Grenada: A peaceful haven

BBC newsreader Darren Jordon first went to Grenada as a soldier in a US-led invasion force. Twenty-two years later, he returned as a tourist

As my flight made its final descent into Point Salines airport on the Caribbean island of Grenada, I peered sleepily through the cabin window. The last time I set foot on Grenada was 22 years ago. American forces, along with Caribbean troops, invaded the tiny island in 1983 to restore order after the Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop, and many of his ministers, were executed in a Marxist coup. As an eager 22-year-old lieutenant serving in the Jamaica Defence Force, I was leading my men in our first overseas operation on board a US Air Force C-141 transport plane. The Americans call it "kicking butt" - but I was pretty scared of what lay ahead.

When we landed, the runway was littered with the detritus of war. Bomb-damaged vehicles lay alongside hastily abandoned Cuban construction equipment. The Cubans had been busy building one of the longest runways in the western hemisphere - and the Americans were nervous. After we landed here all those years ago, I remember my platoon slept in one of the half-built hangars. It was all so basic then - I slept in a body bag just to stay dry.

My four-year-old son, Benjamin, tugged at my arm, interrupting my reverie. "Dad, is this where you fought in the war?" My seven-year-old daughter, Holly-May, fidgeted with her teddy bear. I had so many memories, all mixed up; helicopter gunships, marines, Jeeps, sandy beaches, coconut palms and Carib beer. How could I untangle it all in my head? I had wanted to come back with my family to see what had changed and perhaps lay a few ghosts.

These days there are dozens of off-the-peg "Caribbean paradises" enticing holidaymakers, but Grenada has a natural splendour that sets it apart from many of the other islands. The sheer beauty of the place is mesmerising, and it has some of the best sandy beaches in the Caribbean.

We landed late in the afternoon. At the door of the plane the tropical air hit us like a blast from a furnace. I scanned the airport but it had all changed. A lot can change in 22 years.

We were met by our driver, Kennedy - with his wonderful sing-song Grenadian accent. Our hotel, The Rex Grenadian, was just five minutes from the airport, amid lush tropical vegetation on the edge of a white-sand beach. My kids were beaming from ear to ear.

The Rex wasn't here in 1983 - in fact as I patrolled the airport in my Jeep after the invasion, I remember that much of this region was bush and swamp. Not today. The area, and indeed much of Grenada, has undergone remarkable change. There are no dodgy high-rise tourist apartments, however, just well thought out villa-style hotels, amid lush, tropical flora. We arrived in the off-season, and the hotel was just recovering from Hurricane Emily. Hurricane Ivan devastated Grenada in September 2004. The tourist industry is still recovering from it. But no sooner had Ivan left its calling card of destruction, than Hurricane Emily swept in.

Grenadians don't hang about and whinge though, and the clean-up everywhere was impressive. Our hotel had a shiny new roof, the smell of fresh paint laced the hot air, and classy new furniture had been imported from Bali. The swimming pool and bar overlook the Caribbean from high on a cliff. In the evenings we sat at the bar, drinking Carib beer, and watching the hypnotic sunsets.

Although my children were happy to spend their days on the beach I had other plans. A tour around the island in Kennedy's minibus brought the memories flooding back. We travelled northwards on the west coast road, through parishes named after patron saints. The vegetation is spectacular, the colours blinding, and the smells intoxicating. We drove through tiny villages and towns, along potholed roads and over mountains. I remembered visiting an outpost of American soldiers in the village of Gouyave. This tiny fishing village hasn't changed - brightly painted wooden houses, with some fascinating old churches. Every side street is a hive of bustling activity. Fresh fish is sold from bobbing boats at the water's edge.

Grenada isn't called the Spice Isle for nothing, and a nutmeg's throw from Gouyave is the Douglaston Spice Estate, which has a spice factory reminiscent of a bygone era. Even Delta, the wizened old lady demonstrating the spices, looked like a left-over from Victorian times. No computer controlled efficiency here - they still do it the old-fashioned way. Delta captivated Holly-May and Benjamin with a heady concoction of spices and leaves. She showed us how to make chocolate from cocoa beans, and rolled up cinnamon sticks from pieces of bark.

We headed to Sauteurs, at the northern tip of the island. I was based here for weeks after the invasion. I wanted Kennedy to find the house where we were billeted, but it had long gone. We patrolled this area extensively during the troubles - people would come up to us and hand over rusty AK-47 rifles. These days Sauteurs is famous for the Morne Fendue Plantation House.

Stuffed with antiques and grand Victorian interiors, we sought out the restaurant - which offers mouthwatering home-cooked food. Hurricane Ivan had not been kind to the old house, and the signs of water damage were everywhere.

Princess Margaret is believed to have stayed in one of the ornately decorated rooms in the 1950s, and Ronald Reagan once had lunch here, on a visit to the island when he was president. We cleaned up the creole chicken and pumpkin, washed down with copious lashings of ginger-spiked fruit juice. Many older West Indians will jokingly tell you that the true measure of a Caribbean island is the quality of its rum. So, with Mandy and the kids safely ensconced on the beach, I set off for the River Antoine Rum Distillery to explore the theory. The privately owned distillery is the oldest functioning water-propelled mill in the Caribbean, and nothing has changed here since the 1800s. The finished product - 75 per cent proof rum - could have been used as rocket fuel.

The island's capital, St George's, also begs to be explored. I went for a stroll along the waterfront, known as the Carenage. This horseshoe-shaped harbour is framed by brightly coloured Georgian houses, and old French forts. Fishermen still blow their conch shell horns to announce the arrival of the morning's catch.

The Nutmeg restaurant, perched on the Carenage, is a local and tourist favourite. It serves huge helpings of the most delicious seafood, such as mahi mahi, flying fish and swordfish. The Carenage I remember well - I used to sneak out of camp at night with my driver in our Jeep, to check out the action there. It afforded us light relief from army rations and patrolling.

I had promised myself that while in St George's, I would go to Fort George, built by the French in the early 18th century. Apart from its breathtaking views, this was the scene of the execution of Maurice Bishop and senior members of his government in 1983. The bullet holes have been cemented over, but it took me back to the day when I arrived there to see the carnage an American helicopter gunship had caused - this was the headquarters of the People's Revolutionary Army, the PRA, and one of the first targets of US forces.

I remember surveying the damaged buildings at the top of the fort with my platoon sergeant and standing in disbelief at the wall where Bishop and his comrades were murdered. There now stands a plaque in their memory.

We had dinner that evening at the Aquarium restaurant, which has a truly magical ambience, and is just a few hundred yards' walk down the beach from the Rex. While the kids wolfed down fish fingers, Mandy and I tucked into the red snapper. It was the best seafood we had ever had.

Holly-May and Benjamin played hide-and-seek among the palm trees, as Bob Marley's "Exodus" pumped across the bar. Not wanting to leave we sat for a while watching the lights of St George's twinkling across the bay. Heading back along the beach, dodging little crabs burying themselves in the sand, it dawned on me, that in coming back to Grenada, I had buried a few ghosts of my own.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE



GETTING THERE

The writer travelled as a guest of the Grenada Board of Tourism (020-8877 4516; www.grenadagrenadines.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com). Virgin Atlantic and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) both fly direct from Gatwick to Point Saline Airport, Grenada.

STAYING THERE

The Grenadian by Rex Resorts, Point Saline, St George's (00 1 473 444 3333; www.rexresorts.com). Double rooms start at $210 (£117), room only.

VISITING THERE

River Antoine Rum Distillery, River Antoine Estate, St Patrick's (00 1 473 442 7109; www.travelgrenada.com/rum.htm).

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Morne Fendue Plantation House, St Patrick's (001 473 442 9330; www.travelgrenada.com/fendue.htm).

The Nutmeg Restaurant, Carenage, St George's (00 1 473 440 2539).

Aquarium Beach Club & Restaurant, Point Saline, St George's (00 1 473 444 1410; restaurant@aquarium-grenada.com).

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