Friday, November 16, 2012

November 11th – St Kitts

As we got off the ship in St Kitts, our little ship was dwarfed next to a monster Royal Caribbean ship, and we were then greeted by a large, brash and modern duty free shopping centre in the cruise terminal. If you just went on first appearances, you'd have been forgiven for thinking that St Kitts was just another over-commercialised, bog-standard Caribbean port.

That impression is really the opposite of the reality of St Kitts – the island is a charming, friendly, largely unspoilt, and a slightly gritty place to visit. Aside from that modern cruise terminal, tourism is still in its infancy here, and it's all the better for that.

I joined a tour that explored the island's sugar history and some of its colonial heritage, left over from the time when the lucrative sugar industry made this one of Britain's most important and best-defended possessions in the West Indies. Sadly, the sugar industry finally closed down in 2005, but, in the array of ruined sugar mills and chimneys that you see dotted around the landscape, you can tell that sugar would have once totally dominated the island.

One of the most interesting legacies of the sugar days, is the old railway that rings the island and once served the sugar plantations. Yet, even though the sugar industry has sadly died, this is the last railway left in the Caribbean – but, only just. Only about one-third of the railway track is still in working order, and what is left is very clunky, so you shake, rattle and roll your way around the island at top speeds rarely exceeding a stately 5mph.

But, it's all very charming and nicely done. A commentary lets you know what you're passing, and for the boring bits, a choir comes around the carriages and keeps us entertained. Aside from the attractive countryside of rolling fields of wild sugar cane, undeveloped little villages, and secluded beaches, the thing that amazed me the most was that every time we passed anyone, they'd run over to the train and give us a big smiling wave. Considering that the train runs about three times a day throughout the holiday season, the welcome of the local people can only be a genuine one.

After the train ride, we drove up to the top of the incredibly steep Brimstone Hill, to visit the forbidding old British Fortress – a wonderfully evocative UNESCO World Heritage Site that was the site of some epic battles between the British and the French. Finally, we drove down to the Fairview Great House – a superbly restored old plantation house that displays the great wealth and luxurious lifestyles of the island's rich white elite.

In the evening, we were planning to have a few drinks in town, but we hadn't remembered that on a Sunday evening, virtually everything is shut. However, that horrible modern cruise terminal does have some advantages – we found one bar open that was selling incredibly cheap beer that kept us entertained for the evening.

Life is sweet in St Kitts.