Everywhere you look there are mangoes. Blushing in the trees, carpeting the roads, crowding tables. “Nevis has more than 200 different varieties,” explains our guide, Bankie, after handing over a slice of ‘God’s Blood,’ the juice now dribbling down our chins.
The mango master class is part of a new culinary tour on the island of Nevis, which is the very definition of paradise. Think: unspoiled Caribbean island with palm-fringed white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, pastel-colored cottages and lush, fruit-filled gardens. Add to that no cruise ships and few international flights, and the thump of a mango on a tin roof is about as noisy as things get around here.
It turns out Bankie’s real name is Ronald King, and he works for the island’s Department of Agriculture, he reveals, while waxing lyrical about the fruit’s historical journey to the island and the different qualities of the 17 varieties he’s brought for us to try at a small farm on the slopes of Nevis Peak, the island’s iconic mountain. The mangoes are both fascinating and seductive — buying supermarket mangoes will never be the same again.
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The culinary tour is the brainchild of Nevisian tour operator Greg Phillip of Nevis Sun Tours, who prefers to use ‘everyday people’ instead of tour guides. “We believe in authentic travel experiences; and in our opinion, nothing does that better than a food-focused tour, made even more interesting and fulfilling by the people you encounter. We want to tell our story and leave you with your own inspired stories to tell,” he says.
And it works. We are moved to tears and joy during Phillip’s Alexander Hamilton Island Tour, as he first steers us around the United States’ Founding Father’s home, now a museum in the island’s capital of Charlestown, continuing his fascinating tale over coffee and cake under an almond tree at the colorful Cafe des Arts on the grounds.
Phillip then escorts us around the island, stopping at locations along the way that would have been familiar to Hamilton, from where slaves once disembarked at Crosses Alley (“This is our Ellis Island,” he announces) to Cottle Church, which Phillip declares the most important building in the Caribbean, where Black and white people prayed together in a desegregated plantation estate church a good 10 years before abolition.
For the inaugural tour, Phillip has invited Korean-American celebrity chef Judy Joo. No stranger to Nevis — she makes regular appearances at the island’s annual Mango Festival and holidays here when she’s not running her restaurants in London and Las Vegas — she is keen to discover more. “Who knew there were so many different varieties of mango here?” she grins, before heading back for more at the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, our plush home for the week and the island’s only resort hotel.
The other seven hotels on the island are mostly luxury boutique hotels, with Paradise Beach Nevis regarded as the most exclusive. We are invited there for the day as part of the tour to enjoy its quiet strip of sand and starfish-studded sea, and its excellent local produce-inspired menu, from the conch fritters with spicy aioli, to the mahi-mahi roti with Rastafari-style ital salad. (‘Ital’ is the name for the plant-based diet of the Rastafari religion, designed to improve health and energy.)
And talking of ital, we have a date with Ras Iroy and his yabba pot. Iroy is a key figure in the local Rastafari community, and he’s keen to share his culture through food — cue Cooking with Ras Iroy. “Ital comes from vital — we use a lot of ‘i’s in Rastafari culture,” he chuckles, as we wander through one of the community’s extensive kitchen gardens, picking herbs and vegetables as we go — Joo piling up her calabash bowl (the movement eschews plastic) with vitamin-packed amaranth leaves and an extra helping of Scotch bonnet chilies to add heat, in a nod to her heritage.
After preparing our ingredients under the shade of a large mango tree, Iroy shows us how to layer them in a traditional clay pot before placing it on an open fire. The dish bursts with flavor, even without prohibited taste enhancers of fats and salt, taking Joo by surprise with its complex mix of herbs and spices.
We try ital food again later that week when we break for lunch at the buzzy Natural Vybz bar in the village of Barnes Ghaut, during a plant-themed Village Food Tour with horticulturist Lyle Williams. Along with the friendly locals we meet along the way, he introduces us to lychee-like guinep — which Joo declares her new favorite fruit — plus bittersweet moringa, heady soursop and pungent antioxidant noni (“great for boosting the immune system,” shares Williams).
And we keep on discovering. From the delicious crispy tannia and sweet potato fritters served with a mango raita at Gillian Smith’s hugely atmospheric Bananas restaurant, and the expertly barbecued lobster tail with thyme butter served in a 300-year-old candlelit sugar mill at the historic Montpelier Plantation at the foot of Nevis Peak, to the slowcooked, crunchy-skinned pig roast at Hermitage Plantation, served buffet-style.
Our highlight, though, was Karen Belle’s Passion Bar & Grill in Cox Village, where we tried the tenderest salt fish scooped up with freshly baked coconut Johnny cakes. “Always look for the softer fish, and change the soaking water in the morning,” Belle advises Joo.
Plus, a special shout-out to Sunshine’s Beach Bar & Grill on Pinney’s Beach, a favorite of Jay-Z and Oprah, with newly elevated cooking but still with that barefoot beach party vibe, helped in large part by its signature Killer Bee cocktail, a revved-up rum punch with a recipe that the eponymous Sunshine will take to his grave.
The culinary tour is as packed as you want it to be, though we chose the full schedule; it still gave us plenty of time to flop, whether in the sea or in the spa (don’t miss Four Seasons’ signature Nevisian massage, which starts with a coconut foot bath), finishing the trip as we started by chilling pre- and post-flight in St Kitt’s slick private air terminal Kayan Jet, rested but richer for the people we met, the new foods we tasted, and the culture we absorbed.
“We arrived as tourists, but we’re leaving as locals,” ponders Joo, deftly dispatching a small mango, nibbling the top off before sucking out the intensely sweet, velvety fruit, while simultaneously jettisoning the kernel, as instructed. Bankie would approve.
From $11,656 per person. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org, +1 869 469 1299, nevissuntours.com
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This article appears in the 30 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Winter 2023/24