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Known formally as Saint Christopher Island, Saint Kitts was named by Christopher Columbus on landing there in 1493. But it was not until it became an English colony in 1623 that its name was shortened to Saint Kitts.
A lush and verdant island, Saint Kitts is the larger of the twin-islands that make up the country and is more developed than Nevis. However, neither has succumbed to tourist trappings, remaining an unassuming and uncrowded destination that is a true gem in the Caribbean crown.
Dominated by an extinct 3,792ft (1,156m) volcano, the island is covered in green vegetation and sugar cane fields, and is ringed by sandy coves, coral reefs, and clear waters. Most beaches to the north are black and sandy due to the volcanic nature of the land. But southern beaches like Frigate Bay, Banana Bay, Sand Bank Bay, and Cockleshell Bay are deserted stretches of fine white sand.
There's more to Saint Kitts than natural splendour and beaches. A history of slave revolution and colonialism during the 18th century left the island with a rich heritage of architecture, as well as sites such as the impressive Brimstone Hill, constructed to protect the wealthy of the island.
During the heyday of the sugar industry, Saint Kitts boast 68 sugar plantations. The oldest and richest colony in the Caribbean, its prosperity finally ended with the abolition of slavery and its once-prolific factories and windmills lie in ruins among abandoned estates.
The capital of Saint Kitts and Nevis, Basseterre is one of the oldest towns in the eastern Caribbean. Founded in 1627, it retains a certain architectural charm from its period of British and French colonisation. Basseterre is located on the southwestern coast of St Kitts island and is still one of the chief commercial depots of the Leeward Islands. Basseterre is the most common entry point to Saint Kitts and Nevis for travellers arriving by both air and sea. The town has a rather tragic history, punctuated by colonialism, battles, fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Historic buildings are spread throughout, with many of the old structures surviving these perils to the present day.
Nicknamed the 'Gibraltar of the West Indies', the striking Brimstone Hill Fortress sits atop an 800-foot (244m) rise and is protected by 49 guns and immense walls. Built largely by African slaves, it took nearly ten decades to complete since construction first began in 1690. The scale and grandeur of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is representative of the historic importance of Saint Kitts during the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, the complex affords incredible views from its commanding position and houses a small museum.
If Saint Kitts can be described as a tennis racquet-shaped island, the Frigate Bay Peninsula is the narrow handle stretching down towards Nevis. It connects the racquet head to the widened end of the handle to the southeast. The peninsula is unique in that it offers beaches on both the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts. South Frigate Bay on the leeward side offers calm waters ideal for swimming, snorkelling, and a variety of water sports activities. Alternatively, North Frigate Bay on the Atlantic Coast is battered by waves perfect for bodysurfing and is one of the most scenic beaches on the island. As a result, it has also attracted most of the resort and hotel development along the coast.
The highest point on Saint Kitts, Mount Liamuiga is a dormant volcano topped by a 0.6-mile (1km) wide crater lake. Formerly called Mount Misery, the name Liamuiga means 'fertile land' in the native Kalinago language. The slopes of the mountain are covered in farmland and lush tropical rainforest, and are popular places for hiking in Saint Kitts. Guided hikes usually start from Belmont Estate in the village of St Paul's and go up to the summit, which has panoramic views of the Caribbean, including the islands of St Barths, St Martin, Antigua, and Nevis.
Sandy Point Town is the second-largest on Saint Kitts, with a population of just more than 3,000 people in the surrounding area. Thought to be the original landing point for English explorer Sir Thomas Warner in 1623, Sandy Point was the commercial centre of the island until the 18th century when most business was moved to Basseterre. These days, Sandy Point is an industrial centre and tourist attraction, located at the entrance to Brimstone Hill National Park. There are some excellent beaches around Sandy Bay, including the shiny black sand beach of Pump Bay, offering good scuba diving and snorkelling opportunities, and Belle Tete, which is near the La Valle estate.
One of the most popular tourist activities on the island, the St Kitts Scenic Railway is a must for first-time visitors to the Caribbean. It is a fantastic way to experience the beautiful scenery of the island, as well as its history of a major sugar producer in the 17th and 18th centuries. The St Kitts Scenic Railway takes visitors on a three-hour tour of the island, following a 30-mile (48km) circular track. The narrow-gauge train is unique in that it has two levels: an open-air observation deck on the top offering panoramic views, and an air-conditioned parlour below, where complimentary beverages are served throughout the trip. As the train rolls by sugar cane fields, traditional villages, and great sights such as Brimstone Hill Fortress, friendly tour guides contribute to your understanding of St Kitts by sharing anecdotes about the island and snippets of its colonial history. Cruise passengers should note that tickets for the Scenic Railway can be booked while on board most cruise ships.
The Strip is the area immediately surrounding Frigate Bay. It is the beating heart of the island when it comes to nightlife and entertainment options. However, visitors should not expect neon lights or chic buildings. Rather, a closer guess would be a series of unpretentious beach shacks located a mere stone's throw from the ocean. Visitors can rest assured that what the Strip lacks in glitz, it more than makes up for in spirit, with numerous bars and clubs offering live music, DJs, fire-eating performances, bonfires, and a steady supply of cold rum cocktails to fuel your dance moves. Although restaurants and bars can be found on some of the most popular beaches, the Strip is the natural entertainment hub for those in search of fun on St Kitts.
As with all Caribbean destinations, one of the most popular things to do on Saint Kitts and Nevis is to try your hand at some scuba diving or snorkelling. The calm, clear waters of the Caribbean Sea, not to mention its spectacular coral reef formations and its abundant marine life, make it a wonderful diving and snorkelling destination for beginners and experts alike. For those new to diving, Monkey Shoals and Friars Bay Reef provide a gentle introduction to the undersea wonders of Saint Kitts and Nevis, with plenty of reputable diving companies offering full training and guided excursions into the depths. For intermediate-level divers, Sandy Point on Saint Kitts is a National Marine Park known for its beautiful coral heads and colourful sea life. Those who prefer the excitement of wreck-diving can explore the remains of ships such as River Taw, M.V. Talata, and the recently sunk Corinthian. Experienced divers will enjoy the challenge of Nags Head's strong currents and Aquarium, famous for its range of tropical fish.
The little island of Saint Kitts offers an unexpected wealth of sightseeing activities for visitors. Most will be perfectly content without moving beyond the gorgeous beaches. Top attractions within Basseterre include the Circus, Independence Square, and the Treasury Building, housing the National Museum. The UNESCO-listed Brimstone Hill Fortress sits above the city and is well-worth the climb.
Those capable of tackling a fairly strenuous climb are rewarded for hiking up Mount Liamuiga, the island's dormant volcano. There are also some good walking trails through the rainforest, protected in the national park that covers roughly a quarter of the island.
Those who prefer not to break a sweat can take the scenic drive to the views from Bloody Point, the site of the colonial massacre of 2,000 Carib Indians. Another way to tour Saint Kitts is to board the popular Scenic Railway which makes a three-hour circuit around the picturesque island. Other attractions include Romney Manor, a 17th-century sugar estate, and the Fairview Great House and Gardens, a colonial mansion dating back to 1701.
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