This site doesn't have a name," says Auston MacLeod, owner of St. Kitts PADI Resort Pro Divers, as we pull on our wetsuits. We've just motored a mile from shore, allowing the panoramic view of much of the green island's leeward side to grow even wider. The white roofs of the capital city, Basseterre which, when we drove through it this morning, was abuzz with taxis and open-air markets selling plantains, mangoes and coconuts are now shadowed by the billows of cloud that permanently frame Mount Liamuiga, a rainforest-covered volcano.
The sun has climbed only halfway to its daily peak, but already it's hot. The turquoise water is so calm I can see black durgons bobbing around the reef.
I must be furrowing my brow because he quickly adds, "We can think of a name while we're down there."
At 80 feet, we're cruising over a plump finger of reef 50 feet across jutting out from a general area known as Brimstone Shallows. Purple sea fans and bright yellow tube sponges spring from the reef, providing shelter for eels and arrow crabs. Visibility extends beyond 120 feet, allowing me to see the sand on both sides of this bank, but not its end.
I keep Auston's fins in sight because I sense he doesn't know where he's taking us. Not that he's an inexperienced guide hardly. He's totally at ease and seems happiest charging ahead underwater, not content to lead tourists on identical dives day after day. Auston seems to pursue the sport for the same reason the rest of us do: exploration.
As he steers us farther down the slope, I get the feeling I'm being watched. Turning, I find thousands of Creole wrasse streaming over me, rushing ahead. I wait, surveying the coral and a green turtle that's edged into my view from behind a sponge-covered rock outcropping, but the end of this indigo swirl of fish never comes.
I'm feeling giddy as we cut across the reef, over a sand patch sending a pair of southern stingrays in motion and peer under the ledges of a cove of reef before returning to the boat. Back aboard, I have a chance to ask Auston about the lack of a name for this dive site. "I just like to explore," he says. "So, did you come up with a name?"
I think for a moment. I'm tempted to honor the site with a name like Blue Frontier. Then I wonder if Tire Alley wouldn't do a better job of keeping this wonderful place secret.
LAY OF THE LAND
There are a few names every traveler to St. Kitts should learn, such as Greg's Safaris and Greg Pereira, its proprietor. This is my first visit to St. Kitts, and I want to see it all: the underwater vents, the wrecks, the rainforest and, of course, the sugar plantations.
And I hear that Greg is the guy. Born on St. Kitts, he speaks with a British-colonial accent (until 1983 the island was a British colony) and dresses as one might expect given the name of his company in hiking boots and safari hat. He's been leading tours in his bright green, open-air trucks for the past 20 years.
After my morning dives, I meet him for his plantation tour, which will take me plus a family of four visiting the island for the first time and a couple who returns yearly around the island to several estates and through the rainforest. As he steers us around the grounds of several plantation homes, each with a strategically placed banyan tree in front for shade, I try to imagine what these estates with their now-stilled fountains and overgrown gardens looked like in their heydays. Four centuries ago, British opportunists came to St. Kitts and brought slaves to tend to the sugar cane, which had to be harvested by hand due to the precipitous nature of the fertile areas.
As soon as the British investors made a sugar-cane fortune, they would return to the motherland, safe from slave rebellions and French invasions. But the sugar refinery business had an expiration date. Over the next two centuries, obstacles including a lack of available labor; increased competition from Cuba, Brazil and India; the collapse of sugar prices in the 1930s; and competition from cheaper-to-produce sugar beet slowly choked the industry. In 2005, the government, which had purchased the island's sugar-cane company a few decades prior, halted all production.But the cane fields, left untended to grow wild, remain, like the ghosts of a colonial past.
Our talk turns to the tourism industry, which replaced sugar as the dominant income source for most St. Kittians. The changes have been subtle, complementing the island's charm rather than paving over it. Several plantation homes have been converted into upscale boutique inns. The introduction of tourism dollars has helped preserve historic sites, including the Caribelle Batik Factory at Romney Manor and the former British stronghold Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park. New properties, including the two waterfront hotels with on-site dive centers Bird Rock Beach Hotel and the Ocean Terrace Inn have altered the landscape little. Like the sugar-cane fields, the natural greenery that Bird Rock has deliberately kept, like the yellow bougainvillea nestled between sea grape and palm trees, underscores the charm of the island.
A breeze silences us for a moment as we watch it carve a river through the grassy stalks of the sugar cane. The air that rushes past is sweet and minty, like a mojito. I imagine that someone harvesting the crop blazed this trail. Then Greg maneuvers his truck over a red-dirt, two-track that bisects the fields en route to the rainforest.
We're soon in shadow as Greg steers us under the rainforest canopy. The air is heavy with moisture and the earthy smell of moss. Vines fill the patches of sky unclaimed by the towering burr trees and cabbage palms. There's no resting point for the eye ropes of tree roots cascade from above, and giant ferns point their plate-size leaves in all directions. Everywhere is green.
As we wind through the hills, Greg shares with us that St. Kitts is one of a few places on earth where the rainforest is not shrinking, but actually growing, slowly overtaking the dormant sugar-cane fields. Chalk one up for Mother Nature.
The next morning, the water we swim through is much warmer than our previous dives. I'm with Pro Divers again, and we're at a crater 65 feet beneath the surface. Auston has taken me to a dive site with a name the Vent. Here, a fissure in the underwater landscape allows the volcanic matter beneath to release heat and bits of organic matter, but not lava. It's one of several in the water surrounding St. Kitts not surprising given that nearby Mount Liamuiga is a volcano (it last erupted some 1,800 years ago).
The Vent looks like a large rabbit hole, but its sides aren't dirt they're cooled magma.
My dive computer says the water rushing out is at 89 degrees, but it seems hotter because it's almost unbearable against my face. I opt to cool off and let the surge propel me away. The plumes of hot fresh water etch curls into the cooler salt water, carrying with them morsels of burnt-orange volcanic matter.
The water spewing forth is not only hotter than the seawater; it's also richer in nutrients. Shooting up from the crags in the reef are rope and tube sponges all red, orange and yellow, giving the impression that a wildfire is spreading from the volcanic vents. Flamefish 3-inch-long, bright-orange members of the cardinalfish family flicker between the sponges, completing the illusion.
In his pre-dive, Auston mentioned that he occasionally finds seahorses curled near the vent, and although we miss spotting any today, we encounter several gold-spotted eels, stone crabs the size of breadfruits and lobsters twitching their antennae, betraying their presence.
We follow the cut between the reef's rolling slope that borders sand. A female hawksbill turtle is startled by our presence and tries to avoid our gaze by ducking behind a brain coral. More Creole wrasse pour past, and I wonder how many schools of wrasse patrol these sites.
I always tend to get a bit chilled after longer dives, and toward the end of this one, my thoughts turn to the volcanic vent. Knowing that it wouldn't be the most prudent plan to revisit the dive's deepest point, I keep myself from signaling to Auston that I'd like to go back to the vents to warm up and have another look. I know I'll travel to this island again, but for now I settle for a sprawl in the sun aboard the boat.
IN SEARCH OF MONKEYS
When I hear that St. Kitts has a monkey population one that outnumbers the island's human residents, in fact I can't stop myself from mentioning the subject around taxi drivers, waiters and anyone else who will listen.
I'm told that to see monkeys roaming freely I should head south to the bone end of the turkey-drumstick-shaped island where the land narrows into the southeast peninsula, past the Great Salt Pond, to the far tip. They say to bring a picnic.
Armed with Kashi granola bars, I hop into my rental car and wind past Frigate Bay to the island's southeast peninsula. Here, the copses of palm trees thin out, now surrounded by scrub brush and cacti. The road carries me into the red-sand valley surrounding the Great Salt Pond, where goats nibble on grass so near my path that I have to slow to avoid hitting them.
After 20 minutes, a weathered wooden sign directs me to Cockleshell Beach. This wasn't my intended destination, but it seems like a good one.
Just as a daisy chain of potholes interrupts the dirt road, a lone grayish figure lopes in front of the car, crossing the road to where five green vervet monkeys await. As I slowly remove my camera from its case, the monkey eyes me with suspicion, flicking its tail into the air, forming a question mark, before quickening its pace to keep up with the tribe.
Here are all the monkeys the contrast between their black faces and the surrounding white fur makes them easy to spot. The grayish-green fur on their backs inspired the species' name. Their long, almost hairless tails seem to supply most of their power, suspend them from trees and whip them about. It seems that the area surrounding the Great Salt Pond is a veritable monkey playpen. As they turn their backs on me, I think of the French who brought them here as pets in the 1600s. When the Treaty of 1783 returned the island to the British, the French were driven out, but they left behind the monkeys, which like the stalks of sugar cane have been free to spread wildly throughout the island.
As much as I want to get out of the car and see if perhaps I can entice a curious monkey to grab a granola snack from my open palm, the ocean ahead beckons, and I am compelled to keep driving.
At this spot, all the elements that define a relaxing tropical beach are present: seclusion, thanks to the long drive; a long stretch of powdery sand that meets the water and stays shallow for yards; and beach bars a pair in fact with blenders at the ready.
The sounds of Peter Tosh and the smell of barbecue lure me to the one at the sand's far edge: Reggae Beach Bar. Lounge chairs and yellow umbrellas line the beach leading to the open-air joint. The bar is dotted with playful touches a cow skull that might be more at home at a dude ranch watching over the slightly sunburned patrons and a white chandelier sparkling above the bartender's head.
A voice asking if I'd like company startles me. Its owner introduces himself as Clayton, who then gestures toward a table of friends who raise their glasses and ask me to join them. I happily agree.
It turns out the group's members are all winter residents of Sealoft, a condominium community on Frigate Bay. They're from all over Clayton from Ontario, Larry from Ohio, Alyne from upstate New York, Sharon and Roy from Missouri, Ray and Joyce from Florida. The conversation turns to the rum punch a few of us are enjoying and the competition the drink fosters between several bars that serve their own versions of the Caribbean classic. The group declares that I have to try them all to be fair to St. Kitts.
Our next stop in the beach bar crawl is just a few yards away: Lions Beach Bar. Lion Rock, the owner whose white beard is neatly kept in dreadlocks, greets us with hugs and a round of punch. It's the same muddy orange as the last, but slightly sweeter. As I sip, I take in the bar's sights: a sand volleyball court, bands of red, yellow and green painted on every surface, and the beach glimmering with the light of the sinking sun.
The last stop before calling it a day: Shipwreck Beach Bar. It's a short drive back toward Frigate Bay and completely obscured from the road. Just before sunset, we take seats around the wooden bar, autographed by guests from around the world. Coconut rum differentiates Shipwreck's punch from the rest. While sampling this version, I notice several tourists balancing cameras in front of their noses and follow the direction their lenses are pointing: There on the hill, grabbing at the sugar-cane offerings placed there to tempt them, is a pair of green vervet monkeys. They're not so hard to find after all.
MESS OF WRECKS
Labeling the MV River Taw a wreck dive is a gross understatement the 144-foot-long former freighter is an experience.
A decade of service landed the Taw in the Basseterre Harbour in the 1980s, when a storm blew it onto the pier as it dragged anchor. The damaged hull was repaired, and the ship was moved to Frigate Bay. Despite repairs, the ship started leaking and slowly exhaled until it rested in 40 feet of water. But hurricanes tend to rearrange landscapes both topside and underwater and Hugo in 1989 was no exception.
Rick Kerr, a divemaster working for PADI Resort Facility Dive St. Kitts, leads the dive, winding around the two halves of the Taw split thanks to Hugo's 25-foot seas and points out angelfish, corkscrew anemones, lobsters and crabs. It's another perfect day on St. Kitts, and the sunlight streams through the clear water, pooling on the wreck and illuminating the critters crawling among the sponges and coral.
Ship Happens, a small boat deposited in the surrounding sand to attract fish to the area, lies approximately 150 yards to the north. And on the other side of that is a bulldozer.
Taking a permanent pit stop in the sand nearby is an abandoned Volkswagen minibus, sunk by locals for amusement. At first glance, it's a fun backdrop for photos but further inspection Rick's not mine reveals two octopi folded into the spaces beneath the bucket seats.
The Taw's anchor chain, which stretches as far as the minibus, leads back to the freighter, simplifying navigation. Tires have been placed under the chain to prevent them from disappearing into the sand and have added further structures to serve as fish havens. Each tire has become a cleaning station.
At the end of the dive, a swarm of yellowtail snappers, sergeant majors and yellow goatfish surrounds us as we wait out our safety stops near the mooring line. They dart in front of my mask and attempt to crawl into my BC. Never before have I been eyed so closely by curious fish. I start to wonder if I tucked anything away in my pockets, then figure, "Why question it?" and just watch as they keep circling.
Back aboard the boat, I gush at how friendly the fish like the residents are in St. Kitts.
Rick smiles and says, "That's because we feed them." I don't ask him if he means the residents or the fish.
DON'T DRINK THE GOAT WATER
My newfound friends invite me to Sunday brunch for goat water and rum punch. Before I get too far imagining what part of the goat is used in this alleged liquid delicacy, they assure me it's delicious and deserving of a more apt name. Plus, they tell me that the menu at Circus Grill is packed with other items, like salads, burgers and rotis.
The open-air restaurant is perched on the second story of a building with a wraparound terrace that encompasses views of the ocean and the green clock tower that is the town 's centerpiece.
As Ellis the waiter comes for our order, I hesitate. Goat cheese is delicious, but the idea of anything called "goat water" gives me pause. But everyone at the table orders it. Not wanting to break the rhythm, I too order a medium goat water and a rum punch.
The rum punch arrives first, and it's the island's best a tart combination that's not sweet or overpowering. We ask, and Ellis, who is also responsible for making jugs of the punch, shares the recipe. It turns out all that's in the elixir is lime juice, brown sugar, rum and water.
As we marvel about the simple recipe, the goat water arrives. The steam coming from the bowl smells of rosemary and thyme. It's not a watery drink or soup but a thick stew. Snugged in the bowl are mounds of potatoes, dumplings and chunks of goat meat still on the bone.
I savor the goat water, also not too overwhelmed by complex flavors, and consider that simple ingredients can create a winning recipe. Sometimes all you need is diving that stays interesting day after day, stellar visibility, a mess of wrecks, a rainforest and beautiful, sprawling beaches. It seems to be working for St. Kitts.
Special thanks to St. Kitts Tourism (stkitts tourism.kn), Bird Rock Beach Hotel (bird rockbeach.com), Dive St. Kitts (divest kitts.com), Pro Divers (prodiversstkitts.com), Ocean Terrace Inn (oceanterra ceinn.com), Kenneth's Dive Center and Greg's Safaris.
Learn about the 13-step process that cloth undergoes to become batik and watch demonstrations at Caribelle Batik at Romney Manor. While there, tour the lush grounds of the estate once owned by Thomas Jefferson's grandfather. On Thursday nights, bring an appetite to the Shiggedy Shack, a Frigate Bay beach bar institution serving barbecue spareribs, jerk chicken and rotis, and stay for the bonfire that blazes post-sunset. For a quieter change of pace, cruise past the sugar-cane fields on the north side of the island and wind up the hill to Ottley's Plantation Inn where you can savor upscale eats and the view. Just to the left of the Royal Palm restaurant is a short rainforest hike where you'll surely see and hear monkeys thrashing in the trees.
The Guide to St. Kitts
Average water temperature: 75-82°F
What to wear: shorty in summer, 3 mm fullsuit in winter
Average visibility: 60-120 feet
When to go: year-round
Learn how the British defeated the French at the Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Perched hillside, the sprawling, stone fortress is prized for the amount of labor invested in it and its architecture it's one of the earliest and best examples of the polygonal system of defense. Plus, the best panoramic views are here.
The Vent: A fissure where volcanic steam bubbles rise from the earth.
MV River Taw: A wrecked freighter that sank in 1980 and is now covered in growth. The popular site includes numerous additional stuctures, like a VW minibus.
Brimstone Shallows: A pristine reef two miles from shore that's home to grouper, schoolmates and turtles.
MV Talata: Since 1985, this freigher has housed rays, grunts and groupers.
Coconut Tree: Dive it shallow or dive it deep this sweeping reef starts at 40 feet and drops to 200.
At Caribelle Batik, take your pick of this Indonesian influenced, Caribbean craft made of hand-waxed and dyed fabric it's adorned on an array of men's and women's clothing, wall hangings and accessories.
Rigged & Ready
Smythson Diving Journal: Cherish every dive's memories by recording your adventures in this timeless, leather logbook. smythson.com
St. Kitts Listings
Explore St. Kitts stkittstourism.kn
Greg's Safaris gregsafaris.com
Dive St. Kitts divestkitts.com
Kenneth's Dive Center kennethsdivecenter.com
Pro Divers prodiversstkitts.com
Bird Rock Beach Hotel birdrockbeach.com
Frigate Bay Resort frigatebay.com
Ocean Terrace Inn oceanterraceinn.com
Royal St. Kitts Hotel and Casino royalstkittshotel.com