Sweet ride on the Sugar Train 0
Passengers enjoy the view from one of the open-air observation decks aboard the Kitts Scenic Railway. The lower level "parlour" is air conditioned. (Courtesy St. Kitts Tourism Authority)
BASSETERRE, St. Kitts -- To truly appreciate the beauty of this island, you have to venture "back o' de land" -- into the lush and picturesque countryside. And one of the best and most popular ways to explore this landscape, which has scarcely changed in the past century, is on the St. Kitts Scenic Rail Tour.
The three-hour journey, the only one of its kind in the Caribbean, makes a 48-km circle around the island, with 28 km by narrow gauge train and 19 km on sightseeing buses. A top shore excursion for cruise visitors, it's also an option for those holidaying on the island. (Getting there will soon be much easier when new non-stop flights from Toronto begin later this month).
Between the ever-changing scenery, the onboard entertainment -- three a cappella singers performing Caribbean folk songs -- and complimentary drinks and snacks, there's never a dull moment on this fully narrated tour.
One minute we're gazing at secluded beaches, colourful villages, and nearby Caribbean islands -- including Nevis, St. Barts and Saba, the next we're passing pineapple fields, a rainforest, or crossing one of the tall steel bridges winding along cliffs high above the ocean.
And you see it all from the comfort of this double decked train, where each passenger has a seat on both the open-air observation platform (ideal for taking photos), and in the air conditioned lower level "parlour" with wicker chair seating, fresh flowers, and paintings adorning the walls.
Constructed between 1912 and 1926, the train's original purpose was to deliver sugar cane from the fields to the mill in Bassettere for processing. A valuable commodity in its day, sugar cane was introduced in St. Kitts in 1643. By 1775, 200 estates were producing sugar and St. Kitts was one of England's wealthiest colonies.
Eventually, international competition and other factors drove prices down, and in 2005, after 350 years, the industry closed. Sugar production had actually continued decades longer on St. Kitts than on other Caribbean islands such as Nevis and Antigua.
Sugar cane still grows on the island. In fact, cane fields are one of the first sights you see as you pull out of Needsmust Station. Other reminders from the plantation days, which you can see from the train, are the old sugar estates with their abandoned windmills and chimneys that now lay in ruins.
Somewhere between Grange Bay and Bellevue, I spotted an African green vervet monkey, camouflaged by dense foliage. I thought it was a lucky sighting, until I learned there are 40,000 monkeys on the island, which makes them more numerous than the human population of just 35,000! The animals were brought here by the first French settlers who arrived in 1624.
There's no time to sip my rum punch with its quickly melting ice cubes. A major landmark has just come into view -- the volcanic cone of Mt Liamuiga, and on this day, unusually, its 1,138-metre peak is not shrouded by clouds. It's possible to climb the dormant volcano -- which sputtered its last gasp around 1692 -- and even descend inside the crater to explore its unique habitat.
Later, on the bus, we pass beneath the guns of Brimstone Hill Fortress -- site of a one-month-long siege in 1782, in which the French captured the fort from the British, though a treaty forced its return a year later. Today the fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Long before the colonial superpowers France and Britain began fighting over St. Kitts, the land was inhabited by Carib Indians who named the island Liamuiga -- meaning "fertile land."
I thought about this as we passed the papaya, guava, and banana trees, and later a particular patch of vegetation so thick it formed a tunnel. Fertile land indeed, an Eden of sorts that anyone can experience on the "Last Railway in the West Indies."
If you go to St. Kitts
-- Getting to St. Kitts has just become more convenient, now that Air Canada has announced it will operate weekly non-stop flights from Toronto on Dec. 23 until April 2012. The flights, aboard an Airbus 319 aircraft with 108 economy and 12 business class seats, depart on Fridays at 8:40 a.m. and arrive in St. Kitts at 2:40 p.m. The same-day return flight departs St. Kitts at 3:40 p.m. and arrives in Toronto at 8 p.m.
-- The St. Kitts Scenic Railway has a variable schedule. Generally, multiple daily departures are offered throughout each week from November through April. A more limited schedule is offered between May and October. For details, check stkittsscenicrailway.com.
-- For travel information check StKittsTourism.kn.