Treasured islands

When the stars go in search of luxurious isolation, many look no further than Nevis and Anguilla. Rory Ross visits these two jewels of the Caribbean
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The Independent Travel

The Caribbean is on a roll. Not only is it the traditional destination of choice for a spot of winter sun, but some of the islands served by direct flights to Europe are now selling themselves as the ultimate in satisfaction-guaranteed, all-frills long weekend destinations. Americans, meanwhile, have rediscovered the enchanting water feature in their own back yard and are investing millions in luxury villas and resorts there. This year alone, plots worth $130m (£77m) have been sold in Jumby Bay, a privately owned island a stone's throw from Antigua. But don't worry. There's still plenty of the Caribbean that is unspoilt and free of concrete sprawl. You need only take a small aeroplane and fly around a bit to find your own personal paradise.

The Caribbean is on a roll. Not only is it the traditional destination of choice for a spot of winter sun, but some of the islands served by direct flights to Europe are now selling themselves as the ultimate in satisfaction-guaranteed, all-frills long weekend destinations. Americans, meanwhile, have rediscovered the enchanting water feature in their own back yard and are investing millions in luxury villas and resorts there. This year alone, plots worth $130m (£77m) have been sold in Jumby Bay, a privately owned island a stone's throw from Antigua. But don't worry. There's still plenty of the Caribbean that is unspoilt and free of concrete sprawl. You need only take a small aeroplane and fly around a bit to find your own personal paradise.

Take Nevis, a lush 36-square-mile dot to the west of Antigua, over which towers the 3,232ft Mount Nevis. One 17th-century wit observed that when new colonies were established, the first thing the Spanish did was build a church, the Dutch a fort, and the English a tavern. If true, Nevis, spiritually and physically fortified in every sense, has the colonial grand slam thanks to a rich and colourful history dating back 400 years.

Strange though it may seem today, two centuries ago Nevis and its neighbours in effect financed the British Empire. Officially settled in 1628, Nevis was one of the world's great sugar-producing islands thanks to its fertile volcanic soil. Between 1715 and 1717, Britain's North American colonies produced goods worth £382,576, compared to the £403,384 made by the Leeward Islands of Nevis, St Kitts, Antigua, Montserrat, Saba and Barbuda.

However sweet Nevis's charms may be today, its history makes bitter reading. An assignment to the West Indies 400 years ago was tantamount to a death sentence. In his excellent Swords, Ships and Sugar, Vincent K Hubbard writes: "In the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries, of every five people who came here free or slave, within five years, three were dead." You rarely saw a person older than 50. Thanks to war, piracy, hurricanes, earthquakes, disease, the emancipation of slavery in 1834 and the discovery that sugar is bad for you, Nevis was in long-term decline - until its recent rediscovery as "the old Caribbean".

But old problems still haunt the island, like biblical hurricanes that strip the bark from trees. In 1991, the Four Seasons group plonked a large resort hotel here, complete with a golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones. Mother Nature soon had her way with the fledgling project. In 1995 she sent in hurricanes Luis and Marilyn within 10 days of each other, flooding the hotel. In 1999, Hurricane Lennie, a unique west-to-east blower, buried the building under 13ft of sand and the resort had to be closed for a year while it was exhumed. It's a surprise that there is any "old Caribbean" still standing after this sort of treatment.

"Nevis is unique," says Tim Hoffman, an American whose family own Montpelier Plantation, an 18th-century sugar refinery that has been converted into a sweet 17-cottage hotel, perched on the lower slopes of Mount Nevis. "There are many islands in the Caribbean, but few that have retained their charm. We still have wild goats, donkeys and sheep running around."

One of the most famous figures in Nevis's history was Lord Nelson, who lived here from 1784 to 1787 while he enforced the trade ban between the Caribbean and the United States. Here Nelson met Fanny Nisbet, the niece of John Herbert who owned Montpelier. The couple married across the road in Montpelier House. Two hundred years later, the serene atmosphere of the plantation, with its arboretum of guava trees, avocado, sugar apple, eucalyptus, papaya and cinnamon, captured the imagination of the Princess of Wales who came here twice with the young princes (room 15). "Next year, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birthday of the Battle of Trafalgar," says Hoffman, "We want to invite the British Navy."

"Hard to get to, even harder to leave," is how Helen Kidd sums up Nevis, and she should know. Kidd arrived from Glasgow 22 years ago and has not been back. Now she runs the Nevis tourist authority. "It is the Caribbean as it used to be," she says. "There is a conservative attitude among people. They are friendly, shy and respectful. There's a lot of 'Mr', 'Miss' or 'Ma'am'. If you enter a doctor's waiting room and find 10 strangers, they would deem it insulting if you did not greet each one of them in turn. Nevisians don't like swearing. It is also illegal and you can be fined."

The 11,000 Nevisians take great pride in home ownership, which is the silver lining of the cloud that heralded the decline in the sugar industry. As the sugar estates declined in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a peasant farming society grew up in its place. The number of people who owned their own home grew, and is still one of the highest in the Caribbean. "No matter how humble their home, it is still their home," says Kidd. "Although the island has been developed, its true character still shines. There is a collective desire to retain our old architecture, especially in Charlestown. We have a very strong historical and conservation society in Nevis."

Charlestown, the capital of the island, is a charming arrangement of small 17th-century buildings rendered in black volcanic stone offset by dazzling painted woodwork in powder blue, canary yellow, red and peppermint green, which lends the place a Toytown air. It is about 100 paces from one end to the other. At the market, local produce is on display: bananas, watermelons and sweet potatoes. The food throughout Nevis is excellent and cheap, with plenty of good local fish restaurants such as the Galley Pot and Le Bistro.

On the outskirts of Charlestown is the birthplace of Nevis's most famous son: Alexander Hamilton, the founding father of the United States and a signatory to the US constitution. Born out of wedlock to a diplomat on Nevis, Hamilton lived on the island until he was nine, then moved to nearby St Croix before finishing up in the United States where he rose to become first Secretary of the US Treasury following independence. Today, he graces the US $10 bill.

It was time for a drink. I headed to Sunshine's bar on the beach for a Killer Bee cocktail (thanks to Nevis's diverse flora, the honey is excellent). Sunshine - aka Llewellyn Caines - is one of the island's characters. He opened his beach hut bar as a shack 10 years ago and has gradually expanded it. He now lays on satellite television so the islanders can watch major international sporting fixtures. Sadly the Sugar Boyz, the St Kitts & Nevis international football team that aspired to Germany 2006, were recently edged out by both St Vincent and Mexico.

Another person who has found Nevis hard to leave behind is a Yorkshire woman known hereabouts simply as "TC". With her dyed red hair, gold earrings, gold dentition, gold-rimmed glasses, megaphone voice and flat vowels, TC cuts an unmistakable figure. A former double-decker bus driver from Leeds who has lived on Nevis for 13 years, TC is the only white tour guide on the island. Her husband, a Nevisian, emigrated to Britain at 19 to work in a tannery, where the couple met. "I first visited Nevis 42 years ago when there was nothing here, and I loved it," she growls. "I said to that old slipper I married: 'This is where we want to be'."

During the post-war restoration in the 1950s, the British government encouraged West Indians to emigrate. Jamaicans went to Brixton, Trinidadians to Birmingham and Nevisians headed for Leeds. They probably got the best deal.

"You can buy land here for a very reasonable sum," says TC, confidently grasping the steering wheel of the bus. "I have land on Flagstaff Hill: £6,000 for half an acre with views of Montserrat. It was where Nelson used to raise the flag if strange ships dropped anchor. It cost me £20,000 to build a house with two-bedrooms and a bathroom, and I've been 13 years in paradise. My door is open all day. Why bother to lock it? It is not a lifestyle that would suit everybody, because there's nothing to do and nowhere to go. But there is nowhere here where I'm not fed and watered, at breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. No class distinctions! And no black-white issue! Other islands have jumped on the bandwagon and got resorts that produce drugs, violence and crime. We are a tiny unspoilt island." As I say goodbye, I ask: "What does 'TC' stand for?" "Tough Cookie," she replies.

Anguilla is a very different kettle of fish. Flat, scrubby and littered with simple off-the-peg buildings that are half-constructed (thanks to high interest rates), no one could accuse it of being a picturesque island. During the post-war migration, Anguillans were dispatched to Slough. So, no great culture shock there. It may lack the reputed chic of Mustique or St Barths; it may not be the tabloid photo-call of Barbados; but this northernmost Leeward Island is far more exclusive than any of those places and is blessed with the most glamorous white limestone sand beaches and the cleanest waters imaginable.

Anguilla's lack of obvious entertainment - "tranquillity wrapped in blue" - is what draws Hollywood icons and sports stars in search of peace and privacy. You can experience something of this calm at the Cap Juluca hotel, a series of unpretentious, hurricane-proof beach villas in vaguely Greco-Moorish style that are strung along a kilometre-long arc of dazzling white sand. The most common complaint at Cap Juluca is the noise of the waves lapping the beach at night. If you step outside on to the beach in the morning, dig your toes into the sand, feel the morning sun blessing you and look out over the iridescent turquoise waters, you experience a feeling of blissful tranquillity and rejuvenation. Indeed Anguilla feels like the ultimate luxury outdoor bathroom, from whence you emerge a new you.

"We try to offer more than just sun, sea and sand," says Sue Ricketts, one of Cap Juluca's owners, referring to the hotel's "second generation" spa services that include "soul awakening", "astrology reading" and, most remarkably, "past-life regression therapy". "We are cutting edge. We put things on that other spas won't touch. I really believe that we look after the body but forget about the mind. In the last two years our occupancy levels have risen by 20 per cent."

Anguilla's present and future development is a very sensitive subject. Anguillans are taking great pains to steer a path between developing the island's rudimentary infrastructure while preserving its carefully nurtured reputation for all-round excellence, and keeping the worst elements of blue-rinse culture at bay. There are no casinos, no shopping malls, no timeshares, no traffic, no crime, no pollution, not even a McDonald's. No building may stand higher than a palm tree. Cruise ships steer clear of Anguilla's treacherous sandbanks en route for the bright lights of nearby St Maarten or St Barths. Until now, jets of any description were not allowed on Anguilla, but the runway is enjoying a $25m (£15m) upgrade to accommodate Gulfstreams and 72-seater American Eagles. However, there will still be no direct flights from Europe.

Meanwhile, the market for top-end villa rentals is popping, with the hottest properties going for up to $10,000 (£5,900) a day. "For the past two years there has been great investment," says Eustace "Guish" Guishard, the larger-than-life general manager of Cap Juluca. "It started not after September 11, but after the Bali bombings. The euro/dollar rate and then the war all contributed to a surge in the popularity of the Caribbean, especially among New Yorkers. The main problem is our air links. We're trying to get Virgin into St Maarten." Another problem is employment. There's not enough. Everyone on Anguilla has three jobs: construction worker by day, taxi driver by night and fisherman at the weekend.

Some A-list frontrunners are starting to appear here regularly. Claudia Schiffer, Kevin Bacon, Beyoncé Knowles and Denzel Washington are big fans, but as there is no identifiable social set, there's no showing off or competitive sunbathing. The most famous inhabitant is Chuck Norris's ex-wife (that's another thing that's presumably banned: Chuck Norris. I like this place even more), who recently sold her villa for $8m (£4.7m) and bought another for $1.5m (£900,000).

Thanks to poor soil, the Anguillan economy is based on fishing, salt and cotton (Sea Island cotton is said to originate here). You don't find the traditional Caribbean staples of banana, coffee and sugar, so the country hasn't ended up as a basket case run by voluble slave descendants.

"The key to Anguilla is its people," says Eudoxie Wallace, who owns Scilly Cay, one of the best lobster opportunities on the island. "If you check back, most of us have Irish backgrounds. We all descend from shipwrecks, hence the Irish brogue in the Anguillan accent. My mother was a redhead with freckles. I'm mulatto. I have two sons with blue eyes and blonde hair. Anguilla was never a plantation-type place. The people are friendly because they're not threatened. Now, if you go to St Maarten, any French or Dutch businessman can turn up and take over. Ninety per cent of the natives of St Maarten are still working in the kitchens. But Anguillans have rights. They might not be cash wealthy, but they own their own land."

I asked Eudoxie about the Anguillan sense of humour. "They exaggerate, like the Irish. If they say a fish is this size, it'll be this size," he says, gesturing with his hands. Which brings me on to Anguilla's other main attraction: food. The Caribbean may be a gastronomic desert whose range of comparative descriptive terms runs from "edible" to "life-threatening", but that may be because the good restaurants are here on Anguilla.

"The food is good because of the clientele," says Eudoxie Wallace. "They want it; we provide it. For 20 years at Scilly Cay we've done just crayfish, lobster, chicken and nothing else. This morning, we just brought in 150lbs of fresh lobster. Anguilla has world-class restaurants. We're taking business from St Barths."

Anguilla's reputation for gastronomic excellence dates from when the Caribs landed here to eat the Arawaks, long before European settlement. The present population of 9,500 people has some 70 restaurants to choose from, ranging from beachside grill-shacks via idyllic spots on their own atolls to high-end outfits like Cap Juluca. The lobster, crayfish, red snapper, mahi-mahi, tuna and swordfish are as good as they get. The cellars of Cap Juluca hold 20,000 bottles at 66F. The result: a gastronomic paradise, finer even than St Barths, and all the more remarkable for being British.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with Kuoni World Class (01306 747001; www.kuoni.co.uk/worldclass). A similar itinerary would cost around £3,968 per person including return flights with British Airways to Antigua from Gatwick, private transfers, three nights' B&B at the Montpelier Plantation Inn, one night's all-inclusive accommodation at Jumby Bay and five nights' half-board at Cap Juluca (incorporating the Mind, Body and Spirit programme). There is no international airport on either Nevis or Anguilla. The nearest international hubs are Antigua or St Maarten.

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) fly non-stop from Gatwick to Antigua while BWIA (0870 499 2942; www.bwee.com) flies from Heathrow. KLM (08705 074074; www.klm.com) and Air France (0845 359 1000; www.airfrance.co.uk) fly to St Maarten via Amsterdam or Paris. Caribbean Star (001 268 480 2561; www.flycaribbeanstar.com), LIAT (001 784 458 4841; www.liatairline.com) and chartered jets connect Anguilla and Nevis with both islands. Excel Airways (0870 169 0169; www.excelairways.com) also operates a weekly charter flight to St Kitts.

STAYING THERE

The Montpelier Plantation Inn (001 869 469 3462; www.montpeliernevis.com) in Nevis has doubles from $307 (£180), with breakfast and afternoon tea.

Cap Juluca (001 264 497 6779; www.capjuluca.com) in Anguilla has doubles from $414 (£244), with breakfast.

Jumby Bay (001 268 462 6000; www.rosewoodhotels.com) in St John's, Antigua has doubles from $767 (£450), full-board.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Nevis Tourist Authority (0870 200 1314; www.nevisisland.com)

Anguilla Tourist Office (020-7729 8003; www.anguilla-vacation.com)

SOPHIE LAM

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