A Few Days In

For Authentic, Colorful, Welcoming Caribbean Atmosphere, There’s No Place Like Nevis

by Leslie Long
Golden You might never want to leave Golden Rock Inn in Nevis. Photo by Leslie Long.

What happens when you let a couple of world-renowned artists loose on an old Caribbean estate? If you're lucky, they'll transform it into an idyllic, colorful, welcoming retreat that no one ever wants to leave — on an island that's just as idyllic, colorful, and welcoming. And that's Nevis in a nutshell.

NEVIS — On the island of Nevis, nothing higher than a coconut tree can be built in the capitol of Charlestown. This credo seems to hold true for most of this jungle-y paradise, where everything leans toward the personal and low-key.

If you’re looking for nightlife, shopping, galleries, gambling, or all-inclusive resorts, go somewhere else. If you want true island ambiance, quiet beaches, hotels with personality, small candlelit restaurants, poignant ruins, and wonky roads where donkeys and monkeys scatter as you approach, this is your spot. 

A Hotel That’s a Work of Art

Several years ago, I was staying at another hotel on Nevis and was taken to dinner up in the mountains at Golden Rock Inn. We approached the hotel from an overgrown path to the serenade of tree frogs. Once seated at The Rocks, the hotel’s multi-level open-air restaurant, I was overcome with the desire to just have my bags transferred and never leave.

I have never seen a hotel like Golden Rock, the passion project created by renowned modern artist Brice Marden and his artist wife Helen. 

The property began in 1806 as a sugar mill, becoming a working estate in 1915 and a family estate in 1965. The Mardens purchased it in 2003 and, after spreading their fairy dust absolutely everywhere, opened it two years later as Golden Rock Inn.

Here, sleek modern furniture and paint choices come in the colors of lush tropical flowers — a beguiling contrast to the patina of old stone walls. The restaurant’s tables rest under artfully draped red tarps overlooking a circular gazebo, a large fish pond, and lush plantings everywhere you look. A quick walk around the perched pool, breezy cottages, and impressive landscaping had me thoroughly enchanted. I vowed to return and spend my entire time right here, which my husband and I were happily able to do this summer.

The mill. Photo courtesy of Golden Rock Inn.
Photo courtesy of Golden Rock Inn.
Photo courtesy of Golden Rock Inn.
Photo courtesy of Golden Rock Inn.
Photo courtesy of Golden Rock Inn.
Photo courtesy of Golden Rock Inn.
Photo courtesy of Golden Rock Inn.
Photo courtesy of Golden Rock Inn.
Photo courtesy of Golden Rock Inn.
Photo courtesy of Golden Rock Inn.

Our hillside cottage, one of just 11 hotel rooms, had a spacious front patio with sky blue and teal painted walls, a red chaise, and leopard pillow. Inside were a four-poster bed, bright Moroccan rugs, plush bath and beach towels, and a beach bag. Fruits, fresh-baked cookies, and Le Labo amenities were among the welcoming touches.

Rooms at Golden Rock do not have air conditioning, relying instead on mountain breezes and ceiling fans. With the rustling of palms outside, our room was always comfortable and we didn’t miss AC. One morning, we awoke to thumping from above. When I stepped out on the porch, I saw a green vervet monkey staring down at me with a proprietary look of, “Can I help you?”

Where Nature Is Nurtured, But Only to a Point

What’s to do up here at 1000 feet above sea level? We hiked on well-trodden trails. Swam in and read by the clear, spring-fed swimming pool, where guests respect quiet and there’s no piped-in music. (A relief after recent visits to hotels where very loud poolside soundtracks seemed de rigeur.)

We took a tour with head gardener Keith Huggins, who lovingly tends to the 40 acres of wild yet cultivated grounds designed by Miami-based landscape designer Raymond Jungles (yes, his real name). During the Marden transformation, Helen chose the plants and Brice strategically set boulders around the property, creating special places to appreciate the vistas. As we walked, Keith snapped off leaves smelling of cinnamon, sweet almond, and bay rum, handing them off to us for a heady sniff. With knowledge of every tree and each of the 50 varieties of palms, he pointed out his favorites. Mine was the petticoat palm, which looks exactly as you might imagine.

Photo courtesy of Golden Rock Inn.
Photo courtesy of Golden Rock Inn.

Food As Local As Can Be

Ivo Richli is Golden Rock’s affable young general manager, a position recently held by his late father, François. (Ivo is blessed with excellent hospitality DNA: His mother Olivia Richli is also a beloved hotelier and a dear friend of Fathom.) Ivo told me that 90 percent of the vegetables served at The Rocks are grown on Nevis. With a lot of Nevis-caught fish and meat sourced from Puerto Rico, the team makes every effort to serve food that’s as local as possible.

The surprisingly affordable rates (autumn rooms start at $260/night) include a full breakfast. Slightly spicy sausages, homemade johnny cakes, fresh fruits that varied every morning (44 varieties of mango grow on Nevis), and salt cod fritters made morning one of the nicest times of the day as we drank strong coffee overlooking the terraces.

In addition to hotel guests, locals and those staying at other hotels would often come by for lunch, dinner, or just to revel in the surroundings. Golden Rock is very welcoming, even offering reduced rates to Nevisians who’d like a staycation for a night or two. (So neighborly!)

Among the dishes we enjoyed at dinner were chowder made with local conch, green curry shrimp with coconut rice and sweet plantains, and a grilled Caribbean spiny lobster tail with a piquant coconut sauce.

One afternoon, upon returning to Golden Rock, we were greeted by an adorable cart filled with house-made ice pops and small cups of coffee and rum raisin ice cream. “Any cost?” I asked. “No,” the server replied who happened to be passing by. “First one is always free to hotel guests.”

Ice pops on demand at The Goden Rock Inn. Photo by Leslie Long.
Color is everywhere at Golden Rock. Photo by Leslie Long.
Food is as local as possible. Photo by Leslie Long.
The author's cottage. Photo by Leslie Long.
The author's room. Photo by Leslie Long.

A Rich History and Much to See

It’s easy to rent a car on Nevis and even easier to hire one of the knowledgeable taxi drivers who are happy to take you anywhere and return for a reasonable round-trip from a beach or a restaurant at night. At just 36 square miles, it would be a shame not to visit the island's interesting and historic sites, parks, and ruins.

Hamilton was born here. Photo courtesy of Museum of Nevis History.

Nevis claims a famous native son born a few centuries ago who’s become even more famous in recent decades: Alexander Hamilton, he of hit Broadway fame. Historians disagree whether Hamilton was born in 1755 or 1757, so there is a slight discrepancy as to how many years of his boyhood were actually spent on Nevis, but Nevisians are proud of the connection. The small Alexander Hamilton Museum, officially known as Museum of Nevis History, is located in the house where Hamilton was born. While happy for the recognition brought by Hamilton, some island residents lament the fact that composer Lin Manuel Miranda didn’t actually name the island in his opening song, simply calling it “a forgotten spot in the Caribbean.”

We took a soak at the Bath Hotel & Hot Springs. Built in 1778, it was the very first hotel in the Caribbean, drawing an elite clientele to dine, enjoy elegant gardens, and soak in the therapeutic pools. The mineral-rich waters range between 104 and 108 degrees and are known to help with bouts of rheumatism and gout. While the hotel building still stands, it’s now vacant. Several years ago, the government spoke of plans for renovation, but so far, nothing has happened. The hot springs, however, are open and free to the public. As the only patrons, we slid right in and enjoyed their healing warmth.

The Cottle Church. Photo by Leslie Long.

Another favorite was the beautiful ruin The Cottle Church. Built by Thomas Cottle, a lawyer and successful planter, and completed in 1822, it was the first church on the island where enslaved workers were invited to worship alongside the plantation family. Today, the ruins sit proudly down a dirt road, exuding a haunting beauty. The grounds can be rented for weddings and other events — I could imagine the old buildings illuminated and decorated for a marriage ceremony.

Excellent Meals with a Side of Atmosphere

On Nevis, food is taken seriously and we found plenty of excellent dining choices. Even if you stay at one hotel, it’s a good idea to dine around for a change of menu and scenery.

Montpelier Plantation & Beach is one of the island’s most beautiful hotels, with individual guest rooms spread around the lush property and a large, lovely pool next to Indigo, the adjoining bar and restaurant. For dinner, Restaurant 750 serves locally sourced seafood and more on a gorgeous patio flickering with candles. The lush bar and living room are decorated with elegantly upholstered sofas and chairs — a perfect setting for pre-dinner canapés and cocktails. There’s a casual elegance to Montpelier at any time of day, whether staying on the property or stopping by for a drink, lunch or dinner. A welcoming staff only adds to the ambiance.

Mill Privée, high above the property, is the 300-year-old sugar mill that’s converted into the only restaurant of its kind in the world. Completely intact, the original mill has stone walls and floors with an exquisite patina of age — an amazing setting for intimate dinners. After climbing the tall, torch-lit steps to our own private dining room, a five-course tasting menu was presented by an agile server who made the steep climb multiple times during the meal. Among our favorite courses were cucumber and wahoo carpaccio salad and beet and sweet potato roll with a crumble of almonds and garlic. As the sun set, the view of the darkening island was magical.

An intimate table. Photo courtesy of Montpelier Plantation & Beach.
Photo courtesy of Montpelier Plantation & Beach.
The great room at Montpelier Plantation & Beach. Photo courtesy of Montpelier Plantation & Beach.

If the Mill Privée was the height of island elegance, Drift was the ultimate island beach bar, nestled in a charming wooden house on the water just behind the island’s private airport. At sunset, the all-white room was aglow with straw chandeliers and flickering votives. We settled into a waterside table with rum punches and a round of pumpkin johnny cakes followed by curried coconut shrimp. Owned by Mark Fuller and his wife, artist Vikki Fuller, their beachy style is beyond compare. Vikki’s alluring landscape and animal paintings were on display and available for sale.

Close by is Luna, the Fullers’ inviting restaurant and tapas bar. As beautifully decorated as Drift, it’s is a bit cushier, with the feel of a private club. From the entrance sign showing the phases of the moon to the subtly lit courtyard with four tall palms, dinner here was a delight. Mansfield, the bartender, acted as sommelier and suggested a fine pinot noir to go with our duck with mango sauce and seafood tortellini. Followed by local rum and coconut cake, it was transporting.

Drift is nestled in a charming wooden house on the water. Photo by Leslie Long.
Owner Vikki Fuller’s paintings on display and for sale. Photo by Leslie Long.
The deck at Drift. Photo by Leslie Long.
Note the straw chandeliers at Drift. Photo by Leslie Long.
Hat check at Drift. Photo by Leslie Long.
Luna feels like a private club. Photo by Leslie Long.
The colors are strong at Passion Bar. Photo by Leslie Long.
Passion Bar serves it up. Photo by Leslie Long.

Karen Belle is a beloved local chef and owner of the popular Passion Bar & Grill, a colorful, slightly sprawling restaurant serving local specialties to Nevisians and tourists alike. I started with a glass of beet juice with ginger followed by the fresh catch with coconut sauce. My husband finished every bite of oxtail stew in a rich dark broth that seemed to have been simmering for hours. Small, tasty sides of mac ‘n’ cheese, plantains, corn, and coleslaw were served with both of our lunches.

What About the Beach?

Although we were on Nevis for four days, we didn’t even make it to a beach. We were so happy to relax around Golden Rock’s pool or tool around the island that we never quite got there. Everyone on Nevis has their favorite beach — from Pinney’s and Lover’s Beach to Herbert’s and Cades Bay. Though not especially known for its beaches, Nevis does have quite a few lovely — and often, beautifully lonely — beaches to choose from. Discovering them will be half the fun.

Plan Your Trip

As might be expected from an island offering a true escape from the busy world and busier islands, it takes several steps to get here. From New York City, we flew to Miami and transferred to our flight to neighboring island St. Kitts. (Nevis and St. Kitts are a dual-island nation — St. Kitts is far more developed, with about four times the population of Nevis.) From there, we took a 20-minute cab ride to the water taxi dock at Reggae Beach for the ride to Nevis, where we caught another taxi to the hotel, all seamlessly arranged by Golden Rock and paid for in cash. (Money tip: Bring $105 and extra for tips.) Despite all the connections, by late afternoon, we were settled on our porch at Golden Rock, sipping a perfect rum punch, taking deep breaths and looking forward to the tree frogs welcoming us to dinner.

Finally, before you go, be sure to check the official Nevis tourism website for travel requirements, necessary paperwork, and other useful information.

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