Cresentia O'Flaherty was not a name I'd heard before, nor one I've come across since, but it was presented to me proudly by our taxi driver as he drove us from Nevis's tiny airport to our hotel, the Montpelier Plantation Inn. I had invited him to list his island's most famous inhabitants. Heaven knows we needed a distraction, because it was raining cats and dogs, or more accurately goats.
So torrential was the rain that all along our route it had washed sacks of rubbish into the road, which were being merrily munched on by goats. This wasn't entirely in keeping with the images of the Caribbean that we had nurtured in an equally soggy Britain, but it could have been worse: we could still have been on Liat flight 544 from Antigua, which was at first diverted by the dreadful weather to neighbouring St Kitts only to double back and make a shaky vertiginous descent that reduced my wife, a capable Yorkshirewoman of normally strong disposition, to tears.
All things considered, it was an inauspicious start to our Caribbean holiday. But our taxi-driver continued to reel off the names of the great people Nevis has given the world. After Cresentia O'Flaherty – a 1980s netball player – and Scary Spice's dad, the celebrity star-quality increased. Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the US, and Fanny Nisbet, wife of Horatio Nelson, were both born in Nevis. As the list continued, the downpour stopped and the sun came out. It shone on us all the way up to Montpelier Plantation, which is where, on 11 March 1787, Nelson married Nisbet.
He knew which side his bread was buttered. Fanny was a wealthy and well-connected widow, who was given away that day by the Duke of Clarence, later William IV. Unfortunately, a voluptuous blacksmith's daughter named Emma Hamilton later caught Nelson's eye, and since he didn't have another one, that was that. A distraught Fanny gave him a "her-or-me" ultimatum and never saw him again, though she mourned his death at the Battle of Trafalgar and remained devoted to his memory until her own death in 1831. Just about every Nevisian we met seemed rather sweetly proprietorial about poor old Fanny, although she is buried in Littleham-cum-Exmouth in Devon – an unlikely place for a chapter of their island's colourful history to end.
Montpelier was supposedly named after the southern French city by the visiting Sir Hans Sloane, secretary of the Royal Society and even more impressively, inventor of drinking chocolate, in 1687. It stands on the slopes of Nevis Peak, the dormant volcano which still touches almost every aspect of island life. It also looms large in the island's history. In 1782, owner John Herbert spotted a large fleet of French warships approaching. King James I had claimed English sovereignty over Nevis in 1620, and Herbert duly orchestrated some doughty resistance before the invaders prevailed.
The dastardly French were led by Count Francois de Grasse. By engaging the British fleet in the Battle of the Chesapeake a few months previously, he had enabled George Washington's army to defeat that of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown – the decisive battle of the American revolutionary war. Which is significant, because the fellow to whom Cornwallis surrendered, Major-General Benjamin Lincoln, was the great-great-great-great grandfather of Tim Hoffman, the current owner of Montpelier. Maybe that's why, despite all the swanky-hotel touches, there is still a tangible, lovingly cultivated sense of centuries gone by.
Converted into a hotel in the 1960s, it is a memorable place, family-run in the best possible way. There's even a heavy old family Labrador, who kept plodding with great deliberation into the shade. "He reminds me of you," said my wife, unkindly.
Montpelier is recognisably a former plantation, with the 300-year-old stone sugar mill now housing an extremely elegant restaurant, The Mill. However, formality and the Caribbean have never seemed to me to belong together. We preferred the more laid-back, alfresco Terrace restaurant, which specialises in superb tapas-sized dishes.
The hotel sits in 60 acres, and a spectacular garden thrives in the fertile soil that was once so useful for sugar production. The place is located 750ft up the slopes of Nevis Peak, its relative isolation doubtless a factor in the late Princess Diana's decision to book the whole property for a holiday with her sons, when her marriage was falling apart. I don't know what Diana did there, but these days the more energetic guests are encouraged by Tim Hoffman and his garrulous mother Muffin to hike to the top of the peak.
There are only 19 rooms, mostly in villas dotted around the gardens. And in keeping with the general air of understatement, they are spacious but fairly simply furnished, with a blessed lack of flat-screen or any other kind of television.
As for the island generally, it struck me that as parts of the Isle of Man are to the British mainland, so is Nevis to the rest of the Caribbean: a rather charming timewarp. It has low crime rates and not a single set of traffic lights (responsible driving is instead encouraged by numerous warning signs, among them the pithy "Undertakers like Overtakers").
Old-timers say Nevis is evocative of many other West Indian islands 50 years ago. But it is also heartbreakingly poor. The richness of the soil here once made Nevis the leading sugar producer in the Leewards Islands; as early as 1650 Nevis sugar was considered the best in the West Indies. But the island has never recovered from a depression in the sugar-cane industry in the 1920s. The last plantation closed in 1958. Tourism is Nevis's main source of income now, yet that too has taken a clobbering.
The devastation of Hurricane Omar two years ago forced the closure of the Four Seasons, which was Nevis's biggest hotel and – with 850 staff – comfortably the island's main employer. The good news is that on 15 December, the handsomely refurbished Four Seasons is scheduled to re-open. Its excellent golf course, constructed in 1991 by one of the world's most celebrated golf course architects, Robert Trent Jones Jnr, was already operating when I was there. I played a round unforgettable less for the quality of my golf than for the glorious views and the casual asides from my playing partner, the hotel's charismatic director of sport, Mackee France. The pungent smell, Mackee told me, as he steered our electric cart from the 9th tee through a swath of dense rainforest, was monkey urine. Not a problem they have at Wentworth.
Green Vervet monkeys, introduced as pets in the 17th century, are now everywhere on Nevis. My children loved the sight of them insouciantly crossing the roads, yet to Nevisians they are a terrible pest and the main reason why there is almost no agriculture. I was told that it is impossible to "monkey-proof" the land. Apparently, without being guarded day and night, even a vegetable patch will survive no longer than a week.
Even more prolific than the monkeys, and noisier if less destructive, are the giant ditch frogs known to Nevisians as "mountain chickens". They are relative newcomers, unwittingly introduced from Florida by the management of the Four Seasons. They imported 20,000 plants and with them, a frog or two, which was all that was needed to start a colony after Hurricane Lenny wrought havoc in 1999. Lenny, Omar... like other West Indians, Nevisians drop the names of the hurricanes that have remorselessly battered them as if they were slightly tiresome acquaintances who once paid a short, unwelcome visit.
The two-island federation of St Kitts and Nevis is, in terms of both area and population, the smallest nation in the Americas. And of the 65,000 inhabitants, only about 12,000 live on Nevis. In fact, if there is a main source of disgruntlement on Nevis, it is probably St Kitts. Like the people of Tobago, who feel bullied by big sister Trinidad, Nevisians think St Kitts gets a disproportionate share of foreign aid and just about everything else.
From time to time there is even talk of secession, which indeed is what nearby Anguilla did in 1967. After a revolution that was commendably bloodless except when the St Kitts chief of police hurt his finger during a decidedly V
C lacklustre exchange of gunfire, the nation of St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla became plain St Kitts-Nevis.
As for the friendliness of the people, we were struck by it on arrival at the airport. Our happiness to have made it out of the skies alive – and we weren't the only ones, there was a spontaneous outbreak of applause when we landed, even from the stewardess – was compounded by the cheery welcome we got from the young chap at passport control. So you can imagine how pleased we were that evening, if a little disoriented, to find the very same chap working behind the bar at the Montpelier Plantation Inn. He'd remembered all our names, too. We very nearly tested him on our dates of birth.
We were charmed by the staff at Montpelier. The breakfast waitresses were almost certainly the slowest-moving women ever to carry jugs of fresh orange juice, but they could hardly have been warmer. Equally welcoming was a hefty sous-chef, Lenny (no relation to the hurricane), who took us to the market in the capital, Charlestown, one morning. Is there anything more foreign than a foreign food market, ostensibly so familiar and yet so full of reminders that you're a long way from home? We recognised perhaps half of the fruit and veg on display, identifying plantain and passionfruit but requiring Lenny to explain the dasheen, tania, breadfruit and manciport.
Another staple of Nevisian life, we discovered, was Sunshine. Not a fruit or a vegetable, but the eponymous owner of Sunshine's, a beach bar and grill which we were repeatedly told we had to visit, otherwise our stay in Nevis would be incomplete. We felt certain we'd be disappointed, but sure enough Sunshine – real name, the rather prosaic Llewellyn Caines – proved to be the Caribbean beach joint owner from central casting. All three of my children declared his bar quite the coolest place they had ever seen.
It took us a while to realise that the tape being played on a loop only featured songs containing the word "sunshine" but once we did, that too seemed ineffably cool. Even the ganja-ed Rastafarian who took a fancy to my 16-year-old daughter did so with charm. "I'd ask you for your phone number but your daddy would kill me," he said, in a slow basso-profundo and with a big wink – which she thought was meant for her but I knew was aimed over her shoulder at me.
It was nothing to do with him that we resisted the children's pleas to go back to Sunshine's the following night, and instead headed for the Golden Rock Inn, another old sugar plantation, high on the slopes of Nevis Peak.
For such a small Caribbean island Nevis is unusual in having almost as many hotels inland as on the coast, a legacy of the age of sugar. We had drinks on the spectacular terrace, looking over dazzling vegetation (not for nothing is the national red- and orange-flowered tree of Nevis called the Flamboyant) to the sea, the uninhabited island of Redonda, and the outline of Montserrat beyond. The Golden Rock is owned by the successful American artist Brice Marden, once the brother-in-law of Joan Baez. Marden's style is best described as minimalist, though it surely can't be easy for him to look at that view and then paint in greys and beiges.
On the way home we stopped off for another drink at the Hermitage, yet another converted plantation and one of Nevis's oldest, dating from 1670. We found it rather shabby and dishevelled, yet all the more romantic for it. In fact there can't be many Caribbean islands more suitable for honeymooners, the sad fate of Fanny and Horatio's marriage notwithstanding. And since you're allowed to do things on honeymoon that otherwise would be altogether too naff, the marvellously atmospheric old bar at the Hermitage offers the perfect cocktail for newly-weds: the Tequila Mockingbird.
If that was a nod to American culture, British influences are in general far more pronounced on Nevis, from the numerous Anglican and Methodist churches to the schoolchildren in their neat little uniforms. It's hardly surprising; full independence from the UK was achieved only in 1983. Maybe that's why we felt so welcome there; maybe they still like us. After all, we gave them netball, and netball gave them Cresentia O'Flaherty.
* The writer travelled with Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com), which flies to both Antigua and Barbados, from where you can connect to Nevis with Liat (001 268 480 5601; liatairline.com).
* A more direct route is offered by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) to St Kitts twice weekly from Gatwick, via Antigua. Return fares start at £678. From St Kitts, passenger ferries cross to Nevis (001 869 469 7550; nevisisland.com).
Montpelier Plantation, Nevis (001 869 469 3462; montpeliernevis.com).
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