It's not difficult to get a taste for one of the Caribbean’s best-kept secrets – the spice island of Grenada
“Don’t you worry about the rain – it’s just liquid sunshine,” joked our driver, as we battled through another torrential downpour. Admittedly this wasn’t quite the sort of weather we were expecting in the supposedly sunny Caribbean but he was right. Before long the grey clouds had rolled away and the sun beamed down on a green and fertile Grenada - the Spice Island, as it likes to call itself. And with good reason.
There are reputed to be more spices per square mile here than any other place on the planet. Certainly, the scents of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and ginger waft on the balmy air over this tropical paradise in the Eastern Caribbean. Grenada, part of the Windward Islands, is less developed than some of its further-flung, better-known Caribbean neighbours - and safer, too. Not for Grenada the sprawling all-inclusive hotels with tight security and a strong encouragement not to leave its confines. Quite the opposite, in fact. In Grenada those hotel guests who don’t want to chill out all the time are positively encouraged to get out and explore the island’s gems. And there are plenty.
Back to nature
Grenada's greatest asset is its natural beauty, not least its beaches. I love the fact that here you’ll find no high-rise hotels with regimented rows of sunbeds on every speck of sand, as in some parts of the Med. Instead, beachfront holiday properties, as well as those built higher up in the hills, tend to be small villa complexes, available to rent by the room or to take over completely.
The island boasts more than 40 picture-postcard beaches, with obligatory palm trees shading the white sands that fringe the turquoise waters. Here, just about every popular watersport is available but, as the island is rarely overrun with tourists, beach-based commercial operations are subtle and unobtrusive affairs.
Away from the busy towns, like the capital St George’s, with its bustling market, where all manner of homegrown spices can be bought, Grenada has an air of calm. It’s a place that doesn’t like to beat its chest too much and shout “Look at me!” But, like a sleeping giant, it’s beginning to stir.
Major hotels are planned and St Louis harbour, now a happy mish-mash of small private boats and commercial shipping, is set to rival Puerto Banus with its planned new marina, though some locals question if it will ever come to reality. This is despite the fact that British property developer Peter de Savary, who has a lavish home on the island, is the man behind the project. It’s a case of “watch this space” but, certainly, things move slowly here.
As you gaze upon the churches that dot the lush landscape, one thing suddenly strikes you – none of them has a roof. No, it’s nothing to do with the roof-raising vocal qualities of their congregations – but everything to do with Hurricane Ivan, which blasted across the island in 2004.
Officially, Grenada, with its idyllic year-round average temperature of 23°C, is supposed to be off the hurricane warpath. But when the elements conspire to do their worst, they don’t consult the rulebook. Ivan caused a huge amount of devastation and the island has taken its time to bounce back. Indeed, the hotel I was staying at – the glorious La Source, just a short drive from the airport – was closed for a full three years while rebuilding work went on. Set on the idyllic Pink Gin Beach, it’s now one of the premiere hotels of the island.
Hurricanes haven’t been Grenada’s only invaders. It’s hard to imagine it now, amid the tranquillity of this, the smallest independent country in the Western hemisphere, but as recently as 1983 it was invaded by the might of America. Several thousand US marines came ashore to quell political unrest, resulting in dozens of deaths on both sides, before stability was restored.
Before gaining its independence in 1974, Grenada had been ruled for nearly 200 years by France and Britain alternately, a fact that is reflected now in some of its colonial architecture and place names. There are still some old British red telephone boxes in use and Queen Elizabeth adorns Eastern Caribbean dollar banknotes and coins.
Out and about
British visitors wanting to explore the island by car are immediately at an advantage: in Grenada they drive on the left, just like at home. And there’s plenty to see as you drive. The banks of the twisting and undulating island roads are interspersed with thick vegetation and a mixture of neat villas and simple shacks, outside which friends and neighbours gather to chat or just watch the world go by.
Towards the centre of the island lies the breathtaking Grand Etang Lake in the Etang National Park. The stunning tropical scenery puts you in mind of Jurassic Park. Unless a cruise liner is in port, this is hardly a tourist hotspot. With a couple of souvenir shops near to a simple visitor centre (and some wild mona monkeys hoping for a snack) it’s all very low-key, just like the rest of Grenada.
The real star here is the government-protected rainforest and to get a real feel for its raw beauty, hardy visitors can arrange to pound its numerous trails with a guide. Care is needed, though, as some pathways narrow to three feet… with sheer drops on either side! Still, it’s worth the effort to see such treats as spectacular waterfalls cascading into crystal-clear pools.
Spice offers a variety of life to Grenadians. The Dougaldston Spice Plantation, near Gouyave, although welcoming to visitors, is just about as untouristy as you could get. The historic estate has certainly seen better days but is still the primary producer of the island's spices and the place where they are first processed after harvest. Tours provide a fascinating glimpse into the traditional preparation of spices as well as offering visitors a chance to sample many of the products in their fresh, unprocessed form.
As the Caribbean is synonymous with rum, it’s worth calling in, too, at the River Antoine Rum Distillery in St Patrick’s. It’s the oldest one in Grenada and it still uses a British-made water-wheel to power the rollers that squeeze the juice out of sugar cane. There’s a small charge for a tour and at the end you can sample the real tummy-tingling stuff for yourself. Two different strengths are produced: 75% and 69% alcohol. But a word of warning: you will not be allowed to board the plane home if you are carrying any of the stronger variety – because it’s highly flammable!
If you do visit the Gouyave area, it’s a good idea to do so on a Friday. That way, if you hang around in the town, you can enjoy some rather special entertainment served up under the banner of Fish Friday. Each week it’s party time – as music blasts out, local seafood delicacies of every description are cooked in the street, over open fires. Wonderful!
From sport to sculpture
As in the other Caribbean islands, Grenadians are mad about their cricket and since the 2007 Cricket World Cup they have had a spectacular world-class 15,500-seater stadium in which to enjoy it. A highlight of the cricketing calendar is an annual Twenty20 Cricket Classics competition between vintage West Indian legends such as Sir Viv Richards, when they take on an England team featuring the likes of old favourite Allan Lamb. Special package tours are available that combine this cricket fiesta, each October, with a relaxing holiday.
One of the best ways to get a feel for the island is to take to the sea to explore its coastline. We took to the zippy Seafari Explorer - a rigid inflatable – from which co-owner Suzanne Clarke delights in pointing out landmarks and explaining something of Grenada’s maritime history. The trip also takes in Moliniere Point, to see the world’s first underwater sculpture park, the highlight of which is decidedly eerie – 28 life-sized children anchored to the seabed and holding hands, in a circle. Probably best avoided if spooky sights give you nightmares.
Elsewhere, snorkellers and divers on Grenada are rewarded with sights of extensive reef formations and marine life that includes morays, angelfish, octopus, sea horses – and sharks. And for the even more adventurous, there are plenty of shipwrecks to probe, too.
Peter de Savary owns a number of properties on the island and is a prime-mover in its redevelopment, with several major projects on the go, including Mount Cinnamon, a luxury villa complex on the beautiful Grand Anse Beach. Operations manager Richard Hallam loves the island and confirms that he has never had cause to report any crime to the police. “It’s just so relaxed here in Grenada,” he says. “There’s no trouble and visitors do as little or as much as they want. It’s brilliant for frazzled Brits.”
I’ll drink to that. Pass the rum punch!
British Airways offer direct return flights from the UK to Grenada from around £500.
Tropical Sky has seven-night, all-inclusive holidays at La Source Hotel (including flights) from around £1,500.
Low season is May to November; high season December to April.