One of my favorite moments in traveling to tropical islands is crossing the threshold from plane to stairway down to the tarmac. Usually, no matter the time of day, the warmth of that first step brings forth the sort of giddiness concomitant to anything you love.
For me, that thing has always been small pieces of land in the middle of a temperate ocean. But as I get older and more focused on the "trend" (and by trend, I mean necessity) of self-care, my pursuits go beyond plopping down on the nearest beach and not leaving until my plane does. Now, I need to factor in opportunities for exercise, healthy eating, contemplation and rejuvenation. Yoga retreats and similar wellness vacations are not in my budget, and in any case, I wouldn't want the already mapped out itinerary that comes with group travel. So, I sought to design my own getaway, complete with all of the Zen this mid-30s mum desires, on the Caribbean island of Nevis.
Nevis is the ideal locale for a self-guided wellness trip because it offers the perfect balance of solitude and social interaction. Luxury is all around Nevis if that's what you're looking for, but it's accompanied by genuine friendliness and affordability. In five days, I came back refreshed, but with my bank account still intact.
Nevis is part of a two-island federation in the West Indies. There are no direct flights from the United States; visitors must stop in St. Kitts, the "big sister" island, then take a two-mile, 10-minute trip by water taxi across the channel. Once on Nevis, options for traversing the island's 36 square miles include rental car, taxi or the "bus," small passenger vans that are accessible along the 20-mile main loop around the island. I had no problem using these options to get to the elements of my stay, traveling easily between my hotel, restaurants and locations that offered relaxation or recreation. Walking is an option too, if you don't mind sharing the road with the occasional donkey.
My home base was the Golden Rock Inn , which was chosen with serenity in mind. With its soundtrack of jungle animals and rustling bamboo, lush landscape and tranquil views, it didn't disappoint. And there are so many nooks and crannies around the 100-acre property that you could spend days without leaving, immersed in your own self-led yoga practice and meditation and fragrant walks through the carefully planned gardens. I also took a tour with the master gardener that taught me to identify flowers, trees, some medicinal plants and highlight some for overall aesthetics. The on-site restaurant became my chosen breakfast spot; it serves a bowl of local mixed fruit and fresh squeezed orange juice with every menu item.
Nevis, in general, has easy access to healthy food, one of the essentials of a wellness vacation, with tropical fruits such as mango and star fruit readily available and restaurants that really take pride in cooking with ingredients from their land. As I traveled around the island, I passed many roadside stands selling fresh produce - or sometimes even barbecue (comfort food has its place, especially when traveling).
The Tastee Jamaican Bakery, near the public ferry terminal, makes fresh juice using ingredients such as ginger, lemon grass, dragonfruit and soursop. (Nevisians swear the leaves of the soursop tree are a natural sleep aid.)
Montpelier, a boutique hotel built around an old sugar plantation, offers two on-site restaurants, one with a more poolside, casual vibe and healthy menu options: The chef offers fresh, organic foods including mahi-mahi, spiny lobster, gazpacho, cauliflower gnocchi and curried conch stew.
Coming from Maine, I knew I had to try the spiny lobster, and did so at the museum-like Riviere House, a restaurant, art gallery and "cinema" where diners can eat on an open-air porch in the back. Although I definitely prefer the cold-water lobster in my neck of the sea, having the ability to see the work of Nevisian artists was an unexpected delight.
In addition to healthy food, relaxation and contemplation are easy to find on Nevis. I found a gem for such pursuits within walking distance of the Montpelier hotel. The Botanical Gardens of Nevis , with 100 species of palms, a couple dozen Buddha statues, orchids, fountains, fruit trees and a Rainforest Conservatory complete with comical parrots, is a place where the Zen just finds you.
I also stopped in Bath Hot Springs, an easy pull-off from the main road, just outside the downtown area of Charleston. Its volcanic thermal baths have been known for their therapeutic properties for centuries. Next to the springs, a brightly coloured shop called Bare Necessities sells local essential oils and other holistic products.
I wouldn't say the heart of Charleston, the main town, lends itself to a meditative state, but the hustle and bustle is at more of a relaxed pace than many tourist destinations. As I wandered in and out of shops, I experienced firsthand the island slogan of "You're only a stranger once." One of my favorite things about Nevis was the hospitality. I never felt like the people I encountered were just giving me a sales pitch. Instead, I felt that they take so much pride in their home that they want newcomers to feel the same way about visiting it that they feel about living there.
I knew I needed to do more than eat and relax, however, I also had to move. One of the best places to get some exercise is Pinney's Beach , the island's largest. which is about a 10-minute trek from Charleston. If you want to do more than walk and swim, the beach is home to Pinney's Beach Resort and the Four Seasons, where you can rent paddleboards or snorkel gear.
All beaches on Nevis are free and public - and, to my surprise, quiet. Pinney's delights the senses with sugar-soft sand and music from the beach bars and cafes. As I walked along its three-mile stretch, I took in the striking Caribbean blue water with St. Kitts in the distance and the verdant green of Nevis Peak, a 3,232-foot-high dormant volcano visible from all points. It's possible to hike to the summit, which I'm told is a strenuous, challenging, muddy ascent full of exposed roots. Hiring a guide, which is highly recommended, costs about $40 per person.
Next time I visit, I'm going to opt for a less rigorous pace and sign up for the early morning five-mile hike led by the general managers of Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, a hotel on the island's north side. I found out about the hike while enjoying a rum punch at the beach bar and chatting with general manager Tim Thuell, who told me that part of the reason he and his wife, Tina, keep the walks going are the conversations they have with guests along the way. This, I could relate to.
One of the highlights of doing a self-guided wellness trip is that you have more opportunity to interact with locals - by hailing a cab, ordering food, asking for advice. During my first cab ride on Nevis, the driver told me he'd traveled all over the world with the U.S. military but now has no desire to leave the islands. By the end of the trip, I understood why he felt this way.
When I set off to satisfy my overall well-being, I wasn't sure which aspect of my visit to Nevis would resonate with me the most - would it be the food, the serenity, the physical activity? But it turned out to be how comfortable and accepted I felt there. This too, I have realized, is an important part of a wellness vacation. And, on Nevis, it's something that doesn't need to come with a hefty price tag or fancy itinerary.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Golden Rock Inn
A boutique hotel with 11 private guest rooms, sitting on 100 acres of lush landscape of an old sugar plantation. There's also an on-site restaurant with a separate bar area and an outdoor pool. Rooms from $200.
Montpelier Plantationand Beach
The property has 19 rooms, villas and suite options, as well as two on-site restaurants and a 300-year-old sugar mill that is available for private rental. Another guest perk: complimentary transport to the hotel's private beach. Rooms from $235.
Where to ear
The Great Houseat Nisbet Plantation
St. James Parish
The restaurant is located on the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, a beachside resort plantation, and has indoor and outdoor dining options. The menu changes often but usually features a local fish like wahoo, vegetarian option, pasta and a meat. (I had a perfectly prepared Pork Tenderloin.) Entrees are fixed at $60, but a la carte items start at $15.
Sunshine's Beach Bar and Grill
Best known for its "Killer Bee" rum concoction and barbecue with Sunny's special sauce, you can sip cocktails while listening to live music as the sun sets at this beachside spot. Entrees start at $10.
Upper Government Road
Walk into the historical house to find an art gallery of sorts and continue toward the back for an open-air restaurant with food drink specials daily. Nevisian style food as well as pizza is served. Entrees starting at $15.
What to do
Botanical Gardens of Nevis
Along with trees, plants and flowers from around the globe, there's a Rainforest Conservatory on the property, along with a restaurant, bar and gift shop. Open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sundays, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Admission: $13; kids ages 6-12: $8.
Nevis Mango and Food Festival
Celebrity chefs gather for cooking competitions and master classes each July and celebrate the many inventive ways Nevisians integrate the fruit into dishes. Admission starts at $30.