Grenada after the storm

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In 2004, Hurricane Ivan ripped into Grenada, devastating its fragile economy. Rory Ross meets entrepreneur Peter de Savary, who has big plans for the Caribbean island

In the atlas, Grenada is a pinprick on the Caribbean just north of South America. Its impact on the world has primarily been culinary and olfactory, for this is the Spice Island of legend, awaft with cocoa, cinnamon, cloves, saffron, mace and ginger. Unlike Antigua and Barbados to the north, Grenada has mountainous tropical rainforests in which spice plants can thrive. Nutmeg is the island's most celebrated and ubiquitous spice. The seed's fleshy, yellow, apricot-like pericarp is used to flavour jam, syrup, ice-cream, yoghurt and even coffee. The more familiar pungent brown kernel is grated on to rum punch, eggnog and cakes. Nutmeg oil is used in soaps and perfumes. In 1990, Grenada supplied 43 per cent of the world's nutmeg crop. The spice even features on the Grenadian national flag.

Nutmeg was the spice of life for Grenada. At least, it was until 7 September 2004, when Hurricane Ivan, one of the 10 most intense Atlantic hurricanes recorded, took a detour south. It erred below latitude 12N, the generally accepted southerly limit of hurricanes' hell-raising work, and hit Grenada head on. Not having experienced a hurricane since Janet in 1955, the island was unprepared. For eight hours, Ivan's 120mph tempest levelled buildings, tore off roofs, reduced trees to twigs, relegated ships to scrap metal, left 60,000 people homeless and shell-shocked, and drove syndicates of insurance underwriters to the brink of bankruptcy. Those houses still standing by the end of the eight-hour ordeal were green with appliquéd leaves.

Twenty-eight people died in Hurricane Ivan, but the destruction of the nutmeg orchards – a mainstay of Grenada's economy – was a different kind of tragedy. It takes eight years for a nutmeg sapling to mature into a fruit-bearing tree. No nutmeg crop meant no cash, which meant no government money to rebuild the island. Grenadians could do nothing but wait for the nutmeg trees to regrow while watching south-east Asian rivals snap up their market share. The nutmeg crop will not return to pre-Ivan levels until 2012.

Then, two years ago, another irresistible force of nature struck: "Peter de Savary. Pleased to meet you. Now let me paint you my vision for Grenada..."

De Savary grew up in Venezuela, and has been visiting Grenada since 1952. A serial entrepreneur and sometime owner of Skibo Castle in Scotland, Land's End and John O'Groats, he alighted on post-Ivan Grenada like a whirlwind in April 2006. He immediately conceived his most daring and ambitious project in a long career filled with such projects. He is plunging £30m of his personal fortune into four schemes (the overall investment in which will be £300m). "I'm the largest single investor in the history of Grenada," he boasts.

The most impressive scheme is a resort-hotel-residential-marina-retail-restaurant-spa project in Port Louis, the former industrial port of St George's, capital of Grenada. While this five-year project gets under way, another, smaller development is launched today: a series of apartments on Mount Cinnamon. This overlooks the one-mile-plus Grand Anse beach just south of St George's. Elsewhere on the island, De Savary is building a spa in Tufton Hall, a former 19th-century plantation. He has also taken over Mount Edgecombe Plantation as his weekend home, potager and exotic fruit orchard.

I met de Savary for breakfast at Azzurra Castle, his Moorish-style house on Lance Aux Epines. This is a residential peninsula at the south of the island. "The great thing that Grenada has going for it," he says, "is that the world passed it by 40 years ago. Parts of the island are unchanged since the Arawak Indians settled here hundreds of years ago. In the 20th century, some other Caribbean islands – especially the sugar-cane-growing ones – diversified into tourism. Grenada didn't. The Grenadians were content to grow spices. Hurricane Ivan changed all that. It caused the country to look at their tourist-stroking neighbours, and say to themselves, 'We'd better get our act together.'"

De Savary is the director and producer of that act. Much work needs to be done. Grenada hovers between first and third-world status. The internet works well, power is reliable and you can get a mobile telephone signal under a waterfall at 2,000ft, but tourism is embryonic. Even today, the island has just 1,500 hotel rooms, of which only a couple of hundred are ones you'd dare to book for a holiday; most of those belong either to Spice Island Beach Resort or Laluna hotel. Yet the island's vertiginous topography and pristine beauty were extolled by visitors throughout the colonial era.

In 1825, Henry Nelson Coleridge, a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, toured the West Indies and cooed that Grenada was, "perhaps the most beautiful of the Antilles.... There is an Italian look in the country which is very distinct from the usual character of the intertropical regions." Alec Waugh, Evelyn's elder brother, was a travel writer and novelist, who wrote Island in the Sun. He wrote of Grenada that it was, "the one small island that provides everything a preconceived picture of the tropics has led a visitor to expect".

St George's is picturesquely spread out on a peninsula. The capital climbs the sides of a steep hill overlooking one of the finest natural horseshoe-shaped harbours in the Caribbean. Fringing the harbour is the Carenage, the old waterfront where spices were loaded on to ships. Here, you might find a gentleman cleaning a pile of conch shells with a toothbrush. This is Allan Roberts, who has been selling conch shells for 20 years. The shells, with their outrageously suggestive labial shape and hue, make terrific presents.

On the point of the peninsula, the 17th-century Fort George was the scene of one of the bloodiest episodes in Grenada's recent history. In 1979, the autocratic prime minister Maurice Bishop tried to set up a socialist/communist state allied to Cuba. Four years later, he fell victim to an internal coup by the Cuban-backed People's Revolutionary Army.

Bishop's execution at Fort George on Bloody Wednesday, 19 October 1983, triggered fears that Grenada was slipping inexorably into Cuba's grasp and becoming another communist toehold. So the US intervened militarily and quickly restored order. The events set back the cause of tourism for years.

The interior of the island consists of plunging fertile valleys and dramatic volcanic peaks, culminating in Mount St Catherine at 2,700ft. From Henry Nelson Coleridge's description, the island has barely changed in nearly 200 years: "In every direction, the eye wanders over richly cultivated valleys with streams running through them, orchards of shaddocks [a cousin of the grapefruit] and oranges, houses with gardens, negro huts embowered with plantain leaves, mountains and hills romantically mixed and variegated with verdant coppices of shrubs and trees." He added that the view from Government House, "is the Bay of Naples on one side and a poet's Arcadia on the other."

The countryside makes for excellent hiking. And sailing among the Grenadines, a chain of smaller islands to the north, is said to be the best in the Caribbean. Grenada, being close to the food chains of the rivers of South America, has year-round marlin fishing.

Caribbean islands are coral or volcanic. Grenada is part of a young and fertile volcanic chain that runs north-south from Martinique to Trinidad. You only have to plant a stick in the ground and the next day it is a tree. Driving or hiking around, you'll see mango, banana, breadfruit and oranges trees laden with fruit.

Some countries make food that is so much more than mere sustenance. Grenadian cuisine is a complex mix of extreme racial harmony, Caribbean u o pick 'n' mix spiced with much hedonistic self-indulgence. The national dish, and Grenada's culinary gift to the world, is "oil down". It comprises a carnival of chicken, salt beef, pig tail, breadfruit, green bananas and salt fish, seasoned with peppers, garlic, thyme, chives, calaloo (a leafy vegetable similar to spinach but better tasting), carrot, okra, coconut milk and dumplings. For something a little more portable, the local Grenadian organic chocolate is exquisite and, along with the conch shells, will win you friends back home.

Two stand-out features of Grenadian life are the warmth of the welcome and the people's love of their country. Coleridge alighted on the first of these qualities when he noted the respect with which the slaves were treated: "Grenada is honourably distinguished among the British Antilles for its internal unanimity and its liberal treatment of the coloured classes."

De Savary has his own theory about why the people here seem different. "On the sugar-cane islands like Barbados and Antigua, the people had no love for the land because they associated it with back-breaking hard work," he explains. In contrast, Grenada has running streams and plenty of shade. So the people have always loved the land.

"In the Caribbean, the difference between cultivating sugar cane and cultivating spices is the equivalent difference between orchid gardening and potato farming in England. The humblest wooden family hut in Grenada has mango trees, banana trees and chickens. Simple though it may be, it will have a million-dollar view. The Grenadians like views."

De Savary has spent £10m "doing a lot of front-end stuff making things ready for normal people". The investment includes clearing up the harbour at Port Louis, removing 40,000 tons of scrap metal, hoiking out sunken ships, disentangling a helicopter that Ivan had blown into a tree, and rehousing 80 squatter families. "The harbour at Port Louis was an enviro-disaster," says Guy Gittins, De Savary's head of sales. "The water was filled with engine oil, battery acid and rust."

The marina at Port Louis is the corner stone of De Savary's vision. Most of the Caribbean is off-limits to yachts for five months of the year, due to the hurricane risk. Grenada, being below latitude 12, is in theory hurricane-free (in De Savary's mind, Ivan and Janet were extravagant exceptions). "Grenada has an equatorial climate to the south of the trade winds, so the weather is warm and sunny 52 weeks of the year," he says. This means mariners can keep large yachts here all year round with no premium on insurance – something that Antigua or Barbados cannot offer.

Port Louis's 350-berth marina will handle seafaring egos as titanic as Roman Abramovich's. The aim is to turn Grenada into a year-round yachting hang-out, not merely a winter-season getaway.

Even the local ship-building industry is being revived. To rush their spices to market, the Scottish planters built swift, dry, seaworthy sloops, schooners and ketches to ship their pungent cargoes to Trinidad, Antigua and Barbados. Vestiges of this boat-building tradition linger in Carriacou and Petite Martinique, neighbouring island dependencies. De Savary commissioned a sailing boat from the sole remaining shipwright in Carriacou. "They built the boat on the open beach with no drawings and no power tools," says a chuffed De Savary. "They launched it by hand with ropes. I'm going to build a second one and invite some America's Cup hotshots to race a Grenadian crew. We'll take 'em down a notch or two. Without on-board computers, these Olympian yachtsmen are nothing."

De Savary is hoping that Port Louis will become in the 2010s what St-Tropez was in the Fifties, what Martha's Vineyard was in the Sixties, what the Costa Smeralda was in the Seventies and what Barbados was in the Eighties. He rattles off the facilities: "Five-star hotel, private casino, spa, 28 houses, Amalfi-coast-style houses staggered up a cliff face and 10 penthouses selling for $6m each..." He says that his plans for Grenada "will be my dying statement. This is my last pioneering, pushing-water-uphill, start-from-nothing project. I am creating a whole new market, never mind a product."

De Savary wants to return Grenada to an understated haven for discerning well-heeled people, and capture something of the atmosphere of Island in the Sun. "The Grenadians have unique chance to do something wonderful to this country," says De Savary. "To develop it, but not say 'yes' to everyone. I hope that in 10 years' time, Grenada will be the charming place it is today."

Movers and shakers are sensing the wind of change. Paul Taylor, the former bricklayer who fronts the Qatar Investment Authority, owns a 200-acre estate on the north of the island. Mike Sherwood, co-chief executive of Goldman Sachs, has built a house on Grenada and taken a berth in the marina. Two of Sherwood's colleagues at Goldman Sachs have put their names down for apartments at De Savary's Port Louis project. Anthony Hamilton, the British-born Grenadian-extracted father of Formula One ace Lewis Hamilton, has bought a property two doors from De Savary. (Lewis's grandfather is a bus driver on the island.) Oprah Winfrey is another fan of Grenada and stays at Laluna hotel.

My half-hour breakfast meeting had lasted three-and-a-half hours, and Hurricane de Savary showed no signs of blowing itself out. It was time to tour the island. I drove up to Grand Etang, a lake in the crater of an extinct volcano. With every turn of the road, I crossed mountain streams and passed waterfalls, mountain pools and aromatic valleys, while the views of the Caribbean became more and more spectacular and panoramic. As I breasted the volcanic summit, I found myself precipitously perched between the Caribbean and the Atlantic, and staring at an almost perfectly circular fresh-water lake 1,600ft above sea level.

Going north, I reached Tufton Hall, a deserted 19th-century plantation house with half its roof ripped off (Ivan, again). The location is folded into what looks like Jurassic Park, backed by steep mountains. Overgrown cherry, breadfruit and mango trees cover the slopes. The gardens are a riot of frangipani and papaya.

De Savary plans to turn the 50-acre Tufton estate into a spa of 16 villas spread out among the fruit trees. Looking around at the lush landscape, with the views of the Caribbean and the setting sun, and a soundtrack of gurgling mountain streams, I thought to myself, "Why bother? It's already a natural open-air spa."

Mount Edgecombe, my final destination, is another hauntingly evocative plantation house. It was built in the late 18th century by Lord Edgecombe of Devon, on a sheltered eminence on the west coast. This is De Savary's weekend home. After lunch (mashed tuna, potato salad and cold chicken) on the veranda overlooking the Caribbean, I was shown around by Domme – the wizened patriarch and manager.

Edgecombe still operates as a working plantation. It offers a taste – in every sense – of what the real West Indies used to be. Its 9.5-acre estate, vegetable garden and fruit orchards victual De Savary's Mount Cinnamon project with plums, pineapples, tomatoes, golden apples, cocoa, lemons, coffee, guava, grapefruit, cinnamon, pimento, star fruit, calabash and something called "mango Julie soursop".

When Hurricane de Savary struck Grenada, the locals were unprepared. Doors were slammed shut and the authorities told him to clear off when he asked for tax breaks. But he stuck to his task, and has completed much work that no private-sector enterprise would ordinarily touch. So you have to take your hat off to him, if nothing else, not least because, if you don't, it might blow away.

"I live here," he says. "I have a Grenadian passport. I'm here for the rest of my life. I love it here. We are hell bent on helping Grenada, and equally hell bent to keep out rubbish tourists who spend no money, and mass stuff that is ugly and dilutes the natural beauty. Less will be more."

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

Grenada is served from Gatwick non-stop by XL Airways (0870 320 7777; www.xl.com). Flights from Gatwick on British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) touch down en route at Antigua and Tobago respectively. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).



STAYING THERE

Mount Cinnamon, Grand Anse Beach (001 473 439 0000; www.mountcinnamongrenada.com). Suites sleeping four start at US$472 (£248), including breakfast.

Port Louis, St George's (001 473 439 0000; www.portlouisgrenada.com). Rental of marina berths costs from US$75 (£39) per foot; the hotel is due to open in 2009.

Tufton Hall, St Mark (001 473 439 0000; www.tuftonhallgrenada.com); the hotel is due to open in 2009.

Spice Island Beach Resort, Grand Anse Beach, St George's (001 473 444 4258; www.spiceislandbeachresort.com). Suites start at US$631 (£332), full board.

Laluna, Morne Rouge (001 473 439 0001; www.laluna.com). Double rooms start at US$460 (£242), room only.



VISITING THERE

Mount Edgecombe, near Maran (001 473 439 0000; www.mountedgecombegrenada.com). Tours of the plantation are offered to guests at Peter de Savary's Grenada properties.



MORE DETAILS

www.grenadagrenadines.com; 020 8877 4516

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