At 7am one day I met Gailey, a softly spoken 59-year-old father-of-four, to hike. Well, that’s what the Spurs fan at work had called it: a hike. He said it was the toughest he’d done in the world, and I couldn’t let that gauntlet be thrown without rising to the challenge.
But the ascent to Nevis Peak isn’t a hike; it’s a climb, a yanking-up of your full body weight via a series of ropes and roots on an intense round trip. It’s the exercise equivalent of doing squats for three-and-a-half hours on a slippery incline. Gailey, armed with an alarmingly long knife (to clear hanging branches) and a level of fitness I can only dream of, never broke a sweat.
When we reached the top, my legs caked in mud, my forehead dripping more than the trees around me, we were above cloud level; I saw little beyond the plants, a rugby ball-sized frog and a bridled quail-dove.
I was on honeymoon – by myself.
No, not like that. I have been happily married to a top-notch man called Giles for the past 12 years; our actual honeymoon involved a long weekend in Venice and a road trip around Ireland. Six years after Giles and I wed, our first child arrived. Two years after that, the second. They are also as good as humans come.
But I haven’t had a moment alone since 2011. Most days, even loo breaks are social occasions; like many parents, my life is a whirl of work, school runs, and plans. While, technically, I am in possession of one of Virginia Woolf’s rooms of one’s own, it’s only available for use between the hours of 11pm and 5am and most often has a train track or Playmobil tableau criss-crossing its floor.
I had been craving time to step out of the rigid daily routine and take stock of what it is to be nearly 40
I had been craving time to step out of the rigid daily routine and take stock of what it is to be nearly 40, a desire I may have mentioned once or twice to my husband and to my boss. But people like me don’t holiday alone; who leaves their children for a week?
Giles told me in the most supportive of ways to go away. Get some sleep. Read some books. My parents would help. My boss agreed.
Most of my friends misheard me when I said I was going by myself to Nevis. “Is it entirely safe,” they puzzled, “to climb Ben Nevis alone in December?” But as a mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown, it was sun, not Scotland – even in all its moody splendour – that was required.
One of the most beautiful and relaxing spots in all of the Caribbean, Nevis (knee-vis) is dominated by that 3,232ft volcano in its centre, from which lush hills flow dramatically down, ending in a ring of beaches around the island’s perimeter. Covering just 36 square miles, and with 12,000 year-round inhabitants, 74 churches, four grocery stores and about 9,500 green vervet monkeys, the island is gloriously under-developed, with only one large resort, the Four Seasons. There are Caribbean islands with longer and prettier white sand beaches, but what draws visitors to Nevis is its old-style charm and its sense of privacy: Diana, Princess of Wales, and Vogue editor Anna Wintour have, at different times, found escape here.
Most visitors arrive by sea, flying to St Kitts and taking a ferry or water taxi across the two-mile Narrows that separates the sister islands in what is a physical but also psychological journey: from a large, resort-heavy island to a far more remote, old-fashioned sort of a place.
Nevis is a spot for lovers, certainly, and families, but it is also particularly appealing for singletons thanks to its small size, boutique hotel stock, and wealth of activities, none of which is more than a 30-minute taxi ride away. In a year that saw hurricanes devastate much of the Caribbean, Nevis emerged largely unscathed.
In the pursuit of nothingness, I could have just read novels for a week. But the island has a friendly charm that is hard to resist, so I scheduled one small expedition each day. I spent a glorious morning snorkelling off a catamaran called Caona. I took an off-road “Funky Monkey” tour of the more remote parts of the island, from beautiful empty beaches to Cottle Church. If you break your focus on relaxation for nothing else, visit this, Nevis’s first integrated church. It was built in 1824 by Thomas Cottle so that he and his slaves could worship under the same roof, albeit segregated, and it is the site of the most intimate detail of slavery I found on the island. While the church is in ruins now, a plaque bearing the names and ages of Cottle’s slaves at the time of construction stands on a wall, and includes the names of Aaron, four, and Elizabeth, six, children the ages of mine.
This is the elephant on the island: the sugar plantations that dominated the economy for the 17th and 18th centuries have been converted into cosy inns so elegant, remote and discreet that you can almost ignore the fact that, without slavery, there would be no romantic hilltop settlements from which to engage in yoga at sunrise, or sundowners around the pool. But if the spectre of slavery is omnipresent, it’s to the credit of the island that it doesn’t shy from its history. While Americans come on the trail of Alexander Hamilton, one of the US founding fathers, who was born on the island (his house is currently closed) and Britons seek out Nelson (he married a Nevisian, Fanny Nisbet), far more interesting is the two-hour historical tour of Charlestown, the small capital dotted with Georgian buildings, which tells the broader story of the thousands of Africans, Jews and Quakers who once inhabited the island.
These activities were a welcome distraction, but the crucial element to spending time alone is your space. I split my time between two hilltop hotels – Golden Rock and Montpelier – for escapism and reflection, followed by a few nights at the beachfront Four Seasons for on-site activities.
For maximum solitude, I began at Golden Rock, on the island’s east side, which is a bit like staying in a botanical garden. Bearing the bohemian stamp of the hotel’s owners, the American artist Brice Marden and his wife, Helen, boldly decorated cottages dot the hillside, hidden in a lush tropical garden deftly designed and cultivated to look like a wild paradise. The kitchen serves healthy and spicy takes on the island’s glorious fresh fish, and a person could happily spend a week in isolation here.
Next, I moved south, to the Montpelier Plantation & Beach, Nevis’s most elegant hotel and home to the island’s most ambitious restaurant. Most of the hillside hotels lure dinner guests with themed nights: a lively fish barbecue at Nisbet’s, Italian night at The Hermitage, but Montpelier’s beach cookout is the best. I spent an afternoon entirely alone on the hotel’s grassy private beach, staring at the sea, reading a novel, and swimming before I was joined by guests from all over the island for the weekly beach barbecue, with perfectly grilled lobster and spicy ribs as the sun set and a singer called Garlic with a beautiful high tenor voice led a reggae band. I was alone, but part of the crowd – just the thing for a solo trip.
Quiz: Which is the perfect Caribbean island for you?
While the hilltop hotels have only sounds of insects as a backdrop, the Four Seasons is a fully fledged resort: golf carts zoom about; there’s the steady dull roar of human industry, not isolation. The reason to stay here as a singleton is the vast range of included activities: from the beach, you can go kayaking, snorkelling, windsurfing, all free of charge.
Nevis is at a crossroads. Will it accept another major chain resort? Will it expand its airport, allowing for direct flights from the US and UK, thereby irrevocably changing its laid-back atmosphere? Most islanders say no, but time will tell; in the meantime, now is the moment to go.
The opposite of a sparsely populated lush Caribbean island is a bowling alley in central London. I went directly from Gatwick to Bloomsbury Bowling to meet my children and husband, who so graciously allowed me time off. Towards the end of my week alone, I found myself making happy lists of purposeful family activities to pursue on my return. As the pins crashed down, and I regaled the children with tales of climbing volcanoes and kayaking with pelicans, I felt calm contentment to be back with my family, to have rejoined the real world.
High season on Nevis runs from mid-December to April.
Golden Rock: rates start at £366 per night including breakfast.
Charlestown, Saint Kitts and Nevis
8Telegraph expert rating
A hip and arty hillside retreat with delightful gardens and a modern-thinking restaurant. Its sturdy stone buildings, which include the old counting house and mill, have an engaging aura of history but the mindset here is refreshingly contemporary. Read expert review From £171per night Check availability Rates provided by Booking.com
Montpelier Plantation & Beach: rooms from $455 (£340) per night for winter including breakfast.
Nevis, Saint Kitts and Nevis
8Telegraph expert rating
Montpelier Plantation is one of the most atmospheric hotels in the Caribbean, with a lush hillside setting and an aristocratic feel. A member of Relais & Chateaux, it offers guests a quiet and pampering escape with a sense of civility. Note that the hotel usually closes from late August to mid-October. Read expert review From £326per night Check availability Rates provided by Booking.com
Four Seasons Resort Nevis: rooms start at $875 in January and February.
Saint Kitts and Nevis
9Telegraph expert rating
Employing some 600 staff, this resort is a key part of life on Nevis and offers guests an impressive level of service and amenities. It is principally used by North Americans enjoying a family, golf, tennis or winter sun break, and an ideal choice for a classic, upscale beach holiday. Read expert review From £623per night Check availability Rates provided by Booking.com
British Airways (ba.com) has daily flights to St Kitts in Jan from £492 return.