Sweet surrender St. Kitts: The isle of mangoes and sugar cane greets visitors with a warm, gritty charm and a calypso serenade.

December 06, 1998|By John Muncie | John Muncie,Sun Staff

Halfway up Monkey Hill it's raining mangoes. Chartreuse ones, yellow ones, some a delicate apricot-orange. The roadsides are awash in mangoes.

"Go on, try one," says Marilyn Savery, my guide for the day. "They're great."

On cue, something crashes through the jungle canopy and thuds to the blacktop a few yards behind us. A mango. The color of a lime.

A couple of others by my feet look riper and less smushed. I pick one up. It's roughly the size of a goose egg. I've eaten a mango before, but never one that just dropped from a tree.

I hold the mango by the ends like a fat little cob of corn and take a bite. Wild, rich, sweet. If the Caribbean island of St. Kitts has a taste, this is it.

L Behind me there's another crash and thud. It's mango season.

It's my first trip to the Caribbean, and everything is surprising. St. Kitts turns out not to be about black-sand beaches, resorts, conch-shell souvenirs or calypso singers shouting "Day-O!" Though, in fact, the island has these and many other cliches as well.

On this island, beauty and poverty coincide; politics and history resonate. The place seems to enjoy tourists but doesn't fawn. It has problems. I liked it immediately.

I flew here last summer for a friend's wedding only to find that St. Kitts and Nevis, two islands bonded in nationhood since 1983, were heading toward divorce court.

Nevis - population 9,000, size 36 square miles - is sick of being bossed around by St. Kitts - population 35,000, 68 square miles. Specifics are elusive. "We've just grown apart" seems to be the main secessionist sentiment. In six weeks the fate of the union would be decided by national ballot.

And there is other trouble in paradise. From his wooded St. Kitts estate, Charles "Little Nut" Miller, an alleged drug kingpin, is thumbing his nose at the United States, which has been trying to extradite him for conspiring to smuggle cocaine through Miami. If they succeed, Miller, a one-time Jamaican political thug, threatens to randomly gun down some American students studying on the island.

I pick up a local paper. "Police Brutality?" screams the headline. I try another. "A Narco-Political Conspiracy?" is bannered across the top.

Ah, excuse me, where's a good place to rent snorkeling equipment?

A mile or so below the Monkey Hill summit, Savery and I fill plastic bottles with spring water from a roadside tap. On either side, the half-tamed rain forest hums with hidden things. It's a warm and sweaty day. Every day here, Savery says, is warm and sweaty.

Nominally a Seattle caterer, Savery is an islander at heart. Aside from the occasional narco terrorist, she finds the people engaging and real. She visits St. Kitts as often as possible and this time has lucked into a six-month house-sitting deal. On the other hand, I only have four days. So Savery has offered to drive me around the island. It's about 50 miles, but it will be a full day's sightseeing.

British and French

Due to its status as a former British colony, guide books say St. Kitts is shaped like a cricket bat. From Monkey Hill, I look south toward Nevis, which lies only two miles off the bat's handle. Through haze and clouds I can see the green slopes of Nevis' volcanic back.

Below us are the rusting tin roofs, tidy airport and new cruise-ship dock of Basseterre, the main city of St. Kitts. We climb back into Savery's car and head down to the coast. Soon we're clear of the jungle canopy and are surrounded by sugar-cane fields.

The first European settlers arrived in St. Kitts in 1623. They started growing sugar cane 20 years later. Thirty years after that, the first slaves were imported. Thus began the Caribbean cycle: cane, sugar, molasses, rum, slaves, blood.

Through the 1920s there were still about four dozen individual plantations left from the colonial days. The remaining ones were nationalized by 1977, and now all the cane is processed in a central plant - "OSHA's worst nightmare," says Savery.

While sugar now accounts for only 2 percent of the nation's gross national product (tourism is much more important), its legacy is strong. Some 25 percent of the population is connected to the cane trade. Cane fields swirl around the island's central volcanic range like a party skirt. A narrow-gauge railway circumnavigates the fat part of the cricket bat, carrying cane at harvest time. A few old stone windmills that used to power cane-crushing equipment crumble picturesquely within former plantation borders.

A handful of sugar-cane mansions have survived the fall of the plantation system. Several have been turned into hotels, combining faded elegance with Caribbean nonchalance.

One of them, Ottley's Plantation Inn, is the wedding site. Ottley's is a two-story mansion painted a light yellow and encircled with gracious white verandas. Around the grounds - riotous with hibiscus flowers and ancient trees - are the remains of a cane mill and other plantation buildings.

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