Tropical Escapes

The Old World Charm of Diving’s Newest Hot Spot
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By day two I was suffering from full-blown Caribbean intoxication. I found myself at sunset, standing atop the cannonaded buttress of the Fort Brimstone ruins. I could see the nearby island of Saba rising from the horizon as if perched at the edge of the earth to house the retreating sun. Behind me, the volcanic peak loomed over the "far side" of St. Kitts — the little-seen crater of Mount Liamuiga was wrapped in a shawl of color-shifting clouds. My girlfriend walked up, and together we watched the sun lose the battle with the moon. For a moment during the transition, there was only stillness. Then the sun was gone, and the first of the stars erupted from the deepening darkness.

Then it happened, almost suddenly, as the moon took over the evening — that electric tinge of romance and adventure. It swept through the dimly lit streets and filled the spaces between the trees on the volcanic hillsides, between the old sugar mills that pockmarked the landscape, between plantations, and all along the uninhabited coast where fallow sugar cane rustled with the quickening breeze. At that moment, I was hooked, drawn in by the Old World Caribbean charm that still lives and breathes here.

St. Kitts came out of left field for me. About a year ago, the government decided to abandon the sugar cane industry that had sustained this island's economy for more than two centuries, in favor of tourism. And with that, this unique, throwback Caribbean island appeared on the blue adventure radar. When it rose out of its past, the romance of rumor drew me in, and we set off to explore and rediscover this "hidden" gem.

The next morning, we made a mad sweep around the island then headed to PADI Dive Resort Pro Divers in the island's capital of Basseterre (where most of the dives are conveniently concentrated) to explore some of the hallmarks of this island getaway. Right off Basseterre there's a group of unusual and bountiful wrecks. At the top of the list is the River Taw, considered by dive-savvy travelers to be one of the Caribbean's best wrecks. It's in roughly 45 feet of water on a sandy bottom. In 1989, a hurricane broke the wreck in half, leaving the stern a few kicks from the severed bow. Even though it's only 144 feet long, this ex-inter-island cargo boat rippled with piles of schooling squirrelfish and yellowtail snapper, and was crowded with marine growth. Red hydroids gave the bow a furry countenance, and a massive pufferfish acted as if this were its private kingdom. Inside the wreck, large porcupine fish and golden chain, green and spotted eels made the shadows their exclusive realm. The eye shine of lobsters gave away their hideouts, and when I explored around the wreck, I scared up several southern stingrays from the sand. Just before I ascended, an octopus seemingly decided to take me on an impromptu tour over the folds of the deck.

As a second dive, we explored the nearby upright 72-foot tugboat, the Corinthian. Even though it was only sunk in 1995, this cool little wreck was covered with a forest of black coral trees, and it popped with vivid color under the illumination of an underwater light. They reminded us before we got in the water to make sure we had plenty of strobe power on our cameras and space in our media cards because they feed the fish here. It was great advice in general, but especially so on this dive. When the buffet was served, the wreck exploded with parrotfish, plump grouper, snapper and just about any other fish that can muscle its way in for a bite. With the wreck as a backdrop, it was a thrilling experience. But we were in for a special treat near the Corinthian. A short distance from the old tug, we followed the chain (which harbors many stonefish) past a field of garden eels and came upon an old van. Inside the van were an old barracuda and a small aggregation of bigeyes, which apparently had come to some kind of predator-prey truce. The old van sitting upright on the sand had evolved into a miniature undersea community.

Over the next couple of days, we poked around several nearby reefs. With so few divers coming to St. Kitts in recent years, the reefs had remained healthy and lush. Our favorite were the sites that comprise Monkey Shoals (especially for that name), which harbored heaps of marine life, from sleepy nurse sharks and sea turtles to a secret parade of macro critters.

Back above the water, between dives, there were tons of places to discover. Besides the UNESCO World Heritage Site Fort Brimstone (the Caribbean's largest intact fort), there was a lush rainforest filled with playful vervet monkeys, which were introduced to the island by passing sailors. We spent a day with Greg's Safaris exploring the Valley of the Giants, which took us deep into St. Kitts fascinating rainforest. We also found old sugar mills, romantic plantation homes and petroglyphs carved into rocks — all remnants of St. Kitts' interesting past. In a sleepy village called Middle Island, we met an elderly woman who took us on a tour of the first Anglican church established in the Caribbean (by Sir Thomas Warner). There was a covered and cracked marble gravestone from 1648, marking Warner's gravesite, but the woman was keen to show us her husband's grave — right next to Warner's. She spent 30 minutes telling us wonderful stories of their time together, which greatly illuminated St. Kitts' past. We went on to visit the batik factory at Romney Manor. This art form has found a unique expression on St. Kitts, making it hard to leave without bringing a piece or two home. Before returning home, we took the time to stroll around Basseterre, French for "lowland." Its central "circus," with a four-sided clock as the centerpiece, was like London's Picadilly Circus, a gathering, passing and meeting place for locals and travelers alike. We sampled milk straight from the coconut here, and the friendly locals with their love of sharing stories made us feel at home on their island. The architecture was a mix of old West Indian colonial and Creole that hearkens back to the 17th century. Yet even with the long and heady history, the unique natural and cultural heritage of St. Kitts remains relatively hidden behind the veil of the sugar-based economy. Well, the secret's out. Let the seduction begin.

Published: 23 Nov 2007 | Last Updated: 1 Apr 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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