The San Juan Star / August 27, 2001
By Larry Luxner
CHARLESTOWN, Nevis -- Walking along Main Street here, it's hard to believe that this quaint, little Caribbean town almost became the capital of the world's smallest independent republic.
But that's what nearly happened on Aug. 11, 1998, when voters were asked whether Nevis should secede from St. Kitts and Nevis -- a twin-island federation that itself is the smallest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with only 45,000 inhabitants.
The referendum needed 66% approval, but only 62% of the voters said yes. So Nevis isn't really independent, at least for now.
"I'm sure it will come up again in the next year or two," says Don Johnson, general manager of the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, who opposes the idea. "These islands can barely survive together. How can we do it alone, with only 10,000 people? There's limited revenue coming in. Where else will we get the revenue for infrastructure?"
Known for its natural beauty, Nevis was sighted in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, who named it "Nuestra Seņora de las Nieves," Spanish for "Our Lady of the Snows" after its cloud-capped Mount Nevis, which towers 3,232 feet above sea level.
Although many people have never heard of the 36-square-mile island, Nevis is an eastern Caribbean paradise, with dense greenery, a lavish botanical garden and no traffic lights whatsoever. After several centuries under Spanish domain, it was colonized by the British in the early 17th century. By 1642, the island was known to produce the finest sugar in the Caribbean, and its population, at 10,000, exceeded that of Virginia's by several thousand.
Historically speaking, Nevis's claim to fame is that it was here, just up the road from downtown Charlestown, where Alexander Hamilton was born in 1755. He went on to become a colonel in the Revolutionary Army, then America's first secretary of the treasury.
But for well-heeled tourists, the Four Seasons Resort Nevis is what makes the difference, with its championship golf course and gardens brimming with elephant-ear ferns, cordia, plumbago and flamboyant trees.
Unfortunately for the Four Seasons, this place was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Lenny on Nov. 19, 1999.
Robert Whitfield, general manager of the luxurious property, says that 48 hours before Lenny struck, "most of our guests were able to get off the island, but not all of them. We chartered a 727 from Miami into St. Kitts and sent 117 guests home on that jet."
After the storm had passed, the big problem was putting the resort back together. Whitfield kept the staff employed for another two months -- giving them as much work as possible -- but eventually the resort was forced to lay off 420 people.
"It cost over $50 million to repair the hurricane damage and renovate the property. But we also took the opportunity to try to protect the hotel from future hurricane damage, by putting breakwaters in the ocean and updating our stormwater drainage system."
Exactly a year after Lenny's passing, the hotel reopened to the public. The result is one of the fanciest resorts anywhere in the Caribbean.
Completely redesigned and upgraded, the property has 196 rooms housed in 12 private cottages and is the Caribbean's first AAA Five-Diamond resort. The property's original interior designer, Frank Nicholson, lent his creative talent to the refurbishment project, enhancing the decor in the lower-level guestrooms with beautiful stone tiles, a warm new Caribbean color scheme and classic mahogany furnishings.
In addition to the 196 rooms, the Four Seasons also boasts 31 luxury villas, with another four under construction. Most of these multi-bedroom properties are owned by Swiss, Germans, Norwegians or other Europeans, and they rent for up to $4,000 a night in high season.
Each room in the cottages (though not yet in the villas) offers high-speed Internet access, while new features include two lagoon-like infinity edge pools, a new Cabana poolside restaurant and beach bar, nature and snorkeling trails, and a Bocce court under palm trees, and rare Caribbean rums served in the Library, which enhance the property's colonial ambience.
In addition, a "beach concierge" provides sunbathers with reading material, Discman sets, books on tape, and tanning products to guests as they lounge on Pinney's Beach -- not to mention Evian spritzing and constant towel replacement. Activities for teends include Nintendo, billiards, foosball and steel-pan lessons, while business guests will appreciate the addition of an 800-square-foot conference room, bringing total conference facilities to nearly 9,000 square feet.
Whitfield says the Four Seasons recently sponsored a fam trip for 16 Puerto Rican travel agents.
"We've been getting Puerto Rican clientele for the last five or six years, and a very loyal group of travel agents has supported us, including Four Seasons Travel [which is not related to the resort in any way, despite the similar names]."
Whitfield says Puerto Ricans who stay at the Four Seasons can pay $215 a night for a deluxe oceanfront villa for two people, including breakfast; that compares to the normal rate of $400 a night. "We consider Puerto Rico a rate-sensitive market," he says. "Puerto Ricans do not come in the winter."
With 680 Nevisians on its payroll, the Four Seasons easily dominates the tiny island and accounts for much of its current prosperity. After all, it accounts for 196 of the 411 hotel rooms on Nevis.
"We're certainly a significant economic factor on the island," says Whitfield. "Happily, the offshore banking industry has developed quite well, so it's taken the pressure off Four Seasons to some degree."
The Four Seasons is 100% owned by Maritz Wolff, a St. Louis-based company; Four Seasons itself has no equity in the property.
Some 85% of the Four Seasons' guests come from the U.S. mainland, 8% from England and 3% from other European countries. The remaining 4% come from Canada, Puerto Rico and elsewhere.
"We had a fantastic winter season, and despite a downturn in the U.S. economy, we've been hitting 80% or more occupancy since we re-opened. It's been fabulous. Now it's slowing down, but we're still happy, given the state of the U.S. economy and the fact there are so many destinations offering good value."
Asked who he'd consider the resort's biggest competitors, Whitfield said that "typically, it would be the likes of Caneel Bay in St. John, Little Dix in Virgin Gorda, and Cap Juluca in Anguilla. But we are the only luxury hotel in the Caribbean that offers the depth of service we do."
That's not to say Four Seasons doesn't have any competition locally.
One rival is the Hermitage Plantation, which dates from the late 1600s and is the oldest structure in the eastern Caribbean. The resort's Great House is made of lignum vitae, a rare wood which doesn't burn, float or rot from termites; it actually gets harder over time.
Located about four miles from the coast at an altitude of 800 meters above sea level, the Hermitage has no beachfront but it does offer spectacular mountain views and breezy cool evenings. Prices at the resort's 15 guest rooms range from $170 to $650 in low season, and from $325 to $790 in high season. The clientele is a mix of Americans and Europeans looking to get away from the big, impersonal resorts.
"People say this is how the Caribbean used to be," says Richard Lupinacci, the inn's 27-year-old manager and son of the owners.
The Hermitage's quaint little bar is decorated with of knick-knacks on the wall, including three personalized license plates from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maine that all say "Nevis." Lupinacci can usually be found here, pouring his famous rum punches. His recipe: one sour (sour orange), two sweet (brown sugar syrup), three strong (dark Cavalier rum from Antigua) and four weak (ice), with Grenadian nutmeg and a few drops of Angostura Bitters from Trinidad thrown in.
But the best thing about the Hermitage is the food. At only $12, lunch here was the ultimate bargain of the trip: fresh yellowfin tuna, accompanied by an exquisite mango and avocado salad, rice and homemade soursop ice cream for dessert.
Another, similar upscale resort is the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, a former sugar plantation that dates back to 1778. Don Johnson is general manager of the property, which was converted into a hotel in 1956. The current owner, David Dodwell -- Bermuda's former tourism minister -- bought the property in 1989 and spent $5 million to upgrade it from a two-star to a four-star property. The Nisbet now has 89 employees and 38 rooms on 30 acres, making it the second-largest property on Nevis. Room rates (including breakfast and dinner) run from $290 to $390 in low season, and from $500 to $645 in high season.
"We sell romance," says Johnson, estimating that 50% of his summer business consists of newlyweds on their honeymoon. That also explains children aren't allowed here. "This is a getaway for couples. It's really to recharge your batteries and get to know each other."
Johnson says the Nesbit gets a lot of business from the Four Seasons, which helps sell his property.
"There are 456 rooms on the island, and they have 196. No question they have the largest marketing budget of all of us," he says, adding that "our competition is the world. Caribbean arrivals have been down for the last few years. The hotels have to be united. You can't rely on the government. Our biggest challenge is that we're unknown. When Four Seasons came along, that really put us on the map."