From the moment I arrive at Montpelier Plantation Inn, bone-weary after 14 hours of air travel and a bumpy ride up the mountain, something feels different. Maybe it's the sight of one of the owners, Tim Hoffman, greeting me at the taxi at 9 p.m. "You must be Susan!" he says cheerfully. Or maybe it's his two yellow Labs, wagging their tails under the sprawling canopy of a lovely ficus tree. Or the cold cloth and tall glass of sublime rum punch that another staff member hands me as my luggage is whisked away.
I discover later that Tim and his relatives set out to embrace visitors to this 17-room Relais & Chateaux inn as houseguests rather than hotel guests. They succeed. For that matter, the entire 36-square-mile West Indian island of Nevis (NEE-vis, population roughly 11,000) welcomes visitors as though they're family. People here are just plain nice, and the setting enchants. Rain forest surrounds the 3,200-foot, volcanic Nevis Peak, which slopes down to old sugar estates―including Montpelier Plantation―before reaching the sea. Vervet monkeys hide in the trees, goats and sheep wander the narrow, rutted roads, and feral donkeys graze in what used to be cotton fields (and, before that, sugar cane fields). Charlestown provides a city center, such as it is.
Several inns and a Four Seasons resort supply upscale accommodations, but this is not the place for nightlife or shopping. "It's developed, but not commercialized," says Tim's dad, Lincoln, who shares ownership of Montpelier with his son, daughter-in-law Meredith, wife Muffin, and daughter Tonya.
Not commercialized is just how Maria Russo and Alan Yood like Nevis. In fact, they're sorry the airport no longer consists of two small huts and a runway, as it did when they started coming here in 1993. The New York City couple has made the trek to Nevis―and Montpelier―at least annually ever since. "If you had told me back then that I would be the kind of person who would go to the same place year after year, I would have laughed," Maria says. "But it's just so comfortable here. You really feel disconnected." They have high praise for Montpelier's long-term staff. One veteran, Miller Pemberton, introduces guests to the 30-acre estate's banana and papaya trees, coconut palms and gingerflower, as intimate friends. He harbors no such feelings for the monkeys. "They steal my mangoes," he explains.
With beautiful grounds to explore and airy cottage rooms that feature high-quality furnishings and private verandas overlooking the Caribbean, many guests stay put at Montpelier. They lounge by the pool, play tennis, or swing in a hammock. Others take the daily shuttle down to the inn's private beach, where they can enjoy seaside massages, relax under covered cabanas, or have drinks at the bar. One drawback: Getting there requires a jolting ride down a muddy, deeply furrowed road.
Visitors who explore beyond Montpelier's boundaries find plenty to do. Winston Crooke, owner of Windsurf 'N' Mountain Bike Nevis, takes me on a cycling tour of the island. We meander from the lovely circa-1824 Cottle Church ruins to the beach, through a coconut grove and up a hill or two. Some customers like to "thrash about" on the jungle trails, while others prefer a leisurely road tour, Winston says. Likewise, native Nevisian Lynnell Liburd of Sunrise Tours leads unhurried walks by the ocean or challenging climbs to the top of Nevis Peak. Other options: Marine biologist Barbara Whitman of Under the Sea gives entertaining lessons about sea creatures, then leads snorkeling trips to see them. Steve Varrow of Nevis Yacht Charters offers his 41-foot sloop, Feisty, for a sunset sail or day cruise around Nevis and its sister island, St. Kitts.
Dining on Nevis ranges from casual beachside eateries―Double Deuce is my favorite―to fine dining at Montpelier's The Mill or The Terrace restaurants. Guests of the Four Seasons often make the trek up to Montpelier to sample such dishes as snapper with mango and cilantro sauce.
Before and after dinner, the Hoffmans and their guests gather nightly in the Great Room. One evening, an American visitor sings the blues while others chat about their day. Calypso, one of the Labs, brings his tennis ball to the doorway, tosses it into the room, and waits hopefully. Meanwhile, the singer's husband, a New York attorney, stands up and imitates fruits and vegetables. Newfound friends guess, "Pineapple!" "No, celery!" I decide that, yes, at Montpelier, I do feel like a houseguest. And that this calls for some more rum punch.
Getting to Know Nevis
No direct flights serve Nevis, some 250 miles east of Puerto Rico. You'll likely catch a connecting flight in St. Maarten or San Juan. Once a British colony, Nevis and neighboring St. Kitts now form an independent federation. Currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar, though the U.S. dollar is widely accepted. Take cash: Some businesses don't accept credit cards. You'll need $20.50 per person for departure taxes and fees (set aside this amount unless you want Caribbean dollars in change). Rates at Montpelier Plantation Inn range from $280 to $747, plus 20 percent for taxes and a service charge. Rates include a full English breakfast and afternoon tea. Children 8 or older are welcome; 869/469-3462 or montpeliernevis.com. Windsurf 'N' Mountain Bike Nevis; 869/469-9682 or windsurfingnevis.com. Sunrise Tours; 869/469-2758 or nevisnaturetours.com. Nevis Yacht Charters Ltd; 869/665-8453 or sailnevis.com. Under the Sea; 869/469-1291 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Double Deuce restaurant and bar; 869/469-2222 or doubledeucebar.com.