St Kitts and Nevis, The Caribbean: A cruise to the smallest country in the Americas

Sporting a Bob Marley-esque Rasta cap, a polo shirt, long, baggy shorts and a pair of light running shoes, our guide Adrian is jabbing a wooden stick on the ground. It's about a metre long, as thick as a wine cork, and "definitely not for hitting your partner with," he says, with a chuckle, in his Caribbean lilt.

Hiking sticks, explains Adrian, will help us tackle Mount Liamuiga, a dormant volcano and one of the highest peaks in the Caribbean. Though it rises just 1156 metres – about half as high as Australia's Mount Kosciuszko – the ascent is fairly tricky; steep, soily and uneven, tracing a winding old British military trail through the rainforest. Anyone reasonably fit can do it, says Adrian, but "you mustn't be afraid of getting your fingernails, or your butts, dirty (especially on the way down"). Our butts could do with a workout, as we've spent the last five days over-indulging on Celebrity Summit, a sleek cruise ship that's taking us around the Caribbean.

While the region is famed for its coconut tree-lined beaches and sapphire seas, it also boasts jungly, mountainous interiors that hide a glut of activities for adventure seekers (particularly ones guilt-ridden by what they've consumed aboard their floating hotels).

We've docked for this shore excursion at St Kitts and Nevis. The smallest country in the Americas – about a third the size of Singapore – it's split in two. Liamuiga looms over St Kitts; the even more pocket-sized Nevis nestles almost four kilometres across The Narrows, a strait linked by ferry and, annually, by a mass swim that attracts around 200 people, including budding local athletes who boost their stamina with lung-busting Liamuiga hikes.

"They go up and down the mountain like jack-rabbits," says Adrian's colleague, Paul, who, thankfully, is happy for us to move at a more leisurely pace. A fit, wiry, 48-year-old grandfather, with a salt and pepper beard, Paul is engaging company. When he's not offering hiking tips – where to put our sticks for the best leverage; which rocks, tree trunks, creeper vines (and occasionally) rope railings to grab hold of – he's regaling the island's history, geology, nature and cuisine, usually ending his pearls of wisdom with that ubiquitous Caribbean phrase: "Ya, mon!" One minute Paul is scraping gooey gum from eucalyptus barks – inhaling its minty, pine aroma increases alertness, he says – the next he's pointing out oddly named flora and fauna like trumpet bushes (a medicinal plant with colourful buds) and fiddleheads (which he initially says are a kind of earth worm, then, after proceeding to chew on one, adds: "Only kidding. They're edible fern fronds – and very nutritional!").

We keep an eye out for vervet monkeys. Brought here as pets by French settlers from Africa, they now outnumber Kittians and Nevisians (whose population is 55,000) almost two to one. But they don't completely run riot. "We call them tree muttons," says Paul, who reveals that monkey stew is a local delicacy. "It tastes a bit like goat."

The monkeys are elusive today, but a few mongooses emerge, bashfully, from the undergrowth (introduced from Asia, their presence has helped make St Kitts largely snake-free, says Paul). Hiking beneath the thick canopy of this hot, humid rainforest, on a path fringed by luxuriant ferns, bamboo, orchids and moss-festooned boulders, brings to mind Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. But this is Chuck Norris territory. Well, it was in the 1980s, when Liamuiga's slopes doubled up as the Vietnamese jungles for Norris' movie, Missing in Action II.

We take a breather – and gulps of water – every 15 minutes or so, and at one stop, enjoy raisin bread and fresh guava juice made by the mother of Michael, our youngest, dreadlocked guide. His headband is emblazoned with the green, black and red colours of St Kitts, a country that gained its independence from the UK in 1983. Spotted by Christopher Columbus in 1493, this was England's first Caribbean colony, and generated huge wealth through its tobacco, sugar and rum industries, fuelled by the toil of African slaves.

On the scenic coastal drive to Mount Liamuiga from Basseterre, St Kitts' port capital, we passed cane fields, old brick remnants of long-shut plantations and Bloody Point, where, in 1626, British and French troops joined forces in the massacre of 2000 native Carib people opposed to European domination.

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The British spent the next few centuries shooing away the French, and other colonial rivals. Slaves built the mighty Brimstone Hill Fortress, a 240-metre high UNESCO World Heritage site hewn from volcanic rock and dubbed "the Gibraltar of the West Indies". To the Brits, Mount Liamuiga – which means "fertile land" in Carib – was "Mount Misery", but we're elated to reach the crater's edge.

A fresh breeze cools us – "Ah, nature's air-conditioning," gushes Paul – and we peek down into the huge chasm, whose sides are smothered in lush vegetation, with an algae-layered lake at the bottom. The volcano hasn't erupted for almost 2000 years (though a faint whiff of sulphur still lingers). I had hoped to gaze over the Caribbean Sea, but the view from this part of the summit is blocked a tangle of trees.

We're not too distraught (unlike a few people in our group, we made it to the top). Going back isn't quite as strenuous, sweaty or invigorating. Our energy levels sapped, there's little chit-chat (even Paul is pretty quiet). The silence is pierced, intermittently, by mangoes dropping from giant palms, singing thrushes and embarrassed giggles (when we momentarily lose our footing and get our butts dirty, as Adrian predicted).

Towards the end of this 4½-hour round trek, the heavens open. Yet rather than dampen our spirits, the tropical downpour gives us a second wind, and before we know it, we're back at Adrian's 4x4, sipping refreshing lemon and almond juice, snacking on sandwiches and – in my case, at least – daydreaming about what's for dinner on the cruise ship tonight.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/caribbean

stkittstourism.kn

CRUISE

St Kitts and Nevis was a port of call on Celebrity Summit's 7-Day Southern Caribbean cruise. Itineraries vary depending on dates, but St John, Dominica, St Lucia and Barbados are among the other islands visited. Departing from San Juan (Puerto Rico), the cruises run between October and April, priced from $979; celebritycruises.com

Booked through Celebrity, the Mount Liamuiga volcano hike shore excursion costs $US119. 

FLY

Qantas and American Airlines fly from Sydney to San Juan via Dallas. You'll need an ESTA.

Steve McKenna was a guest of Celebrity Cruises

FIVE OTHER JUNGLY CARIBBEAN ADVENTURE ISLANDS

MARTINIQUE

Known as The Island of Flowers, this overseas French territory boasts the Route de la Trace, a dramatic rainforest-to-coast hiking path; martinique.org

ST LUCIA

A network of mountain-biking trails thread through the jungle-shrouded Anse Mamin, a plantation founded by French colonials in the 18th century; stlucia.org

GUADELOUPE

It's often shrouded in clouds and mist, but hikers can't resist scaling La Soufriere, an active, steaming volcano that towers 1467 metres; guadeloupe-islands.com

DOMINICA

Tube along the Layou River, one of Dominica's 365 rivers and streams, or stomp through the Valley of Desolation to Boiling Lake, the world's second-biggest actively boiling lake (after New Zealand's Frying Pan Lake); dominica.dm

ST JOHN

This US Virgin Island has around 20 walking routes of varying difficulty. They pass jungles rife with tropical birdlife, sugar mill ruins and snorkel-friendly beaches; visitusvi.com

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