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Sweet surrender St. Kitts: The isle of mangoes and sugar cane greets visitors with a warm, gritty charm and a calypso serenade.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Halfway up Monkey Hill it's raining mangoes. Chartreuse ones, yellow ones, some a delicate apricot-orange. The roadsides are awash in mangoes.

"Go on, try one," says Marilyn Savery, my guide for the day. "They're great."

On cue, something crashes through the jungle canopy and thuds to the blacktop a few yards behind us. A mango. The color of a lime.

A couple of others by my feet look riper and less smushed. I pick one up. It's roughly the size of a goose egg. I've eaten a mango before, but never one that just dropped from a tree.

I hold the mango by the ends like a fat little cob of corn and take a bite. Wild, rich, sweet. If the Caribbean island of St. Kitts has a taste, this is it.

L Behind me there's another crash and thud. It's mango season.

It's my first trip to the Caribbean, and everything is surprising. St. Kitts turns out not to be about black-sand beaches, resorts, conch-shell souvenirs or calypso singers shouting "Day-O!" Though, in fact, the island has these and many other cliches as well.

On this island, beauty and poverty coincide; politics and history resonate. The place seems to enjoy tourists but doesn't fawn. It has problems. I liked it immediately.

I flew here last summer for a friend's wedding only to find that St. Kitts and Nevis, two islands bonded in nationhood since 1983, were heading toward divorce court.

Nevis - population 9,000, size 36 square miles - is sick of being bossed around by St. Kitts - population 35,000, 68 square miles. Specifics are elusive. "We've just grown apart" seems to be the main secessionist sentiment. In six weeks the fate of the union would be decided by national ballot.

And there is other trouble in paradise. From his wooded St. Kitts estate, Charles "Little Nut" Miller, an alleged drug kingpin, is thumbing his nose at the United States, which has been trying to extradite him for conspiring to smuggle cocaine through Miami. If they succeed, Miller, a one-time Jamaican political thug, threatens to randomly gun down some American students studying on the island.

I pick up a local paper. "Police Brutality?" screams the headline. I try another. "A Narco-Political Conspiracy?" is bannered across the top.

Ah, excuse me, where's a good place to rent snorkeling equipment?

A mile or so below the Monkey Hill summit, Savery and I fill plastic bottles with spring water from a roadside tap. On either side, the half-tamed rain forest hums with hidden things. It's a warm and sweaty day. Every day here, Savery says, is warm and sweaty.

Nominally a Seattle caterer, Savery is an islander at heart. Aside from the occasional narco terrorist, she finds the people engaging and real. She visits St. Kitts as often as possible and this time has lucked into a six-month house-sitting deal. On the other hand, I only have four days. So Savery has offered to drive me around the island. It's about 50 miles, but it will be a full day's sightseeing.

British and French

Due to its status as a former British colony, guide books say St. Kitts is shaped like a cricket bat. From Monkey Hill, I look south toward Nevis, which lies only two miles off the bat's handle. Through haze and clouds I can see the green slopes of Nevis' volcanic back.

Below us are the rusting tin roofs, tidy airport and new cruise-ship dock of Basseterre, the main city of St. Kitts. We climb back into Savery's car and head down to the coast. Soon we're clear of the jungle canopy and are surrounded by sugar-cane fields.

The first European settlers arrived in St. Kitts in 1623. They started growing sugar cane 20 years later. Thirty years after that, the first slaves were imported. Thus began the Caribbean cycle: cane, sugar, molasses, rum, slaves, blood.

Through the 1920s there were still about four dozen individual plantations left from the colonial days. The remaining ones were nationalized by 1977, and now all the cane is processed in a central plant - "OSHA's worst nightmare," says Savery.

While sugar now accounts for only 2 percent of the nation's gross national product (tourism is much more important), its legacy is strong. Some 25 percent of the population is connected to the cane trade. Cane fields swirl around the island's central volcanic range like a party skirt. A narrow-gauge railway circumnavigates the fat part of the cricket bat, carrying cane at harvest time. A few old stone windmills that used to power cane-crushing equipment crumble picturesquely within former plantation borders.

A handful of sugar-cane mansions have survived the fall of the plantation system. Several have been turned into hotels, combining faded elegance with Caribbean nonchalance.

One of them, Ottley's Plantation Inn, is the wedding site. Ottley's is a two-story mansion painted a light yellow and encircled with gracious white verandas. Around the grounds - riotous with hibiscus flowers and ancient trees - are the remains of a cane mill and other plantation buildings.

An early stop on the Savery tour is another old plantation, Romney Manor (some of it damaged by fire in 1995). Just a few miles north of Basseterre on the western side of the island, the manor boasts a batik factory. The factory consists of a single woman painting a wax ship onto a blue cloth. She answers our questions, barely pausing in her work, and makes a pitch for the factory's quality and craftsmanship.

As we leave, a flock of batik hangings flap a rainbow farewell from a clothesline.

Romney Manor is just up the road from Bloody Point, where, in 1626, French and English settlers massacred several thousand Caribs, the native people of the island. A faded historical marker proclaims, "It is said the river [here] flowed blood for several days."

The event was a rare case of European cooperation. The first French colonists arrived soon after the English, and the two groups fought for more than 150 years. In 1706, the English burned down the Catholic church in Basseterre, rebuilding it as the Anglican St. George's. A treaty settled the matter; in 1783, St. Kitts was declared entirely British. Thus Kittitians, as the locals are called, drive on the wrong side of the road and drink tea.

One result of all this squabbling is Brimstone Hill Fortress (named after some sulfuric outcrops). It was first fortified by the Brits in 1690 to drop some cannonballs on a French fort below. Eventually the fortress grew into a series of massive stone bastions covering 38 acres. From atop the 800-foot-high hill, you can see several other Caribbean islands, including Anguilla, Montserrat and St. Barts.

Pride and pleasantness

Down the hill from all this brimstone, Savery and I stop for lunch at a local restaurant-guest house called Js' Place Inn. Manager Merlyn Saunders and his cousin, Mervin, join us for conversation and a couple of pints of Carib Lager, a local beer.

"When I was a boy, my father used to grow everything," says Mervin. "Nobody wants to work the farms now. Nobody wants to work that hard. People want to go home clean. It grieve my heart to see mangoes, avocados lying on the ground."

Nostalgia for simpler times is not uncommon in St. Kitts, and I'm beginning to learn why. It's a complex place, mixed with old racial resentments and modern economic problems.

Merlyn and Mervin begin a polite argument over the Nevis succession issue. I attempt to follow, but because of their island accent (which has a Jamaican-reggae sound to my ear) it's like trying to catch fish with my bare hands.

Eventually, Merlyn sums it up: Politicians on both sides, he says, are "doing a lot of lippin'."

Our stop at Js' Place is notable for two other reasons: monkeys and music.

St. Kitts is jumping with green vervet monkeys. Brought in by French colonists as pets, they made the place a home. Estimates are in the thousands, but the only ones I ever see are Merlyn's pets in a cage behind the restaurant.

St. Kitts is also jumping with music. It's the weekend of the third annual Music Festival (in fact, the wedding was planned with the festival in mind). While M&M; discuss island sociology, some guys from the Dimensions Band, who are scheduled to open the Saturday night show, set up in a corner of Js' for a sound check and practice.

The festival is held on a vast lawn by the fancy Fort Thomas Hotel, about two miles north of downtown Basseterre. A few hours after Savery and I finish our tour, I catch calypso night, highlighted by Trinidad star David Rudder. I find myself surrounded by an orgiastic, towel-waving crowd that seems to know all the songs. The words are filled with rebellion and black pride, but the music is amiable and infectious. You have to dance.

For younger Kittitians, life has a Caribbean soundtrack. Calypso, reggae and various hip-hop and R&B; hybrids seep out into the streets from shops and homes and cars. Dreadlocks are not uncommon, nor are Rastafarian slogans. The image of Jamaican reggae genius Bob Marley is everywhere.

In Jamaica this scene is often associated with anger and political upheaval; it doesn't seem so in St. Kitts. "I feel safe here, compared to other islands," says Joanne Chabot, a schoolteacher from New Hampshire, who has visited the island at least nine times.

It's a day after the tour, and I'm sipping Carib Lager at the Ballahoo, a restaurant overlooking the clock tower of "The Circus" (as in Piccadilly), the central square of downtown Basseterre.

Like a lot of tourists, Chabot and I are playing the let's-quit-our-jobs-and-move-here game. With her professional skills, Chabot could actually do it. "I've thought about it a lot," she sighs, "but I think that after six months I'd get island fever."

Garry Steckles had the malady in reverse - he was feverish to live here. It took Steckles years and frequent Caribbean trips, but finally, with the help of some fellow dreamers, he bought a beat-up courtyard home just a couple of blocks from The Circus and created a bar-restaurant-boutique called Stone-Walls.

Maybe it was something in the blood. "I was born in a pub," Steckles says. "Well, upstairs from a pub." Stone-Walls opened in 1993 and since then, Steckles claims, has been named as "one of the great bars of the world" by the international edition of Newsweek.

Steckles, a knock-about journalist originally from England, relates all this while the wedding party gathers around a long table at his establishment for the rehearsal dinner (we're actually rehearsing dinner; the ceremony needs no warm-up). I'm wearing shorts and an aloha shirt. The air rubs my face like warm silk. In front of me is a cold glass of a local lager. Only a filigree of bougainvillea blossoms overhead separates Steckles and me from a billion stars.

Who am I to argue with Newsweek?

Happy endings

The next day I poke around the stalls of Basseterre's farmers' market. Despite what Mervin Saunders says, somebody's still doing the dirty work. The market is filled with guava, pineapple, mango, peppers, coconuts, yams, bananas and breadfruit as well as a lot of tubers I don't recognize. A woman shopper from the Virgin Islands insists some of them can only be found on St. Kitts.

Just across the street, eight fishing skiffs are pulled up along the shore. On the sea wall men cut fish fillets with machetes while frigate birds, like waiters, hover overhead.

That evening, we gather at Ottley's. Few occasions are as wondrous as somebody else's wedding, and the wonder of this one is enhanced by the locale. Two miles away the Caribbean rumbles; behind us, rain-forested slopes disappear into clouds.

In a grotto on the forest's edge, we stand around a huge stone planter filled with tropical color. Up a pathway paved with petals come the bride and groom, who stop in front of a woman magistrate in a black dress. Simple, spiritual words are repeated and exchanged. At the end, as the bride wrote some weeks later, "There were neither dry eyes or unperspired brows left."

The ceremony and the wedding dinner that follow are not unlike St. Kitts itself: full of warmth, gaiety, sweet words, champagne and, the next morning, some headaches.

Six weeks later there are happy endings all around: Nevis and St. Kitts decide to stay hitched, no American students are gunned down and the newlyweds have five children (three from his first marriage, two from hers).

I'm not surprised, the wedding omens were good. Just before the I Do's, there was a commotion in the trees behind us: crash, thud, crash, thud.

Mangoes.

AN IDEAL DAY

7 a.m.: Sleep in.

8 a.m.: Keep sleeping, this is your vacation, this is the Caribbean.

9 a.m.: Dawdle over breakfast at a restaurant overlooking Basseterre's central square. Stroll downtown. Soak up the Caribbean atmosphere. Look over the farmers' market and the little shops of Pelican Mall. Visit a record store on Fort Street and hear the latest island music.

11 a.m.: Drive leisurely around the island perimeter. Stop at the petroglyphs in Old Road Town, visit the nearby batik factory at Romney Manor, climb the battlements of the impressive historic fortress at Brimstone Hill, walk along the seaside lava-rock formation of Black Rocks on the island's northwest side, stroll elegant Ottley's Plantation Inn just inland from the village of Ottley's. The route circles the island's central volcanic range and passes through tiny villages, cane fields and crumbling stacks of old cane mills. Continuous beautiful ocean views.

4 p.m.: Before completing the circle to Basseterre, take the southeast peninsula road out to Major's Bay. The terrain here is surprisingly dry - it looks like a different island. Nevis is just two miles from the southeast tip.

5 p.m.: On your way back from the peninsula, stop at the Frigate Bay beach for a swim in the warm, clear water. The Monkey Bar here is a good place for a drink (it's also a hot weekend spot for the late-night, dancing-on-the-beach crowd).

6:30 p.m.: Take a nap.

8 p.m.: Dine at the garden restaurant of StoneWalls. West Indian cuisine (fruit, spices, fresh seafood) is its specialty. There is often live music on the weekends.

11 p.m.: Over a late-evening drink on the veranda of your hotel, thank your lucky stars that you don't have to work tomorrow.

Midnight: Go to bed. You've had a long day, and you deserve a good night's sleep.

WHEN YOU GO

Getting there: American Airlines offers flights from BWI and Dulles International to St. Kitts with a short stopover in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Airfares start as low as $678 plus tax and range as high as $897 depending on time of travel.

Tips:

* You will need a passport to go to St. Kitts.

* Watch out around traffic; people drive on the left side of the road - also a consideration if you're thinking of renting a car.

* If you have enough time, visit Nevis for the day. It's a 45-minute ferry trip from the port in downtown Basseterre to Charlestown, Nevis' quaint capital. Call the Ministry of Communications, 869-465-2521, to confirm sailing times.

* The St. Kitts Music Festival, held each year in late June, is great fun, and the caliber of the acts is high. Book your hotel early; it draws a big international crowd.

Must sees:

* Brimstone Hill Fortress: A massive military bastion begun in 1690. Called "the Gibraltar of the West Indies." Spectacular views of Caribbean and nearby islands. Good history exhibit in the small visitor's center.

* Mount Liamuiga: The central (dormant) volcano of this volcanic island is often shrouded in mists and clouds. There are still some areas of rain forest on its 3,792-foot flanks. Hiking trips are available from tour companies based in Basseterre. The early British colonists called it "Mount Misery." Today it has reverted to is original Carib Indian name, meaning "fertile land."

* Basseterre: The largest town and capital of the nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, has a population of about 15,000. It's a charming, rather down-at-the-heels Caribbean port. When the QE2 or some other cruise ship docks, it's crowded and frenetic; otherwise its pace is leisurely. Walk around "The Circus," poke into the covered farmers' market on Bay Road, drink a Carib Lager, relax.

Dining:

* Ballahoo: Overlooks Basseterre's central square. Good local food; lunches from $7, dinners from $10. 869-465-4197.

* StoneWalls: Charming courtyard bar and restaurant featuring West Indian cuisine; dinners from $18-25; 869-465-6248.

Lodging: St. Kitts' plantation hotels include (room rates are for two people; add 10 percent for room tax):

* Ottley's Plantation Inn: $295 to $695 (for luxury suites), includes breakfast, package deals available; 869-465-7234.

* Rawlins Plantation Inn: $300 to $420, includes breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner (restaurant highly recommended); 869-465-6221.

* The Golden Lemon Hotel and Villas: $300 to $765 (for super-luxury suites), includes breakfast; 869-465-7260.

* Fairview Inn, $150, 869-465-2472.

Tour companies:

* Blue Water Safaris: Snorkeling, sailing and other marine trips; 869-465-3366.

* Greg's Safaris: Hiking trips to the central volcano, rain forests; 869-465-4121.

* Tropical Tours: Sightseeing tours, boat charters, scuba trips, car rentals; 869-465-4039/4167.

Information:

* St. Kitts and Nevis Department of Tourism, P.O. Box 132, Basseterre, St. Kitts, (869-465-4040/2620, fax: 869-465-8794).

* In New York, 414 E. 75th St., New York, N.Y. 10021 (212-535-1234/ 800-582-6208, fax: 212-734-6511.)

* Web site: www.interknowledge.com/stkitts-nevis.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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