St Kitts Is the Sweetest Thing! Sugar Plantations, Cheeky Monkeys and Empty Beaches - This Caribbean Island Is a Real Treat

Article excerpt

Byline: BY JUDITH BAKER

THE station where I catch the train is called Needs Must. It's the Caribbean's only narrow gauge railway, which rides around the paddle-shaped island of St Kitts and looks like something from Toytown.

The green, yellow and red train chuffs past old sugar plantations and disused mills, while a group of a cappella singers enters the carriage to belt out the Kittitian national anthem. Let's just say that it's much sweeter than my usual morning commute.

The train hugs the coastline, retracing the journey it would have taken in the early 20th Century when it transported sugar from the plantations to the port.

Little St Christopher, or St Kitts, was the first Caribbean island to be spotted by Columbus, and he gave it the name of his patron saint and namesake. He showed a little more imagination when he named its sister island Nevis because he thought the clouds surrounding its peak looked like snow. Its original name was Nuestra Senora de las Nieves (Our Lady Of The Snows).

As one of the earliest British colonies, St Kitts & Nevis created a model for the lucrative plantation system based on sugar and slavery.

But life wasn't all sweetness and light on St Kitts. Indeed, the Irish were among those to find life the hardest on the Caribbean island.

They arrived in their droves on St Kitts and Nevis in the 1600s. Desperate to escape the murderous reign of Oliver Cromwell - whose preference was to cull society's most vulnerable rather than risk them straining the public purse - thousands of Catholics fled to the Americas.

For many without independent means to finance their emigration, leaving meant cutting a deal: They signed up as indentured labourers for a period of several years in exchange for the crossing fare.

In this way, an Irish community arrived on St Kitts and Nevis to work in rum, arrowroot and Sea Island cotton production.

In the St Kitts capital, Basseterre, I pass the iron grilles of cells in the basements of Georgian buildings where slaves were kept while waiting to be sold at market in Independence Square. The vast Brimstone Hill Fortress, which defended the island and is considered to be a masterpiece of British engineering, was built by African slave labour around 1690.

Although it was named by the French (Basseterre meaning 'lower ground'), the capital's main square was formerly given a London name - Pall Mall - while the area around the central clock tower is called Piccadilly Circus.

LOCALS tell me: 'If you come here Friday, you can hardly walk it's so busy.' This is difficult to believe on a quiet Wednesday when the main diversion is a group of prisoners waving and grinning outside the town jail, all looking surprisingly happy and relaxed. St Kitts has a pleasing ramshackle appearance and lacks the sophistication of other Caribbean haunts - but it shares their climate and pretty beaches, while magical rainforests make it a sought-after option. …