Photo Courtesy of St. Kitts Tourism Authority
St. Kitts—the larger half of the twin-island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis—was born of volcanoes and veered between French and British control before finally settling in as part of the British Commonwealth. African slaves brought to the island helped establish St. Kitts’ vast sugar plantations, whic…h operated into the 21st century. Today, the plantation homes have found new life as luxury hotels, and a vintage sugar cane railroad provides a memorable island tour. While new resorts continue to draw visitors to this quiet corner of the Leeward Islands, St. Kitts retains its small-town feel, with plenty of undiscovered places just waiting to be explored.
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It’s almost always beach weather on St. Kitts, with the year-round temperature averaging 80 degrees. Even when there’s rain (this is the tropics, after all), storms tend to pass quickly, and the sunshine soon returns. Hurricane season runs from June to November but direct hits by tropical storms and hurricanes remain rare. May to mid-December is the best time to score low rates on hotels and airfare, plus there are plenty of empty beach chairs. The annual St. Kitts Music Festival, held the last week of June, is an additional enticement for an off-season visit.
St. Kitts’ modern Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw International Airport (SKB) has flights from the U.K., Canada, and the U.S., as well as other islands in the Caribbean. Flights operate both seasonally and year-round. Popular gateways include London, Toronto, San Juan, Miami, New York (JFK and Newark), Atlanta, and Charlotte. Those arriving by private jet—or by commercial aircraft, for a fee—can opt to travel through the YU Lounge, which is located adjacent to SKB’s main terminal. You’ll be greeted on the runway by a Porsche Cayenne and whisked to the lounge, where you can enjoy drinks and snacks while the staff retrieves your baggage and handles your customs and immigrations processes.
While car rentals on St. Kitts are plentiful, roads tend to be narrow, twisting, and hilly. Visitors must also pay to acquire a mandatory local drivers’ license and be comfortable with driving on the left side of the road. An easier option is to let the local taxi and minibus drivers—who are licensed, trained, and knowledgeable about what to see and do—get you where you want to go. There’s also regular ferry service between Basseterre, St. Kitts, and Charlestown, Nevis.
The mighty Brimstone Hill Fortress, built by the British using slave labor in the 17th and 18th centuries, is a UNESCO World Heritage site with well-preserved fortifications and extraordinary views from its commanding heights. For more unobstructed vistas, take a ride in one of the open-air train cars on the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, which circumnavigates the island. Caribelle Batik, a working garment factory on the grounds of the historic Romney Manor, offers the perfect Caribbean souvenirs, while The Strip on Frigate Bay is a moveable party, with locals and visitors alike going from one beach bar to the next for grilled seafood, rum drinks, live music, and dancing.
Europeans may have settled St. Kitts and Nevis, but it was the West African slaves who largely influenced the island’s cuisine. For a quintessential St. Kitts dish, try goat water, a stew made with “ground provisions” like papaya, yam, and other breadfruit, plus goat meat (bones and all) and dumplings. Also worth sampling are cook-up (a rice dish that typically contains chicken, pigtails, salt fish, vegetables, and pigeon peas), stewed salt fish (usually served with gingery spiced plantains, coconut dumplings, and seasoned breadfruit) and popular West Indian dishes like conch chowder, roti, and Johnny cakes. To drink, pair your meal with sorrel beer (actually non-alcoholic), Mawby (a tree bark-based beverage), a ubiquitous “Ting with a Sting” cocktail (grapefruit soda mixed with CSR rum), or some locally made Brinley Gold Shipwreck rum (available in coconut cream, lime, coffee, vanilla, and mango flavors).
While the people of St. Kitts are quite religious—evidenced in the island’s many houses of worship—they also enjoy a good “lime,” or party. In fact, Christmas and Carnival are equally festive here, and the stilt-walking “moko jumbies” at Kittitian street parties both ward off evil and entertain tourists. For a closer look at St. Kitts culture, head to the National Museum in Basseterre, which houses three galleries tracing the history of the island from its indigenous inhabitants to its independence in 1983. Also worth checking out is the St. Kitts Music Festival, which has evolved over the decades to become one of the Caribbean’s top stages for international soca, calypso, reggae, R&B, gospel, and more.
Beyond the simple pleasure of playing in the sand and wading in the calm, clear water, young visitors to St. Kitts can take a Zip line tour of the jungle, wave to the local kids who run alongside the St. Kitts Scenic Railway as it clanks through villages and old cane fields, and explore the ruins of the Wingfield Estate, a former sugar plantation once owned by Thomas Jefferson’s great-great-great grandfather. The estate is also the starting point for hiking trails and ATV tours of the surrounding rain forest.
It’s surprisingly easy to get lost on the trails in the rainforest—which covers more than a quarter of the island—so don’t try hiking without a guide. If you’re staying in a condo or villa and will be cooking some meals, head to the market in Basseterre by 6 a.m. on Saturday, when the produce is freshly stocked. And for the best chances of spotting one of St. Kitts’ famously playful Green Vervet monkeys, go to the Shipwreck Beach Bar on South Friar’s Bay on the southeast peninsula, where they regularly come to eat fruit and snacks.
The weather in St. Kitts is consistently warm, hovering in the high 70s and low 80s year-round. As in the entire Caribbean, the low season lasts from June through November, with most of the island’s annual rain falling in the late summer and early fall months. High season runs from mid-December to mid-April; the summer is the season for festivals, notably the St. Kitts Music Festival in June. Visas are not required for visits of up to 90 days for U.S., Canadian, Australian, and EU citizens. All flights land at Robert L. Bradshaw International Airport (SKB) in Basseterre. Licensing requirements and challenging roads make it complicated to rent a car in St. Kitts; most visitors get around by taxis, shuttles, tour buses, and— to reach the sister island of Nevis— ferries or water taxis. The language is English, although residents also speak Creole. Both the Eastern Caribbean (EC) dollar and U.S. dollar are universally accepted. Tipping 10–15 percent is appreciated if a service charge hasn’t already been added to your bill. Electricity is 230 volts.
A travel writer, Bob Curley was the Caribbean Travel editor for about.com (now TripSavvy.com) for more than a decade. His work has appeared in AFAR.com, Coastal Living, Business Traveller, Wedding Style, Four Seasons Magazine, and dozens of other publications. He also writes about the islands at caribbeanbob.net, and about his home state of Rhode Island at RITravel.org.