Once the star island of the sugar trade, the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis now produces something even sweeter: an overwhelming surplus of mangoes. Branches hang heavy with them over the narrow roads that wind around the island; fallen fruit stays only a few minutes on the ground before the wild donkeys and monkeys that roam the island snatch it up. Something about the island’s climate and soil has led it to play host to thousands upon thousands of mango trees, sporting the indigenous Nano variety—fibrous and complex, with undertones of papaya—the much-coveted Amory Polly, favored by Nevisians for its sweetness, or some 42 other kinds of mango. But if you want to taste the fruits of this mango paradise, you’ve got to get there first.
Just two miles by boat from St. Kitts, which is a three-and-a-half-hour plane ride from Miami, Nevis is a quiet island, perhaps best known for being the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, or as a place where rich people hide their money in nameless bank accounts. (After tourism, the island’s second biggest industry is financial services.)
But for fruit nerds, mango maniacs, or just tourists in search of a sweet and quiet paradise, Nevis holds special charm.
Banky King, the Nevis Department of Agriculture’s “mango man,” estimates that the official count of 44 kinds of mangoes on the island is off by about 10-fold. “I can count 200 off the top of my head,” he says, guessing there’s more than double that number. And nobody knows why there are so many different varieties here. Over the years, a lot of people have brought mango seeds to Nevis and discovered that they grow well on the island. Some other Caribbean islands have mangoes—a few varieties here and there—but nothing comparable to Nevis, where mangoes take to the land like weeds and have become a way of life for Nevisians.
Waz Allie, a 21-year-old guide for Funky Monkey Tours who lives on the island, says if he doesn’t pick the mango himself just moments before, then he won’t eat it. To pick the fruit, he takes an unripe one from the ground and, with practiced aim, hits the ripe fruit from 15 feet below. It drops into his hand, warm from the sun and juicy enough that, instead of slicing it, he can simply tear the skin with his teeth and suck the meat out.
If you’re intrigued by this wealth of mango varieties—such as the giant yellow Keiths, the appropriately named Teenys, or the beloved Julies—the only way to try them is to go to Nevis during mango season. That’s because Nevis’s mango trees, for all their wonders, can be affected by the mango seed weevil. The pest doesn’t affect mangoes eaten on the island, but quarantines require that all fresh mangoes stay here. Small amounts of mangoes—a few thousand pounds a year—get turned into pulp, which can be exported, and some of that is sent to neighboring islands for use. But there is no industry or infrastructure in place to expand the scope of distribution. Instead, the bulk of the mangoes stay right here on Nevis, reserved only for Nevisians and visitors drawn to the island for its sun, sand, and fruit.
Nevis has few of the sprawling mega-resorts you’ll see on other Caribbean islands—just a Four Seasons that’s currently closed for remodeling. Instead it offers small inns, home rentals, and collections of villas—nearly all of which will have their own mango trees. Nothing on the island can be built higher than the coconut trees, which means that from afar, the brightly colored houses almost disappear into the green hills. Mount Nevis rises from the center of the island, almost always wearing the beret of clouds that earned it a name derived from the Spanish word for snow—what it apparently looked like to early explorers.
But up close, the white clouds can’t hide the vibrant colors of the mango crop when it ripens, once around July and again in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The rest of the year, you’ll find mango products such as hot sauce or jam made from the fruit. Still, most Nevisians are mango purists: Much like Allie, they consider mangoes not plucked directly from the tree to be not worth eating and what’s more, a waste to cook with. That turns the mangoes of Nevis, the wide variety ranging from syrupy-sweet to one that oddly tastes like turpentine (but is somehow still good) into an ephemeral and untransportable treasure that is free—at least to anyone willing to make the journey to Nevis.