History amid the rain forest of Nevis in the Caribbean
Update 2015: This attraction, sadly, is now closed.
In the hills, amid lush mountain flora, 1200 feet above sea level, Peak Heaven near the village of Rawlins on the Caribbean island of Nevis provides panoramic ocean views and a look into island history not often on display.
Imperialism and colonization played a significant role in the history of most Caribbean islands. European powers ruled the islands and fought with each other for control of the more strategic and lucrative islands. Plantations, which originally grew cotton and tobacco, switched to sugar cane in the 17th century. Sugar cane was a manually intensive crop and African slaves were imported to work on the plantations.
The history of the islands is not the focus of many tourists, drawn to the islands by sunshine, long stretches of sandy beaches, and warm waters. For those that do explore the history, it is frequently the stories of the European colonizers, rarely the stories of the slaves, that are on display.
Driving around the small volcanic island of Nevis, remnants of European history are readily visible. Originally settled by Amerindians, Nevis was colonized by the British in the 1620s. Occupied briefly by Spaniards and subject to attacks during intermittent French-English warfare, it remained primarily under British rule until it became an independent nation in 1983, part of the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis.
Sugar mill ruins, stone walls, and old churches can be seen from the road and are accessible to exploring on one’s own. Mementos of British naval hero Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, who was married on the island, and other information about Nevis history are displayed in the Alexander Hamilton Museum. Four former plantations, now turned into inns, offer accommodations and veranda dining evocative of a past colonial era.
The Village Experience at Peak Heaven provides a glimpse into the other history of the island. It is hard to imagine an entire family living in the Chattel House, a replica of an indentured slave’s dwelling, a modest wooden building with a shingled roof, slatted windows and shuttered doors, even if most of their day was spent outside. A small museum houses relics, including an old gin bottle, representing the cost of one slave.
Peak Heaven is the creation of Edward Herbert, who grew up in the area. Proud of his history and heritage, and eager to teach it to the younger generations, he enthusiastically walked us through the grounds, explaining the displays, and telling us of the ways of his childhood.
He told us about the stone ovens, a vital part of Nevisian villages from the 18th to the 20th centuries. He talked to us about the herbs growing in the herb garden. We tasted a piece of ginger. This ginger was much hotter than the ginger we buy at home.
Peak Heaven provides tours through the rain forest. Mr. Herbert led me through the forest to the ruins of the first sugar mill on the island, an animal driven mill where donkeys would have moved around in a circle to activate the grinding. Along the way, he identified various bushes and trees and told me how the leaves and fruit were used for food and medicine.
When Mr. Herbert was a child, the area around Rawlins was heavily farmed and known as the “bread basket” of Nevis. Very little farming is done in the area today. The Tuesday farmer’s market in the capital of Charlestown sold produce that came in by boat from Dominica.
We ended our visit to Peak Heaven with lunch at its Coal Pot Restaurant. A coal pot, an essential part of the household, was a two-part pot made of red clay. Coals were heated in the bottom part and food placed in the top. Food cooked all day in these early versions of slow cookers. At the Coal Pot Restaurant, I ordered the lemon snapper. My husband had a traditional meal of salt fish and fungi, a stiff cornmeal mash. Both came with yam salad and mixed vegetables. Coal Pot’s kitchen is solar powered. There is no electricity at Peak Heaven.
A winding village road off the island’s main circle road takes you up a gentle slope to Peak Heaven. It is a scenic drive with a destination well worth the trip.