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A Kiss of St. Kitts
I did two life sentences in the cold."
Celebrating his freedom after 30 years as a builder and designer in chilly England and Wales, Kevin Horstwood was lazing on the veranda of Rawlins Plantation Inn, a former 17th-century sugarcane plantation he owns on the island of St. Kitts.
On one side, we face a lush garden resplendent in magenta, pink and yellow bougainvillaea, frangipani and allemande, as well as "traveler palms," which resemble huge open fans.
On the other side: Green velvet hills rise gently from the turquoise Caribbean Sea; they are actually the islands of Saba and St. Eustatius. A former sugar mill, a cone-shaped stone structure that's now a two-story suite whose rounded walls are of rough-textured stone, and a tall sugar chimney that once fed the sugar-boiling house -- now the foundation of the coral-colored restaurant where we sit -- are behind me.
"Fifteen years ago, I sailed to the West Indies, then spent four years looking for a place to live. I fell in love with the Caribbean, and a girl in it," Horstwood tells me. "St. Kitts is one of the last unspoiled parts here -- not a big holiday resort like some places, and it may need a bit of polish, but it has community."
Who can blame him?
In a handful of small, intimate inns converted from former sugar plantations, on magnificent estates abloom with tropical flowers in the two-island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, guests can indulge the fantasy of life as a wealthy planter.
Inn owners tend to be genial British and American expatriates who live at their inns, and chat with guests over cocktails and during dinner in Britain's first permanent settlement in the Caribbean.
A veritable forest of banana, mango, passionfruit, pineapple and starfruit trees supply the gourmet restaurant at Rawlins, while guest rooms are in gingerbread-trimmed cottages with big porches. Both make the planter-for-a-day fantasy ridiculously easy to indulge in.
Ottley's Plantation Inn, perched on a steep hillside overlooking a stretch of Caribbean coast about 60-miles long, facing St. Kitts' highest peak, Mount Liamuiga ("Fertile Island," in Carib Indian dialect) and Verchilds Mountain, is located on a plantation first settled in 1656.
Its yellow, white and stone plantation "great house" atop the hill, whose parlor is furnished in tropical-floral fabrics, and whose guest rooms' walls are decorated with island landscapes, looks old and authentic, but was carefully built new by the owners, the Keusch family of New Jersey.
But Ottley's most choice lodgings are the stone cottages with shingled-roofs, private patios and swimming pools overlooking the sea, British, Colonial-style, dark-wood furnishings, and louvered shutters designed to catch trade-wind breezes.
At dinner, surrounded by the 300-year-old stone walls of the sugar-boiling house, Art Keusch, a former bookseller from Princeton, N.J., and a history buff, grills me on American historical figures whose roots are on St. Kitts and Nevis.
"I enjoy talking to people from all over the world here, hearing different points of view. When I go home, minds seem more closed," said Keusch.
Golden Lemon Inn and Villas was a 17th-century shipping merchant's house on St. Kitts' Dieppe Bay that had seen better days when a former decorating editor at House & Garden purchased it, then turned it into one of the Caribbean's first exclusive hideaways when it opened in 1962.
Ex-New Yorker Arthur Leaman had the time of his life designing his inn, painting walls in vivid bursts of lemon-yellow, mango and blueberry -- as befits the author of Color in Decorating, among other books.
"It was wonderful -- I had a great time. Nobody here was interested in antiques, and no shops sold them. So I gave a woman I knew the assignment to dig up antiques from local people," recalled Leaman, now in his 80s, who first saw St. Kitts in 1947 on a visit on a tramp steamer.
"When you start to collect, you don't stop, so I filled the inn with all sorts of finds," he added.
As Golden Lemon was bought recently by Rawlins Plantation Inn, guests can dine and enjoy the amenities of both.
Most of St. Kitts is unspoiled, lush with rainforests and sugar-cane fields -- production stopped in 2005 -- mountains and flowers, except for a developed area on its southeast peninsula, where a big Marriott is located.
Yet St. Kitts is a veritable metropolis compared to tranquil Nevis, two miles away.
While Jews from Brazil brought sugar-refining techniques to St. Kitts and Nevis, my guide said, a surprise was in store on Nevis: a Jewish cemetery with 17th- and 18th-century tombstones in English, Portuguese and Hebrew from Sephardic Jews, immigrants expelled from Portugal's Brazil colony.
A sign noted that in the 1720s, one-fourth of the population in Charlestown on Nevis was Jews.
At Golden Rock Inn, way up in the hills of Nevis at the edge of the rainforest, a jungle-like landscape is littered with plantation ruins, and small monkeys and hummingbirds dart about.
Pamela Barry, a Philadelphia woman whose great-great-great-great-grandfather purchased the estate in 1801, climbed the slopes to point out seven pastel cottages offering panoramic sea views from floor-to-ceiling windows, hand-carved mahogany furnishings, island crafts and four-poster beds.
Brice Marden, the New York abstract artist, and his wife, Helen, bought two-thirds of Golden Rock in 2006, and embarked upon major refurbishment.
At Montpelier Plantation Inn on Nevis, one atmospheric restaurant is in a 300-year-old stone sugar mill.
Another restaurant, al fresco, that overlooks the sea, is part of the 1803 plantation house. The Hoffman family who own it are Americans who spent much of their lives in Britain and the Bahamas.
"The best compliment we ever got from a guest of 30 years ago was, ''It hasn't changed a bit,' " said Hoffman, who lives in the plantation house.
For more information, visit: www.stkittstourism.kn.