As most of you know by now, I was completely off the grid last week for a family vacation to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, half of a two-island nation (Saint Kitts and Nevis, formerly Saint Christopher and Nevis) in the Leeward Islands, a little bit east of Puerto Rico. My wife and I settled on St. Kitts for a few reasons, one of which was the presence of a Marriott where I could utilize all these points I’ve racked up, and another was the fact that we didn’t know anyone who’d been. I’d read previously that the island had been making a strong effort to cultivate high-end tourism as its main economic activity, since the sugar cane industry had died owing to high labor costs (the canes have to be harvested by hand) and the United States’ absurd sugar quotas, which prop up a dying domestic sugar industry in Florida, support our nation’s addiction to high fructose corn syrup, and really stick it to various allies of ours in the sugar business, including Australia. But I digress. We had fun and ate well, but it’s more of a rest-and-relax destination than a place for serious sightseeing.
We spent most of our time at the resort itself, largely a function of our daughter’s primary interest, going in the resort’s pools. The St. Kitts Marriott is adjacent to a beach – all beaches in St. Kitts are public so it would be inaccurate to say the hotel has a beach – but it’s on the Atlantic side of the island, with somewhat rougher waters and zero scenic value. The pools are perfect for kids; the two we used go no deeper than four feet, including the one with the swim-up bar. The staff were over-the-top friendly, and the service everywhere in the hotel was top-notch, although my wife and I noticed that each new staff member we met began with a slight standoffishness that disappeared after a few moments of chatter. When I asked one of the waitresses we knew particularly well if that had something to do with Americans being rude*, she confirmed it, off the record of course.
*Seriously. I don’t know if Americans – and we saw at least two such incidents ourselves – treat the staff there rudely because the staff members are not Americans, or because they speak with accents, or, most likely, because they are black, but if you’re one of those Americans, do me a favor and stay home, so I can stop pretending I’m Canadian every time I leave the damn country. The waitresses and porters and valets are service workers, but that does not entitle you to treat them like they’re the help.
There were a few hiccups at the hotel when we got there, as they “upgraded” us to a room that turned out to lack air conditioning (we were told, after three calls to the front desk finally produced a staff member at our door, that the “chiller” was broken), but they did fall all over themselves to make it right. I also think it’s weird that the towel hut by the pools closes at 6:30 pm – if you don’t return the towels by then they charge you $25 – when the pools are open till 11 and guests might want to take towels to an off-site beach.
And we did, as we found a superior beach within walking distance of the hotel (or a $6 cab ride away) at Frigate Bay, home also of a row of restaurant-bars known as the Strip. Frigate Bay Beach sits on the Caribbean side, and despite the lack of a visible row of rocks to break some of the waves, it was significantly calmer than the beach next to the Marriott, and my daughter was thrilled at the number and variety of seashells there. We ate at one of the restaurants on the Strip, Mr. X’s Shiggidy Shack, but I’ll save that for the food portion of the post.
The third beach we visited was a haul from the hotel, a $22 cab ride that took at least 20 minutes, but it was the most beautiful by far: Cockleshell Bay Beach, on the southern tip of the island of St. Kitts, only about two miles from Nevis. The sand was the cleanest, the scenery the most lush, and the view of Nevis is tremendous, with the latter’s central volcano practically throwing its shadow on you. And, true to its name, it had many shells, mostly cockles.
Our one other expedition outside the hotel was to “the city,” Basseterre, the nation’s capital and the only significant population center on the island. It was disappointing, although I think that is in part because we compared it to Hamilton, Bermuda, the only other island town we’ve ever visited; Hamilton is (or at least was in 2005) clean, bright, and busy, with wide streets and plenty of places to eat and shop. Basseterre has a shlock district called Port Zante that is new, bright, and full of stores selling crappy trinkets, cheap liquor (not that there’s anything wrong with that), jewelry, or other duty-free items for tourists on cruise ships, who generally do little to help the economies of the islands they visit. From there, we crossed into the Circus area, where we found a few local shops but not much in the way of restaurants or other establishments to keep us in town. The streets are narrow and many of the buildings outside of Port Zante were run down. I’m well aware that the town is there for its residents and not its tourists, but I saw a lost opportunity there for an island that is trying to cultivate a niche in high-end tourism.
You can do some nature tours within Saint Kitts or Nevis, both of which have rain forests around their central volcanoes (Saint Kitts’ peak is extinct, while Nevis’ has been dormant for millennia), but even without my daughter there I’m not sure I would have suggested that sort of activity. It was way too hot.
The airport merits mention because it’s so hilariously small. There are four “gates,” which are just doors a few feet apart in the same wall of the lone departure lounge, and all exit to the same piece of asphalt. The tower is actually across the runway in an adjacent field. There is no restaurant, just a tiny bar that serves prefab sandwiches and three trinket shops before security. The duty free stores after security did offer excellent prices on liquor, cheaper than anything I saw elsewhere. I’ll get to the liquor in a second.
My main complaint about St. Kitts aside from the absence of a nice town is the expense of getting around the island. Getting from the hotel to town was $12 without tip each way, for a trip of about ten minutes. It’s not an exorbitant fare, but suddenly it’s $30 round-trip to get to Basseterre, $50 round-trip to get to Cockleshell Bay (and a good restaurant there), $15 each way from the airport, and it adds up. I’d rather spend my money on food or local goods than on getting around, but there’s no alternative, and we spent more time in the hotel as a result. We also skipped Nevis, partly for cost reasons (it would have been $80-100 round-trip just to get there), but mostly because we didn’t think my daughter would be up for the roughly 90 minutes it would have taken each way to get from our hotel to the Botanical Gardens, the one site on Nevis we thought might hold her interest. At the end of the day, she was happy in the pool.
Last stop before I run through the restaurants: St. Kitts does have three local rum producers, and I brought home one bottle of Belmont Estates’ gold rum. It’s unaged, which means it has a harsher taste than any of my preferred rums from around the region (Appleton and Cruzan are my favorites at the moment), and the bars at the Marriott didn’t offer it. They did offer Brinley rums, five varieties of flavored rums blended on the island but (I believe) distilled elsewhere, and anyway flavored rums are for sissies so I never bothered. The third kind is CSR, short for Cane Spirit Rothschild, distilled from sugar cane rather than from molasses, and like that style of spirit it’s more for sipping than for mixing. The duty free stores I found usually had a few options from around the region, including Appleton, Cruzan, Bacardi (a waste of good molasses, in my opinion), Myers, and Mount Gay, as did the bars at the Marriott*.
*Rum and ginger ale was my drink of choice during the week, with either Myers dark or Appleton gold, but I did order two other drinks. One was a guava daiquiri, mostly because I love guava anything, but the resulting drink tasted mostly of … guava, with the rum well buried in the background. The other was planter’s punch, which I thought was always based on a fairly standard formula, but the Marriott’s version had Bacardi, Myers dark, a liqueur I didn’t catch, and a splash of juice. If I had gone in St. Kitts to forget something, it would have been the perfect drink.
Now, the food, starting with the options in the hotel. Cafe Calypso serves breakfast and lunch, and the breakfast buffet is pricey ($21-25) but excellent. There’s section of local breakfast items, with one rotating protein dish (fried tilapia, a stew with salt cod, pork stew, some kind of spicy chicken) alongside fried plantains, cinnamon-tinged jonnycakes, grilled vegetables, and crepes with what I assume was a house-made three-berry compote that was incredible – my daughter and I inhaled the stuff. They also have the standard assortment of American foods, and a strong array of pastries which were definitely made in-house (we talked to the pastry chef). The only miss was the horrible tea selection: I’m in a former British colony and you’re offering me … Bigelow?
The lunch menu isn’t long, but it’s diverse, including a turkey BLT with a fried egg as one of the layers, a Caesar wrap with fried fish (tasted great, but the heat from the fish made the dressing run), a chicken roti (traditional local fare, with curried chicken wrapped in a lavash-like bread, but the filling had zero salt and thus near zero taste), chimichurri skirt steak with mashed potatoes (the steak was a little undermarinated but they had the righ idea), and, my favorite item, ribs with a guava BBQ sauce (extremely tender with a sweet-and-sour sauce that would go on just about any meat – I’d love that with duck). The chefs all over the hotel are accommodating if you have an off-menu request, and they made grilled cheese for my (vegetarian) daughter that was actually grilled, with grill marks; I don’t think she failed to finish any of the ones she had at the Calypso.
Outside the restaurant is the actual cafe, with a full assortment of espresso-based drinks, although their espresso-making skills are a little lacking; twice I saw the barista put the grounds in the portafilter without tamping them down, which is a good way to make brown water if that’s what you’re going for. They have a pastry case with cookies, muffins, and, for $4, desserts like slices of opera cake or Black Forest Cake, or individiual tiramisu portions that were big enough for my wife and I to split. We ate well in the hotel all week, but the pastry chef gets the gold star for the tiramisu and for the donuts, also made in-house and likely the best I have ever tasted.
It is also worth mentioning that the staff at the Calypso were outstanding and took the time to learn our names, greeted our daughter every morning (even waitresses who weren’t working our section would come over to say hi), and memorize our drink orders. They don’t have to do any of that, and I would never expect it, but it added a lot to our stay. And they did this knowing full well that we came from the U.S. In fact, we found everyone we met on the island to be friendly once we proved we wouldn’t bite, and many locals thanked us for choosing to take our vacation on St. Kitts.
Still in the Marriott, there’s a very strong Italian restaurant called La Cucina that has an antipasto bar that I’d call a can’t-miss, including real prosciutto, marinated artichokes, roasted peppers (three colors!), and a giant block of Parmiggiano-Reggiano from which you can carve your own slices or chunks. The entrees I had were both just short of great. The risotto with wild mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes had huge mushroom flavor, including morels (that is, an actual wild mushroom, as opposed to places that say “wild mushroom” and give you creminis), but they used a strain of rice I haven’t seen in risotto before, and it didn’t produce the right creamy texture I’d expect in that dish. The ravioli in butter were just that: House-made ravioli served in melted butter, not fried briefly in butter to get some color on the pasta, then served in brown butter. It was fine, and my daughter might not have tried them if they’d been browned, but nothing that an average home cook couldn’t produce. My wife had the pasta alla bolognese twice, getting a generous portion of pasta and meat with a sauce that featured strong, fresh flavors of all the vegetables it contained (carrots, onions, and celery, at the very least).
We ate one other meal at Blu, a seafood restaurant at the Marriott with an impressive array of fish options, although the best thing I had there was the mashed potatoes with truffle oil, sweet, ridiculously creamy, but with the irregular texture of “smashed” potatoes, a nice contrast to the largely soft potato-crusted grouper I had as my main course. The house salad has a pomegranate vinaigrette that wasn’t cloyingly sweet like berry vinaigrettes usually are, and the greens looked like they’d just been picked*. The chocolate-and-peanut-butter mousse tart could have been a little darker, but was otherwise excellent. My wife went with the pork chop – she doesn’t care for fish – and said it was good but so thick that it started to dry out on the edges.
*That was actually a trend all week: Unbelievable salad greens. Brighter colors, crisper leaves, fresher flavors. Maybe that’s their niche within their niche: Come for the beaches, stay for the produce.
Moving off site … Mr. X’s Shiggedy Shack is, in fact, a shack on Frigate Bay Beach, covered but open, with a limited menu that ranges from $30 grilled lobster to $5 burgers. Every local we talked to said that was the one place to eat outside the Marriott, and our favorite waitress at the Marriott told me to get the mahi-mahi, which was incredibly fresh and clean and perfectly grilled, one of the two best pieces of fish I had in a week where I ate a lot of fish. The sides mostly just took up space. Their house rum punch, the Shiggedy Jig, wasn’t very strong and had a liqueur I couldn’t place (Amaretto?) but that dominated the drink. In a rum punch, I should taste the rum, right?
PJ’s is an “authentic” Italian place on the same road as the Marriott and is awful. Imagine if a lifelong resident of St. Kitts had never visited Italy or eaten Italian food but got an old Italian cookbook and decided to open an Italian restaurant. That’s PJ’s.
The Spice Mill has been open on Cockleshell Bay Beach for about a year and a half and had the most innovative menu we found anywhere on the island. My wife had a pulled pork sandwich that she said was outstanding aside from the huge smear of mayonnaise on the bun, which wasn’t advertised on the menu and was about three times as much as a sandwich really needs (besides, pulled pork doesn’t really scream for mayo). I took the server’s advice and went with the Greek salad with mahi-mahi; the fish was the best piece of fish I had all week, immaculately cooked, and the salad was bright and fresh with some mixed greens and diced mango … but feta and mahi-mahi just don’t go together. If they took the cheese out and just called it a mixed salad with mahi-mahi, it would be worth the $50 round-trip cab fare alone.
And that brings me to my last point: For some reason, you need to jump up and down or light your table on fire to get a check at any restaurant in St. Kitts other than Calypso. It took a minimum of 15 minutes from when I asked for the check to when I had a copy of something to sign at La Cucina, the Spice Mill, and Mr. X’s, although the Shack at least deserves credit for owning up to the fact that their register was on the fritz and having the server come to the table and add up the bill for us on a calculator. I’ve heard about people moving on “island time,” but when a customer asks for the check, the restaurant’s goal should be to give it to him and clear the table ASAP.
Would we go to St. Kitts again? Maybe, but I feel like it’s a place worth seeing once rather than twice. There isn’t enough on the island for a young child to do beyond the beaches, and while I like museums that’s not what I’m going for when I head to an island where it’s 90 degrees every day. Once I rack up enough miles to for another island trip, we’re probably headed for someplace new, since St. Kitts didn’t have the same appeal as Bermuda did once upon a time (the decline of Bermuda is another post entirely) and we’d like to experience and see something else. If you’re looking at trying St. Kitts for the first time, though, it’s pretty enough and the Marriott would be an excellent choice for the stay for its staff, its food options, and for its proximity to Frigate Bay Beach, and I can guarantee you that your visit will be appreciated.