Nurturing Conservation Naturally in the Twin Isles

Article excerpt

Climbing the windy road to Brimstone Hill Fortress on St. Kitts, the taxi driver sounded his horn long before he reached the bend. There's no seeing around the turns, and it's one way up and down, so announcing your arrival is imperative. Ascending the 800-foot hill was no mean feat even by car, and one could begin to understand how, nearly 300 years ago, vastly undermanned British troops holed up in the massive fort and held off a French onslaught for weeks. But not until getting out and roaming the nearly 40-acre grounds, looking clear out into the Caribbean at no less than five other islands, does one truly appreciate such a violent masterpiece.

Tiny volcanic flecks floating in the eastern curl of the Caribbean, St. Kitts and Nevis are separated by a channel two miles wide. These sister islands were once bitter objects of turmoil between the eighteenth-century French and British expansionist empires. Their copious sugar crop and strategic location along West Indian trade routes made them key pawns in colonization campaigns.

Given their historical importance, it is ironic to saddle the siblings with so many "un-" adjectives: unspoiled, undiscovered, undeveloped. But it is also appropriate: Tiny Nevis receives no direct flights, and its smudge of an airstrip is equipped to handle only small charter planes. Wild monkeys are more common than people in certain spots, and nightlife is sparse enough on both islands to make youthful natives dream of places like New York, Boston, and Washington.

The islands are in many ways the antithesis of their Caribbean neighbors. A relatively high standard of living--coupled with a coordinated effort between far-sighted local governments, savvy hoteliers, and a conscientious population--permits St. Kitts and Nevis the flexibility to carve their own niche in the tourism market without sacrificing their natural resources.

Ecotourism is in exemplary form here. The islands' volcanic origins, tropical climate, and historical significance bequeathed a legacy of rain forests, exotic wildlife, and stately industrial remains. These are marketable traits which, along with a location that's out of the way, are appealing to growing

numbers of discerning travelers who are willing to spend money for an experience that is unique.

One reason the two islands have not fallen prey to overdevelopment is that they have harbored, over the years, a number of expatriates from England, the U.S., and other western countries. The foreigners often took vacations to the islands before settling down for good--Nevis has been accommodating wealthy Europeans since the Bath Hotel and Spring House were constructed in 1778. The more they came, the more the visitors appreciated the natural beauty and sought to preserve it. Some purchased aging sugar plantation estates and converted them into small inns. Others opened businesses and became involved in local historical and renovation projects. The islands remained under British rule until 1983 when they gained independence. Still today the islanders maintain much of their colonial heritage and express an affection for the mother country. Queen Elizabeth Il was a visitor last October and her portrait continues to grace island banknotes.

David Rollinson, a Robinson Crusoe type originally from Nottingham, discovered Nevis five years ago and moved on permanently in 1990 with his wife Nancy. In the short time since his arrival, Rollinson has had a marked impact on the islands' environmental movement. He runs the Nevis Academy which, along with his other outfit called Eco-Tours Nevis, offers "learning vacations" that range from two-hour hikes through sugar plantations and Amerindian sites, to week-long vacation packages for nature lovers, photographers, and painters. Rollinson works with travel agents, individuals, and specialized groups to offer ecology-based vacations, including accommodations, meals, the services of an instructor and/or a guide, and even a list of suggested reading. …