by Karen Rubin
We are huffing and puffing our way through the dense rainforest up a 2 1/2 mile trail
St. Kitts, barely 68 square miles in all, has been at the crossroads of human settlement for centuries – Liamuiga, meaning “fertile island” was the name the Carib people gave the island around 1300 AD, and San Christobal was the name that Christopher Columbus gave it when he sighted it in 1493 on his second journey and St. Kitts was the first colony in the Caribbean for both the British and French. But the island nation is relatively new to the Caribbean tourism pantheon, and that makes visiting here all the more exciting.
“Authentic” is how you describe St. Kitts. “Unspoiled” is another descriptor. “Like the Caribbean used to be, before high rises and Starbucks.” “Simply marvelous” is yet another.
This means you feel like you are “off-the-beaten path,” complimenting yourself on your incredible brilliance at discovering a new, jewel of a destination, even when you are in the lap of luxury at the St. Kitts Marriott Resort & The Royal Beach Casino – a stunning resort that hugs the beach and offers the best of everything: championship golf, world-class spa, the largest Vegas-style casino in the Caribbean, a selection of fine dining restaurants, white sand beach, children’s and family programs, all served up in a comfortable, casual, unpretentious atmosphere.
While it is tempting to stay within the St. Kitts Marriott Resort resort – there is certainly enough to do – you will want to venture out and explore St Kitts, which has a fascinating history and plenty to show for it. (The St. Kitts Marriott’s concierge desk has a thick catalog of tours and attractions to visit. The best idea is to hire a car and driver and take you around for a day.)
During our all-too brief stay, we have the opportunity to sample some of St Kitts’ highlights:
Hike to Mount Liamuiga
Oneil Mulraine, a popular guide who has led hikes up Mount Liamuiga for more than 30 years, picks us up at the St Kitts Marriott for the 45-minute (or so) drive to the trailhead.
The ride itself is a wonderful opportunity to appreciate this tiny, young, island nation, and Oneil is happy to point out historic sights and interesting attractions along the way.
St Kitts is a small island – just 21 miles long, five miles wide in the middle, a total of 68 square miles. There is just one main road that rings the island (you drive on the left here) and no traffic lights. The road hugs the shore and goes through small villages.
A new section of highway is named for Kim Collins, a track and field sprinter, who in 2003 became the World Champion in the 100 meter dash, and was a four-time Olympian, from1996-2008, and the country’s first athlete ever to reach an event final.
Oneil offers commentary about the island and its history, its flora and fauna, as we drive.
St. Kitts is a young country – it achieved independence in 1983. Since the 1700s, its economy was based on sugar cane, but the government, which nationalized the sugar cane industry in 1974, decided to shut down sugar production and shift the country’s economic focus to tourism Consequently, St Kitts is relatively new in the pantheon of Caribbean vacation destinations.
And that is St Kitts’ great appeal: it is authentic, unspoiled, unpretentious, unglitsy.
It’s a real place, with a real community – in fact, the country is so small – with a population of about 50,000 people – it seems that most know each other. People are very welcoming and friendly.
Oneil points out the St. Kitts Sugar Factory and Compound, no longer used for processing sugar, that has become a heritage site.
We turn off the road leading to the Mt Liamuiga Hiking Trail. Oneil says that the access has been changed because of the land that was sold for a new golf course; a new trail was built to connect with the old trail, but it adds 20 minutes to the hike. We go up a primitive road, passing small fields.
At the top, we can see two Dutch islands, Saba and St. Eustasis very close by.
Oneil hands us each a walking stick – which becomes our major friend during the hike.
The hike is billed as strenuous, and for once, the label is accurate: it is a strenuous hike, physically and mentally challenging. You are hiking up for about 2 1/2 miles to get to the top of the volcano for a view down into the caldera (not hot, but you may smell sulphur). The trail has eroded over the years, making it more difficult.
The second quarter section is relatively easy – but the second half is a series of 3 hills – one tougher than the next.
Oneil, who seems he could fly up this mountain (he can do it in less than 2 hours – it takes us 4), is wonderfully motivating and encouraging, telling us “Just three minutes more to where we rest,” “Just 12 minutes more to the end of Hill 1” (“Three minutes until the end of Hill1, then we start Hill2.”) and so forth.
When things get tough, he tells us “Focus on the trail.”
Oneil is wonderful about pointing out the trees and flowers of the rainforest – which serves a dual purpose, in letting us rest and catch a breath as we climb.
A palm tree is like people – it has one life; if the top is cut off, it dies, he tells us. The same with a banana tree: once the bananas are taken off, the tree dies.
When one of our group has too much trouble and is holding us all back – meaning that we won’t be able to make it to the top before we have to turn back – Oneil is as encouraging as he can be, but finally finds a place where she can sit and wait for us to make it to the top and return. He is clear about her staying put and not moving on her own.
Even though there is just one trail up and the same trail back, it can get confusing – there are some false openings – and the trail is not marked at all.
We continue on the second half of the hike, where it gets even more strenuous, each hill a little harder and steeper than the next, until we are scrambling over rocks, using the tree roots for hand holds and footholds.
Finally, the trail goes to a narrow perch at the top of Mount Liamuiga, from which we can peer down into the caldera. People used to be able to hike down into it, but an avalanche some years ago made that too risky.
There is mist, so we don’t get the full impact of the view. It begins to drizzle a bit, and I get worried about how difficult the hike back down will be if the trail becomes muddy.
But this isn’t the end – Oneil leads us to the other side where you have to climb up steep rocks to a narrow peak; those who make that climb are rewarded with 360-degree views to the ocean.
We make our way back down – I have devised my own technique of sliding or turning around and climbing down like a ladder – anything that works is my motto – and I bless my walking stick which has become my companion.
We reach the half-way mark where our companion should have been. She isn’t there. We have to assume she started back on her own (cell phones don’t work here).
Sure enough, close to the very end of the trail, we find her. She says that she and a monkey had a staring contest for about 40 minutes; she also saw hummingbirds and butterflies.
The hike is strenuous, physical, demanding, challenging, a true adventure – not those namby pamby things which call themselves adventure but then turn out to be a walk in the park. The trail is not marked and even though there is really only one, certain spots can be deceptive and lead you a wrong way. Also, you never know where you are or how far you have to go, and you might not even realize when you came to the end. I would not recommend you do it on your own (you need transportation anyway).
Kids, probably 10 or 12 and up, who are adventurous (and have hiked before) could do it, but there are big stretches for anyone under 5 feet. They have to be prepared to hike for about 4 hours (2 hours each way), and not have any way back if they bail.
I wouldn’t suggest doing the hike without a guide.
Bring hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, a windbreaker, water (at least 2 bottles), snacks, a walking stick, and wear hiking shoes or sneakers, and probably light pants or capris instead of shorts that you don’t mind getting dirty. (Surprisingly, there were no insects to worry about).
(You can book the hike from the St Kitts Marriott tour desk, about $90 and well worth it. There are several guides that lead the volcano hike; ask for Oneil Mulraine.)
On our second morning, we are bound for ziplining, but stop first at a promontory very close to the St Kitts Marriott where you can see a spit of the island where the Atlantic Ocean is on the left side and the Caribbean Sea on the right – one side rolling, the other side calm.
We spot a monkey. Originally brought to the island to get rid of snakes. the monkeys did that just fine, but have propagated to the point where they outnumber the people. They are as common to see as squirrels (though apparently, they pick and choose when they want to be seen, and if you have food or reach for a mango, it is a race to see who will get there first.) One skips across the road, climbs the hill, perches on the fence, runs down the other side, across the street.
We arrive at Sky Safari – a new zipline attraction, located on what was the Wingfield Estate, set in the picturesque foot hills of the central mountain range.
It is very well organized – we are outfitted in harnesses and helmets. The ziplines are ideal for beginners – you don’t need to use your hand as a brake – you stop automatically by hitting a spring at the bottom, like a rubber band.
We get to try it out on a small practice zipline at the base, before we pile into a jeep and drive up a really steep, curvy dirt road up to the highest zipline.
We have a guide who goes down first and another guide who launches us.
We “fly” above the rainforest, over a river and an aquifer, reaching speeds up to 60 mph. There are four ziplines, each one shorter and faster than the previous one.
The first zipline, “The Boss,” is 250 feet above the valley floor and 300 feet above sea level is the steepest of the ziplines, and takes about 30 seconds to travel the quarter mile. The second is called Mango Tango, 1000 feet long, 200 feet above sea level. The third goes over the River of Giants, the longest river on the island. The last zip, Brimstone Blast, is 900 feet long, 150 feet above the valley, and the fastest of the ziplines; there are two lines, so we go two-by-two and have a mock “race” to the bottom.
The Sky Safari is located on what was Wingfield Estate, above Old Road Town, the first English settlement in the Caribbean, and we get to see the remnants of a centuries old sugar processing plant, which is an archaeological site. The tall chimney and buildings are mostly intact still. You can see a newly discovered 17th century rum distillery, a steam engine, the aqueduct for a water wheel.
After sugar was introduced in the 1640’s, Wingfield developed into a major sugar plantation and one of the very few on the island to use water to power its factory works. The aqueduct is a unique architectural feature on the island and found only at Wingfield Estate Yard.
The story of Wingfield Estate continues as we go, literally next door, to Romney Manor.
Next: St Kitts’ fascinating heritage
Contact St. Kitts Marriott Resort & The Royal Beach Casino, 858 Frigate Bay Road, Frigate Bay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, 800-228-9290, 869-466.1200, fax 869-466-1201 or visit www.stkittsmarriott.com.
For more information about St. Kitts contact the St. Kitts Tourism Authority toll free from the US at 1-800-582-6208 or from Canada 1-888-395-4887, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, visit www.stkittstourism.kn, or connect on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
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