Six years after Hurricane Ivan, Venetia van Kuffeler finds perhaps the most beautiful and friendly island in the West Indies. Unspoilt and exotic, Grenada’s dramatic scenery, tropical rainforests, golden beaches, history and heritage will appeal to visitors around the world.
Grenada conjures up images of white sandy beaches, crystal blue waters and pastel coloured villages. In reality, it doesn’t disappoint. As a nation, Grenada comprises the island of Grenada itself along with six smaller islands, of which only Carriacou and Petite Martinique are inhabited. The main island, 344 square kilometres in size, is cooled by trade winds, ensuring that temperatures hover in the high twenties and are enjoyable throughout the year.
The last two decades have seen much development, especially in the tourism sector. The Honourable Glynis Roberts, Grenada’s Minister for Tourism, believes ‘that if the right conditions are created, the tourism industry could become the number one creator of employment and wealth for Grenada.’ She continues: ‘I always say that Grenada is the best kept secret, but we need to get more people to experience it for themselves to understand this.’ Even from first impressions, I wholly share the Minister’s enthusiasm – the island is stunning.
One could be forgiven for assuming that 2004’s Hurricane Ivan pretty much destroyed Grenada. Overnight, some 80 per cent of its buildings were left without roofs. Ulrich Kuhn and Rebecca Thomson, owners of boutique hotel Maca Bana, recall the night the hurricane struck, when they locked themselves in their bedroom cupboard with their children and dog: ‘We could hear all our possessions – even the television – flying around our bedroom.’
Fortunately, however, islanders resolved to ‘build back better’ – none more so than Grenadian legend and hotelier Sir Royston Hopkin, who was driving his Bentley around Europe when the hurricane hit. He immediately flew home, terrified about what he would find but resolved, no matter what the damage, to re-build his Spice Island Beach Resort. It now stands as the most luxurious resort on the island, with a burgeoning clientele of repeat guests – a great example of the sunny stoicism and determination of Grenada’s people.
Concurrent with its rebuilding process, this tri-island nation has taken steps to preserve its magnificent natural environment, developing national parks and instituting protective measures for its rainforest and coral reefs. Minister Roberts states: ‘Our strategy is a work in progress. We aren’t working on mass tourism, but on quality and creating experiences that will make people want to return to our island.’ She cites Fish Fridays in Gouyave and the upcoming Lambi Night in Woburn as examples of how the government is ‘providing people with a sense of entrepreneurship. Employing them will in turn inspire them to become employers, and so on. We have so much to show to our visitors.’
Visiting yachts and cruise ships continue to be a big source of income, especially during events such as the annual Grenada Sailing Festival, which has grown steadily over the years and attracts participants from around the world. In 2011 the Oyster Caribbean Regatta will also be held in Grenada, with boats rendezvousing at Port Louis Marina for the start of the April event. The island’s other annual events continue to be a big draw for locals and tourists alike; these include the Spice Island Billfish Tournament and the Spicemas Carnival, which takes place every August and is the highlight of the local calendar. Carnival festivities tend to attract Grenada nationals who live abroad but travel back home to see their families. (It is estimated that roughly the same number of Grenadians live in the US and the UK as on the island).
But let’s turn to what we expect above all from the Caribbean: pristine beaches. Grenada’s best known beach, Grand Anse, boasts two miles of white sand, against which gently lap the calm waters of the Caribbean Sea. Just round the corner, Morne Rouge – commonly known as BBC Beach – is a stunning little cove known for its calm, shallow waters.
However, as gorgeous as these beaches are, visitors shouldn’t merely stick to Grenada’s beautiful coastline, for there is plenty more to see in the island’s interior. A drive up into the mountains reveals a spectacular rainforest. Grand Etang National Park holds a lake which fills the crater of one of Grenada’s volcanoes; nearby is a visitor centre offering outstanding views and a chance to feed the island’s African mona monkeys. Visits to the Dougaldston Spice Boucan and the Gouyave Nutmeg Processing Station provide a fascinating insight into how important nutmeg and other spices have been for the economy of this so-called ‘spice island’. The Dougaldston Estate, where most of the spices are grown and receive primary processing, is a living monument to Grenada’s past. Elsewhere, local figurehead Denis Noel – of Noelville Ltd, which manufactures pain-relief medications derived from nutmeg – is happy to give tours of his gardens, where he is responsible for growing Grenada’s annual contribution to London’s Chelsea Flower Show. (The Grenada garden stand won its eighth gold medal in 2010.)
Set in 400 acres of lush rolling hills in the district of St Patrick’s, Belmont Estate offers a glimpse into ‘the way life was’ around the middle of last century, and moreover provides a good cross section of the island’s agricultural industries – including delicious goats’ cheese – and animals, as well as an excellent restaurant in which one can easily spend a whole afternoon. Similarly, the River Antoine Rum Distillery, the oldest functioning water-propelled distillery in the Caribbean (powered by a water wheel dating from 1785), is well worth a visit. Tourists are invited to taste the local brew – though some would call it firewater!
There’s also plenty to see closer to St George’s, the capital. The classic Colonial landscaping of Sunnyside Gardens, lovingly cared for by owner Jean Renwick, is truly something to behold – koi ponds, Japanese gardens, mahogany trees and royal palms towering 40-feet high, alongside views of both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Forts Frederick and Matthew are interesting spots to recall the island’s history, and also offer spectacular 360-degree views of St George’s, Grand Anse, Point Salines and the coastline below.
When it comes to eating in Grenada, there are plenty of options. Many restaurants have excellent reputations, and there’s so much more to be found among them than the usual Caribbean menu of fried chicken, rice and stewed peas. The best advice is to ‘eat local’, given that the island has so much to offer in terms of fresh ingredients. Favourites include callaloo soup, crabback (fresh crabmeat baked with exotic herbs, wine and cheese sauce and served in a crab shell), chicken roti (served with spicy rice in a flour wrap), curry goat, grilled fish and lambi (conch stewed in delicious local spices).
For authentic Caribbean cuisine, be sure to visit BB’s Crabback, where the crabback, accompanied by a delicious selection of fresh juices, is an absolute must. The restaurant’s waterfront setting on the Carenage, a harbour in St George’s, is a great spot to watch the boats come and go. Coconut Beach, located at the northern end of Grand Anse Beach, was our other favourite lunch destination; the best things to order in this French Creole restaurant are the grilled fish of the day and the lambi. There, diners can enjoy lunch under palapa huts, with their toes in the white sand. Pure paradise.
No weekend in Grenada is complete without a Sunday visit to the Aquarium Restaurant on Magazine Beach. The live reggae and BBQ food are amazing, and the wine list is exceptional. We also had an unforgettable dinner on the terrace at Savvy’s Restaurant in the Mount Cinnamon beach resort. Spectacular seafood worthy of the most special occasions was followed by a chocolate pudding made with local Grenada chocolate that was the best we had ever tasted. The Dodgy Dock, part of the True Blue Bay Resort, serves a good dinner (and incredible nutmeg ice cream) in a more casual environment on the water’s edge, and also provides local bands and DJs to dance the night away to afterward. In almost all the restaurants we visited, attentive, friendly and polite service backed beautifully prepared meals based on locally grown ingredients – quite a change from the average food and sleepy service one can encounter elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Carriacou and Petite Martinique, easily accessible by plane or ferry, are ideal for a day trip. Carriacou is the larger of the two other islands, but still only has a population of about 5,000, while Petit Martinique is a tiny volcanic ‘cone’ with around 1,000 inhabitants. Both islands are famous for their boat building, a skill which arrived with Scottish shipwrights who settled in the village of Windward on Carriacou, and which continues to be practised today. When on Carriacou, be sure to enquire about Sandy Island – an afternoon on this uninhabited sand spit is an astonishing escape, as its reefs offer some of the best-ever snorkelling. Back on Grenada, Aquanauts are happy to arrange snorkelling and diving trips to numerous locations, including a series of underwater sculptures built by artist Jason de Caires Taylor.
During our visit, the recent financial crisis came up a number of times. Mrs Roberts described it as ‘another bump in the road, leading to companies pulling finance on construction projects.’ Although there was evidence of these stalled projects, it was also abundantly clear that this is a happy community in which people take care of each other. Indeed, what really makes Grenada stand out from other islands nearby is its people – everyone we came across was proud of their island and happy to be involved in the tourist industry, perceiving visitors as welcome guests rather than invaders. Rich in history, culture, cuisine and activities, Grenada appears to be creating its own niche as a hub of old-world West Indian charm.