I’m sitting on the sloping lawn of the Montpelier Plantation Inn with a rum punch in hand, watching the sun slink gracefully into the sea below as a tiny hummingbird hovers above a giant hibiscus flower just feet away. I feel for a fleeting instant at peace with the world. A frog croaks nearby, and as I turn to look for it, the sun completes its dive, gone for another day.
Watching the stars find their twinkle in the darkening sky, I wonder what it must have been like for Fanny Nelson to see the sun set on Nevis for the last time. I don’t know if this tiny Caribbean island does this to everyone, but I have become obsessed by Fanny, a young widow who in 1785 fell in love with the man destined to be Britain’s greatest ever naval commander: Lord Horatio Nelson.
I read her biography before I traveled to her home island of Nevis, one of the Leeward Islands on the northern arc of the Caribbean, and felt an immediate sympathy for her as well as a kind of kinship – as a woman, as a wife, as someone who crossed an ocean without knowing what was waiting for her on the other side (I came from England to Nevis, and she the opposite).
I have come to the island to follow in her ghostly footsteps around the five remaining plantation inns; while they didn’t all belong to her family, they were places, I imagined, she visited. Maybe her spirit, I thought when I planned my trip, will be lurking somewhere in the houses among the stone sugar mills and polished wooden planter’s chairs, or even under the old silk-cottonwood tree where, on March 11, 1787, she and Nelson exchanged marriage vows. The tree, a little more gnarled and crooked perhaps, still stands amid the ruins of the old Montpelier great house on the southern slopes of Nevis Peak across a grassy lane from the Montpelier Plantation Inn, where today you can dine by candlelight in the sugar mill built by Fanny’s uncle, John Herbert.
As I change for dinner in my room at the inn, I look again at the painting of Fanny on the cover of her biography: a delicate face with a long, straight nose and large, dark, rather sad eyes.
It was painted in England 11 years after she left Nevis for a cold, lonely and ultimately tragic life as a Nelson’s wife. She never returned, and I can only imagine that at her lowest points – when all of England was talking about her famous husband’s public affair with a married woman or when the same woman gave birth to Nelson’s only child – she must have dreamed of Nevis and its spectacular sunsets. I imagine that it gave her, as it did me, a sense of peace.
Walking into the dining room of Montpelier, I feel that I am stepping into Fanny’s life. There is something genuinely old-fashioned and whimsical about the plantation inns of Nevis, and it’s not just their pillars and shutters and well-polished floors. I sit at the bar chatting with Kaddy, the smiling cocktail maestro, and try to work out what it is.
“Nevis is a quiet island,” he tells me. “There’s no cinema, no clubs, no hard drugs and pretty much no crime. You see the streets on Sunday, and there are no people; most everybody’s in church.”
The next day I walk to Fig Tree Church about a mile from Montpelier. The winding main road I stroll along is hemmed by painted wooden houses with filigree eaves, airy verandas and riotous color in their front gardens. I am hoping to get a look at the Nelsons’ marriage certificate, but instead find myself swept up in what I mistake to be a wedding. Hundreds of people are milling around the church. Women wear silk dresses and large hats, and big gold earrings glint in their ears. The men look more somber in dark suits and ties. Everyone appears to be chatting for all they are worth. As I later learn, they are engaged in the favorite Nevis pastime of “looking news” (that’s gossip to most of us). On an island with no cinema, drama is found around each corner.
It is only after I’ve had a long conversation with a charming man about the weather, the upcoming Cricket World Cup and Fanny, inevitably, that I spot the knot of people in the graveyard. A pastor preaches into a microphone while a yellow bulldozer is poises for action behind him. The happy gathering in Fanny’s old family church is not a wedding after all, but what I can only describe as “funeral festivities.”
From what I’d read, the church then, as now, was an important focal point of life — somewhere to meet, something to dress up for. But the planter families’ center of social activity was still the great houses, the settings for dinners, balls and garden parties that lasted all day. There were close to 20 of those mansions in Fanny’s day, solid testaments to the extraordinary sugar wealth of 18th-century Nevis. The profitability of sugar was dependent on an unpalatable practice: slave labor. In Fanny’s time, the number of slaves outweighed the rest of the population by six to one. She would have had her own slave maid, slave cooks and gardeners with names like Daphne, Mingo, Chocolate and Cato, all people originally from Africa.
During my visit later that afternoon to Old Manor Hotel, the largest of the five plantation inns that have remained on Nevis, I am confronted with this past. “That’s the slave-breeding center,” explains TC, a vermillion-haired grandmother from northern England who moved out to Nevis 15 years ago and now conducts colorful island tours. “If they wanted, for example, a household slave, they’d put a lighter-skinned man and woman together; for field workers who needed to be strong and hardy, they might cross a Mandingo man with a Bahari woman. The birthing rooms were upstairs. Gives me the willies, it does.”
I’m with her on that. As I follow TC through a tunnel and into what was believed to be the former “punishment pit,” a small courtyard now edged with crumbling, vine-covered walls, I can almost see the ghosts of those slaves and hear their cries. It seems suddenly and repugnantly real. I am tempted to cancel my dinner that night at Old Manor. But in any event, I’m glad I don’t. The old stone of the hotel seems softer when lit; the food good, the service friendly and not at all subservient. The waitress is sanguine about the inn’s nefarious past. “It was a bad business,” she says. “But it’s gone now, and I’ve never seen any ghosts. My grandmother’s grandmother was a slave, and I’m all right.”
Wandering around the sleepy capital of Charlestown one sunny afternoon, I pass people sitting on doorsteps listening to the faint strains of calypso just audible above the peace. The main street is lined with small shops and restaurants. There’s a pretty wooden clock tower and a handful of banks (after tourism, international banking is the island’s unlikely second-most-profitable industry). Most activity is centered at the ferry terminal where you catch the boat to Nevis’ sister island of St. Kitts (just two miles away), but even the terminal is quiet between departures.
I poke my head into several of the shops and am astounded by the apparent lack of concession to tourism. There are no tacky souvenir shops selling Bob Marley T-shirts and bottled sunshine, no British pubs or hamburger huts. Instead, there’s a hardware store with a blackboard outside on which is chalked the scripture of the day, “Thou hast proved my heart.” A rather good gallery is located in the Café des Arts, where I am tempted to buy a painting of a soursop, just one of the exotic fruits that grow wild on the island.
But before I really reach my stride, I am back where I started at the Museum of Nevis History, having walked the length and breadth of town. The museum building reputedly was constructed on the site of the childhood home of another known islander, Alexander Hamilton. Born in the 1750s just a few years before Fanny, he was the illegitimate child of a French Huguenot woman and a scion of a grand old highland family. He eventually became the United States’ first secretary of the treasury.
I get in my car and drive north on the coastal road out of Charlestown, musing at the coincidence of Alexander sharing a surname with the woman who wrecked Fanny’s marriage: Lady Emma Hamilton. Nelson fell passionately in love with her, deserting Fanny and siring his only child, Horatia. Fanny’s first marriage had also ended tragically when her husband, Dr Josiah Nisbet, fell ill and died only two years after they married. They had lived for a while in his family home on Nisbet Plantation (now Nisbet Plantation Beach Club) on the northern tip of Nevis.
I settle into my cottage at Nisbet just a few yards from the beach and feel the past alive here, too. Many of the staff, I notice, bear the Nisbet surname, making them possible descendants of the slaves who once worked for the family. The utterly charming maitre d’, Patterson (another English name), wears only tailor-made suits with a collection of ties so extensive that even he has lost count of how many he owns. I sit on the beach before tea, watching the white-tipped waves dance across the sea.
After an early-morning horseback ride along the beach, I decide to drive back into Charlestown to explore. I see a shop I like the looks of and swing my car off the road. The first I know of the concrete block lurking under the vines is the sound of a sickening crunch. I get out to inspect the damage and let out an involuntary curse. It may as well be a gunshot for the reaction it elicits: Passers-by stop and stare, eyes wide, mouths open, their heads shaking like metronomes.
I am frozen in the spotlight of their disapproval when an old Rasta man walks by and winks. When I ask him where I can get the vehicle fixed, he introduces himself as Munto and says he’ll show me.
“You better be careful with your mouth,” he informs me politely as we drive back through town. “Swearing’s illegal on Nevis. You could get arrested for a word like that.”
The ghost of Fanny, I’m sure, can’t help but approve. Nevis, it appears, is nearly as modest now as it must have been then.
While the car is being fixed, Munto offers to take me to the hot springs on the outskirts of Charlestown below the old Bath Hotel, which now houses government buildings. What appears to be a stream runs through an overgrown patch of land. Down some steps there is a tiled “relaxing pool.” Suddenly modesty takes hold of me; not wishing to strip to my bikini with Munto there, I hitch up my skirt, take a first, confident step into the water and immediately hop back. Munto laughs. The spring water averages 106 degrees and somehow connects to the hell fires of Mount Nevis, the vast dormant volcano that dominates the center of the island.
“Do you come in here?” I ask Munto.
“No, I bathe downstream,” he says with a chuckle. “And I don’t wear my clothes to wash myself.”
After lunch and with my car back in action, I take a closer look at the fount of my bathing water. Nevis Peak is a constant presence on Nevis, yet is also a mystery. The 3,232-foot colossus can be seen from every point on the island, yet rarely is it viewed completely; its apex is usually wreathed in clouds. I drive up to Golden Rock Plantation Inn, at the highest altitude of all the surviving plantation houses, perched up on the windward slopes of the mountain. I had half a plan to reach the summit, but after being warned about a visitor who got lost for three days after attempting the same climb without a guide, I settle instead for a hike to a viewing point half-way up. Armed with a map, I follow the inn’s well-tended trail through a small village and up into the rainforest. It’s an intoxicating world of elephant-ear leaves, flowering liana and geckos scuttling through the undergrowth. At one point I hear a rustling in the high branches and turn in time to see a vervet monkey swinging across the canopy, a baby clinging to her neck. Rounding a bend, I see across the glistening ocean to St. Kitts.
It is unlike me not to push on for the summit, whatever the dangers. But the island’s gentle pace has become my own. So much about Nevis must be the same as it was in Fanny’s day; she would have wandered along these same paths, admired the same tropical mockingbirds and sulphur butterflies. She would have swum in the same warm Caribbean Sea, walked along the same deserted beaches and eaten freshly-caught mahimahi in the same plantation houses. Transported, I check for my parasol and petticoats; instead I find Gap jeans and sneakers. As I stand here in the jungle, I realize Nevis has stayed nearly the same as it was, a verdant time capsule retaining the values and mores of centuries past.
After my walk I return to Golden Rock for tea and home-baked ginger cake with owner Pam Barry. “When I first came here in 1963, it was really way, way back in time,” she says, sitting at the bar in the renovated kitchen of Golden Rock Plantation Inn, sipping Earl Grey tea and feeding cake crumbs to a friendly bullfinch. “I loved it. There were wild donkeys everywhere, party-line phones, no electricity and no TV. You would give the store a list of what you wanted to buy and then go to the beach while they put it all together.”
Pam is the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Edward Huggins, who built Golden Rock reputedly — though unfairly, according to Pam — with the blood and sweat of his slaves. Through her ancestry she straddles Nevis past and present, and she’s keen to keep both alive in her delightful inn. There’s a giant mahogany four-poster bed in the sugar mill, and the new bright-orange dining umbrellas on the lawn pick up the vibrant colors of bougainvillea, hibiscus and dahlia in the garden.
Golden Rock also has an outpost on Pinney’s Beach on the western shore of Nevis, where a simple bar and restaurant serve the best lobster sandwich I’ve ever tasted. It’s a short walk to the distinctly New World glamour of the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, which occupies a plum position on the leeward coast. I buzz around the 350-acre property in a golf cart, admiring the swank and luxury but feeling at the same time strangely dispirited. This isn’t the gracious, other-worldly Nevis; there is no trace of Fanny or Alexander Hamilton, no ghostly whispers in the boutiques or business center. It is not until I head back up the southern slopes of Nevis Peak to The Hermitage, another plantation inn, that I regain my 18th-century footing.
It would have been hard not to; The Hermitage is quintessential Nevis. The Lupinacci family has lived in The Hermitage great house for more than 35 years, and it feels like a much-loved home. The central room is full of antiques and pictures of family and horses. (Richard Lupinacci is a horse lover and one of the guiding lights of the occasional race meetings at Indian Castle Race Track in the south of the island.) There are wooden jalousies on the windows, antique rugs on the floor. This evening there is a throng of people chatting and drinking cocktails, and the buffet table is laden with delicious food. I join Richard on a terrace twinkling with fairy lights, and we swap stories of Nelson and Fanny as if they are absent friends.
I can feel her here, and I realize that this is what makes Nevis special and whimsical. The past still lives on this little jewel of an island. After Nelson died in 1805, Fanny spent the remaining 26 years of her life in England and France. She never returned to Nevis in body, but I am convinced her spirit is here, not only in the plantation houses but all around. Fanny could come back to Nevis tomorrow and feel at home, even in a hooped skirt. In this day, that’s extraordinary.
Each issue of ISLANDS Magazine explores the most beautiful island destinations in the world, from tropical island outposts to the sophisticated gems of the Mediterranean. Our top-rate photographers and writers discover the quiet beaches, boutique hotels, and unique cultural experiences that make island travel unique.