The small Caribbean island of Nevis boasts some serious history: Christopher Columbus named it in 1493 when he mistook clouds on Nevis Peak for snow ("nieves" in Spanish). It was a stopover point for the colonists who founded Jamestown in 1603, the most prosperous sugar cane producing island in the region, and the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton.
But the minimally developed, sunny, beachy island, which is part of the Leeward Islands chain in the Eastern Caribbean, is more about looking forward than living in the past. It's aiming to become the first carbon-neutral island on the planet by 2017.
It's a lofty goal, but the island is well on its way. Nevis, at just 36 square miles, is home to a population of about 12,000 people: Currently, it receives approximately 90 percent of its energy from imported oil — a market that's both volatile and unsustainable — with the remaining share coming from wind power. It's size and population density (and its various natural energy sources) mean that converting to another form of energy is an achievable goal.
With sea-level rise eating away at beaches around the world, small island nations stand to be big losers as climate change heats up. So switching to renewable energy sources will not only make a dent in CO2 emissions, slowing the impacts of rising waters, but makes economic sense, too. Local control of energy production, and the ability to sell the extra power to neighboring St. Kitts, is a win-win.
Nevis has its own electric utility, Nevis Electricity Company Limited, which has completed the exploration stage of the project and is ready to build a 10-megawatt geothermal plant that will derive energy from the volcano at the center of the island, Nevis Peak. While not a very active, it still generates plenty of heat that, once captured, can create more electricity than the island can use.
And Nevis has plenty of that energy to go around; it even bubbles right to the surface. Locals have taken advantage of the island's natural hot springs for hundreds of years. The very first resort in the entire Caribbean, Bath Hotel, opened in 1778 so the wealthy could soak and relax of the steamy water. When I visited, I had a chance to bathe with the locals in 108-degree water that runs into a free, community bathing area (pictured above), which is said to have healing properties. (The original grand Bath Hotel building is now used as government offices, but the Bath Spring is still producing plenty of its signature toasty water.)
Besides aiming for carbon-neutral bragging rights, the island has other ways it promotes environmental responsibility, from all its beaches being open to the public to a moratorium on any new building construction above 1,000 feet. The natural environment, low level of development, rain forests in the uplands, open spaces and clean beaches are what bring people to the island, and with tourism being the bulk of the island's income, the leadership there has genuine incentive to protect what makes Nevis different from other, more developed Caribbean destinations.
The old-style Caribbean buildings on Nevis have plenty of charm — and are also functional. I never turned AC on (though it's available) during my visit due to smart positioning of cottages to catch breezes, louvered windows and overhangs which provided plenty of shade when you needed it. (Photo: Starre Vartan)
Alistair Forrest, the general manager of the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, told me that in addition to geothermal energy, a waste-to-energy plant has been proposed for the island, further diversifying the energy sources, and, of course, solar power is part of the mix, too. At Nisbet, they already produce enough energy from solar panels to run the air conditioning, and a passive system heats the hot water for housekeeping.
The beaches on Nevis are world-class — both beautiful and serene, with wide swaths of golden sand — and the beach at Nisbet is no different, lying at the bottom of a hill on top of which the old plantation house stands, though it's now the formal dining restaurant and bar. This layout means that any fertilizer or pesticide used on the resort's signature palm trees and lawn/promenade would wash directly onto the beach and into the gorgeous blue waters that surround them (and, eventually, into the fish that both guests and locals enjoy at dinner).
The avenue of palms at the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club lead directly downhill to a beautiful white-sand beach, so any chemicals used on the trees or lawn wash directly into the sea — which is why the resort eschews them. (Photo: Courtesy Nevis Plantation Beach Club)
As a result, Nisbet doesn't use chemical fertilizers, relying instead on compost and native plants instead of pesticides, which require less care and water and are less susceptible to pests. The resort also sources 99 percent of its produce locally, and imports as little as possible of other items as well. The result is a charming, low-key resort that is truly relaxing and in touch with exactly where it is.
Again, size matters: Nisbet has only 22 suites and 14 rooms, so not only is it quiet, but sourcing as much as it can locally makes having a lower impact feasible with a small numbers of guests.
Nevis Peak, an inactive volcano, is the highest point on the island, at over 3,300 feet. It can be seen from pretty much everywhere on the island, and from St. Kitts, across the way. (Photo: Starre Vartan)
During my very relaxing stay at the Nisbet Plantation, I kept an eagle eye out for the green vervet monkeys, and while I spotted them from a distance once, it was easier to spot neighborhood goats that ambled across the lawns, looking for plants to munch on, with their kids in tow.
While enjoying a (real!) pina colada at the beachfront restaurant, I was happy to spend some time contemplating the incredible shades of blue of the ocean in front of me. It struck me that this island that once supported wealthy British plantation owners before it finally became independent in 1983, could be completely energy self-sufficient one day soon, too.