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St. Kitts Overview
In 1493, Christopher Columbus was so smitten with this volcanic island that he named it after himself. Since its discovery, St. Christopher (later shortened by British sailors to St. Kitts) has been fought over by the Spanish, British and French who, tragically, made it a center of the West Indian slave trade. Pirates, including the notorious William Kidd, enjoyed lucrative careers in Basseterre Harbor.
St. Kitts and sister isle Nevis were part of the British Empire until 1967, earning semi-independent status when they were named associated states of Great Britain. In 1983, the 65-square-mile St. Kitts and Nevis became an independent, two-island nation with a parliamentary government headed by a prime minister. While British holdovers such as cricket and driving on the left side of the road remain, the Kittitians are extremely proud of their history and how far they've come on their own.
The island's lush geography lends itself to eco-tourism, starting with the dense tropical rainforests that surround dormant volcano Mount Liamuiga (known locally as Mt. Misery). Colorful birds and butterflies, as well as the green vervet monkey, reside here.
Sugar cane, the staple of the economy since the 17th century, was St. Kitts' main export until production stopped just a few years ago. However, wild sugar cane fields remain, particularly in the west, and offer a scenic ambience that is more reminiscent of Hawaii than the Caribbean these days. While tourists have discovered St. Kitts (evidenced by the row of rowdy beach bars on South Frigate Bay, known as "The Strip"), the island is still relatively unspoiled and crowd-free, with a relaxed, authentic atmosphere.
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Other Eastern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Antigua • Castaway Cay • CocoCay • Freeport • Grand Turk • Great Stirrup Cay • Half Moon Cay • Jost Van Dyke • Key West • La Romana (Casa de Campo) • Labadee • Nassau • Nevis • Princess Cays • Samana and Cayo Levantado • San Juan • Santo Domingo • St. Croix • St. John (U.S.V.I.) • St. Kitts • St. Maarten • St. Martin • St. Thomas • Tortola • Virgin Gorda
Cane Spirit Rothschild, a specialty rum named for the French baron, is made from cane juice instead of molasses. The best way to sample is by trying "Ting with a Sting," a drink that combines CSR with Ting, a grapefruit-flavored soda. Try it at Mr. X's Shiggedy Shack on the South Frigate Bay strip, but be warned: It can be potent.
Anything made of batik cloth is a great souvenir. You can watch artisans create the brightly colored fabrics using hot wax and colorful dye at Caribelle Batik, located at Romney Manor (869-465-6253). Pick up a swimsuit cover-up from about $30, or a wall hanging from $40.
English is the official language, spoken with a distinct accent and West Indian idioms.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The official currency is the East Caribbean Dollar. (Check www.xe.com for current exchange rates.) However, the U.S. dollar is commonly accepted. The most convenient bank with an ATM is St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla National Bank on Central Street in Basseterre.
Where You're Docked
Located just outside St. Kitts' capital of Basseterre, Port Zante opened in 2005 to accommodate the big cruise ships. (Cunard's Queen Mary 2 calls there, and tourism officials say the port can handle super-sized ships, such as Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas.) Downtown Basseterre is a five-minute stroll from the port.
The Port Zante shopping complex offers the usual mix of souvenir shops and jewelry stores, including branches of Diamonds International and Colombian Emeralds. Scoop's sells homemade ice cream and Sol E Mar offers T-shirts, watches and flip flops, but most cruisers visit the shop for the free Wi-Fi.
Established by French explorers in the early 17th century, Basseterre still has a few surviving 18th-century buildings, mainly colonial homes that have survived decades of hurricanes, fires and earthquakes. Mix those with painted wooden and plain block storefronts, and you get a hodgepodge of architectural styles that can't really be called "picturesque." Still, the town is worth exploring. The hub is the Circus, a square styled after London's Piccadilly Circus, with a clock tower in the center. (Be careful of the cars and crowds when crossing.) St. George's Anglican Church has a stormy history, as it was destroyed and rebuilt three times in three centuries. Independence Square, encircled by stately Georgian manors, was once known as Pall Mall and was home to Basseterre's infamous slave market.
Take some time to visit Basseterre's art galleries, boutiques and craft shops. At Spencer Cameron Art Gallery (869-664-4157) in North Independence Square, you can browse prints, watercolors and other artwork by Caribbean artists, as well as reproduction Caribbean charts and maps. Locally-made items for sale at the Craft House (869-465-7754) on Bay Road include soft dolls dressed in vivid island clothing, leather wallets, flip flops, purses, cellphone pouches and earrings.
By Taxi: The best way to explore St. Kitts is to take one of the island's widely available taxis; just agree on the price up-front since there are no meters. Minivan-style buses also circle the island all day.
By Rental Car: If you're planning to rent a car, a visitor's driver's license costs about $63 EC (roughly $24 U.S.) and can be obtained at police stations and car-rental agencies. Although St. Kitts' roads are wider and easier to drive than those on many Caribbean islands, it's best to go slow. Children walk to school via the roads, and people often stop their cars to talk. Goats, sheep, donkeys and cows have the right of way.
Watch Out For
Watch your step at Brimstone Hill. The fort, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, has few railings, and the uneven pavement could easily lead to a sprained ankle.
Bloody Point: Bloody Point is the haunting site where French and British troops massacred more than 2,000 Caribs in 1626. The view of Mount Liamuiga is spectacular.
Brimstone Hill Fortress: Brimstone Hill Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a 38-acre complex of bastions and barracks built by the British and one of the best examples of a 17th- and 18th-century military fortification in the Caribbean. On a clear day, the view includes six islands: Nevis, Montserrat, Saba, St. Barth's, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten. Kids love to cross the dry moat, admire the six-foot thick walls, explore the parade grounds and walk trails in search of the island's green vervet monkeys.
Beach Bars: Relax at one of the island's clusters of beach bars, either on "The Strip" on South Frigate Bay or on Cockleshell Bay and Banana Bay beaches on the island's southeastern peninsula. At the latter, children will love Wilbur, a 700-pound pig who resides at the Reggae Beach Bar.
Basseterre's Marketplace: Basseterre's Marketplace on Saturday morning is the place for people-watching, as well as for buying flowers, mangos, guavas, apples and wild cherries. Get there early; vendors start clearing out around 9 a.m.
Carib Petroglyphs: North of Basseterre near the entrance to Wingfield Manor Estate are Carib petroglyphs. Etched on huge, black rocks, they offer a glimpse into the lives of the people who originally discovered the island.
Black Rocks: At Black Rocks, along the northeast shore, the surf has sculpted huge lava deposits into unusual shapes. It's a great spot for taking photographs.
Been There, Done That
Greg's Safaris: Explore the rainforest on a guided hike. Greg's Safaris combines a Land Rover drive along St. Kitts' west coast with a two-hour trek through a rainforest mountain valley. (869-465-4121)
Sky Safari Tours: Glide through the treetops on a Sky Safari Tours zip-line adventure located on Wingfield Estate. (869-466-4259)
Romney Manor: Stroll the grounds at Romney Manor, once owned by Thomas Jefferson's grandfather. Today, the botanical garden houses also houses Caribelle Batik, the island's preeminent producer of handmade batik clothing. (Old Road, Basseterre; 869-465-6253)
Dive Sites: Among St. Kitts' rewarding dive sites is Booby Shoals, known for its tropical fish, stingrays and Hawksbill turtles. Experienced scuba enthusiasts who can handle strong currents should head to Nag's Head, where they can swim with eagle rays, lobsters and reef sharks. Pro-Divers arranges scuba and snorkeling expeditions. (Fisherman's Wharf; 869-660-3483)
Nevis: Take a ferry to less-traveled Nevis, rimmed by coral reefs and miles of white-sand beach. Six vessels operate the route, which takes about 45 minutes. One-way fares cost about $8 for adults and $4 for children under 12. (Schedules change by ferry but service generally runs daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Best for a Half-Day Visit: There are half a dozen white-sand beaches along the island's narrow southeastern peninsula. One of the best areas is the two-mile stretch between Cockleshell Bay and Banana Bay, where you can swim, snorkel or down Carib beers and rum punch at Lion's Beach Bar.
Best for the Dedicated Beach Bum: Lacking restaurants, Sandy Bank Bay combines calm surf with relative privacy.
Best for Active Types: South Frigate Bay is popular for swimming, windsurfing and water-skiing. Further south, Turtle Bay is another popular beach for windsurfing. With a sunken tugboat attracting schools of fish, White House Bay is great for snorkeling, and Conaree Bay is popular for body-surfing.
St. Kitts has a wide variety of restaurants, ranging from restored plantation houses to casual beach hideouts. Here are some of the most memorable tables.
Glimbara Diner: In Basseterre, the Glimbara Diner in the Glimbara Guest House is a locals' favorite; menus feature Creole cuisine that varies with the mood and inspiration of the cook. You might find stewed goat, pumpkin soup and fresh fish. Burgers are also on the menu. (Cayon Street; 869-465-1786; open daily 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
El Fredo's: Another locals' favorite in Basseterre, El Fredo's dishes up conch, red snapper and shrimp along with plantains, cornmeal fritters and other island sides. (Newtown Bay Road; 869-466-8871; open Monday to Thursday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Spice Mill Restaurant: Enjoy a view of Nevis at the Spice Mill Restaurant on Cockleshell Beach, which serves up grilled mahi mahi, pizza and thick burgers alongside with Caribbean libations like pina coladas and Carib beer. The restaurant has a separate beach bar, as well as lounge chairs and daybeds. Although typically closed on Thursdays, the restaurant will often open for lunch on Thursdays when cruise ships are in port. (869-465-6455; open noon to 9:30 p.m.)
Royal Palm Restaurant: Specializing in contemporary Caribbean cuisine and situated on a hillside in the ruins of a former plantation's sugar factory, Royal Palm Restaurant at Ottley's Plantation Inn serves some of the island's best food. (Ottley's Village; 869-465-7234; open Monday to Saturday for lunch from noon to 3:30 p.m., dinner daily from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
Staying in Touch
Sol E Mar: Port Zante's Sol E Mar is a T-shirt, beachwear and sundries shops that offers free Wi-Fi. You can't miss the place. Look for the flock of fellow passengers leaning against the building, looking at their cellphones.
Sun Surf Internet Cafe: Located at the TDC Mall on Fort Street in Basseterre, just north of the Circus, this place offers high-speed Internet access, as does nearby Dot Com Cafe.
Best for Snorkeling: "Sail & Snorkel" excursions will take you via catamaran cruise to Shittens Bay. After the scenic sail, you can swim about the secluded cove, viewing the beautiful fish and coral. Relax on the return sail with a cool soda, beer or rum punch.
Best Island Tour: A trip on the St. Kitts Scenic Railway is a good way to get to know the island quickly. The double-decker railcars follow the old sugar-cane train tracks, offering views of the Caribbean Sea and mountains.
Best Boat and Beach Excursion: A catamaran trip to St. Kitts' nearby neighbor, towering Nevis, includes a snorkeling stop and lunch and free time at a private Nevis beach.
Best for History-Lovers: A typical highlights coach tour combines visits to Brimstone Hill and Romney Manor along with scenic drives. You can explore the ruins of Brimstone Hill, a 38-acre fortress that's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At Romney Manor, 10 miles west of Basseterre, stroll through five acres of botanical gardens, view a 250-year-old saman tree and do some shopping at the headquarters of local clothing manufacturer Caribelle Batik.
For More Information
On the Web: St. Kitts Tourism Authority
Cruise Critic Message Boards: St. Kitts & Nevis
IndependentTraveler.com: Caribbean Travel Guide
--Updated by Candyce H. Stapen, Cruise Critic contributor