Grenada: Keeping it real
It doesn't have the best beaches in the Caribbean or the greatest nightlife. But Grenada's laid-back charm and welcoming locals are a draw for the glitterati and mere mortals alike.
Winston was shelling pigeon peas beside his tin-roofed shack when we came across him. In the distance three children headed off into the hills carrying sticks for poking crayfish out from underwater hides, looking like characters in a Caribbean version of Huckleberry Finn as they jostled each other in their faded T-shirts and ragged shorts.
Winston smiled, the furrows in his brow under a battered straw hat becoming even deeper, then introduced himself and offered us a drink. As we guzzled down Cokes, he explained that he was preparing for his family's Easter feast. A pig would be slaughtered and vegetables taken from the garden by his house.
He offered to show us round, using his machete to point out straggly pigeon pea trees, callaloo bushes and pepper plants. His father used to eat a lot of turtles, he said, keeping them alive in their shells beside the house. He himself was partial to monkeys, which he claimed could still be found occasionally in the hills, and armadillo. "Trouble is, them fellow like to travel to water in the evening, and they get caught."
As we talked, it turned out that Winston owned much of the land that we could see on the hills around us. But there was a shadow over his Easter preparations; both his daughters had moved to New Jersey and would not be joining him for the annual feast. Do they ever get back to visit? "One came last year, the other has never been back," he said, shaking his head at the reality of life behind the idyllic Caribbean façade.
We were in Grenada's Grand Etang Forest, eight long and winding miles up the road from St George's, the island's pretty capital. Although the rainforest was still looking a little forlorn after Hurricane Ivan, which tore away most of the island's trees and much of its infrastructure two years ago, the land is so fertile it was hard to believe that the national park had been stripped of its foliage so recently.
Leaving Winston's home, we traipsed off in search of a swim in the river. The paths were lined with mint, clove and sage, while nutmeg, papaya and cocoa trees were dotted all around. We passed a house, its roof only now being replaced, while the quarters of a freshly killed pig dangled from the eaves of another.
A jogger stopped as we headed on towards Mont Qua Qua. He turned out to be from Tunbridge Wells and was soon telling us how his attempt to circumnavigate the world stalled when Hurricane Ivan wrecked his yacht. We bade him goodbye, only to find ourselves chatting 10 minutes later to an elderly hiker. And when we found a waterfall, jumping into the deep pool carved out by crashing water, we were soon joking with a couple who pitched up after us.
The 94,000 inhabitants of this sliver of land are highly gregarious - even buying a CD in the market ended up with an invitation to join the stallholder at a Gregory Isaacs concert that evening. This is one of the things that make it such an enjoyable place to visit. In theory, Grenada - the biggest of the Grenadines, although still only 21 miles long - has little to make it stand out as a Caribbean destination. There are better beaches in the Bahamas, better diving in the Caymans, better flora and fauna in Dominica and better nightlife in Jamaica. But if you want to taste all the delights of the Caribbean, this is your place, especially when accompanied with a gentle pace of life and laid-back charm.
We first visited 15 years ago, staying at a guesthouse in the north. The owner, Betty Mascoll, promised to pick us up at the airport. How will I recognise you, I asked down a crackly telephone line when I booked. "Just ask for Aunty Betty, everyone knows me."
Somewhat dubious, I tried this out upon arrival and within seconds had been led to meet an elderly lady in a vivid print dress. After a hair-raising drive in her battered Toyota, Betty turned out to be an entertaining host, running a celebrated kitchen and packing us off to her beach house each day with two bottles of home-made rum punch. Sadly, Betty died eight years ago, although her kitchen lives on at Morne Fendue.
This time we opted for something more opulent: La Luna, a boutique hotel beloved by the glitterati and owned by an Italian who used to work in the fashion industry. The 16 cottages, perched above a secluded beach, ooze taste, with teak four-poster beds from Bali, linen sheets from Italy and thatched roofs from Vietnam. They are reached by a pot-holed road with alarming gradients, which presumably protects the likes of Jerry Hall and Anna Wintour from prying eyes while acting as a deterrent to the ludicrous idea of leaving the beachside oasis.
The barefoot luxury of La Luna is rightly lauded. It was all too easy after a breakfast of muffins and fresh fruit to get into that fatal holiday cycle of swimming, snoozing and sunbathing, broken only by bouts of eating and drinking.
The biggest decision of the day was whether to walk all the way to that perfect beach, a journey of at least 50 yards, or to crash out on a day bed by the bar, chatting to Sheldon as he squeezed another pineapple juice.
The only blot on the horizon was the daily arrival of a huge cruise ship, slowly slipping across our line of vision before docking in the horseshoe bay of St George's. These maritime giants towered over the tiny capital, their vivid orange or pink colours clashing horribly with the pastel clapboard houses as they disgorged cargoes of souvenir-hunting passengers. Half a century ago, the Bianca C would have been among them as it sailed between Italy and South America. Today it lies one mile off the Grenada shore, in 170 feet of water. Nicknamed "The Titanic of the Caribbean", the 18,000-ton liner caught fire in 1961 in St George's harbour; all 362 passengers and 200 crew were saved but the vessel sunk as it was being towed out to sea. Although broken in two, it is justly one of the region's most famous dive sites.
The size of the wreck is staggering. The front two-thirds sat bolt upright in the water, looming out of the blue as I drifted towards it. I swept over railings, then swam along the deck looking at funnels and life-boat davits, watched by schools of barracuda that have laid claim to the wreck. After passing a coral-encrusted mast and steps leading up to the bridge, I found myself in the swimming pool; it felt weird diving down to the bottom, then doing a length at this depth. An eagle ray glided over my head, while a large trumpet fish dangled beside me.
I went on several more dives with Paul, a local divemaster. An Essex boy, he left Southend seven years ago and, now married and a dual national, seemed quite happy with his seven-minute commute - "10 on a bad day" - and life in the sun. But money is tight - two years after the hurricane, the number of British tourists was still down by 43 per cent.
After four days, we shifted a little further south, to the Calabash Hotel in Prickly Bay. It was neat and well-kept, a horseshoe of white buildings in manicured gardens, but felt rather stuffy after La Luna. Dining there on our first night, my flip-flops fell foul of the dress code. In its favour, however, was some of the best hotel cooking in the Caribbean in their restaurant overseen by Gary Rhodes.
On our last day, we decided to drive across the island to visit the solar-powered Grenada Chocolate Factory, which claims to be the smallest in the world, working from "tree to bar" to produce organic treats that sell in some of Britain's most expensive sweet shops. It was baking hot as we headed off in our rented 4x4, passing the Saturday market in St George's, then the new cricket stadium, where an army of construction workers was trying to get it built in time for next year's World Cup. Then we headed back through the rainforest with its jagged mountains on our way to the east coast, the meandering roads lined with poinsettias and palms.
Eventually we reached the hamlet of Hermitage and drove up a steep turning to the factory - which turned out to be a luridly painted two-storey house. There was one yellow cocoa pod on the ground, and no sign of activity. Eventually a Rasta, looking slightly the worse for wear, leaned out of an upper window and shouted down that they were closed, awaiting a machinery part. "No worries," he said.
He was right; we ended up having a blissful day. A fantastic lunch of home-cooked curried goat by the road, a walk and swim on a deserted beach in the north. On the way back we stopped at Gouyave, where an antiquated processing station ages, sorts and ships out bags of nutmeg, the spice island's most famous export, and mace. It was "Fish Friday", and as dusk fell the streets were filled with barbecues, fish was sizzling away and sound systems were being set up as busloads of Grenadians flooded in. There was little option but to open a bottle of beer and join the party. No worries, indeed.
The writer travelled with Just Grenada (01373 814 214; www.justgrenada.co.uk), which offers three nights' room only at La Luna, and four nights' B&B at The Calabash from £1,130 per person. Prices include return flights from Gatwick with XL Airways (0870 320 7777; www.xl.com) and transfers. Grenada is also served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) from Gatwick.
Grenada Tourism: 020-8877 4516; www.grenada grenadines.com
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