Friday, November 27, 2015

Nevis: The little Caribbean island that could

Sugar was once the primary source of revenue for Nevis -- Today it's tourism, but you can still relive the past  (Taylor)
NEVIS Nevis just may be the Rip Van Winkle of the Caribbean. The sleepy little island nestled just across the channel from its big sister St. Kitts is in a quiet corner of the world all its own.

Nevis is a perfect synonym for serenity where the biggest event of the day is usually the sunrise with its promise of perpetual solitude in paradise.

Avenue of the Palms at Nisbet Plantation  (Taylor)
Nobody really knows how Nevis got its name which is derived from the Spanish Nuestra Senora de las Nieves meaning “Our Lady of the Snows.” The reference comes from a rare snowfall on the Esquiline Hill in 4th century Rome. Many believe the theory is based upon the clouds that usually surround the summit of Nevis Peak which apparently reminded someone of the miracle snow in Italy centuries ago.

Nevis is also known as the “Queen of the Caribees” thanks to its once thriving sugar industry in the 18th century. Today tourism is the primary source of revenue, but the island has wisely incorporated its past to sweeten the transition.

Looking across the "Narrows" toward St Kitts (Taylor)
Situated a little more than 200 miles east-southeast of Puerto Rico, Nevis and St Kitts gained their independence from the United Kingdom in 1983. They are separated by a shallow two mile channel known as “The Narrows.”

Most visitors arrive in Nevis by water taxis that take approximately 10 minutes from St. Kitts, but the island does have an airport which can accommodate small planes.

For a tiny place, Nevis has a rich history which it ingeniously uses to promote modern day tourism. When Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, the French Canadian founder of Louisiana decided to drive the English out of Nevis in 1706, many plantation owners burned their property rather than allowing the French to take control.

Ironically, it was primarily the African plantation slaves who took up arms to defend their families against the French invaders.
Golden Rock Plantation is famous for its lush gardens  (Taylor)
Two important consequences resulted; the sugar industry ultimately collapsed and small plots of land from the plantations were offered to the previously enslaved families. Today, Nevis has a population of roughly 12,000 inhabitants who are mostly of African decent.

When slavery was abolished in 1834, the first Monday in August was set aside as Emancipation Day as part of the island’s annual Nevis Culturama Festival.

Typical cottage at Nisbet Plantation  (Taylor)
But given its laid back personality, there are other historical aspects to Nevis which are fascinating.  British naval hero Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson was married to the 22-year old daughter of a plantation owner there in 1787. Frances (Fanny) Nisbet lived at Nisbet Plantation, one of four sugar plantations that have been renovated into upscale resorts.

The first United States secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was born on Nevis and spent the first years of his life there.

Other natives include Rupert Crosse, the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and actress Cicely Tyson who has won multiple Emmys and was nominated for an Oscar in 1972.
Remnants of its sugar history at Nisbet Plantation Resort, once the home of Fannie Nisbet wife of Lord Nelson (Taylor)
Even lesser known, but no less important, is the story of Captain John Smith who visited Nevis while sailing to Virginia in 1607. It was during Smith’s voyage that the first permanent English settlement of Jamestown was founded in the New World.

Yet, with such a rich history, time still passes slowly on the island of Nevis and the residents wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bath Hotel and Spa was the first hotel in the Caribbean -- It is now an office building but the hot springs remain (Taylor)
Electricity wasn’t introduced until 1954, but it was not available throughout the island until 1971. Despite that, Nevis was home to the first hotel in the Caribbean, the luxurious Bath Hotel and Spa built by John Huggins in 1778. Huggins created his property to take advantage of the small but soothing medicinal waters of the nearby hot spring fed by the thermal activity of Nevis Peak.

The thermal baths of Nevis fed by Nevis Peak  (Taylor)
Though the hotel is now an office building, the hot springs remain active for visitors to enjoy “taking the waters.”

Each of the former sugar plantations that has been converted into resorts features its own charm and character. The deluxe Four Seasons Hotel is the only chain hotel on Nevis as well as the only Four Seasons hotel in the Caribbean.

Life on Nevis centers around the water. Pinney’s Beach, on the western coast, is the most developed beach on the island.
Five star luxury of the Four Season Hotel on the tiny five star island of Nevis  (Taylor)
Though tourism thrives, the island is too small to accommodate large cruise ships. With 400 hotel rooms, half of which belong to the Four Seasons, Nevis’ goal is not to add more hotels but to fill the rooms they already have.
Montpelier Resort is near the site of the wedding between Admiral Lord Nelson and Fannie Nisbet  (Taylor)
Nevis is a place where a chorus of invisible tree frogs will serenade you to sleep. A place where soft breezes caress the palm trees to sound like a gentle rain. A place where time gets lost within its own timelessness.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Nevis Triathlon: Swimming, cycling and running in the sun

The famous Avenue of the Palms at Nisbet Plantation on Nevis is the gateway to serenity  (Taylor)
 CHARLESTOWN, NEVIS Take one tiny island in the Caribbean and add athletes from more than a dozen countries who swim, bike and run through paradise. Simmer for four and a half hours in the West Indies sunshine of Nevis and you have the recipe for a world class triathlon.

Swimming at sunrise on Nevis  (Taylor)
Judging from the reactions of the competitors in this year’s Nevis Triathlon, the miniature gumdrop shaped island just may be home to the most beautiful triathlon venue in the world.

In 2015, the Nevis Triathlon earned itself an international reputation for anyone who dares take up the challenge. Competitors came from around the world: the United States, the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, China and South Africa as well as relatively local athletes from Trinidad/Tobago and Belize.

At six, young Vlad of Romania was the youngest  (Taylor)
The youngest competitor at just 6 years of age traveled with his family all the way from Romania to participate. And the oldest, Dr. Gordon Avery at age 81, has participated in all 14 of the Nevis Triathlons. As a beloved island resident, Avery was clearly the crowd favorite.

Festivities began precisely at 7 am with three scheduled events. The shortest, known as the “Try-a-Tri,” is geared for first timers, smaller children and people who might not be sure they want to test their skills in three events on a hot Saturday morning in November.
Dr. Gordon Avery, 81 of Nevis, was the oldest triathlete -- it was his 14th Nevis Triathlon  (Taylor)
The Try-a-Tri includes a 100 meter swim, a 10K bike ride and a 2.5K run.

For triathlon veterans the Nevis37 involves a 500 meter swim, followed by one lap around the circumference of the island on a bicycle, a distance of 20 miles, and a 5K run.

Competing in paradise (Taylor)
The ultimate challenge is Nevis73 which doubles the distances of the sprint.

Ordinarily Nevis is a quiet place with its distinctive humpbacked mountain landmark Mount Nevis situated roughly in the center of the island. On triathlon day however, the main harbor in Charlestown swells with loud music and raucous competitors and spectators.

Nevis is filled with history. British naval hero Admiral Lord Nelson was married to Fanny Nisbet, the daughter of a sugar plantation owner in the late 18th century.  Today, Nisbet Plantation is a favorite island resort with its yellow cottages and its famed Avenue of the Palms that leads to the beach.
Typical cottage at Nevis Plantation  (Taylor)

Alexander Hamilton was born on Nevis in either 1755 or 1757. The actual year is uncertain. Hamilton was Father of the United States Coast Guard, founder of The New York Post and the first United States Secretary of the Treasury. For this reason, his portrait graces our modern day ten dollar bill.

But in mid-November, the eyes -- and arms and legs -- of the world turn toward Nevis where the triathlon is quickly gaining a global reputation.

If there is one place on the course that makes competitors groan it’s the dreaded Anaconda Hill. Though not especially steep, Anaconda’s length never seems to stop. It just keeps going…and going…and going. As cyclists reach the first water station, believing they have reached Anaconda’s summit, they realize they are only 75% finished which brings groans of despair as they grudgingly peddle onward and upward.
Montpelier Resort is another sugar plantation that has been converted to accommodate guests on Nevis  (Taylor)
Nevis73 riders are particularly challenged because they know they must battle Anaconda a second time around the island.

The run goes from the start/finish line in Charlestown out to the Four Seasons Hotel, the only chain hotel on Nevis. Runners must go out and back at least once, but Nevis73 competitors have the joy of doing it twice.
Kevin Mackinnon (center) of Canada won the men's Nevis37 with a time of 1:37  (Taylor)
During the course of their bike ride, cyclists sometimes encounter donkeys, goats or even an occasional monkey. In fact, there are more monkeys on Nevis than people. Fortunately they are shy and don’t bother humans, but they are still a nuisance.

Three sided trophies sculpted from local stone (Taylor)
Trophies are awarded for the top three places in each category for men and for women. This year’s sculptures, carved from local stone by an artisan from Nevis, featured three sides representing each of the skills involved.

As the event wears on, temperatures rise and the competition becomes more intense thanks to the heat. When asked how hot it was out there, one woman replied, “I think it was a million degrees.”

To her credit she finished, as did everyone else, and the temps did not quite reach a million.

The overall winner was Jason Costello of Trinidad who, oddly enough, was the only male participant in the Nevis73 race.

It was a congenial atmosphere nestled within the island beauty of Nevis, just across the channel from big sister, St. Kitts. If there were any complaints, some participants wished there had been time to learn more about the course before heading out into the sun.
At Nisbet Plantation a sugar mill ruin is a reminder of the history of Nevis  (Taylor)
Certainly the hills and terrain of Nevis provided the ultimate challenge, and with that came stunning island views and an accomplishment that even the most diehard triathlete will long remember.

Just as the slogan says, “Nevis….Naturally.”

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Christmas markets in Germany are Wunderbar!

Wooden soldier guards the entrance to the Baden-Baden Christmas market  (Taylor)
GERMANY  If ever there was a country ideally suited for celebrating the Christmas season, it would have to be Germany.

European Christmas markets are rapidly becoming destinations all their own and, if over the years you have lost your Yuletide spirit, Europe will rekindle those youthful joys of yore at any of its hundreds of marketplaces.

Christmas markets appeal to all ages  (Taylor)
Christmas markets trace their roots to the German-speaking regions of Europe in the late Middle Ages. In Germany the markets are known as Christkindelsmarkt which literally means “Christ child market.”

Though it may sound like an oxymoron, the markets are generally the same, yet somehow, each is also unique with its own character and personality.
And then there are the lights.

Most markets are held in the town square and adjacent pedestrian zones. They can be compact or they may spread throughout a city or town, but they all sell food, drink and seasonal items from open-air stalls, accompanied by singing and dancing.
A snowy day only adds to the atmosphere  (Taylor)
Thanks to Germany’s half-timbered houses and narrow cobblestone streets with glowing streetlamps, all made so familiar to Americans in Walt Disney’s films, it is this atmosphere that captures even the most curmudgeonly heart.

Oddly enough, this is the one traveling season of the year when foul weather is a plus. Let it snow or sleet or rain. It doesn’t matter. That only adds to the fun.

Hot mulled gluhwein is the drink of choice  (Taylor)
Every market features hot spiced mulled wine. In Germany, gluhwein as it is called, will chase away a chill and make you forget about the elements within seconds. Stop by a stall for a hot pretzel or a sausage with mustard and a hard roll and you have officially chased away the Christmas blues forever.

The best part is that the marketplaces are usually so compact, it is also easy to duck into a cozy pub or café if the wet stuff becomes too much to handle.  

The magic of Germany’s Christmas markets, along with her European sisters, is how they recreate Christmas as it once was. For travelers weary of Christmas commercialism, a Christmas market is the perfect place to get away from it all and experience crafts, wood carvings, puppets, candles and gingerbread all enhanced by a myriad of seasonal aromas.
Many manger scenes feature live animals and petting areas  (Taylor)
The tricky part is deciding which market to visit. On the other hand, since each unique, just pick two or three places you want to experience and let yourself explore. Absorb the atmosphere through your pores and Christmas will wash over you as never before.

Most markets start the last week of November and run to Christmas Eve or a couple of days before. Usually they are open from 10 in the morning until about 8 or 9 pm. If you want to mingle with locals, perhaps the best time to go is in the early evening around six o’clock.
Nothing like a giant pretzel on a cold night  (Taylor)

In Germany there are close to 70 Christmas markets from which to choose. Here are a few just to whet your appetite, but they are by no means necessarily preferential to others.

Baden-Baden: This ancient spa and festival city nestles in the hills of the legendary Black Forest. The market always features a multitude of choirs, orchestras and bands that perform daily in front of the Kurhaus with its colonnades lit by thousands of lights.

Lights and decorations are part of the festive atmospher at the Christmas markets  (Taylor)
One particularly popular attraction is Baden-Baden’s “living crèche” which is a manger scene complete with bleating sheep and other animals amid the smell of freshly cut hay.

Start early and stroll through the Old Town of this 2,000 year old city past its two famous spas before wandering into the market for a Christmas you will never forget.

Freiburg: Also situated at the edge of the Black Forest, Freiburg’s most famous monument is the Minster of Our Lady, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture which is the focal point of the market.
The market in Freiburg centers around its Old Town and Gothic minster  (wikipedia)
Freibug’s Old Town is the gateway to several squares that are surrounded by historic buildings and its famous channels that gurgle their way through the narrow streets of the city. Once used for a variety of purposes, Freiburg’s tiny canals add their own special flair to its market.

Heidelberg: Nestled high on a hill overlooking the Nekar River, Heidelberg’s market encompasses five historic market squares. With more than 140 stalls, Christmas market connoisseurs say that Heidelberg is an absolute “must see” destination.

Away in a manger  (Taylor)
Heidelberg is a university town which gives it a youthful flair amid its oldy worldy wooden huts that blend with the historic squares of the Old City.

Europe’s longest pedestrian shopping street, the Haupstrasse, is filled with illuminations that give it a charming fairy tale presence.

Just beneath Heidelberg’s famed castle is an attraction known as “Christmas on Ice” which is situated on the Karlsplatz. Many people say this is the Germany’s loveliest setting during the Yuletide season.

Here, as in Baden-Baden and many other markets, there is a manger with live animals including a petting area.
Christmas in Europe is the way Christmas used to be  (Taylor)
If you, like many of us, have been seeking to regain the spirit of Christmas, consider the Christmas markets of Germany and Europe. They will capture your heart and energize your soul to a simpler day we thought could never return. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

In St. Barts, it takes LeVillage to feel at home

Paradise Found -- The view of St. Barts from the swimming pool at LeVillage  (LeVillage)
ST. BARTS, WEST INDIES Christopher Columbus discovered St.Barts on his second voyage in 1493. Andre Charneau rediscovered it in 1968. Old Chris may be better known to most people, but it was the pioneering vision of Charneau, and  others like him, that uncovered the true spirit of the tiny West Indian paradise.

In the five centuries between Columbus and the mid-20th century, Sweden controlled the island between 1784 and 1878, and that influence remains an integral part of the island’s character even though today it is French. So much so, in fact, that it is often called the “St Tropez of the Caribbean.” 

LeVillage owner Catherine Charneau 
Since Columbus, other celebrities have followed. David Rockefeller purchased two plots in 1957. Soon after the Rothschilds arrived and built an estate in a coconut grove.

The 70s brought Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jimmy Buffet and the stars having been aligning there ever since to establish St. Barts’ as a glitzy jet-setters hideaway for the past half century.

But there is another side to St Barts. The one that Catherine Charneau understands and passionately advocates to every visitor she encounters. Catherine is co-owner of LeVillage St Jean Hotel along with her three brothers. Together, they have embraced the vision of their father Andre, and captured his entrepreneurial spirit that is the essence of the island.

LeVillage St Jean is a metaphor for the island. Everything is there, visible to the naked eye, but to appreciate it you must peel away the layers. Celebrities come and celebrities go, but St Barts and the “idea” of LeVillage are eternal.

Perhaps part of the attraction is that you have to make a little effort to visit St Barts. You must work a bit for what you get in return, but if you do, the island will reward you.
Gustavia Harbor on the island of St Barts  (Taylor)
LeVillage is much the same, as are the industrious islanders who have labored to create their image and now work even harder to preserve it.

St Barts is upscale but it has "hidden" assets  (Taylor)
Andre Charneau was a native of Guadeloupe who came to St Barts in the late 1960s when major corporations began to infringe upon his banana business. After searching several places in the Caribbean, he settled in St Barts on a hillside overlooking St Jean Beach.

Charneau wisely chose his location to avoid the seaside which was more exposed to hurricanes. At the time, the road was little more than a pathway. Visitors were rare and the airport, which today is an attraction in its own right, had only one flight a day…if that.

Virtually everything had to be imported, including water. Ironically, even today, clean water is a precious commodity valued at about ten times the cost of other places where it is abundant. As such, the Charneau’s, and other native islanders, are dedicated environmentalists, knowing all too well the value of nature and its life-giving resources.
The exercise room as seen from the pool at LeVillage  (LeVillage)
In the early days, Andre shipped tons of hurricane-felled timber from his native Guadeloupe to create his first bungalows. Ingeniously he equipped his construction projects with cisterns for fresh water.

Later he was the first to bring air conditioning to the island.

Food is a main attraction on the island  (Taylor)
By 1972 he had turned a fisherman’s hut on the beach just below his property into the Beach Club, the first seaside restaurant on St Barts.

Today with 80 restaurants on the island, of which 20 are located in the capital of Gustavia, food is one of the primary attractions. Mostly French, of course, but even Jimmy Buffet’s influence will get you a great cheeseburger. Air conditioning is everywhere and now, there are several flights an hour at the air field, which is the only straight and flat place on the island.
Arriving by air is an experience all its own  (Taylor)
In the beginning, LeVillage had just one bungalow, but Charneau added at least two a year until it reached its present size of 25 rooms and 2 villas.
Rooms with a view are part of the charm of LeVillage  (LeVillage)
Eventually clients such Craig Claiborne and Greta Garbo made their way to LeVillage. They too enjoyed the family atmosphere of the property as do the “friends of LeVillage” who met there years ago and now return each February.

Regular ferry service from St. Maarten (Taylor)
By the time she was 18, Catherine was running the hotel, and the “family” style concept remains evident in everything LeVillage incorporates into their business philosophy.

“Day trippers see St Barts,” says Catherine who is the best public relations resource on the island, “but they don’t feel St Barts, because you have to absorb it to understand it.

Taxis are expensive. Realizing the best way to experience St Barts, the Charneaus have made special arrangements with Hertz for rental car services. All the car rental agencies are available at the airport, but Hertz will even bring a car to the port if you arrive by boat.
Bamboo is the hotel mascot  (Taylor)

The biggest challenge for Catherine, her youngest brother Bertrand, their right hand assistant, Jean-Phillippe, and Bamboo, the resident mascot, in running LeVillage is to “retain its character, without losing its identity.”

That is also true for St Barts itself.

LeVillage is the only 4-star hotel property on St Barts, which translates to value for the traveling dollar. Each room is different. Many feature kitchens which allow guests to cook should they choose not to dine out every evening. Rates are seasonal.

LeVillage has no restaurant, but continental breakfast is included. Eggs, bacon and pancakes are available for a small extra charge. In addition to the soothing Caribbean views, the breakfast room also features a piano and comfortable sofas.

Boule is a popular pastime  (Taylor)
Today, the swimming pool has replaced one of the original cisterns. There is an exercise room and massages are also available. If you like, you can even play a rousing game of boule, or bocce ball.

As Catherine proudly notes about the ample supply of books, “We have even re-introduced reading into the culture.”

By reputation, St Barts is called “chic”, “glamorous” and “glitzy.” Catherine Charneau has another word which is more appropriate. She calls it “quality.”
St Jean Beach is arguably the most popular beach on the island  (Taylor)
You see the magic of LeVillage and St Barts is subtlety. It’s all there, but it’s up to you to seek it out. Columbus may have “found” St Barts, but Andre Charneau and his family “discovered” it. 
St Barts is compact but LeVillage captures every aspect of its magic  (LeVillage)
LeVillage St Jean is one place on St Barts where you can truly Vive la difference!