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St. Kitts

St. Kitts and Nevis, idyllic sister islands, lay just 2 miles apart at their closest point, offer visitors a relatively authentic island experience. Both have luxuriant mountain rain forests, uncrowded beaches, historic ruins, towering long-dormant volcanoes, charming if slightly dilapidated Georgian capitals in Basseterre (St. Kitts) and Charlestown (Nevis), intact cultural heritage, friendly if shy people, and restored 18th-century sugar plantation inns run by elegant if sometimes eccentric expatriate British and American owners.

The islands' history follows the usual Caribbean route: Amerindian settlements, Columbus's voyages, fierce colonial battles between the British and French, a boom in sugar production second only to Barbados. St. Kitts became known as the mother colony of the West Indies: English settlers sailed from there to Antigua, Barbuda, Tortola, and Montserrat, while the French dispatched colonists to Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, and St. Barths.

St. Kitts and Nevis (pronounced nee-vis), in addition to Anguilla, achieved self-government as an associated state of Great Britain in 1967. Anguillians soon made their displeasure known, separating immediately, while in 1983, St. Kitts and Nevis became an independent nation. The two islands, despite their superficial similarities, have taken increasingly different routes regarding tourism. Nevis received an economic boost from the Four Seasons, which helped establish it as an upscale destination. St. Kitts, however, has yet to define its identity at a time when most islands have found their tourism niche. A fierce sibling rivalry has ensued.

Though its comparative lack of development is a lure, the Kittitian government is casting its economic net in several directions. Golf, ecotourism, and scuba diving are being aggressively promoted. The 648-room Marriott, triple the size of any previous hotel, has raised its profile somewhat. This has revived talk of chains like Hyatt and Sandals invading the islandscape, alongside upmarket villa compounds, a major theme park, and a horse racing venue. The government hopes room occupancy will increase to more than 2,000 (from the current 1,439 -- including villas and condos), according to the "build it and they will come" philosophy. A second, longer cruise pier was slated for completion in late 2005, which would permit the largest ships to dock and disgorge passengers. But is St. Kitts ready to absorb all this? The island offers a surprisingly diverse vacation experience while retaining its essential Caribbean flavor. Divers have yet to discover all its underwater attractions, while nature lovers will be pleasantly surprised by the hiking. There's now every kind of accommodation, as well as gourmet dining, golf, and gaming.

Meanwhile, Nevis seems determined to stay even more unspoiled (there are still no traffic lights). Its natural attractions and activities certainly rival those of St. Kitts, from mountain biking and ecohiking to windsurfing and deep sea fishing, though lying in a hammock or dining on romantic candlelit patios remain cherished pursuits. Pinneys Beach, despite occasional hurricane erosion, remains a classic Caribbean strand. Its historic heritage, from the Caribbean's first hotel to Alexander Hamilton's childhood home, is just as pronounced, including equally sybaritic plantation inns that seem torn from the pages of a romance novel.

Perhaps it's a warning sign that many guests call the catamaran trip to Nevis the high point of their stay on St. Kitts -- and many Kittitians build retirement and second homes on Nevis. The sister islands' relationship remains outwardly cordial if slightly contentious. Nevis papers sometimes run blistering editorials advocating independence, though one plebiscite has already failed. St. Kitts and Nevis may separate someday, but their battles are confined to ad campaigns and political debates. Fortunately, well-heeled and barefoot travelers alike can still happily enjoy the many energetic and easy-going enticements of both blissful retreats. General Information (Saint Kitts and Nevis)


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