In 1493, Christopher Columbus was allegedly so smitten with this volcanic island that he named it after St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. Since its discovery, St. Christopher (later shortened by British sailors to St. Kitts) has been fought over by the British and French who, tragically, made it a center of the West Indian slave trade. Pirates, including the notorious William Kidd who was marooned on Nevis after his crew mutinied, 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 68-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. 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 lively beach bars on South Frigate Bay, known as "The Strip"), the island is still relatively unspoiled and crowd-free, with a relaxed, authentic atmosphere.
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 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 Rum Barrel 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 circular roundabout 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.
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.
By Taxi: The best way to explore St. Kitts is to take one of the island's widely available taxis; there are set fares for various destinations around the island. 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.
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.
English is the official language, spoken with a distinct accent and West Indian idioms.
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.
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. (869-765-6706; 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.)
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.
Cane Spirit Ritchmont 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 Shiggidy Shack on the South Frigate Bay strip, but be warned: It can be potent.