Silver sand beaches with hardly a soul in sight, hammocks slung between gently swaying palm trees, warm waves washing over your feet during a sunset stroll on the shore and pre-dinner cocktails served in freshly-cut coconuts – as an exotic holiday destination, Grenada has a lot going for it, and then some.
When Hurricane Ivan brought death and destruction to Grenada in September 2004, killing 39 people, damaging or demolishing 90pc of the buildings and wiping out the spice crops, it looked like curtains for this tiny Caribbean island’s economy. Best-case predictions said it would take decades to recover, but seven years after disaster struck and against the odds, tourism numbers were on the up and spice exports were back to pre-Ivan levels.
International aid allowed the islanders to begin repairing and replacing homes, schools and other public buildings flattened by nature’s fury, which paid a return visit in July 2005 when Hurricane Emily hit.
It was a cruel double blow, but no one had reckoned on the resilience of the Grenadians, who spent every daylight hour replanting the vast tracts of cinnamon and clove trees, pepper vines, nutmeg and all spice on which so many livelihoods depended. They showed that when the going gets tough, the tough get growing.
You have to be tough – or have a lead-lined stomach – to sample the rum that has been produced since 1785 at the Rivers distillery on the River Antoine Estate in the north-east of the island. There are two varieties, one with 69pc alcohol (138 proof), the other with 75pc (150 proof). The latter is so combustible it isn’t allowed on planes, except maybe in the fuel tanks.
The distillery is a ramshackle collection of old buildings that look long-abandoned, but behind the weather-tarnished facades it’s a fully-functioning and busy facility that makes rum year-round.
An eight-metre water wheel powers the press that crushes the sugar cane; the sun-dried husks are burned beneath big cast iron basins to boil the cane juice, which is then ladled into cooling tanks; next, it’s siphoned into concrete fermentation tanks and, finally, hand-pumped into and out of the copper stills. This is how it has been done for nearly 250 years, and there are no plans to introduce modern methods.
The guided tour, which is on most excursion itineraries, ends with a tasting of the rums (those who find them too strong can add some ice and coconut water) and the fruit-flavoured rum punches that are also bottled by Rivers.
I’m visiting the distillery with Simon ‘Mandoo’ Seales (www.grenadatours.com), a former merchant seaman who returned to his native Grenada several years ago to help promote tourism. I couldn’t be in better – or better-dressed – company as Mandoo, in his pristine white uniform, takes me for a sightseeing spin around the Spice Island, which measures only 34 by 19 kilometres and has a population of 107,000 English-speaking cricket lovers.
They’re all Formula One fanatics too, thanks to race ace Lewis Hamilton’s Grenadian roots – his late grandad, Davidson, was for years the school bus driver in the fishing village of Grand Roy, where he was affectionately known as Slowcoach.
We stop to enjoy the views from the heady heights of the Grand Etang Forest Reserve. Although it’s only a couple of hours after breakfast, I’ve had my eye on the bunch of bananas Mandoo bought from a roadside kiosk near the distillery, and am happy when he hands them to me. However, it turns out they’re earmarked for a more deserving cause.
Leaning on a wooden railing, Mandoo lets out a bark-cum-yodel, and a few moments later a male mona monkey comes running along and plops itself down in front of us. The last time I was this close to a simian was in Gibraltar, where a macaque picked my pocket and peed on my shoe, so I’m not overly-keen when Mandoo suggests I give the monkey a banana. I needn’t have worried. This little guy has clearly been brought up well and accepts my arm’s-length offering with a grunt before ambling back into the trees.
Without so much as a few warning drops, it begins to rain, as if someone has turned on the taps full blast, but Mandoo is unfazed. “That’s liquid sunshine,” he says, and in three words sums up the good nature of the ever-smiling Grenadians. Ten minutes later, the downpour ends as suddenly as it began, and we’re rewarded with the sight of a double rainbow.
There’s another rainbow – a mini one – when we stop at the first of the three Concord Waterfalls, 13km north of the capital, St. George’s. The lower falls (Concord) are at the end of a narrow, winding mountain road hugged by lush vegetation, and most visitors content themselves with a few snapshots here. The more adventurous trek into the rainforest to see the second falls, Au Coin, and maybe continue upwards to the third, Fontainbleu.
The really adventurous don swimming gear, safety helmets and lifevests for a 90-minute ride down the Balthazar river rapids (www.adventuregrenada.com) on individual inflatable tubes. There are gentler stretches with pools where you can climb the bank and jump into the water, but I leave that to the 12-year-old girl from the States who not only jumps but does a mid-air somersault and lands feet-first in the middle of her tube.
“Don’t you just hate show-offs?” I say to the man beside me, who replies coldly: “That’s my daughter.”
Grenada’s beaches look like they came straight out of a Bounty bar commercial, with the obligatory bowing palm trees, an occasional hammock slung between them and conch shells the size of rugby balls in the wet sand. On a stroll along the three-kilometre length of Grand Anse beach in the south-west of the island, I have to hot-foot it into the waves at regular intervals to prevent my flip-flops melting.
Levera Beach, in the north, is 700 metres long, and for nature lovers such as Mandoo it’s something of a sacred site. Every year, between April and July, female leatherback turtles come here to bury their soft-shelled eggs – up to 100 each – in the sand on the very beach where they themselves hatched several years before.
These endangered creatures, which can weigh up to 900 kilos and grow to two metres in length (the males are much bigger and spend their entire lives at sea), undertake an epic 12-month migration of up to 6,000km each way from and back to Grenada and are exhausted when they drag themselves ashore. This is when Mandoo and his fellow volunteers step in to lend a hand, working in round-the-clock shifts to protect the turtles from poachers and guard the nest sites while the eggs incubate.
Access to Levera between April and July is strictly limited, although small groups of visitors can join the conservationists to see the females laying and their tiny hatchlings – of which only one in 1,000 survive to maturity – scurrying down the beach and into the sea.
No one does much scurrying or hurrying in Grenada. This is evident during a visit to the north-west seaside town of Gouyave for the Fish Friday evening, when laid-back locals eat, drink and socialise with their neighbours and tourists in the back streets while Bob Marley monopolises the music blaring from the speakers.
Once a week, these narrow, traffic-free thoroughfares are turned into a maze of open-air canteens with stalls serving succulent seafood that costs next to nothing, cheap soft drinks and beer and potent rum punch.
Dress down for this most informal of nights that sometimes goes on until dawn, because boiled, baked, barbecued, grilled and fried fish, crayfish and lobster, accompanied by spicy vegetables and fried breadfruit smothered in sauce, are meant to be tackled with fingers, not forks. When you can’t find a serviette, you’ll be glad you wore that old T-shirt.
The waters from which all those delicious delights come attract scuba divers from around the world, thanks to the abundance of coral reefs and wrecks that teem with seahorses, shoals of angel fish, schools of snappers, graceful stingrays and curious (as in fearlessly nosy) turtles.
On the seabed off Molinere Point in the west of the island is the Grenada Underwater Sculpture Park – the world’s first – which opened in 2006. British artist and environmentalist Jason deCaires Taylor created most of the 75 mainly human form sculptures, which are made from steel and eco-friendly pH-neutral cement. The pieces are positioned down-current from natural reefs so that, after spawning, there are places for the polyps to settle and grow. In effect, Taylor’s creations are the foundations for new reefs, which help marine life to flourish.
Most of the sculptures are three to five metres below the surface and are best seen up close by scuba diving or snorkelling. Some are only two metres down, making them viewable from a glass-bottomed boat. That suits me as I’m not the strongest swimmer and panicked the first and only time I tried using breathing apparatus – in the shallow end of a swimming pool. Since then, it has been thanks, but no tanks.
From sitting on a boat and looking through its glass bottom, I’m perched at a poolside bar and looking through the bottom of a glass, which means it needs refilling, as often as I want and totally free because I’m staying in an all-inclusive resort.
The 5-star Sandals Grenada Resort & Spa on Pink Gin Beach has been my base for a week, and now on the eve of departure I’m halfway through my daily routine of early morning swim in the sea, breakfast, half-day excursion-cum-adventure then a couple of late afternoon beers before a siesta and dinner followed by lounging in the piano bar. Because the weather is humid as well as hot – a year-round average afternoon temperature of 23C and daily highs from July through October of around 33C – that routine also includes three showers a day.
This adults-only beachside hideaway in 40 acres of tropical grounds is popular with singles, who tend to dine together in the evening (there are 10 restaurants offering a range of world cuisines), and couples. The all-inclusive experience covers all meals and any-time snacks; unlimited beer, wine and premium liquors in the six bars; stocked bars in every room; PADI-certified scuba diving and equipment; snorkelling and equipment; Hobie Cats, paddle boards and kayaks; tennis; fitness centres; entertainment, including live shows; all tips and taxes and round-trip airport transfers.
My only expenses during seven days are for a massage in the resort spa, the rum distillery visit, the Fish Friday evening, the river tubing and the glass-bottomed boat trip to view the underwater sculptures. That lot cost me a total of €300, or an average of just under €43 a day.
In September 2013, it cost English grandmother Lamenda Kingdon several thousand Avios points to travel to and from the Spice Island – by mistake. Two hours into her British Airways flight from London, she got chatting with a fellow passenger and, believing she would be landing very soon, said she couldn’t wait to visit the Alhambra Palace. “Not on this plane, you won’t,” said the woman. “We’re going to Grenada, not Granada.”
Mrs. Kingdon had booked her flight over the phone, using her late husband’s air miles, and that’s when the slip-of-the-tongue misunderstanding occurred. Nine hours after leaving Gatwick, the plane made a scheduled stop at St. Lucia, where staff fussed over her in the executive lounge before she was eventually flown back seven hours later to Gatwick. There, she was put up in a hotel and, the following morning, airport staff escorted her on to a flight to Malaga, where a taxi was waiting to take her to Granada – the one with an ‘a’, not an ‘e’.
It’s a pity she never got to see the cleanest, greenest and most law-abiding island in the Caribbean, where visitors are assured of a welcome as warm as the waves that lap its shores – and the saltwater that floods your ear when you lift a conch shell to listen to the sea.
STAY: I visited Grenada as a guest of Tropical Sky Ireland, which offers a 7-night all-inclusive holiday at Sandals Grenada Resort & Spa from €2,279 per person sharing, including scheduled flights from Dublin via London Gatwick.
FURTHER INFORMATION: See Pure Grenada