Dramatic Beauty Sustains a Dramatic Past
by Patricia Keegan
Nevis, an island paradise in the West Indies is one of the Caribbean’s most beautiful, yet unspoiled, islands within easy reach of Washington DC. Swept with cross breezes and guaranteed to swiftly blow away trailing cobwebs of stress, this small island is home to 10,000 inhabitants on 36 sq. miles. Once admired as the Queen of the Caribs, it has a fascinating history. It became a British colony in 1623 and remained under British rule until both St .Kitts and Nevis achieved independence on September 19, 1983.
Nevis has hosted some of the world’s “larger than life” characters. Alexander Hamilton, the first US Treasury secretary, was born and raised in Nevis, and British war hero, Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, along with his mistress, Lady Hamilton, have all walked across its miniature stage. It is also the ancestral home of Horatio Nelson’s wife, a widow, Frances Herbert Nisbet Nelson -- therein lies the drama!
During the 18th and 19th centuries Nevis flourished as a wealthy island much sought after for its rich natural resources and thriving sugar and cotton mills. Today the island has an up-to-date infrastructure for tourism with a variety of fine accommodations including a lavish, sparkling Four Seasons Hotel, a Robert Trent Jones golf course, and five beautiful restored plantations. Given the choice, it is not easy to decide where to stay. However, we found the combination of two plantations a winning match.
Montpelier House, the perfect setting for a wedding, began that tradition 200 years ago with the nuptials of Horatio Nelson and Frances Herbert Nisbet. The Nisbet Plantation is where Frances, fondly called Fannie, came to live after her marriage to Dr. Joseph Nisbet. Sadly, he became deranged and died within 18 months of marriage, leaving her with an infant son. It was through her uncle, John Richardson Herbert, the governor of the island, that she became acquainted with Lord Nelson, then a young captain of the HMS Boreas who had arrived at the island.
Our visit encompassed a three-day stay in the cool hilltops at Montpelier Plantation, followed by three days enjoying the beach at Nisbet Plantation and Beach Club. It is hard to envision a more delightful duo.
Upon arrival at the Nevis Airport, My husband and I took a taxi and circumnavigated the eastern coastline of the island, through the capital of Charlestown, and up the steep hillside to Montpelier. My first impression of the uncluttered island was of acres of lush open fields with majestic Mt. Nevis, draped in green velvet and topped with drifting clouds, never out of sight. The capital of Charlestown is home to several excellent museums including the Alexander Hamilton Museum which just celebrated the 250th anniversary of its namesake’s birth, the Horatio Nelson Museum, and theNevis Historical Museum.The Horatio Nelson Museum sets the stage for Nelson’s accomplishments by briefly telling the story of Nevis’s Amerindian history , followed by European dominance and the alliance between slavery and sugar.
Reaching Montpelier, we noticed a weathered plaque on the wall of the original estate recording the 18th century wedding:
“On this site stands Montpelier House
Wherein on the 11th day of March 1787
Horatio Nelson of Immortal Memory
Then Captain of Hms Boreas
Was married to Frances Herbert Nisbet.'
Entering through the open gate of Montpelier Plantation, we saw the famous tree of Bahamas, the backdrop for many a wedding photograph, where the happy, hopeful Fannie Nisbet and Horatio Nelson also tied the knot.
It was impressive to think of Britain’s hero of the seas, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, brilliant strategist, fearless warrior and scandalous lover, holding this strong connection to the tiny island of Nevis. To think that the same man who was instrumental in the fate of England, the hero celebrated by his countrymen when he returned victorious from the Battle of the Nile in 1800, and who died in the Battle of Trafalgar, had probably donned his togs and gone for a dip right here in Nevis.
This timeless, majestic tree is a splendid work of art, gracefully stretching its intricate, sturdy limbs in all directions, creating a complete and symmetrical circle. It serves as the perfect guardian, presiding over the harmony and natural beauty flowering and flourishing all around the lovely plantation.
After a warm greeting from Timothy Hoffman and his family, including his wife Meredith and parents Muffin and Lincoln, we were shown to the poolside bar and there refreshed on a cool rum cocktail. It was also a chance to admire the 60 ft. lap pool where we enjoyed English style afternoon tea each day.
Guest accommodations consist of small uncluttered villas, decorated in white with black trim, with tropical wood furnishings and fresh flowers. The overall simplicity contributes to relaxation while reflecting plantation life. Large windows spanning opposing walls allow fresh breezes to constantly flow through, permitting the radiance and color of the outside environment to become the focus. Each villa has its own deck with distant sea view.
In the stillness of this environment, devoid of TV or radios, the only sound, day or night, is the singing of cheerful birds, cooing of doves and the rustle of leaves caught in the breeze.
Breakfast was something to really look forward to. The veritable feast of fresh fruits, along with a large selection of enticing possibilities, is more than one can imagine for a first meal of the day. After a plate of fresh fruit, I settled, each morning, for the full cholesterol combination of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, homemade jams, muffins and Greek yogurt. My waitress was very accommodating in bringing steaming milk to make my own café latte.
Served in an open air restaurant surrounded by dense foliage, it is here guests begin to get an idea of the wonderful character of the people of Nevis. On Sunday morning, while lingering over breakfast, my husband and I were reminded of the Sabbath when we heard the rich, deep voices of the staff in the kitchen singing spirituals: How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace and even Danny Boy. It was an unexpected pleasure to listen to these lovely voices in such peaceful surroundings.
In the evening Montpelier takes on a new energy. Like a theater, it transforms from a lazy, summer day performance into a sophisticated backdrop where guests gather in the shadow of palm trees and soft lights to socialize and enjoy pre-dinner cocktails. A living snapshot emerges in the flash of color from ladies dresses, the scent of perfume, the mild hum of light conversation, tinkling glasses, and, all the while, the eternal Nevis breeze.
Standing, not quite in the center of the activity, yet ever present -- like a fireplace on a cold day, is the old Sugar Mill. It has been perfectly restored, adding immensely to the timeless spirit pervading this setting. There are only four tables in its inner candlelit circle, but dining in the 17th century Sugar Mill is much coveted on the island. The space accommodates up to 12 people for a prix fixe, candlelight dinner, so guests must reserve early to enjoy this unique, romantic experience with its distinct menu. Montpelier is well known for its Caribbean inspired cuisine that focuses on local delicacies, fresh seafood and produce from the Plantation’s own garden. Here again the staff and service is excellent.
The unique architecture of the Great House and the two large rooms that make up the dining area and drawing room is a space filled with antiques and paintings depicting plantation days. I particularly liked the red room, originally used as a bowling room -- a long rectangular space with a curved wood ceiling created from 40 ft. long parallel planks of wood. In one corner is a cozy bar, in another a piano surrounded with comfortable furnishings. Steel accents, remnants of the original gears of the old sugar mill, are used as decorative items.
It is difficult to pry from proprietor Timothy Hoffman any names of celebrities who have partaken of this plantation’s unique sense of peace. All he will say is, “We are visited by celebrities with whom we would all be familiar, but names are kept sealed in privacy.” As leaks would have it, we know that Princess Diana visited Montpelier, and Meryl Streep has also walked across its colorful stage.
For guests who opt out of renting a car, Montpelier has a shuttle service to its own private beach, Pinney Beach, one of the island’s best. Guests place a request for picnic baskets the evening before and are provided with a wonderful convenience as well as a really tasty meal. The resort provides chaise lounge chairs, umbrellas and beach services to guests.
For the purest dose of fortifying serenity, outstanding service, friendly people and superb staff, few places in the Caribbean can compete with Montpelier Plantation.
For more information visit MontpelierNevis.com. Phone: 869-469-3462.
Our next stop was Nisbet Plantation, the only historic plantation on the island with direct access to the sea. We were here to enjoy the beach experience and to learn more about Fanny Nisbet.
In contrast to the sense of intimacy found amidst the foliage of Montpelier, Nisbet Plantation is wide open with 36 charming cottages set on 30 acres of flat, manicured lawns. To find our cottage, we crossed the expansive lawn, flanked by palm trees that sweep down from the Great House all the way to the beach, and were delighted to discover we had the yellow cottage closest to the sea. Opening the door and entering, we were immediately struck by the quality and attention to detail in its soothing décor of bright, tropical colors of papaya and lime with white wicker furniture and vaulted ceilings. The king-size bed, set on a platform, was itself a bouquet of color with a variety of soft pillows, roll pillows and shams. Jalousie windows and doors on all sides allowed fresh breezes for comfortable sleeping. Our bathroom was spacious with double sinks, abundant closet space, soft lighting and a fine shower. The large terrace with comfortable lounge furnishings had a sweeping view of sparkling sea and brilliant beaches.
Because of hidden rocks, you have to be a bit cautious about running down and jumping into the ocean, but it is possible to navigate a path beyond the stony bottom to smooth sand and plenty of space to swim freely. Most guests with children seemed to enjoy the huge swimming pool right on the beach. This is a great spot for socializing where people get to know each other and share their stories, while parents keep one eye on children playing in the water. Hammocks and beach chairs are placed in shady areas under palm trees inviting guests to relax and enjoy a good book while being cared for by an attentive staff who bring refreshing drinks. There is an open air bar on the beach for snacks, as well as the breakfast dining area where guests celebrate the morning enjoying the casual, open-air buffet breakfast which caters to every imaginable combination possible and includes bountiful tropical fruits and juices.
A refreshing way to break up the day, if not off exploring the island, is to partake of the afternoon tea served on the back porch of the Great House. It consists of finger sandwiches and cake, together with a nice selection of teas.
A gourmet dinner is served in the 18th-century Manor House, the setting where Fannie Nisbet lived with her son during the 18 months of marriage to her first husband. The house has been beautifully restored and is warmly welcoming. After dinner, guests adjourn to the lounge area where Snowflake, an excellent pianist, provides a full evening of entertainment. No one could leave this house after a great meal, good wine, and the comfortable luxury of soft sofas and lively piano without feeling the spirit of Fannie Nisbet. Guests will find images of Fannie which encourage her memory to live on.
For more information visit NisbetPlantation.com or phone 869-469-9325 or 800-742-6008.
A Snippet of Romantic History
Horatio Nelson was apparently quite taken by Fannie’s refinement and resourcefulness in operating a large house, and she was an accomplished musician and fluent in French.
During his first absence to the Mediterranean, she constantly wrote to him, and when he returned home after losing his arm, she nursed him through months of pain. Later he lost an eye. Then he was off again, and now she began to hear rumors about his meanderings with Lady Hamilton with whom he had an intimate friendship that even her husband, Sir William Hamilton, apparently had no objection to. So Nelson persuaded himself that if Hamilton didn’t object, why should his wife. Whether platonic or not, these rumors were enough to set Fannie’s teeth on edge, and so when Horatio returned home to London where they lived, she treated him coolly. This was the turning point when it seems she was labeled a “cold fish” and tabloids of the time sided with her “heroic” husband and his “fabulous” mistress, Lady Hamilton.
Lady Hamilton, or “Emma,” achieved notoriety through her beauty, acting skills and personal vitality, but she is principally remembered as artist George Romney’s muse and for her love affair with Nelson. Emma, nevertheless, was not exactly born to a “silver spoon” existence. She was the daughter of a blacksmith who died when she was two months old. At the age of 21 she was taken from a brothel “into keeping” as the mistress of several men. She met Horatio Nelson in Naples while married to British envoy, Sir William Hamilton. As the wife of the British envoy, she welcomed Nelson in 1793 when he came to gather reinforcements against the French. Five years later, upon setting eyes on Nelson as he returned to Naples from the Battle of the Nile, Emma was reported to have fainted. Nelson, the living legend, had prematurely aged, lost most of his teeth and was afflicted by coughing spells. Still, she nursed him under her husband’s roof and arranged a party of 1,800 guests to celebrate his 40th birthday.
So while both woman nurtured the returning hero, these upheavals in the marriage eventually led to a separation in 1801. Britain’s public believed Fannie was the cause of the breakup. She lived out her life quietly in London where she was visited by her brother-in-law, Earl Nelson, who remained her friend.
Unable to completely recover from the death of her son in August, 1830, Fannie Nisbet Nelson died on May 4, 1831, in London.
However, the verdict on her “coldness” is still the subject of debate as new papers have recently come to light including letters from Fannie to Horatio over many years which show her as a warm and loving wife. One day, a new movie may be made revising history, more likely, the real story may remain forever buried in the limitless dust heap of half truths.
In Nevis, I discovered the Bahamas tree which, like the island, has threads of history woven so deeply into its foundation, with branches going in so many directions that would take years of research to fathom its fascinating flow. Visitors to this island may find themselves both enriched by all the island has to offer, and tempted to become totally immersed in its history.