St. Kitts: Volcano hiking, and liming, by the sea

12/01/2012 12:00 AM

11/27/2012 7:34 PM

There’s relaxing, and then there’s liming. You’ll know — and feel — the difference after a few hours in St. Kitts.

What’s liming? It’s drinking a rum-grapefruity “Ting with a Sting” as waves lap the sand. Or snorkeling alongside brilliantly colored fish at Reggae Beach. Or wandering around the church where Amazing Grace was composed. Or hiking rain forest paths to the rim of an ancient volcano.

For overachievers, all of the above.

Liming is Kittitian for extreme relaxing, and St. Kitts has elevated liming to an art — practically a religion. With such dedication to pleasure, it’s clear why the Caribbean isle’s original name, St. Christopher, gave way to a more fittingly casual moniker.

For visitors, liming rituals begin at resort beaches where trade winds rustle palm fronds, cool sunbathers, and propel kite-boarders across sparkling aqua waters. This setting would have sufficed for the whole weekend getaway, but we had a mountain to climb. Specifically, 3,792-foot Mount Liamuiga, which, promised an expat, rewards climbers with “360 degrees of heaven’s penthouse views.”

For those dreaming of volcano hikes, St. Kitts offers a quieter, more affordable alternative to Hawaii.

Liamuiga, which means “fertile land,” hovers like a vision beyond villages and sugar-cane fields planted after the British colonization in 1624. Strikingly beautiful, the dormant volcano can be hiked in a day.

SURREAL DRIVE

For a quarter-century, Greg Pereira has led “volcano safaris” up narrow vine-and-rock-strewn trails through the lush rainforest and cloud forest leading to Liamuiga’s rim. The fifth-generation Kittitian spent his youth in these mountains when not working at his family’s hotel.

Picking us up at the St. Kitts Marriott Resort on the isle’s Atlantic coast, Pereira trundles his modified 4x4 Land Rover along winding roads to the volcano trailhead. He brakes at Black Rocks, a surreal formation over which I clamber down to the coastline. The rocks spewed from the volcano’s past explosions. Liamuiga’s nickname, “Mount Misery,” suggests the violent eruptions that resculpted and primed the landscape for beauty long after.

The road passes stone quarries, seaside shanties, family farmers trucking juicy palm-size guava, medicine men hoisting bunches of herbs and ramshackle bars where patrons go liming with morning drinks that definitely aren’t fruit smoothies. At a junction, a fellow snoozing on the road rises unsteadily as the Land Rover approaches, then plops back down like a ragdoll after we pass.

In hillside villages, goats trot outside rickety fences. Clusters of wood signs broadcast curious, vaguely inspirational messages (“Be True to Yourself,” “It’s Working!”). Nestled in a foothill is the church where slave-ship doctor-turned-pastor James Ramsay preached for abolition, inspiring the song Amazing Grace.

A brief detour affords views of the island’s interior, where sugar plantations held sway until two decades ago. Now land has been set aside for preservation. Across from a stately inn, a path winds to a windmill set against lush vegetation and blue skies with cotton-puff clouds.

“Twenty-four percent of St. Kitts is protected reserve,” Pereira says. “It’s among the few places in the world where rainforest is expanding.”

VOLCANIC WONDERLAND

Mount Liamuiga Volcano Crater Trail ascends natural staircases of packed earth, rocks and entwined roots. Due to the elevation and oceanic breezes, mosquitoes and flies aren’t a problem. Sit on a toppled tree and you might get an ant bite, but snake encounters are rare. The tropical canopy shades hikers from intense sun.

Along the seven-hour roundtrip trek, Pereira points to vines used as aphrodisiacs, plants harvested by voodoo men, and floating kapok seedpods. Believed to bestow good luck, they inspired the Avatar seeds of Eywa. Huge buttressed roots, big enough to hide basketball all-stars, bolster trees, some up to 150 feet high and 300 years old. “This is an example of nature’s innate intelligence,” says the guide. “Trees grow these roots to stabilize on slopes, enduring winds and storms.”

Reasons to stay quiet become apparent: St. Christopher bullfinches, thumbnail-sized frogs chirping outsized mating calls and petite vervet monkeys foraging walnut-size mangos.

“Hear the hammer hitting an anvil? That’s the mountain blacksmith cricket.” Pereira’s stops for earth science lessons are welcomed by hikers craving knowledge, photo opportunities and rest-stops. It’s essential to drink along the way — plain water, not soft drinks or alcohol.

LIMING IN THE CLOUDS

Beyond cloud forest level, the volcano’s rim offers spectacular views in every direction.

Climbing up boulders, I find a seat on the jagged Devil’s Tooth rock formation. “Heaven’s penthouse” aptly describes the views: shimmering sea, pure-blue skies, cottony clouds. In the distance, a mountain on St. Eustatius rises through the mist like a vision.

You don’t get views like this on hotel treadmills.

Another rocky perch faces a mile-wide crater dubbed the Giant’s Salad Bowl, a cue for eating my veggie sandwich. “The last verified eruptions from the volcano were 1,600 years ago,” says Pereira. Rich soil left by those lava flows supports a patchwork quilt of greenery plunging to the crater floor.

After descending to the volcano’s base, Pereira pulls celebratory snacks from a cooler: fresh guava juice, passionfruit with local rum and a local ginger-coconut confection. Blue skies arc the glittering waves on the not-so-distant shore. This is liming.

Robin Soslow can be reached at rsoslow@gmail.com

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