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The Great Escape

Chris Colin experiences a Caribbean paradise from both sides of a resort’s walls.

Five hundred or so miles east of the Dominican Republic, there’s a tiny island where, if you feel hot or otherwise unrefreshed, members of your own species will spritz your body with Evian water.

After two flights and a boat ride, my wife, our young daughter, and I were nearing the sumptuous Four Seasons Resort on the island of Nevis, where we’d be roughing it for a week. I don’t deny that Nevis (NEE-vis) sounds like a skin rash or a rental car company. But when you’re motoring through the open seas and suddenly a lush, perfect mountain materializes in the mist—a volcano, actually, rising majestically, its summit vanishing in clouds—what you’re seeing is an honest-to-goodness tropical paradise.

No offense, but your life is inferior to whatever it would be at the Four Seasons Resort Nevis. Out of 7,000 Caribbean islands, Four Seasons chose this one for its sole resort in the region. The 36-square-mile dot in the sea has endless kinds of perfection: the absence of tacky development, the serene beaches, the perma-mellow West Indian vibe, the way everyone grills and parties out in the streets on Friday nights, swilling homemade seaweed drinks. And inside the walls of the resort is a world where your tap-versus-bubbly preferences aren’t just known but understood. Here, two large infinity pools are insufficient, a fact validated by the presence of a third. This is a place where extravagance is pushed to an obscure form of genius, where Stephen Hawking could have focused his career on the exact moment to serve you a chilled, moist, mint-scented personal towel.

But the perfection of Nevis and the Four Seasons was only part of what had beckoned me. We all wonder about the relationship between resorts and the places they sprawl across. Lavish vacation meccas that spring up in nonlavish little countries—what do the nonlavish little countries think of them? And what do the residents think of us, the visitors who spread our towels on those perfectly manicured beaches? Given the grim plantation histories of islands like this, how exactly do these relations work? What does coexistence look like?

The resorts themselves are not designed to supply answers. They’re designed to melt away any questions a person has in the first place; just take that chaise down a notch. But what if, instead, you turned the chair around? The Four Seasons is not only the biggest private employer on the island and a fixture of elite Caribbean tourism, it represents a whole category of deluxe travel. In addition to gazing out at the island from one of its cushiest resorts, I was going to try looking back at the resort from outside it.

But first, by god, I’d look at it from within.

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An average person traveling to Nevis flies first to St. Kitts, then catches a sweltering ferry to Charlestown, Nevis’s capital. Not the Four Seasons guest. After passing through customs at the St. Kitts airport, my family was whisked into the Four Seasons van, which conveyed us straight to the private Four Seasons ferry, which bypasses Charlestown and delivers its passengers directly to a private dock at the resort itself. Which is where our personal greeter was waiting, hands clasped just so.

And that was pretty much the flavor for the next hour, and the hours that followed, and the seven days after that. We lay by assorted bodies of water. When that grew boring, we staggered to one of the absurdly wonderful restaurants within the resort. We sweated off our laziness with fins and snorkels, or in kayaks, or on paddleboards, or on elliptical machines in front of cop shows that somehow looked better here. Guiltily, Amy and I dumped our 3-year-old, Cora, in the free kids’ club—and humbly learned that Four Seasons child care far surpasses anything we deliver.

So acute are the luxury options here that a person starts to fret about missing one. Therefore, Amy and I read up on the resort from within the resort. That’s how we ended up with a cabana for a day. When guests tire of the two-minute walk to the beach, these microcabins sit just steps from the water. A flat-screen television hung from the wall, lest we grow weary of the Caribbean Sea spread out before us. We were equipped with a green flag to summon assistance from the nearest beach attendant. I pictured us hoisting it in an hour of need—trouble with our fruit plate, perhaps? Regarding resort life, this much became clear: A guest has 10 seconds upon arrival to concoct some sort of rickety peace with the insane, fun, gout-inducing opulence of the place. There are those righteous few who wouldn’t be here but with Molotov cocktails, and it would take an act of pure willfulness not to at least see their point. Across the aisle are those who would argue money is meant to be spent, tourism serves the local economy, and so on; some days it can take just a well-mixed dark ’n’ stormy to see that point, too.

Whatever the interpretation, it is impossible to fully relax in this place until you locate its proper spot on the grid of meaning. For me that moment came when I realized—and surely I wasn’t the first—that the Four Seasons is a country of its own.

Call it Resortlandia, a nation founded on the principles of indulgence and cucumber-infused water. Climatological differences aside, Resortlandia resembles Scandinavia: Guests pay through the nose to be here, but the social services provided would turn Castro green. Why yes, I would like my own digest of the top New York Times stories with my own fresh fruit each morning before heading to the tennis courts. Here, the motto might as well be, “Live in the moment by maximizing the pleasure of every moment.” But something odd happens when it comes to history: Resortlandia has none. It floats beyond the temporal plane. To wonder what came before is a contravention of its very constitution.

So I started defecting a little.

I started small. One blazing afternoon I dragged myself out of the ocean and walked along the beach until the pretty umbrellas disappeared. At some point I realized I’d fallen in step with a local fellow. He had long, mournful lashes and short dreadlocks stored under a baseball hat. To my friendly greeting he murmured a taciturn hello. It had been a long time since someone didn’t smile at me. I liked him immediately. I pushed on, and in time we got to chatting. I’ll call him Tuffs. Eventually, and without being lame about it, he offered to sell me some marijuana, or hash if I preferred. “What about the police?” I asked, journalistically. “Dey no bother white person,” Tuffs said, without expression.

“And you?” Short pause.

“Dey bother me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He clicked his tongue disapprovingly and looked at the water.

“Be tankful,” he said. “Dat’s how to be.”

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The next morning I asked the front desk to call me a taxi that would take me farther. Where do you wish to go? the concierge asked. I said I didn’t know.

From the deck chair at the Four Seasons, Nevis is a lovely paradise. From a hot old van driven by my guide for the day, Cavelle Jeffers, it’s something wilder: tiny shacks tucked into rambunctious vegetation, thick bass blaring from a passing car, the occasional goat troupe ambling down the road. The place is cobwebbed at every turn with its troubling past. In a more just world Cavelle would travel the globe lecturing about Nevisian history. I asked her to please talk forever, and she gave it a shot.

Columbus first laid eyes on the island in 1493. More or less all of Europe soon followed, summarily dispatching the indigenous population and replacing it with ship after ship of West African slaves. Tobacco, cotton, coconuts, indigo, ginger—the island’s soil has been pressed into all kinds of service over the years. But it was sugar that defined—or, more accurately, devastated—its last few centuries. For one 50-year period, Nevis produced the finest sugar on the planet. The British, Dutch, French, and Spanish slaughtered each other periodically for exploitation rights. Cavelle and I circled the volcano that day, she sort of chuckling ruefully and me just blanching a lot. The slavery that happened here was some of the most horrific anywhere, if such a comparison can be made. Cavelle explained to me how slaves would cut off their own thumbs in hopes of dodging the most brutal duties. She told me stories of how the more intransigent slaves were burned to death.

An island of people descended from slavery. An economy currently bent around waiting on wealthy, mostly white people. I turned it over a few times and finally emitted a question consisting largely of clumsy gestures. “Given all that”—I motioned to indicate the entirety of slavery—“is this weird?” I indicated myself and the rest of the racial-socioeconomic milieu of Resortlandia.

Cavelle cut the engine and looked out the window.

“What happened was more complicated than just a race thing,” she said, running her hands over the wheel. “Most people here understand that—that it was a people thing. So you move on. You have to.” To move on, I gathered from her own gestures, meant to make peace with bringing lots of white people lots of cocktails.

As inquiries into race go, this one was limited. But it was refreshing nonetheless. All kinds of topics—race, class, tourism, how the island is changing—just don’t come up in Resortlandia. So they go underground, and surface awkwardly in a taxi on the side of the road.

The next morning I asked Cavelle to drive me along a winding road thick with breadfruit and poinciana trees. Attuned to the current interest in all things local, the Four Seasons has started offering guests the opportunity to meet some of the actual Nevisians supplying our stratospheric comforts. I’d jumped at the chance to chat with one guy in particular, Mansa, “a local agricultural legend who supplies the Resort with organic ingredients for the newly introduced ‘Farm to Fork’ menu.” I didn’t care about the sourcing of my papaya—I hoped to catch a glimpse of Resortlandia from his side of things.

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Eventually Cavelle and I pulled up at a small market. She called out and a spry young fellow emerged. He had wet, playful eyes, and a clump of dreads locked up in a ponytail. The wiry strands on his Adam’s apple had little dreads of their own. Later I’d learn Mansa was 54 and had seven grandkids. “Rasta diet,” he informed me.

He showed me around his seven riotous acres: wax apple, pumpkin, watermelon, cucumber, peppers, avocado, and more. After all my undiluted leisure, it felt good just to be in the vicinity of exertion. I asked what he did for fun, and he looked at me like I was dense. “Have sex with my girl,” he replied matter-of-factly.

Mansa seemed to be a no-nonsense guy on all subjects, but he could muster no beef with the Four Seasons.

“They’re pretty good about supporting Nevis farmers. Some other places”—he named several—“you have to kiss their ass for them to buy from you,” he told me.

If he was just being circumspect, so was everyone. For all my prodding around the island, the only Four Seasons critique I encountered was neither cultural nor moral, but arboreal. A terrible blight has decimated the island’s iconic coconut palms, and everyone blames the resort for importing infected trees—everyone except the Four Seasons. Mohamed El Banna, the resort’s manager, dismissed the allegations out of hand when I asked about them.

Maybe tourism has been regarded as a rescue for too long for any significant resentment to have taken shape. Unemployment soared after the sugar industry collapsed in the 1950s, and many Nevisians fled. Now that things had turned around somewhat, the mood felt optimistic. I made friendly interrogations wherever I went: to the woman selling melons from an old Toyota, the guy at a makeshift plywood bar in a tiny village, the widow who rented me a room for a nighttime foray outside of Resortlandia. These folks neither approved nor disapproved of the Four Seasons; the question seemed to make as much sense as asking whether they endorsed their volcano. It’s not good or bad, it’s just there.

But one day it wasn’t. In October 2008, Hurricane Omar sent ocean water surging through the resort, forcing the Four Seasons to close for an extensive renovation. For two years, hundreds of Nevisian employees had to scrounge for work. One, an affable guy named Winston Perkins, had worked his way up at the hotel ever since it had opened in 1991. After the hurricane, he found himself driving a school bus to pay the bills.

He told me this in what felt like the middle of the ocean. Early that morning I’d dramatically kissed Cora and Amy good-bye and set off for the day in a tiny, crumbling fishing boat. The Caribbean may be calm, but Winston and his fisherman brother, Dan, steered me out into the Atlantic, where a strong wind was kicking the swells up into huge towers. Meeting the locals who supply our seafood was another Four Seasons perk, and as the boat pitched higher and the screams inside my head grew increasingly girlish, I reconsidered my interest in the matter.

The brothers shouted history over the insane crashing. Their father had been (CRASH) a legend and had taught them and their five other brothers everything they know. It had been a different (CRASH) time. Back then fishermen (CRASH. JESUS.) made a living fishing. Now, increasingly, they sell their haul to the hotels at noon and then go off to construction jobs. Even on an island of 11,000, life in our times was becoming less simple. As Dan pulled a mostly empty trap into the tiny boat, Winston pointed at a desolate, palm-shaded beach in the distance.

“As kids we’d catch a lobster and cook it over a fire, just hang out on the sand all day,” he said, lost in memories.

“And kids today?” I asked. “TV. Nintendo. You know.” An hour later the traps were clean, and a scattering of colorful fish plus one lone lobster gulped forlornly at our feet. We lurched our way back across the rolling swells. I was pleased I hadn’t died. The next day Winston greeted Cora and me on our way to the Four Seasons playground—since 2010 he has been back at the resort as a bell captain. There hadn’t been enough fish to sell to the hotels after our fishing trip yesterday, he told us, so Dan had taken them home to the family. Dan’s young daughter had devoured the entire lobster herself and requested more.

I was living a double life. Half my time I spent far from the glow of the resort, attaching myself to regular, non-refill-offering Nevisians. The other half involved buttery lobster tail, turndown service, and clinking glasses with new resort friends. Before coming to the resort, we’d pictured a robotically wealthy, homogenous clientele. But the people we met were anything but.

One night at Mango, a restaurant where the sea laps nearly to your feet, we got to talking with another couple. The wife had escaped Vietnam decades earlier as a boat person. For god knows how many days she and her father had been crammed into a minuscule hold with 100 other seasick refugees. The woman, a physician now, said she and her father had been forbidden to come above deck while out at sea—not for lack of room, but because to breathe fresh air was to refuse to ever again go below.

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In bed that night I found myself wondering whether a milder version of this plays out over Resortlandia’s borders. Was it difficult for employees and guests to cross back and forth between such radically different worlds? While I’d settled on a fairly non-freaked-out view of the absurd wealth disparity here—it struck me as merely a compressed example of the world itself—I still couldn’t say whether I was the solution or the problem. But I could at least breathe all the different kinds of air I could find.

Which is to say, I ended up walking south from the resort’s beach one last time before leaving Nevis. Cavelle had told me the story of a canoe full of Carib Indians who attempted to repel a European ship in these very waves. What ultimately followed was a bottomless piña colada. I walked until I reached a ramshackle beach restaurant called Sunshine’s. It was touristy, but in a down-market way. A ratty monkey tied with an old rope sat outside. Sitting nearby was my drug dealer friend, Tuffs.

I dragged over a chair. I don’t know if it was the effects of the faint dance-hall music from a distant speaker or whatever Tuffs had already smoked, but somehow we fell right into one of those bizarre conversations in which small talk is entirely skipped. At his direction as much as mine, we steered toward all those unwieldy tourism-related issues I’d been amateur wrestling with all week. Right off the bat Tuffs put his finger on the kind of inequity one pictures.

“If someone has a party down the beach, the Four Seasons calls de police on dey. Says it’s a disturbance,” he said, smiling darkly. “But when Four Seasons has its own parties, dey even louder, like bombs— but dey just fireworks.”

Some kid walked over and handed Tuffs a joint, and he pulled on it moodily. At length and without prodding, Tuffs seemed to rethink his words on the Four Seasons. A drug dealer is persona non grata on both sides of a resort wall, I suppose, which perhaps makes for a principle of nonalignment.

“A lot of friends and family get dat Four Seasons check,” he said. “No island without dat check. No island without dat check.”

We both looked off at the ocean for a few moments, letting life’s complexity wash over us. Then he told me his weed idea.

His weed idea was, I would mail him some weed. The seeds, anyway, from some high-quality California pot. He arrayed his vision. I would buy some shirts—tank tops, for some reason—and put them in a package. I would also put some biscuits in there. I would cut open the biscuits and sprinkle a handful of seeds in each. Then I would buy some crazy glue. Was there a grocery store near me? A grocery store would carry this rare glue product. For a solemn guy Tuffs was getting pretty animated. I would apply “just a couple drops!” to the biscuits, sealing them back up like new. Then I’d mail him this unlikely package. The sun was almost setting. Tuffs wrote down his address in my notebook, with the serious and total certainty of a kid making a list for Santa. Then he sat back and smiled. He basically couldn’t believe how beautiful his plan was. Maybe I was getting some contact Rastafarianism, but I was digging the plan, too, mostly because he never seemed to consider that I might not do this. Also, not once did he offer any money for my biscuit/seed/gluing services. Not because he was thoughtless or greedy—it was more like, why would someone get paid to do an obviously good thing for the planet? It was sweet.

We sat there, chuckling occasionally, and nodding at the inner workings of either the biscuit plan or the world in general, I wasn’t sure. Then we just sat there, in the warm early evening air. I thought about staying till the actual sunset, just to have that happen, but instead I walked back to my family and the Four Seasons. A

Four Seasons Resort Nevis From $595. (869) 469-1111, fourseasons.com/nevisPhotographs by John Huba. This appeared in the January/February 2013 issue.