Sugar, Sand and Sightseeing on St. Kitts

St. Kitts A beach in St. Kitts. Photo by Victor Block
A beach in St. Kitts. Photo by Victor Block

During his second voyage to the New World in 1493, Christopher Columbus sighted a tiny island that rose dramatically from its shoreline to volcanic peaks in the interior. He named the dot of land Sant Jago Saint James), after the Patron Saint of Spain. Due to misinterpretation of the name on maps by explorers who followed Chris to the area, it came to be known as San Cristobal (Saint Christopher), and that name – shortened to St. Kitts – stuck.

Travel in St. Kitts

Saint Kitts and the neighboring island of Nevis make up one country, and travel in St. Kitts reveals its unique blend of roots. English and French settlers followed Columbus to the island in the early 1600s and established a lucrative sugar trade which spanned two centuries, and accounted for an influx of slaves from Africa. England eventually wound up in control of St. Kitts, which achieved its independence in 1983.

Given that history, traces of British influence are commingled with elements of African and indigenous cultures, providing a rich mosaic which touches many aspects of life. For example, vehicles are driven on the left side of the road, cricket is the most popular sport and some restaurant menus meld Caribbean and African fare with touches of England.

History of Sugar on St. Kitts

The romance of the island with sugar began around 1640 at a time when its use to sweeten food was increasing around the world, along with the added benefits of producing molasses and rum.

The rich volcanic soil and perfect climate prompted the proliferation of plantations, which sprouted like the cane they cultivated. St. Kitts came to be blanketed by some 200 plantations that grew cane, which was processed at nearly 80 factories.

St.Kitts The sugar mill ruins. Photo by Victor Block
The sugar mill ruins. Photo by Victor Block

What to See and Do in St. Kitts

But that heyday could not, and did not, last forever. Over time, over planting impoverished the soil, competition increased and external economic conditions brought an end to the era of sugar. While some sugar cane still is grown and processed on St. Kitts today, tourism and light manufacturing now are the basis of the economy.

Visitors may relive the heady days of sugar wealth by exploring the remains of the once-thriving plantations. Ruins of cone-shaped stone windmill towers, rusted steam-driven cane crushers and huge copper bowls in which the juice was boiled lie half-hidden in the vegetation as reminders of the once flourishing sugar economy.

St. Kitts Scenic Railway

A pleasant way to recall the sugar plantation life is aboard the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, which offers a 30-mile, three-hour tour along the northeastern coastline. In the past, the train that chugged along the narrow-gauge rails delivered cane from plantations to a sugar factory in the capital city of Basseterre.

Now passengers in double-deck cars enjoy views of the sea, pass through tiny villages, skirt lush rain forest terrain and spot long-abandoned windmills and chimneys of former estates.

A welcome and somewhat surprising attraction on the island is a population of green vervet monkeys, which were introduced by French plantation owners some 300 years ago as pets for their families. These endearing creatures, which are named for their golden-green fur, prefer to hang out at high elevations, peering inquisitively through the dense foliage at any intruders.

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