About 15 minutes north of Robert L. Bradshaw International Airport on the lush island of St. Kitts, and then almost a mile uphill on a quasi-paved road, you’ll arrive at paradise as soon as you trundle down the single lane between towering palm trees to the entrance of Ottley’s Plantation Inn. Before you emerge from your rental car, Mary, Keesha, Janet, or Lora will step outside of the Great House to greet you, relieving you of your luggage and immediately ordering up a complementary rum punch for you while you check in. By the time you check out, after a long weekend or a full week or two, you’ll already be planning to return.
Established by Englishman Drewry Ottley as a sugar plantation in the early 1700s, Ottley’s remained in the same family for more than 200 years, producing the crop that made the Caribbean a hotly contested geopolitical arena with half a dozen European colonial powers vying for supremacy. African slaves and indentured white servants spent day after day in the inhuman heat and humidity, planting, cultivating, cutting, and processing sugarcane for millions of customers with a sweet tooth in overseas markets. After sugar estate lands in St. Kitts were nationalized in 1975, Ottley’s was downsized from several hundred acres to 35, and then sold to a series of different owners outside the Ottley family, the last of whom were a couple from Princeton, New Jersey, who, along with two of their daughters and a son-in-law, purchased the property in 1988 with the dream of turning the now rundown plantation into an intimate hotel of casual elegance that they weren’t finding anywhere else. Daughters Karen and Nancy, and Nancy’s husband, Marty, are still running the place, continually improving on a widely respected and highly desirable establishment.
The first thing you’ll notice upon arrival is the yellow and white Great House, standing at the foot of Mt. Liamuiga, the 3,792-foot dormant volcano that dominates the island. Built on the foundations of the original plantation house, a second story has been seamlessly added, framed by verandas that wrap around three sides, inviting guests to relax and enjoy the views of the Atlantic Ocean through the trunks and fronds of palm trees and of the meticulously maintained grounds, featuring a gorgeous flamboyant tree with a sheltering canopy, towering Norfolk pines, and the remains of the old plantation’s stone windmill. The owners have converted the old cotton storage building into a private cottage, good enough for Princess Margaret on her visit here, and have constructed additional cottages that fit harmoniously into the grounds, expanding the inn’s capacity to a still-cozy 23 rooms that range from standard rooms to the Grand Villa with a full kitchen and private plunge pool.
So, how should you spend your time here when you’re not out exploring St. Kitts or hopping on the ferry over to Nevis? Rise later than your normal schedule dictates, to the sounds of birdsong or green vervet monkeys scrambling across the roof of your cottage. Then mosey to the front desk to reserve your dinner (pan-seared red snapper in an herb white-wine sauce, for example, or perhaps West Indian Creole vegetable soup, and a perfect key lime tartlet) at the highly regarded on-grounds restaurant, The Royal Palm, and spend the day anticipating the memorable meal that chef Eric will be preparing and that Florie, Stacy, Zandra, and the rest of the wait staff will be serving with finesse.
Until then, you can be as idle or as active as you wish. You may want to catch up on some reading on a chaise lounge on your private patio, relax on the comfortable furniture in the Great House, or just sit at the outdoor bar and challenge Marcus the mixologist to create a concoction from his stock of local flavored rums — mango, vanilla, lime. If you’re a little more ambitious, you can take to the tennis court or croquet lawn, or do some laps in the 65-foot-long swimming pool that descends from two to eight feet, partially sheltered along the stone walls of the original boiling house of the plantation. Quiet trails at the edge of the property lure you into the rain forest, where you’ll spy plenty of birdlife and little geckos scurrying away from your footsteps. Make sure you book a massage with the very proficient — and, I’m convinced, a little psychic — Beverley at the Mango Orchard Spa, located in a single-room hut in the rain forest. An open glassless window allows a cool Caribbean evening breeze to flow around you as your muscles are kneaded into a state of bliss.
As you explore the grounds, you’re bound to run into Karen, Nancy, and Marty, who maintain a very visible presence on the property. Despite their busy schedules, they’re always eager to talk to their guests, ready to share the story of the inn, from its history to the little problem they’re having with wild pigs, and to offer recommendations to enhance your stay on St. Kitts. Marty will stop whatever he’s doing to discuss photography or botany with you; Nancy and Karen will make the rounds at dinner, pausing at each table to see how their guests are faring and how they spent their day. They’ll also invite you to their weekly Managers’ Rum Punch Party in the Great House, where they circulate among their guests and serve up some wonderful hors d’ouevres like bacon-wrapped plantains and mini vegetable quiches along with thirst-quenching rum punches sprinkled with fresh nutmeg.
Ottley’s offers a very rare example of hospitality that you simply won’t find at a large hotel or even at a bed and breakfast once the breakfast is over, and it’s an example the friendly and intuitive staff clearly follow. By the second day, they knew me by name and room number; by the third, we had established an amicable and joking relationship. And by the time I checked out after a week, I had a very strong suspicion that if I were ever to go back, no matter how many years into the future, they would remember me and provide me with the warmth of a returning family member.