waters have been the scene of the region's most vicious naval battles. Since the 15th century many a Spanish galleon, and a few thousand British and French ships, have been sunk here, some of which have never been found. Pirates, villains and European pillagers have all made their way to these islands, lured by rum, fine weather and pieces of eight. The infamous Captain Kidd began his career here when he stole a French-owned privateer and sailed it under the Jolly Roger standard to Nevis. These days, taking a boat to St Kitts' laid-back neighbour is a far more sedate affair, and one can languish on the white sand of Pinney's Beach undisturbed by marauders. The rum and fine weather are still assured, and I'm happy to forego the pieces of eight in favour of the sybaritic indulgence of the Ballahoo Bar's sensational piña coladas.

I checked in for my first dive the next morning under heavy rain. The weather may not cramp your style if you are 20m underwater, but your diving companions might. There is always an element of apprehension as to who is going to "buddy up" with you if you are a lone diver. Despite the PADI instruction video that proclaims all divers are "nice people, going places and doing things", one must be prepared - especially in areas frequented by Americans - for slightly more self-aggrandizing than the average Brit is comfortable with on a boat. On this occasion, as we sped off to Green Point in the lashing spray, I was the lone Briton - and female - in a party of nine Texans who craved lots of technical instruction from Austin so they could bark "Sir, yes, Sir!" in reply as often as possible.

My gentle ambitions of communing with angel fish were something of a contrast to the expectations of my companions - who proceeded, to a man, to display and discuss their knives, depth-gauges, high-tech compasses, navigational gizmos and top-of-the-range wetsuits with all the hot air their lungs could muster. Diving is an expensive hobby, but it is easy to cut costs by hiring gear through the dive organisers rather than investing in your own. The kit is usually thrown in with the price of the trip and, unless you do a lot of diving or love to show off, there is no need to go all out for fancy stuff on a short vacation.

As is often the case with single divers, I was buddied up with the instructor, and after a brief recap on safety procedures, I was descending the guide rope and equalising my ears. With the number of dives under my belt still in single fingers, the descent to the sea bed remains an exhilarating event. Even more exhilarating was the vista that greeted me at Green Point. The reef was a colourful array of orange and purple sponges and anemones, along with the aforementioned angel fish and the ubiquitous pink-and-turquoise parrot fish. A few jaunty pipe fish also put in an appearance.

Instantly at home in the water, I resolved never to allow such a long period elapse between dives again. We encountered a school of giant dozing stingray. Several pairs of sandy eyes lazily opened before they launched themselves, serene and choreographed, into the blue. I think they caught sight of my companions' knives and spears glinting against their neoprene suits. A ray's movement can be hypnotic, and I followed the largest of the group for several minutes until I was jolted back to reality by a sharp tug on the fin from Austin, who commanded my respect because he was brandishing a lobster in each hand. Heading back for the reef, I could see six or seven ghostly stingray-shaped imprints in the sand and I made a note to bring an underwater camera with me on my next trip.

Diving is all about interacting with inquisitive creatures whose alien design is a real thrill to witness at close range. Enter the venerable sea serpent. Blind, tetchy and with a "bite-first- then-disappear" reputation, the speckled moray snaked out of its hiding place, disturbed by my fin that had kicked up some shale. Morays usually demonstrate their silent, razor-jawed annoyance while poking their faces out of their holes. This one came fully out of his lair and writhed his displeasure in no uncertain terms, displaying gaping indignation at the ungainly creature gawping at him from less than a metre away. The Texans were in hot pursuit of lobster and missed this spectacle; it was just me and him, sizing each other up like two cobras on a hot night. My ignorance of how fierce morays can be meant I wasn't radiating any fear, and he seemed content to just undulate for a while before returning to base. I was delighted at being able to tick off such a sighting within half an hour on the first day. Already I had seen creatures as exotic as any that had ever graced the islands' postage stamps.

The next day's wreck dive took us to a vessel that was sunk in 1985, so it wasn't exactly the old galleon I had envisioned. However, there was plenty to explore, and weaving in and out of the narrow crevices and corridors that were once cabins and gangways was a test of confidence and expertise at adjusting my buoyancy levels so I didn't get stuck. Although no one spotted the octopus or turtles that apparently congregate there, I enjoyed a private adventure-movie thrill from taking my diving onto the next level. For a moment, I might have even have imagined myself brandishing some deep-sea paraphernalia like my Texan companions.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE AND STAYING THERE

Kerri Sharp paid £579 for a flight and accommodation package - based on two people sharing - for a week's holiday at the Bird Rock Beach Hotel in St Kitts. She booked the trip through the website www.lastminute.com

WHEN TO GO

February is a great time to visit both St Kitts and Nevis, with temperatures averaging 28-32C and no tropical storms.

DIVING

A half-day, two-dive trip will cost $90, while three- and five-day packages come in at around the $200-$300 mark. All boat dives include an octopus (the valve that attaches the tank to your regulator, gauges and bouyancy jacket), wetsuit, mask, fins, snorkel and the regulator, gauge and jacket themselves. Credit cards are not accepted at any of the island's dive centres, so make sure you've got enough cash with you. A useful website is www.prodiversstkitts.com

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