Suzanne Gordon’s island dream home is no mega-mansion by most standards. It’s a 900-square-foot concrete-block cottage with two rooms, not counting a kitchen that Suzanne added on herself. The former chef’s quarters of a hotel that closed when Hurricane Hugo roared through Nevis in 1989, it is of a decidedly smaller scale than the grand colonial-era plantations for which Nevis is known. But what you can do from this location more than compensates for its size.
“I can roll a rock down the hill and it will splash in the sea,” says Suzanne, chopping vegetables for dinner in her homemade kitchen. Outside is Tamarind Bay, near Oualie Beach and along the northwest coast of Nevis. The island is a seven-mile-long sliver of green that forms a dual-island nation with nearby St. Kitts. Suzanne puts down the knife and points to the progress she’s made on a new front porch. It’s another add-on to the dream. In it she sees herself kicking back with her dog, Rams, named after the local supermarket, Rams Ltd., where she rescued the mutt in the parking lot. “The views of Nevis Peak and St. Kitts from there are so gorgeous I almost feel guilty.”
Suzanne has literally manufactured her fantasy. She arrived on Nevis 14 years ago, alone, with a thousand dollars to her name. Her only child, a daughter, had recently married. The big five-oh loomed over her. She had no long-term job prospects.
“I loved my job [with the Philadelphia Inquirer], so it wasn’t as if I were running away from anything – except the weather,” Suzanne says. “But I had reached the point where I needed a significant change in the way I led my life.”
She landed a publishing deal to write a book about Caribbean architecture – Searching for Sugar Mills: An Architectural Guide to the Caribbean (Macmillan). But the book money didn’t last long. So Suzanne scraped out a month-to-month living, like a college grad tasting the freedom and challenges of the real world. She found freelance writing gigs. Waited tables. Poured drinks at a bar. Housesat for foreign homeowners. Anything to help put a roof over her head, and to keep her on Nevis.
“It was small and quiet, very much like towns where I’d lived as a child. Everyone knew everybody, and once you were here for a few days, you felt like part of the community. There’s a saying on Nevis – ‘You’re only a stranger here once’ – and from the beginning I always felt as if I belonged right here.”
Along the way, Suzanne found herself adapting to the ebb and flow of island life. She came to understand that, unlike in the United States, where you may decide what you want for dinner and then go to the store to get it, meals on an island are most often planned around whatever’s available.
“I would want a salad and head for the market and there would a cucumber maybe, but no lettuce or tomato,” she says, sitting at her little kitchen table. “So I made do with what I had. That’s at the heart of island life – making do and being flexible. It’s a daily adventure and not for the faint of heart.”
Part of the charm is in the cast of island characters who keep things interesting with their offbeat routines. Like the local rental car agent, Marlon Brando (really), who delivers automobiles to visitors, then pops open the trunk and rides his bicycle back. Or Patterson Fleming, maître d’ at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, who sports a different tie every evening, each sent to him by guests after they return home. He has thousands of them and remembers exactly who gave him each one. Or Tim, the island mailman, who walks up and down the hillside roads making his rounds with a smile and a cheery word, collecting fresh mango and papaya, gifts from his customers, along the way.
Suzanne anchored a new career in real estate in 1998. This was after Hurricane George, when people working on renovations and looking for places to live flooded the island. As sales flourished, Gordon had the wherewithal to enroll in a distance-learning master’s degree program in historic preservation at Gaucher College in Baltimore. Now she’s thrown herself into preserving the island’s rich architectural legacy and has been instrumental in founding the Nevis Heritage Trust.
“Local people ask me if I ever plan to leave,” Suzanne says from her porch-in-progress. “I guess they’re still trying to gauge if I really like it here. I’ve reached a point where I can finally afford to travel again and I plan to do that. But I’ll always come back to the island and my little home on the side of the hill.”