The Empty; Nevis Is the Most Discreet - and Romantic - of the Caribbean Islands. Max Davidson Took to the Beach

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SHOULD your idea of Caribbean heaven involve bumping into your nextdoor neighbour from Britain while skimming the waves on an inflatable banana, give Nevis a miss.

The only bananas here grow on trees and, if you think you have seen your next- door neighbour, it is the rum punch talking. Nevis does get British visitors - but in dribbles, not droves.

Princess Diana once hid from the paparazzi here, and the island would still suit a camera-shy celebrity. Nevis is somewhere to get away from it all, not a magnet for the in-crowd. A romantic hideaway, and a beautiful one at that.

The island covers only 35 square miles and, to reach it, you need to catch a connecting flight from Antigua. But it is scenically striking, with a wooded mountain soaring into the clouds.

When Columbus first saw Mount Nevis, he thought it must have snow on top; and it is the Spanish word for snow, las nievas, which gives the island its name. But you will not see blizzards here, just the occasional tropical downpour greening the landscape.

Although Nevis does have the odd beach resort, some of the most attractive places to stay are the so-called Inns of Nevis - colonial-era properties in the interior of the island.

I stayed at the Montpelier Plantation Inn, an enclave of OldWorld civility.

It was here that the young Horatio Nelson married Fanny Nisbet, niece of the owner of the property, while on a tour of duty in the Caribbean. You can still catch echoes of that era in the ruined sugar mill beside the swimming pool.

If I was not transported back to the 18th century, I certainly got a flavour of the Caribbean holiday circa 1950, when the region was the playground of wealthy English eccentrics such as Noel Coward and Ian Fleming.

An old man in a white dressing-gown padded through the grounds, admiring the hibiscuses and listening to the trill of birds. A woman of a certain age read Nancy Mitford in a deckchair.

Beautifully mannered waiters dispensed perfectly mixed cocktails.

The ambience was not stuffy - quite

the opposite. Staff called guests by their Christian names. Golden Labradors drank unrebuked from the swimming-pool. A bird helped itself to my breakfast paw-paw. But it was definitely a throwback to an earlier, more gracious age.

After cocktails, when the talk was of rugby, the weather and John Prescott, we dined on the terrace, with the lights twinkling in the harbour below. The only sound was the wind rustling the palm trees and the contented chomp- ing of roast sea bass. Paradise, indeed.

The rest of the island was an odd blend of old and new. The western half has modern facilities and a fast road linking Charlestown and the airport.

The eastern half is tiger country. Some of the potholes are so big you could hold a party in them.

Nevisians' laid-back way of life is underpinned by civic pride. The village named Cleanest Village in Nevis 2002 had a billboard announcing the fact. …