Travel

Mingle with Monkeys in this Caribbean Island's National Parks

But hide your mangos. And your cocktails.

Yobab/Shutterstock
Yobab/Shutterstock
Yobab/Shutterstock

We’re in the mountainous rainforest of St. Kitts-almost 10,000 acres of protected land, designated the Central Forest Reserve National Park in 2006-when a couple of mangos plunge down from the sky, narrowly missing our noggins. I’m convinced we’re being attacked by the island’s most notorious residents.

“Monkeys!” I conclude, pointing at the fallen fruit. Specifically, the black-faced, hazel-eyed green vervet monkeys indigenous to Africa that for 300 years have roamed freely around the Eastern Caribbean island and its sister isle, Nevis. But my guide, O’Neil Mulraine, says no, the mangos have simply dropped off the tree. Any monkeys would have disappeared as soon as we thundered up in our safari Jeep.

Still, the monkey evidence is strong. Below us, the muddy ground is littered with juicy yellow mangos-the kind that would go for a pretty penny back home in the States-many displaying a single, delicate monkey-sized chomp. Mulraine concedes this one. “The monkey is a very wasteful animal,” he says. “They behave like they have rich people taste.”

Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images

Drive around St. Kitts and the mangos are plentiful: hanging low on branches, raining down in over 40 species throughout the summer. They’re so revered that every July, Nevis holds a mango festival, an ode to the versatile varieties, with mango eating competitions, cocktails, tastings, and cooking demos.

But while the fruit is indigenous to the island, the 80,000 or so green vervet monkeys that snack on them-almost double the number of St. Kitts’ human population-are a product of colonial whims. There are a couple of stories explaining how these furry guys made their way here from West Africa back in the 17th century. Some say they were brought by the French as pets while transporting the enslaved. Others say the French brought them to terrorize the British after the two countries-who initially agreed to share the island-went to war. Either way, when the French were defeated and eventually took off, the monkeys stayed.

Today, the primates are both a help and a hindrance for St. Kittians. They get drunk on stolen cocktails and frustratingly swipe and feast on farmers’ crops (some citizens dine on monkey stew as a means of retaliation and population control). But they’re also so darn cute. Tourists flock to St. Kitts just for the photo opps,the green vervets wrangled by reliable handlers-or “monkey men”-at bars or down by Port Zante, where cruise ships dock in the capital city of Basseterre.

Dave G. Houser/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images
Dave G. Houser/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images
Dave G. Houser/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

For better or worse, the island is so intertwined with the little guys that you can hike up to the town of Monkey Hill, have a drink on the beach at Monkey Bar, or dive at Monkey Shoals Reef off Nevis. Monkeys stare you down from postage stamps and promotional materials advertising the islands as a tourist destination. There’s even a children book starring two vervet monkeys, Lia and Wally.

Later, I spotted a monkey in the wild at the imposing Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, the second national park in St. Kitts. The animal’s light tan fur was almost camouflaged by the trees and surprisingly, it took a few beats between noticing us and disappearing. Here, they don’t mind the humans-they’re even encouraged. On our way up to the fortress, we see a sign: No Dogs Allowed. We’re told it’s because they frighten away the monkeys.

Jason Patrick Ross/Shutterstock
Jason Patrick Ross/Shutterstock
Jason Patrick Ross/Shutterstock

Explore a rainforest that defies the odds

A lesson from the monkey and mango-laden St. Kitts rainforest: Sometimes it pays to be difficult. The tropical rainforest we’re touring with Mulraine escaped sugarcane cultivation-the major industry in St. Kitts from the time of its European settlement in the 1600s up until 2005-thanks to its challenging access and nutrient-deficient soil, at least for agricultural purposes. Now, it’s looked at as a model of conservation. Taking over a swath of thickly vegetated, contoured land in the middle of the island, the Central Forest Reserve National Park was designated a national park for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. And because of the re-envelopment of land formerly used for sugarcane, it’s an example of a rainforest that’s actually growing.

It sustains itself in myriad ways, not only the domain of monkeys and other wild creatures like mongoose, but also ecotourism groups like ours that hike its steep trails to the dormant Mount Luigima volcano some 3,972 feet up, or climb aboard Jeeps for educational safari tours. Here, rainfall serves as a major freshwater source for the national water supply. And as we travel, Mulraine points out naturally occuring produce like breadfruit and mamey sapote plus plants his family has used for medicinal remedies for generations: lemongrass for fever, silver trumpet for hypertension, and so on. He presses the bottom of a silver fern against our skin to make a white “tattoo.” That one’s just for fun.

Sue Martin/Shutterstock
Sue Martin/Shutterstock
Sue Martin/Shutterstock

Tour a scenic landscape once only seen by sugarcane

These days you might spot green vervets in residential neighbourhoods and on beaches, but there was a time they kept primarily to the mountains. Because that was where the sugarcane was (see: the main photo of this story). By 1775, there were 200 sugar estates on the island, rendering it the wealthiest of all the British colonies. But the introduction of the sugar beet undercut cane prices and kicked off a steady downfall, and while St Kitts was one of the last holdouts of the sugar industry, it finally shut down in 2005. When the cane went away, monkeys started making their way down the hills looking for other sources of food.

Around the island you’ll still find remnants of the sugar industry’s past, ruins of factories and windmills used for grinding the stalks. And a train. From 1912 to 1926, a railway transported sugarcane from estates 30 miles around the island to a central factory in Basseterre. In 2003, it was converted to the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, a three-hour sightseeing and informational tour taking riders through villages and around the outskirts of the island and treating them to spectacular views once only witnessed by the crops. It also carries the distinction as the “Last Railway in the West Indies.”

Barbara788/Shutterstock
Barbara788/Shutterstock
Barbara788/Shutterstock

Some of the original estates also remain intact, like Romney Manor, dating back to the mid-1600s. It was the first estate on the island to free the enslaved, and was once owned by Sam Jefferson II, ancestor of Thomas Jefferson. Outside the building sits lush botanical gardens, including a 400-year-old Saman tree. Inside is Caribelle Batik, which, since the 1970s, has been producing popular Indonesian-inspired batik textiles right there on property. (If you can’t make it to the estate to pick one up, there’s also a retail outpost on Port Zante.)

Adjacent to the Manor is Wingfield Estate, where you’ll find Amerindian petroglyphs as well as the office of Sky Safari zipline tours, and, perhaps most exciting, remains of the oldest rum distillery in the Caribbean. When you’re done dreaming about the booze of yore, head to the Rainforest Bar at Romney Manor for a taste of the modern iteration in the form of St. Kitts’ own Old Road Rum.

evenfh/Shutterstock
evenfh/Shutterstock
evenfh/Shutterstock

Explore the weight of the island’s colonial past

Monkeys and plantation relics aren’t the only visible remnants of the island’s colonial history. But the most significant has to be the massive Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park. Though St. Kitts was first named by Christopher Columbus after he spotted it in 1493, the island wasn’t actually settled by Europeans until the British set up shop in 1623, followed shortly after by the French. It thus became the first Caribbean island to be colonized, sporting a fortress designed by British architects to protect its coastline against multiple attacks (the fort was abandoned by 1854, while St. Kitts & Nevis remained under British control until independence in 1983).

Today the fortress is a remarkably preserved feat of 17th and 18th century military engineering, built over several levels over 100 years and complete with freshwater drainage and sturdy arches. It’s perched high up on an 800-foot-tall volcanic hill, with multiple canons pointing toward views of pristine blue waters, sandy beaches, and islands miles away on a clear day.

Knowing this hulking structure was built on the backs of the enslaved makes a visit at once impressive and unsettling. Alongside examples of weaponry, uniforms, re-created living and sleeping quarters, and life-sized mannequins in the museum the fortress now houses, the building process is detailed in a set of three images illustrating the carving of the stone, carrying the stone up the hill, and using the stones together to build a wall. There’s also an explanation of the role of the enslaved in the French siege of Brimstone Hill in 1782, put to work fighting guerrilla warfare on behalf of the British, and capturing French officials.

And, of course, a display showcasing the origins of the one and only green vervet monkey.

St. Kitts Music Festival
St. Kitts Music Festival
St. Kitts Music Festival

When to visit St. Kitts

With gorgeous weather year-round and plenty of uncrowded sandy beaches and bays to soak up sun (and seafood), there’s never a bad time to visit St. Kitts. But there are times when the island feels particularly alive. Every last weekend in June features the St. Kitts Music Festival, running since 1996 and now one of the most star-studded and eclectic events on the Caribbean’s music calendar. But it’s not just names like Sean Paul, Ashanti, Kelly Rowland, Destra, Popcaan, and, yup, Kenny Rogers (in 2005) that draw the crowds. You’ll also get up-and-coming local players like the soulful Dejour, and dancehall artists Hi-Light and Shaneil Muir. You can say you saw them when.

In St. Kitts, there’s no such thing as a downtime lull between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Their Carnival, also known as Sugar Mas, starts mid-November and goes hard for six weeks until January 2. There are pageants, concerts, parties, parades, J’ouvert, calypso and colourful bacchanalia blending Caribbean and African traditions, sprinkled with a heavy dose of holiday cheer. Just bring a costume, hit the streets, and prepare to party.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She’s still convinced a monkey threw those mangos.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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