Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Adventures in the Caribbean: Hiking and Mountain Biking Nevis

Yesterday I posted the first part in a series of stories I'm writing about my recent visit to the island of Nevis in the Caribbean. That article was meant to serve as an introduction to the place, which is rich in history and culture. If you haven't read that piece already, you may want to take a look at it first before proceeding with this one, as it does provide a bit of context. That said, these stories are also meant to be self-contained so readers can enjoy them without needing too much backstory. So, without further ado, here's a bit more about my recent travels in the vary intriguing country.

When most travelers think about a visit to the Caribbean, they usually conjure up images in their mind of white sandy beaches, relaxing in the warm water, and enjoying fruity beverages in the sun. Of course, you can do all of those things on Nevis too, but there is so much more to see and do there that you'll miss out on a lot of you confine yourself to the lovely beaches alone.

For example, the island actually has a couple of unique and challenging hiking trails. As mentioned in my previous story, one of the most difficult is a tough climb to the top of Nevis Peak, which stands at 3232 feet (985 meters) in height. Remember, you'll be starting at sea essentially sea level, so while the altitude isn't all that serious, the amount of elevation gain can make it tough. There are also some ropes involved in getting to the top, and you'll definitely want to take a guide if you go.

Unfortunately, do to scheduling I wasn't able to make this hike, so instead I trekked another route known locally as the "Source Trail." The path gets its name because it passes through some lush cloud forests on the way to the island's main source of fresh water, located high in the mountains there. Now days, a series of pipes have been installed to carry that water to the towns below, but it wasn't all that long ago that the inhabitants of Nevis had to make this hike daily to fetch fresh water for use around their homes. It remains a popular walking path with visitors and locals alike, and is a good way to stretch your legs.


The trail begins near the Golden Rock resort, first winding its way up through some small villages before passing under the thick jungle canopy. From there, the route covers just a few miles, but takes about 2.5 hours to complete the round-trip, in part because there is a lot of uphill sections that can be both muddy and rocky. Because of this, you'll want to wear a sturdy pair of shoes that can grip the slick surfaces and provide plenty of support. Some of the group of hikers that I joined didn't heed that warning, and were actually forced to turn back midway through the walk.

Since the trail passes through the cloud forest, it can be warm and humid even in the mornings. Bring plenty of water and dress in wicking, quick-drying clothes of help keep you more comfortable. Even then, expect to get sweaty, dirty, and completely soaked through as you march up the trail. A shower will most definitely be in order after you finish this brief, but often intense trek.

Those who do venture up the Source Trail will get a sense of what it was like for the locals to walk to collect fresh water each day. While the hike itself isn't particularly grueling, it is a challenge to keep your footing in certain sections, and it is easy to get dehydrated and overheated as well. The islanders who made this hike in the past often did so without shoes at all, and while carrying heavy jugs of water back to town with them.

Sharp-eyed hikers may spot some of the local vervet monkeys that inhabit the island as well. These primates came over from Africa – via Europe – as pets when Nevis was first colonized. Over the years, some of them escaped, and ended up mating in the jungles. Now, it is to the point that there are probably more monkeys on the island then there are people. For the most part, they scurry away at the sound of humans approaching, but on occasion you could catch a glimpse of them leaping through the trees.

The Source Trail comes to an abrupt end at a relatively nondescript place. We were told that to go any further would be too dangerous, so the group I was hiking with stopped to enjoy some light snacks and water before turning back. The view at the turn around place was a bit obscured by the thick trees, but you could still see through to the shoreline far below. There, the beautiful beaches and stunning waters of the Caribbean looked spectacular, making the hike up worth the effort.

After a few minutes, we turned around to head back down, which in some ways was more difficult than the hike up. The slick rocks, coupled with the sometimes steep trail, meant that you had to be very careful where you put your feet. There were times when I wished I had a pair of trekking poles along for the walk, as they would have come in handy on the descent. Still, it was easy enough to make our way back to our starting point, it just required a bit more diligence to avoid tripping or falling on the obstacles along the way.

While not as challenging as a climb to the summit of Nevis Peak, the Source Trail is nonetheless a good hike with plenty of opportunities to test your legs and lungs, not to mention your balance. If you're looking for a hike to take with friends and family while on the island, it is recommended. And while a guide isn't needed, it is recommended.

Hikers aren't the only ones who will find ways to stretch their legs on Nevis either. Road cyclists and mountain bikers will get the chance as well. The island is very bike-friendly, and it is not uncommon to see riders out on the road. There are even some surprisingly tough hills that can provide a good workout as well. Take for example Anaconda Hill, which leads out of Charlestown on the main highway that circles the entire island. It is long, difficult, and at some points quite steep. If you're looking to do a bit of cycling on a visit there, and want to test your legs, Anaconda will be more than happy to oblige.

I certainly love a good ride on a road bike, but I'm a fan of mountain biking as well, and had the opportunity to spend one of my afternoons there touring the island in that fashion. My guide was none other than Reggie Douglas, a local legend for his cycling prowess. Reggie has competed in triathlons and cycling events all over the world, and is definitely a strong rider.

He and I set out on our afternoon jaunt from a place called Pizza Beach and ended up wandering up and down a variety of both paved and dirt roads, as well as some jeep trails and single track. Along the way, we passed through a number of small towns and villages as wandered past old sugar plantations, churches, cloud forests, and more. For me, it was a great way to explore the history of Nevis, and Reggie was a knowledgeable guide who pointed out many sights to see along the way.

In terms of mountain biking, there was nothing incredibly technical about any of the routes we rode. Just about anyone could climb on a bike and enjoy the paths we rode, with the only real challenge coming in the form of some steep hills and the hot afternoon sun. For the most part, I had few problems keeping up with Reggie, who obviously was doing his best to not drop me on the climbs. But, on the last big section of uphill of the ride I was forced to dismount and push my bike to the top. After a very long day in the warm Caribbean sun, I just didn't have power left in my legs any longer.

But, after cresting the top of the hill, I climbed back on my bike and started the descent down the other side. At this point, we had left the paved roads, villages, and other signs of civilization behind, and we were gliding along in an open meadow lined with cloud forest around us. As we zipped past the trees, some of the vervet monkeys that are common on Nevis were hopping out of the grass and fleeing into the jungle. It was a sublime moment for sure, and one of my favorite memories of any mountain bike ride I've ever taken. Reggie can take you on the same ride as he runs the Nevis Adventure Tours, and can be hired for a tour at just about anytime.

One of the things I love about mountain biking is that it allows you to go places on a bike that are often only accessible on foot. That was certainly the case here, as we wandered through the cloud forest, spotting the remains of old plantations that date back to the 17th century. While riding high in the hills, we could also look down at the beach and the Caribbean Sea. From that vantage point it was beautiful to behold, even when rolling along at a rapid pace.

Once again, if you're going to mountain bike while on Nevis, be sure to bring plenty of water and wear comfortable clothes. You will work up a sweat, and the heat of the day can take its toll on your legs. But, you'll be rewarded with a great ride that provides amazing views and a chance to immerse yourself even deeper into the history of the place. I've always been a big proponent of using cycling as a way to explore a destination, and Nevis is a great example of that.

Unfortunately, my time on Nevis was short and I only had the opportunity to see a fraction of what it has to offer. Still, I was more than impressed with the options for hiking and biking that the island provided. While of course we all enjoy sitting on the beach and being pampered from time to time, most of us also like being active on our escapes. On Nevis, you can do both, and feel very happy and satisfied along the way.

In the next part of the series, I'll explore a few other things that the island has to offer, which go beyond hiking and biking. Stay tuned.

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