THAT damned intro music keeps playing in my head.
You know the one. It crashes in with a loud “Dah dah di-dah daah!” of joyful abandon before shifting into the mesmeric, shuffling Calypso lilt which has become the ultimate earworm at Hammond Towers, littered, as it is, by two teenage girls who love their telly.
In their formative years, they discovered Death In Paradise in their endless pursuit of nonsense to watch, and ever since, they have become devoted fans of that daft but entertaining murder mystery show set on a glorious Caribbean island (the series is actually filmed on Guadaloupe, just ‘up from the road’ from where we now settle for the first cold one of the trip). Lordy, how that first one after a long flight hits the spot, no?
We have landed, at last, on the wonder island of St Kitts. The girls are now 18 and 16 and still every bit as enthused by Death In Paradise as the next Hercule Poirot might be. Everywhere we go, that music chugs along in my little brain. It could be worse.
Much of life on St Kitts is charmingly old-fashioned. Of course, there’s island time you need to become aware of, and adjusted to; if your driver says he’ll pick you up at 7, he’s more likely to be there around 7.15, or maybe even 7.30. And if you head to a bar, it’s not unusual to still be waiting for a drink half an hour later, let alone your evening meal. But just shrug, watch the ocean, feel the heat, listen to the whistle of the frogs. There are worse places to be.
People here are unaffected, charming, friendly and proud of their colourful, peaceful island. It’s very clean, you don’t get pestered even as an obvious tourist, and if you treat locals right, they’ll do the same by you. Simple.
I have a plan while here to do some ‘research’ for my next book (I know, I know, a tough gig, but someone has to do it) and so I base myself on the eastern side of the island which gives us great access to The Strip – a gaggle of atmospheric rum shacks and restaurants – and within striking distance of Basseterre town, with its marina, shops and yes, cracking La Casa del Habano cigar store. Insert smiley emoji with sunglasses here.
It’s hot and humid of course, and after a quick shower and change, we have a first night of mixed emotions; struggling with fatigue, island time and an off season which sees many establishments closed for much of the week. First Night Blues is a well-known holiday phenomenon; you often end up spending more than you want in a place you’re not keen on, just because you haven’t slipped into local mode just yet and don’t know any better. But we eventually get fed and watered, retire to the blessed air con of our rooms and awake the next morning eager for fresh adventures. And what better to get you on island time than a rum breakfast, I ask?
I mean to wake up early and go for a dip – the beach is about two minutes away, for goodness’ sake, with some excellent snorkelling – but I snooze ever onwards and am forced to scramble, a little bleary eyed, to our first assignment of the week; visiting rum plantations. So, it really is rum for breakfast, imaginatively prepared by Quan, who is the mixologist at Old Road Rum Distillery, and who meets with the approval of certain sections of our contingent. Can’t think why.
There’s a wonderfully refreshing grapefruit soda which is ubiquitous here; it’s called Ting. When you add rum, it becomes – a Ting With A Sting. A marvellous drop, Old Road is, and certainly puts enough pep in my step to complete a tour of the old building and grounds where once poor slaves were put through their paces in the name of other people’s pleasure. Beautiful place, shameful past. Now it’s run by local boy Jack Widdowson, and is going great guns, so well worth a visit.
Roger Brisbane at Hibiscus Spirits based at Spice Mill is an instantly likeable chap, and he’s created something quite stunning on Cockleshell Beach, a place as picture perfect as it sounds; crystal waters, a glorious view of the cloud-shrouded sister isle of Nevis, golden sands, and food and drink of the gods. Roger has discovered that the beautiful Hibiscus tree – whose leafy green fronds flower into stunning fiery red flowers – is a very fine addition to rum. Not only are the hibiscus flowers superfoods, possessing huge amounts of antioxidants, they also add a deep and subtle flavour, bringing something unique to Spice Mill’s Hibiscus Rum.
Roger treated us all to a rum mixing masterclass, which was hilarious, educational, boozy and fun in equal measure – Rumtini is a thing of wonder – and then we don the old swimsuits and take full advantage of the loungers, sun, sea and beach. Bliss.
A theme develops. Next morning, before the apocryphal cock has crowed three times, we are parked on a double decker train (the last train in the Caribbean, I’m told?) at St Kitts Scenic Railway Depot, and awaiting the off on a tour of the island. This train used to carry sugarcane, and now it carries tourists. And rum.
Before long, we’re rattling and rolling, swigging Pina Coladas and feeling the breeze in our hair as we sweep along the coastline to a hilarious running commentary. I could get used to this.
Kittitians – for that’s what the locals call themselves – like nothing more than to chill with a cold one and have a ‘cook up’; fresh chicken, amazing sweet lobster, prawns, maybe some rice and plantain. Anything they have to hand, really. They call hanging out with your mates, ‘Liming.’ Or, more correctly, in the local vernacular, ‘Limin’’.
I love Limin’.
Boozies Restaurant on the strip takes this attitude seriously; the place is packed out with both locals and tourists and is a super people-watching spot. As ever, island time gives you plenty of opportunity to watch what’s going on and, believe me, over here, there is always something going on. A couple of cold Caribs, some fresh Mahi Mahi, maybe a little local grilled snapper – and another sunset to die for.
Bobbing about on the briny blue has always a particular passion of mine – as long as I’m not asked to do any of the actual sailing, you understand. But my wife has felt decidedly dodgy before when a-sail, and my eldest shows signs of queasiness too, so it is with a little trepidation that we all board a catamaran in Basseterre marina to head out on a little jaunt across the Caribbean. We make sure travel sickness bands are securely fastened, pills within reach, and then we are off on an unbelievably hot morning, with dozens of other seagoers, on a day we shall never forget.
I snorkel almost face first into a considerable barracuda – he gives me quite a look, I can tell you – and then follow a stingray for a while before hopping back on board for lunch and onwards to the glorious beaches of Nevis. Here, the world-famous Sunshine Beach Bar – purveyor of the deadly Killer Bee, rum-based, falling over drink – supplies us with some hot and tangy chicken wings, some conch fritters and tooth-cracking cold Carib beers, and, after a cooling dip, we’re back on board the, by now, very laid back catamaran – and a reggae cruise home follows. The sight of the setting sun over the ocean, the girls jigging with a glass of rum, some fantastic tunes and the skipper and crew joining in the impromptu dances with gusto will live long in the memory.
It just so happens that the Caribbean Premier League cricket is in town, and as surprised as I am to see former West Indian greats Curtly Ambrose and Shivnarine Chanderpaul in my hotel, I am more pleased to wangle tickets to the last T20 game of the series. I’m a Test Match man in the main, but who wouldn’t like a few hours of raucous cricket entertainment, Caribbean style? The downtown stadium is packed and rocking, the sixes and the rum flowing relentlessly into the darkening night sky.
When we begin driving ever upwards into the jungle next morning, the blessed shade and height is a welcome respite from the heat. Up at Liamuiga Natural Farms, monkeys roam, bananas grow and the character that is Tiem – full on Rasta dreads and a maximum wattage smile – lovingly tends this little slice of paradise. Just about all the food served is grown here; stunning in its flavour, simplicity and colour. I’ve never eaten pickled turmeric before, but I’ll do so again now. And warm Johnny Cakes, made with yoghurt? Incredible. Did I mention the local coffee?
As well as the feet-in-the-sand rum shacks, there are a few special occasion establishments on St Kitts, too, and Marshalls is one of the better known. You can still see the beach from your table here, of course – no self-respecting joint in St Kitts is far from that – but the menu choice and selection is more extensive. The cocktail menu, for example, is better than some in London, and my pre-dinner Manhattan was a nice, if brief, change from rum. Somewhat unusually, but very pleasingly, escargots are on the menu and, as I love them dearly, they’re a cracking way to open the batting. When the dust settles a couple of hours later, a spankingly fresh variety of goodness from land and sea has been dealt with. Great service, great choice – a special occasion restaurant.
Urgh. That feeling when you are going home the next day, and you don’t want to go, and you feel really blue about the long flight home with nothing to look forward to at the end of it but a full inbox, an overgrown lawn and a ton of catching up to do. I have a serious case of the melancholies when we pitch up on our last day to the Park Hyatt.
But with a cool breeze blowing gently through the open plan lobby and koi carp cruising serenely beside me as I stroll in, it’s not long before I realise that if you’re going to feel fed up, you might as well do it here.
It’s unspeakably beautiful, a clean, straight lines, everything-thought-of kind of place where your cabana by the walk-in pool (complete with its own beach) comes with a cool box full of drinks and you can order grub from the menu to be delivered straight to your lazy arse lying on the whopping great bed inside. You can satisfy your new-found lust for Pina Coladas and drink them in the said pool, should you wish. Or you can just flop down in a hammock on the beach and stare at that incredible, poster perfect scenery until you fall into a sun and rum-induced afternoon slumber. And I did all of the above during a wonderfully drowsy, dreamlike day, padding gently between the palm trees and slipping from pool to sea.
We had a sneak preview of the astounding rooms, too, of the gym and the spa and the restaurant and the diamond store and oh…how the other half lives. The kids fancied a pizza, I opted for sublime coconut shrimp with saffron and lime aioli, grilled shrimp fajita for Mrs H.
Our goodbye to St Kitts was as good a bye as it could have been. This is a place we will always have in our hearts – and I’d like to think we’ll be back. And, Dear Reader, before the sun went down and we left at last, I had one more Pina Colada by the pool.
It just seemed like the right thing to do.
Photos courtesy of St Kitts Tourism