Caribbean idyll: living off the land and sea

Self-catering took on a whole new meaning when Francis Elliott and his family went to Grenada and discovered the joys of roadside stalls and fish straight off the boat
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The Independent Travel

We sat in the car in the pouring rain, eating pasties and peering through the windscreen. But what a view. From the summit of Carriacou, the rest of the Grenadines studded a stormy Caribbean Sea in a rippling inlay of sun, cloud, island and surf. And what a pasty: a sort of edible clutchbag stuffed with curried conch - a lamb roti - still piping hot after its journey from the shop far below on the coast. We are not talking about the sort of car picnic one has on a wet weekend in Margate after a trip to Gregg's.

We sat in the car in the pouring rain, eating pasties and peering through the windscreen. But what a view. From the summit of Carriacou, the rest of the Grenadines studded a stormy Caribbean Sea in a rippling inlay of sun, cloud, island and surf. And what a pasty: a sort of edible clutchbag stuffed with curried conch - a lamb roti - still piping hot after its journey from the shop far below on the coast. We are not talking about the sort of car picnic one has on a wet weekend in Margate after a trip to Gregg's.

When the possibility of a family holiday in the Caribbean was mooted (on a tramp around a fog-bound park) I was reluctant. Wonderful for honeymoon couples or rich empty-nesters enjoying their extra cash maybe, but not for us. Not two frazzled parents, a three-year-old and his 14-month-old brother.

Six months later, we found ourselves preparing to fly to Grenada - such is my enormous influence on important family decisions. We spent one week in a very well-appointed villa in the affluent south of Grenada and the second in a little wooden house perched on a bay overlooking Hillsborough, the capital of the island-province of Carriacou, a two-hour ferry ride or 30-minute air hop away.

To get to Grenada required a nine-hour flight, so we had plenty of opportunity to rev up the stress levels. Thankfully, we had listened to sage advice and spent a little extra on Premium Economy. Golden Caribbean offers competitive fares to that part of the world, and even its first-class Excel One service is not ruinous. In Premium Economy, extra cash might not guarantee fine dining but I suspect it secured a sympathetic hearing when we asked if we could bag an extra seat for the little 'un. Having both strapped into their own car-seats for at least part of the journey helped us to grab some shut-eye.

Our mission was to find out how easy it is to self-cater in the Caribbean. The answer is as easy - and as interesting - as you want it to be. The larger Grenadan supermarkets are depressingly familiar: demented bleeping echoes down rows and rows of well-known brands, all preserved in odourless chill. Thankfully, on Carriacou, all the shops were Caribbean affairs. They took a bit of getting used to - high-quality muesli but no bread, shelves of jerk pork seasoning, no olive oil - but we entered into the spirit of exploration.

The real joys on both islands were the roadside stalls, markets and, on Carriacou, the unmatchable pleasure of buying fresh fish pretty much off the boat. This last adventure became a highlight of the day, the trick being to time one's arrival at the harbourside shack as a catch came in.

One challenge turned out to be coping with the complete absence of baby food on Carriacou. It was one of the unexpected benefits that a good holiday can bring to discover that, contrary to parental prejudice, the 14-month-old is not addicted to some secret ingredient found only in Heinz pasta with cheesy vegetables. With a little ingenuity (and a blender) we found he would eat pretty much everything we did.

Was it all dreary kitchen-work? No. We ate out every other night in restaurants that were never bad, usually good and on one occasion outstanding. Kate Stroebel, owner-chef of The Garden Restaurant in Hillsborough deserves a special mention. The menu has only three choices, and you have to tell Kate what you want the day before, but who cares? The food was fantastic and her little restaurant a masterclass in good taste.

As we slowly unwound, it felt as if we were becoming English Family Elliott, the castaway impression reinforced by the fact that our house was wooden and perched on stilts. In the heat of midday we succumbed to our hammocks and watched the odd ship steam in or depart.

Once the children woke from their siesta we would take the Jeep to a beach. There were many wonderful moments but two in particular I recall. One came when, on Sandy Island, little more than a sandbar surrounded by coral reef, I began to wonder whether it was entirely wise to trust the cousin of a bar-owner to drop us off in his boat. For two hours we had been alone, the children playing in a glorious giant rockpool while we took it in turns to snorkel over the reef.

Now the sun was setting, the children wanted to go home, and was that a dorsal fin I could see cruising in the surf? Back on the shore the bay owner (Joy, queen of the wonderful Hardwood Café at Paradise Beach) assured us that our pick-up had never been in doubt. At any rate, not once she had phoned her cousin to ask where we were.

The second moment was on a beach that we approached through a littoral of sea-grape and almond trees before it gave way to a pristine sweep of coral sand. Big waves thumped along the shore, but at one end, a line of rocks helped to create a shallow, toddler-friendly pool endlessly refreshed by the waves breaking safely on the other side. In the distance, Union Island and some of the other Grenadines rose out of a duck-egg blue sea. With dusk approaching, the sky was vivid pink.

Other snaps: the elderly woman living on her own in Grenada's hurricane-ravaged interior who said that "Ivan" had ripped off her roof, but with a smile that made clear it would take more than 120-mile winds to blow her away. Then there was the procedure for returning the hire car. "Just leave the keys under the driver's mat," they said. "Nothing goes very far on Grenada."

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Francis Elliott travelled as a guest of Golden Caribbean (01342 316900; www.goldencaribbean.com), which offers return flights to Grenada from around £410 economy, £560 Premium Economy and £767 for the Excel One service. Check for offers.

Where to stay

The writer stayed on the islands courtesy of Toad Hall Caribbean (01548 852407; www.toadhallcaribbean.com) which specialises in holiday homes with authentic Caribbean style on islands including Grenada, Tortola, St Kitts, Nevis, Antigua, Bequia and Tobago.

Nutmeg Bay Villa on Grenada sleeps up to 10 and costs from £1,142 per week, based on two sharing, to £2,571 per week based on 10 sharing, until 30 November. Palm Trees on Carriacou sleeps up to six. Rental of the whole property costs from £315 per week based on two sharing, to £687 per week when six share, until 30 November.

Further information

Grenada Board of Tourism (020-8877 4516; www.grenadagrenadines.com).

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