Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Nevis, Makato & remembering Henry Gaffney
Without 4 Seasons
A quick trip to a small island 05/13-16/10.
I figured I'd start this off the same way I've seen lots of stories on Nevis begin -with a photo of the island's instantly-recognizable profile as seen from sea. It's all the more appropriate now that American Eagle flights from San Juan have been suspended and most travelers first glimpse of Nevis is once more exactly that -as seen from the ferry from neighboring St. Kitt's. It's a view that prompted Columbus himself, who noting its long-extinct volcano wearing its crown of clouds, named the island in honor of 'Nuestra Señora de las Nieves' -Our Lady Of The Snows.
The original inhabitants called the island 'Oualie' -Carib for 'island of beautiful waters' but since they didn't make maps it was Nieves, later anglicized to Nevis, that stuck. The disastrous activity of equally -assumed dormant volcano on next-door Montserrat gives one pause for thought -briefly. However, it was this fantastically rich volcano soil and fair climate that made Nevis rich (at least for its planters and merchants) and a center of gracious society during the days of slavery. Wealthy overseas visitors came to take the cure at the island's Bath Hotel (1778), the Caribbean's first tourist resort. It now houses government offices, although you can still par-boil yourself in the near scalding waters in a outdoor concrete trough on the grounds (I tried it once, as author Bob Morris then commented "relentlessly unrefreshing"). Many of the old plantation 'greathouses' now serve as the nucleus for casually elegant inns, a distinctive feature of lodgings on Nevis.
How we came to be going to Nevis is a bit of a story in itself. Although I normally grouse about bad luck, it's usually of the perpetual missing-my-subway-by-seconds variety. I certainly don't gamble (this was reconfirmed by a Macau sooth-sayer -out of the thousands of the day's supplicants I was probably the only one that he didn't advise to rush out and break the bank in that gaming-mad territory's mega-casinos) or win things -until my business card was plucked from a bowl at last year's Caribbean Tourism Organization Media Event in New York (actually, I also once won a trip from Antigua Tourism, who refused to honor the award). I couldn't believe my good fortune. I had won a 3 nights stay, with meals for two at The Nesbit Beach Plantation Beach Club on the island of Nevis. Add a pair of frequent-flyer award tickets (be flexible!) and we had lucked into the perfect way for Marilla and I to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.
It takes a little extra effort to get to Nevis, but its more than worth it if an authentic little piece of The West Indies is what you are after. We had taken AA to St. Kitt's via Miami, then grabbed a taxi down to the ferry dock in the very flavorful, old capital city of Basseterre. Lined with busy cooksheds, the ferry dock played host to a motley 'Beat The Devil' collection of travelers: tie-wearing West Indian businessmen, islanders returning from errands, a sprinkling of tourists like ourselves and raffish ex-pats up to who knows what. Waiting in the heat, the crowd was worked by several of the town's mentally-ill unfortunates. Just when it seemed the situation was reaching critical mass, we, along with a couple of vehicles and inter-island supplies were boarded upon the decidedly vintage 'Sea Hustler' (EC$25 plus EC$1 port fee p/p). We climbed up some ladder-like stairways and found ourselves a breezy bench next to the pilothouse where we could enjoy the 40 minute crossing and a cold 'Carib' beer (EC$4).
Our arrival was made all the more auspicious when we were greeted by the friendly face of John Andrews, who was waiting at the dock to offer us a lift to our hotel. If Basseterre is a throw-back to an old-time West Indies town, then Nevis's only 'city' Charlestown, is even more so. Take away the cars and signs and Alexander Hamilton would have little trouble recognizing his home town. Old balconied stone buildings housing shops (perhaps one where the statesman had apprenticed) still crowd the narrow streets. Within minutes we were out of the town, passing the shuttered 4 Seasons Resort, Nevis's grossly under-utilized airport, and pulling up the drive of Nisbet Plantation (www.nesbitplantation.com).
A Young Prince Charles: happier times at Nesbit (1973) -what happened? Pictured here with Nesbit's Harriet Turner, the photo of The Prince Of Wales hangs in the cocktail lounge of The Nesbit Greathouse.
Nesbit Greathouse, built 1778: as it is today.
Shown to our cottage, we were touched to find it decorated with anniversary balloons, fruit, a bottle of wine and small bottles of 'Ting' and cane spirits -'Ting with a Sting' we were jokingly informed. There was just time for a quick swim that segued into the weekly Manager's Cocktail Party (rum punch, wine and hot hors d'oeuvres like tannia fritters and delicious wahoo 'nuggets'). The cookout with live band that follows is a Thursday night institution on Nevis that attracts guests from other hotels as well as Nevisians.
Quite frankly, some people might find Nesbit (and Nevis for that matter) too relaxing. It is assuredly devoid of glitz. Probably more by way of 'default mode' Nevis has retained its rural character. If you wake up early enough, you'll probably met the neighboring cows who wander on to the resort's grounds to breakfast on the expansive lawn that sweeps down to the sea. Sleep late and you'll never know they were there. We tended to close the bar and be the last ones out of the dining room, usually by 9:20PM. Islanders, who travel far afield for employment, find themselves drawn back to Nevis, always citing its 'quiet' as a reason. However, there is nightlife: Sunshine's on Pinney's Beach near town features DJ music (and its notorious 'killer bee' punch). Resorts and bars usually offer nightly entertainment of some sort on a revolving basis. John tipped us off to a new scene happening at Riviera House on the Government Road near the hospital. After an elegant dinner at the greathouse, we couldn't resist the siren-call of our cozy cottage, but heard Riviera was fun. Let me know how it is if you ever make it there.
Turf wars: A land crab guards it's little bit of Nesbit's spectacular lawn.
Being as small as Nevis is, it's quite easy to get around by hailing one of the mini-buses that troll the main road for fares. They have colorful names and will have an 'H' included on their license plate. From Nisbet (which is a bit further from town than the airport) into Charlestown usually costs EC$4 per person. A connecting bus onwards from town to the cutoff for The Hermitage, where we were heading for lunch, was EC$3 per person. If the driver knows you, or it suits them, they'll drop you off at your destination even though it is not directly on their route. Mini-buses can be found waiting for passengers on the two tiny 'squares' in Charlestown. Feel free to speak clearly and ask which direction they're going, when and how much it will cost.
Plaque of Fanny Nesbitt, mounted in the massive hearth that is all that remains of the plantation's cookhouse.
The Nesbit Plantation Beach Club is the island's only plantation inn on its own beach. It's even more renown as the former home of Frances 'Fanny' Nesbitt, the island widow who famously married the future Lord Admiral Nelson (they wed under a cottonwood tree at Montpelier, another family estate that is also now an up-scale inn). The wedding is listed in the register of St. John's 'Fig Tree' Church (circa 1680). Fanny is popularly thought of as an older widow, however she was actually only 22 when she married Nelson. Also not often mentioned is this love story's less than happy ending: see; 'That Hamilton Woman' - Vivien Leigh, Lawrence Olivier (1941) -one of the movies much screened on WOR's 'Million Dollar Movie' during my childhood.Vivien Leigh as 'That Hamilton Woman'. Gladys Cooper played the wronged Fanny.
The Hermitage (www.hermitagenevis.com), whose greathouse is claimed to be the oldest wooden home in the West Indies (circa 1640), also has a reputation for the best food on the island. My curried chicken roti (boneless!) with home-made mango chutney (US$12) and Marilla's fried flying fish (US$18), certainly were tasty, but it's worth the price just to sit on the Hermitage's marvelous verandah. After lunch we were shown around the grounds, including the 'ghaut' (gully) were the monkeys congregate in the morning and evenings.
Almina, a potter at 'Newcastle Pottery'. The studio is near the entrance to Nesbit Plantation. It's nice to bring back a souvenir actually made on the island, at the same time supporting a traditional island handicraft that predates the arrival of Columbus. We bought the fish-shaped candle holder for US$18, although there were many items for much less.
Return to St. Kitt's, Nevis can be seen across 'The Channel'.
For schedule reasons, the Sea Bridge ferry (http://www.seabridgeskn.com/; EC$20 per person), then a shared cab, US$10 per person, proved our best option for returning to St. Kitts for our flight home. An islander who introduced herself as 'Sweet Pea' offered us places to sit and struck up a conversation. Like I've said, locals are often pleasantly chatty and ready to fill you in on island gossip -like which drivers and boat operators were in 'cahoots' with each other. Remember, Nevis is a small place. Talk turned to The 4 Seasons. If the island was only going to have only one major resort, 4 Seasons was a good option, attracting a high-end clientele with nothing 'brassy' about it. Sort of what The Ritz-Carlton would be if... . Sorely missed by islanders, the S4's closing due to hurricane damage caused a classic economic ripple effect; loss of employment, then less visitors to the island as American Eagle dropped servicing Nevis. Sweet Pea mentioned that the resort had subsidized the flights and that she heard the resort was scheduled to reopen this November. "I sure hope so' she added, "a lot of folks depended on The 4 Seasons". The surplus amphibious assault vessel pulled into Major's Bay, St. Kitt's. Except for folks meeting the ferry, the bay was deserted but like most of St. Kitt's east end, it's slated for major development.
if you visit Nevis:
A nice, chatty driver in St. Kitts (SK&N people tend to be friendly): Queen Maneva 869 664 1401; air-conditioned van, call ahead, $10 from airport to ferry dock in Basseterre. Will do beach excursions, etc. My 'Dear Friend Andy' (as Moe Howard once addressed him in a letter) Goldfarb recommends 'Uncle Millie' who he met during a recent stay at Timothy's Beach Resort on St.. Kitts. I'll get his number ASAP. Anders also spoke highly of something called the 'Shiddety Shack' (what will these kids think of next?).
EC vs. USD: Although 'king dollar' is accepted everywhere on the island, it pays to use 'Eastern Caribbean dollars, the local currency. The exchange rate has long been stable at around USD1 to EC$2.68, proffered USD is usually rounded out to EC2.50 or less, with change returned in EC, or no change given at all.
Remember to set aside US$22. or the equivalent for the various exit taxes and airport fees that will be collected after you check in for your departure from St. Kitt's Bradshaw International (SKB). Cash only.
As seen from the pool at Nisbet: St. Kitt's in the distance.
Coming right up: An even quicker trip to Mankato, Minnesota with The Fleshtones: "A little travelin' music, Sammy!..." (in progress)
The Fleshtones were back in action thanks to...
...Shelley, Tim and all the nice folks at KMSU, who invited us to Mankato, MN to play a special 'audience appreciation' show along with the Legendary Stardust Cowboy on 05/21 -quite a bill. Pictured is Lee's Liquor Lounge, Minneapolis, MN, the cleanest club in the USA -no, the world, where we played the night before.
Also, the world's cleanest (and most interesting, no brainless grafitti here) bandroom in Lee's finished basement, where I could have stayed all night, or as long as the 'Grain Belt' beer held out -thanks to all the guys in The Anonymus, who opened (and brought the Grain Belt) along with the Fuck Knights.
The next day our route to Mankato took us along the Minnesota River. We passed through Le Sueur, the lovely 'Valley of the Green Giant'. A cutout of the friendly giant peers over the tree-tops, greeting motorists on US169. We did not stop to buy any cans of 'Le Sueur' peas, but it did remind us of those infamous 'out-takes' of Orson Wells attempting to do 'voice-overs' for Bird's Eye peas -"In July..."
More of the blue stuff, Mankato MN
My brother-in-law, songwriter Henry Gaffney, died peacefully at his home in Sharon, CT on Sunday May 23, 2010. He penned songs for artists from Whitney Houston to The Four Tops. Enamored with the elegance of the Cole Porter era (and recognizing the commercial shrewdness of Billy Joel) Henry's music wasn't exactly my thing. More crucial for me, he was extremely generous (and wise) in his guidance to this just starting off novice in the wonderland that is the music business. He would chuckle at that -although not a cynic himself, he clearly recognized the cynicism (and good) that swirls around us. I think I honor him best with the seriousness I have held fast to his advice. Yes, I think I'll hang on to my 'publishing', no matter what the lawyers say. Possessing peace of mind, Henry shall surely rest in peace.