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Sweet, Sweet Paradise

Sweet, Sweet Paradise

"Morning, morning, morning." It seems everyone says that with a smile on the lush, friendly Caribbean island of St. Kitts. And why shouldn't they? For they're living and working in paradise. St. Kitts, whose air is palpably luxuriant, seems more like an island in the South Pacific. It's uncrowded, unspoiled, relaxed. A place where you can escape the pressures of daily life.

Carib Indians called the island Liamuiga, meaning fertile land. When Christopher Columbus landed there in 1493, he named if after himself and his patron saint — St. Christopher. Sir Thomas Warner, landing there 130 years later, shortened the name to St. Kitts and made the island a strategic base for British expansion in the Caribbean.

The first crop grown on St. Kitts was tobacco. Dutch refugees fleeing Brazil in 1648 after the Portuguese takeover brought sugarcane to the island. They brought in African slaves to work their plantations. And by 1776, St. Kitts had become the richest colony in the British Empire. At that time, a ton of sugar sold for $3,000 in the U.S., and the island's 68 sugar estates, as the plantations became known, supplied much of it in the form of raw sugar, molasses and rum. Today, St. Kitts is the only island in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean to still grow sugarcane.

But the island's sugar estates fell into disrepair as the industry declined in the late 19th century. With the establishment of the Basseterre Sugar Factory in 1912 and the completion of the sugar cane railway in 1926, the estates became obsolete and derelict. Abandoned stone mills and chimneys dot the landscape, but some have been lovingly converted into idyllic plantation inns.

St. Kitts may be small, but when it comes to things to do, the choices are infinite. Hiking through the islands' lush rainforests, filled with wild tropical fruits and breadfruit as well as green velvet monkeys, is a great way to get in touch with the island's natural side. Or you might take time for a round of golf on the Royal St. Kitts course against a backdrop of vivid green mountains.

If you're more adventurous, you may want to undertake a self-drive tour of the island starting in Basseterre, St. Kitts' capital, where mellow Georgian houses and British street names attest to the island's long association with England. The black and white treasury building, located on the wharf in the center of town, is an architectural curiosity. It serves as a focal point for the harbor activity and the handful of shops and restaurants, in what otherwise is a sleepy West Indian port.

Remember, cars drive on the left as in England. By heading west, your tour takes you past Bloody Point where the British and French killed off the local Carib Indians. Further on, you'll come to Romney Manor, a restored old manor house, originally built by William Jefferson, brother of Thomas Jefferson. The manor, built in the traditional chattel-house style, is now home to Caribelle Batik, where you can watch the waxing, coloring and printing process and buy the product in the forms of sports clothing and decorative items. Just as pleasing is the setting of this 350-year-old house, with its sloping lawns, old slave bell tower and lush gardens, shaded by flamboyant and cedar trees.

The cannons at the foreboding Brismstone Hill Fort further on now stand silent. The only sounds are gulls and the whistle of the wind. But in the late 17th and 18th centuries, they starred in ferocious battles between the English and the French. On the summit stands the Citadel. Once called the Gibraltar of the Caribbean, it took the British nearly a century to build and was captured by the French for a year. The British retrieved it in 1783 mid maintained their colonial presence on the island for nearly two more centuries. A hurricane in 1834 severely damaged it, and it was finally evacuated and dismantled 20 years later. But today, it has been wonderfully reconstructed, right down to its remounted guns. You can wander through the complex, visit several excellent museum rooms and enjoy a sweeping panorama of islands — Nevis, Montserrat, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Barts and St. Maarten — scattered along the horizon.

On the southern part of the island the landscape changes from tropical farmlands and plantations to highlands and steep cliffs, dropping down to bays fringed with lovely beaches.

For a spectacular view, volcanic Black Rocks can't be beat, while heading south towards the Salt Ponds, on the Southwest Peninsula, home to a variety of wildlife, including monkeys, deer, and sea turtles. The surf pounds on the Atlantic side, while the waters are calmer on the Caribbean side.

Your tour finishes on Turtle Beach with a rum punch at the beach bar while listening to the soft island rhythms of a steel drum band as the warm tropical breeze carries the sound out to sea before heading back to one of St. Kitts' luxurious top-end hotels.