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Off-the-Path Caribbean

by

By: Victoria De Silverio and Anja Mutic

Courtesy of the Hermitage Plantation InnA hillside cottage at Hermitage Plantation Inn, in Nevis

Even on well-known islands, there are still spots far from the madding crowd. Our roundup includes the untouched glories of Nevis, the Bahamas, and Jamaica.

Nevis

A tiny sovereign nation exudes a laid-back, yesteryear gentility

Marlon Brando is driving along the calm Caribbean coast past a cloud-shrouded volcano festooned with pink coralita vines, on the tiny island of Nevis. Not the Island of Doctor Moreau Marlon Brando. That guy is, of course, no longer living. This Marlon Brando is a native of Guyana who owns a rental-car service and a used-tire store here. Dodging goats, roosters, dogs, and green monkeys along the 20-mile road that circles the isle, he tells the story of how he chose Nevis as his home. On a visit to the island 15 years ago, he bumped into a friend from Guyana who was completely distraught. On his way to the bank, he had dropped his wallet, containing many months’ wages. Brando accompanied his friend to the police station and there it was, not one eastern Caribbean dollar missing.“I was so shocked,” says Brando. “I thought, I want to live where no one touches your purse!” Today, he says, not much has changed. “There is a bit more development, but the people, they are the same.”

While many Caribbean islands have succumbed to cruise ships and casinos or cater to a crowd that craves a high-voltage social scene, this jewel in the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands exudes mellow, old-school class. Despite its diminutive dimensions—it’s all of 36 square miles—Nevis was a powerhouse back in Europe’s colony-building days. For more than 150 years, it was a bitterly contested battleground among France, Spain, and England, which eventually won stewardship. By the late 1700s, the emerald speck, dubbed Queen of the Caribees, was a bustling commercial and social nexus with sugar plantations churning out liquid gold, and all the fashionable West Indies types flocking to the planters’ mansions and bathing in the hot springs at the Bath Hotel, the Caribbean’s first spa. These days, Nevis attracts a manageable number of tourists, so much so that strangers on the street will greet each other with “Good afternoon,” as people would in a small town.

It’s easy for travelers to soak up an authentic Nevisian experience by opting out of the bigger resorts and instead selecting one of the plantations, now exquisitely restored as inns. With cannons, windmills, flowering gardens, and stone and timber great houses, the inns radiate bygone charm and character. Choosing among them may be the most difficult part of the trip. If waking up to waves caressing white sand is your priority, choose the friendly Nisbet Plantation Beach Club; the rest of the inns are high up in the forested hills. Built in 1778, the great house of the club is the ancestral home of Fanny Nisbet, the Nevisian society widow famously wooed (and later abandoned) by the dashing Lord Horatio Nelson—there are plaques all over the island, and even a museum in town, dedicated to Lord Nelson. Twenty-two cheery yellow cottages dot the gently sloping lawn, which grandly unfurls itself toward the picture-perfect beach. Though it’s technically on the Atlantic Ocean side, the iridescent water is nearly as mellow as the Caribbean. After dinner, slide into the beachside hot tub, and watch the stars crawl across the sky.

On the island’s northern flank, drive up a steep, rock-strewn road to the Montpelier Plantation Inn, where Nisbet and Nelson exchanged vows in 1787 under a mammoth ficus benjamina tree that still stands sentinel at the great house. As befits such noble nuptials—not to mention Princess Diana’s much-touted stays—Montpelier, a Relais & Châteaux property, is the most refined and elegant (yet unpretentious) inn on the island. Hidden within lush gardens bursting with pear and ackee trees, palms, and bougainvillea, are 17 cottages, each with its own veranda, wicker and wood furnishings, and crisp white linens. At the inn’s restaurant, a former sugar mill fittingly called The Mill, you dine by candlelight. It’s the island’s most exclusive, so save it for your last night.

Across the road, the comparatively quaint Hermitage Plantation inn has enchanting timber-framed gingerbread cottages sprinkled near the great house, likely the oldest wooden dwelling in the Caribbean. The Lupinacci family of Philadelphia has been running the place since 1971, and chances are Richard Jr. will greet you at reception or from behind the bar, where photos of the family racehorses decorate the walls. The Lupinaccis keep a large stable of horses that guests can ride to explore the surrounding Gingerland district; on national holidays, they organize races at the track in the middle of the unpopulated, wild southeast. Invigorating treks to the summit of misty Nevis Peak originate at the Hermitage; call or email amiable resident biologist Jim Johnson—expert in all things fauna, flora, voodoo, and bush medicine—and arrange a time.

On the eastern or windward side of the island, high up in the forested hills, is Golden Rock Plantation Inn, recently purchased by New York painter Brice Marden and his wife, Helen. The cottage rooms are modest compared with the other inns, but the 200-year-old mill, converted into a charming two-story suite, is truly special, and as such, often booked. Nevertheless, spend the afternoon here, having a lunch of lobster salad and grilled prawns among the red umbrellas and the many monkeys. The view from this serene oasis—out to sea, where Antigua and Montserrat are visible along the horizon—is breathtaking.

No matter where you stay, at some point direct yourself to Sunshine’s Bar and Grill on pretty Pinney’s Beach, just south of the Four Seasons Resort Nevis (recent winner of a Sherman’s Travel Smart Luxury Award, it is set to reopen once renovations in the wake of Hurricane Omar are complete). Sunshine’s owner Llewelyn “Sunshine” Caines is Nevis’s unofficial goodwill ambassador, and both his charm and his infamous creation, the Killer Bee—a deceptively strong rum concoction topped with freshly grated Grenada nutmeg—lures locals, ex-pats, guests, and judging from the photos on the walls of the cozy, Rasta-colored shack, celebrities such as Bill Gates, Beyoncé, and Tiger Woods. Dinner and lunch menus are pretty much the same; try the grilled lobster. On Saturday night, Sunshine lights a bonfire on the sand and the bar stays open until the last bee has stung.

MAKING IT HAPPEN

GETTING THERE
American Airlines flies nonstop to St. Kitts from Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, once a day. If you land on St. Kitts have your hotel arrange for the 10-minute flight or 15-minute ferry from there to Nevis. American Eagle flies nonstop from San Juan to Nevis once every day.

WHERE TO STAY
Sherman’s Picks
* = Smart Splurge
+ = Great Value

* Montpelier Plantation Inn Morning Star; from $400/night starting April 15; 869/469-3462, montpeliernevis.com
* Nisbet Plantation Beach Club Newcastle; from $415/night starting April 1; 869/469-9325, nisbetplantation.com
+ Golden Rock Plantation Inn Gingerland; from $200/night starting April 15; 869/469-3346, www.golden-rock.com
+ The Hermitage Gingerland; from $170/night starting April 16; 869/469-3477, hermitagenevis.com

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Sunshine’s Beach Bar and Grill Entrées from $12; 869/469-5817, sunshinenevis.com

All the inns have excellent restaurants. Nightlife follows a dependable routine: Wednesday nights at Hermitage for rum cocktails and a pig roast; Thursday-night karaoke at Double Deuce (Pinney’s Beach; 869/469-2222); live music Friday nights at Oualie Beach Hotel (Oualie Beach; 869/469-9735, oualiebeach.com); Saturday-night beach bonfire at Sunshine’s.

WHAT TO DO
Local biologist Jim Johnson leads hiking trips, including nighttime stargazing expeditions and themed walks on bird-watching, historical sights, and bush medicine (from $20; 869/469-9080, walknevis.com). Hotels can arrange snorkeling, scuba diving, boat charters, horseback riding, and other activities.

RENTAL CAR
M&M, owned by Marlon Brando; 869/663-2013, marlonbrando82@hotmail.com

WHEN TO GO
The high season on Nevis is relatively short, starting in mid-December and stretching to early or mid-April. April and May are the best months to visit Nevis thanks to lower rates and prime temperatures. From late June to November, many shops and restaurants close, so call ahead before making plans.

Kamalame Cay, Bahamas

A private island wonderland where world-class civilization meets pristine isolation

Perhaps because the northern tip of the Bahamas’ 700-island archipelago is just 50 miles from Florida, the close-but-far chain has lured the Rat Pack, James Bond (six movies have been filmed here), and, sadly, many package tours. But the more manhandled parts of the island chain, where giant resort casinos have swallowed up the land, are only part of the story. Venture to the Out Islands and you’ll find the remote charm and deserted beaches that define paradise; make the trek to Kamalame Cay, a private island resort off the northeast coast of Andros Island—itself a natural hub for snorkeling, bonefishing, and diving—and you’ll find all that plus the service and accoutrements of a world-class destination.

The goal, say owners Jennifer and Brian Hew, is to give people the impression that they are visiting friends on a private island and staying in their guest cottage. And that’s exactly how it feels, except you can’t pay for your stay by returning the favor, and Kamalame is not cheap. At $1,250 a night for a suite, it’s the most expensive pick of our selections, but that price includes everything, and that your-own-personal-island feel makes it a smart splurge.

A sliver of sugary white sand awash in coconut palms, seagrape trees, and bougainvillea, Kamalame Cay (Ka-mal-uh-mee Key) began as an accidental labor of love for the Hews. In the early 1990s, when they first saw the land during a fishing trip, they set their hearts on building a home there. After years of haggling, the government finally agreed, but only if they promised to build a hotel on the 96-acre property. So they winged it, and in 1998 the enterprising couple opened with a few villas—there are now 24—all of which Jennifer designed and Brian built. At first, anglers from all over the world came for the abundant bonefishing flats, literally steps away from the shore. When the Hews noticed the fishermen coming back with their wives, they realized their hotel was morphing into a romantic getaway. And so the resort has evolved, ever so organically.

In an effort to make arrangements as simple as possible, the resort sends a driver to collect you at the Andros airport—that is, unless you have asked them to charter a seaplane. The 20-minute drive takes you to a waiting boat. On the very brief ferry ride, you may notice that the houses on Kamalame Cay are secluded and sit back from the shoreline; the only noticeable man-made construction is the stunning South Seas–style overwater spa with an elevated wooden walkway. (While getting a massage, don’t be surprised if watching the impossibly luminescent blue-green ocean roll back and forth under the slightly separated floorboards sends you into a state of hypnosis.) Once you arrive, you’re escorted via golf cart down a palm-shaded driveway to your villa, where another golf cart, yours for the duration, awaits. Each villa and cottage has a different personality; all are charmingly rustic, brimming with homemade character and devoid of television and the Internet. (If you must check email, there’s a computer at the great house.)

Androsian stone walls support cathedral ceilings, some thatched, others with interlaced timbers. The airy design welcomes in nature: Double French doors open to wide verandas and a grassy lawn that unfolds to the water. Anyone can idle away large amounts of time simply sitting on a comfy couch watching the muslin drapes rise and fall with the wind. Furnishings made of wicker or antique mahogany and overflowing bookshelves create a cozy, lived-in atmosphere, and in a stroke of genius, Jennifer designed the cottages as octagons, so even the bathrooms have showstopping water views.  

Kitchenettes are stocked with wine, beer, bottled water, and coffee. Breakfast fixings such as fruit, homemade breads, and coffee silently arrive at the door in a picnic basket, and every afternoon there is a delivery of freshly baked cookies. Guests may be as social or sequestered as they want, partaking in the nightly ritual of cocktails before dinner at the elegant, plantation-style great house or opting for an intimate dinner on their own veranda. Tiki torches flicker and silvery moonbeams shoot through the palm fronds while guests dance to the hiccuping rhythms of the local rake ’n’ scrape band. For the ne plus ultra in private dining, take a boat to an uninhabited island, where a personal chef can whip up a luxurious modern-day Robinson Crusoe feast; consider creamy conch bisque, local grouper with wild rice pilaf, and a sweet, unforgettable sour sop soufflé.

Guides usually take just two guests at a time for snorkeling or diving expeditions around Andros, a diving utopia that contains the world’s third-largest barrier reef, including the Andros Wall, a staggering vertical drop where the continental shelf plummets 6,000 feet into the Tongue of the Ocean, an oceanic trench. The island itself is a diving mecca, with a complex maze of about 50 underwater caves known as blue holes. On your own, you can kayak though the shallow mangroves around Kamalame, where white ibis wade alongside schools of pufferfish.

Kamalame Cay is almost like the Bahamas’ answer to the African safari lodge, trading tigers and elephants for curly-tailed lizards and tiny hermit crabs. This serene wilderness, along with the top-notch resort perks, keeps guests in a safe, cozy cocoon of luxury. Unplugging is easy to do here. Snooze in a hammock just outside your suite or read a book by the pretty pool; either way, the gentle pitter-patter of the palms rustling in the unbroken breeze will lull you into a state of pleasant amnesia. It’s all very discreet. Don’t even bother prodding the staff for the names of their famous guests; they’ve been sworn to secrecy.

MAKING IT HAPPEN

GETTING THERE
Many carriers fly direct to Nassau, and from there you can take one of Nassau Western Air’s twice-daily flights to Andros Town International Airport. Continental connects to Andros Town through Ft. Lauderdale on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Kamalame Cay will arrange airport transfers or charter service via seaplane.

WHERE TO STAY
* Kamalame Cay Staniard Creek, Andros; suites from $1,250/night Dec. 15—May 31, $1,000/night June 1—Aug. 20, including food, house wines, beer, and liquor, use of snorkeling equipment, sea kayaks, tennis court; 242/368-6281, kamalame.com

WHEN TO GO
The Bahamas’ high season is in full swing from December to early May. Go in June, before hurricane season sets in, and you can make the most of lower rates before the chance of storms increases and businesses close. 

Jamaica

Beyond the tourist compounds, these four boutique retreats offer real local flavor in the lap of luxury

Jamaica is a pioneer of all-inclusive holidays with plentiful rum, Red Stripe beer, and reggae within gated resorts that feature predictable tropical touches. While that breed of worry-free vacation has its appeal, we also love the other, relatively under-the-radar side of Jamaica, beyond the tourist centers of Negril, Ocho Rios, and Montego Bay. With Jamaica’s checkered history, it’s natural to wonder if going off the path is advisable. The answer is yes, but it’s not always easy to do so in an ad hoc way. The four rare and wonderful boutique hotels we’ve found aim to provide a more peaceful, laid-back experience that embraces the island’s supervibrant, diverse population (from dance-hall stars to cricket enthusiasts, for starters) rather than cordoning it off. They also draw on the strength of Jamaica’s famed local food (think fried ackee and jerk chicken) and provide access to some of the more remote—and worthwhile—attractions, like undisturbed beaches and villages. All the while, high-end perks, like organic spas and fireside bars, prevail at these amazing retreats.

Three of our picks are from the Island Outpost group, founded by Chris Blackwell, a legendary music producer who grew up on Jamaica and is now committed to creating hotels that achieve the difficult mix of superb service with zero pretense. All four places provide the full scope of Jamaican landscapes and culture in a relaxed, safe environment where guests are likely to be discerning travelers.

Blackwell, who started Island Records and is known for popularizing Bob Marley worldwide, has done much to promote the low-density, individualistic approach to tourism on Jamaica. Strawberry Hill Resort, Jake’s Resort, and Geejam Hotel—three of the properties in his Island Outpost hotel group—provide a slice of Jamaican life, with intimate vibes reminiscent of staying at a friend’s home.

Nestled high in the Blue Mountains, which rise from the northern edge of Kingston, Strawberry Hill began as an 18th-century coffee plantation deeded by the British royal family to Horace Walpole, the renowned novelist and earl. Acquired by Blackwell in 1972, it has since developed a reputation as a place to go for rest and relaxation; it’s known for an emphasis on healthy living and a stellar spa (Strawberry Hill Living) that specializes in Ayurvedic healing. Bob Marley recovered here after being shot in 1976; recent guests include Bono, Kate Moss, and Prince Charles. It’s situated on 48 acres and surrounded by a lush coffee plantation (don’t miss the Blue Mountain brew) and botanical gardens with 350 species of plants and flowers. The resort fosters an environment in which it’s easy to feel a sense of rejuvenation.

The 12 airy Georgian-style cottages feature details such as four-poster beds, hand-carved fretwork, and louvered windows. A 60-foot negative-edge pool highlights a stunning panorama of Kingston below. This mountaintop oasis also encompasses an acclaimed restaurant that serves nouvelle Jamaican cuisine and has a cozy fireside bar (nights can get chilly). Guided tour options include bird watching, mountain biking, and visits to coffee estates and nature trails around the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park.

On the island’s rather remote southern coast, in low-key Treasure Beach, is Jake’s, the chic former holiday home of Sally Henzell, Jamaica’s foremost decorator, and her husband, Perry, director of the iconic Jamaican movie The Harder They Come. Named for the family’s pet parrot, this bohemian hideaway—today run by their son, Jason—has 23 secluded cottages, two restaurants, a holistic spa, and a saltwater pool. Jake’s is Jamaica at its most prototypical: rootsy, funky, and community-focused. The embodiment of the close-knit vibe is Breds, a nonprofit association cofounded by Jason that helps develop and fund a variety of local projects, such as installing GPS systems for fishermen. Fun activities are available in the immediate surroundings, including tours of roadside bars and a visit to Pelican Bar, perched on stilts smack in the middle of the sea. Other excursions include boat tours to spot crocodiles on the Black River; an outing to the spectacular YS Falls; and a ride along leafy Bamboo Avenue, a canopied road lined with vendors selling deliciously sweet coconut and peanut treats.    

In the heart of the Jamaican bush on the island’s northeast coast, Geejam Hotel, the newest Island Outpost property, started life as a recording studio for the likes of Björk, No Doubt and Gwen Stefani, and Gorillaz. Music is still in its blood. Three musically named cabins—Ska, Mento, and Rocksteady—come with unique touches like steam rooms and verandas with Jacuzzis; there’s also a fabulous suite and a three-bedroom villa. It may be tempting not to leave the premises: The seven units, with Philippe Starck furniture and cutting-edge amenities like Apple iTVs, provide the ultimate in organic elegance. Geejam draws all manner of celebrities: Sharon Stone celebrated her 50th birthday here; Grace Jones raved about her stay. Recording packages are available for guests, so you too can book time on the mike in the state-of-the-art music studio. The Bushbar restaurant, framed by a pair of ancient fig trees, is known for its unusual Jamaican-Japanese fusion dishes. In the surrounding area—Jamaica’s most pristine—you can visit Port Antonio, once home to Ian Fleming and a prime tourist spot. It’s now a laid-back hub with a hopping central market and a charming boardwalk. Also nearby are some of the island’s best beaches and the Rio Grande, known for its fantastic rafting.

Jamaica Inn—an old-school luxury retreat run by the Morrow family since 1958—is more of a white-glove experience compared with the Island Outpost resorts, but it still provides an intimate holiday beyond the gated compounds. During the inn’s heyday, Winston Churchill painted in the garden, and Noël Coward and Errol Flynn paid regular visits. Now the retro ambience, highly experienced service—one staff member, Teddy, has worked there for 50 years!—and timeless style are cherished by repeat visitors. The property, on a private cove in Ocho Rios (lovingly called “Ochee” by the locals), boasts 47 spacious suites and four two-bedroom cottages, all with a private balcony or a veranda. The inn’s alfresco restaurant gets top marks for flavorful local cuisine, and the seaside spa offers holistic treatments. The north coast around Ocho Rios offers prime excursions, such as tours of nearby historic estates, including Prospect Plantation, Firefly, and Harmony Hall. Many of them have been restored and are now open to the public as museums, offering a glimpse of Jamaican island life as it once was.

MAKING IT HAPPEN

GETTING THERE
Fly into Norman Manley Airport in Kingston or Donald Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay. Air Jamaica flies nonstop to both from New York and Miami. American Airlines flies nonstop to both from Miami, nonstop to Montego Bay from New York, and direct to Kingston from New York. JetBlue joins in with nonstop service from New York to Montego Bay starting in May. Strawberry Hill and Geejam are closest to Kingston, while Jake’s and Jamaica Inn are closer to Montego Bay. Each hotel will arrange for airport transfers, while Geejam and Jamaica Inn can arrange special air transfers to nearby airstrips.

WHERE TO STAY
Sherman’s Picks
* = Smart Splurge
+ = Great Value

* Geejam Hotel Port Antonio; from $495/night starting April 20, including breakfast and free airport transfer with minimum 4-night stay; 800/688-7678, 876/993-7000, geejamhotel.com
* Strawberry Hill Irish Town, St. Andrew; from $495/night starting April 20; 876/944-8400, strawberryhillresort.com
+ Jake’s Calabash Bay, Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth; from $95/night starting April 20; 876/965-3000, 876/965-0635, jakeshotel.com
Jamaica Inn Ocho Rios, St. Ann; from $300/night starting April 16; 800/837-4608, 876/974-2514, jamaicainn.com

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Pelican Bar Head out by boat to this hut built on a shoal three-quarters of a mile offshore for mellow times, cold Red Stripe, and fresh seafood on request. Boats arranged through Jake’s.
Strawberry Hill With a number of dining areas and some of the best cuisine on the entire island, the resort’s own kitchens are a delight.
Mille Fleurs Close by Geejam is one of our favorite eateries in all of Jamaica. Enjoy classic fine cuisine made from local bounty (At Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, Port Antonio; $60 tasting menu; 876/993-7134, hotelmockingbirdhill.com).
Evita’s Just down the road from the Jamaica Inn, Italian tradition meets Rastafarian cuisine in creations like lasagna with ackee and calaloo (Eden Bower Rd., Ocho Rios, St. Ann; entrées from $18; 876/974-2333, evitasjamaica.com).

WHAT TO DO
Jake’s The hotel will arrange a tour to the mouth of the Black River, a unique seaside environment with mangrove swamps and wetlands full of animals including dolphins, rare birds, and crocodiles. A bit farther afield, 120-foot YS Falls is a great attraction, whether you’re swimming, tubing, or just admiring.
Strawberry Hill The resort has a number of great spa services, while the surrounding areas provide outstanding hiking, biking, and birding opportunities.
Geejam Divers head to the Errol Flynn marina, rafters to the Rio Grande River, and many enjoy the town, a walk on the boardwalk, the fresh fish restaurants on Folly Road, or the shops on Market and Harbour streets.
Jamaica Inn The inn can arrange any number of outings, including polo matches on Saturday afternoons, as well as horseback riding all week and mountain biking in the St. Ann Mountains. There are several golf courses nearby, and don’t miss a visit to Noël Coward’s house museum in Port Maria.

WHEN TO GO
During the winter, hordes of travelers (including spring breakers) come to Jamaica. From mid-April through May, and again in fall, travelers benefit from reduced rates on air and hotel packages (except during the Easter holiday), less crowded beaches, and cheaper green fees. Weather can be rainy from June through November.

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