Laid-back and quiet? Grenada wins by a nose

A sense of smell is the best travel accessory to take to this uncommercialised Caribbean island, says Juliet Clough
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The Independent Travel

Things were seriously amiss with that little nut tree in the nursery rhyme, the one that bore nothing but a silver nutmeg and a golden pear. Nutmeg, as any visitor to Grenada knows, should hang profuse as fairy lights, the fruit pale gold, splitting to reveal filaments of sealing wax crimson. Peel the fresh mace off the nut and its perfume steals your soul away.

Things were seriously amiss with that little nut tree in the nursery rhyme, the one that bore nothing but a silver nutmeg and a golden pear. Nutmeg, as any visitor to Grenada knows, should hang profuse as fairy lights, the fruit pale gold, splitting to reveal filaments of sealing wax crimson. Peel the fresh mace off the nut and its perfume steals your soul away.

Grenada, southernmost of the Windward Islands, is heaven on wheels for scent junkies, a reminder like nowhere else I know that the sense of smell can be one of the most rewarding things to take along on holiday.

From the drying racks of the Dougaldston Estate rose the dark, velvety aroma of chocolate mixed with the pungency of cloves, vanilla and toasting wood. My guide peeled a strip of fresh cinnamon bark off a branch, fantasising about turning the plantation into a visitor centre.

It wouldn't take much. The old cocoa and banana estate, founded in 1700, ran out of steam some 30 years ago and has hardly been touched since; wooden spades, and brooms clogged with cocoa, still lean abandoned against sweat house walls; Birmingham-made iron scales rust quietly in the shade.

But, somehow, it will never happen. One of the most beguiling things about the smallest country in the western hemisphere has to be its refusal to get excited about tourism. There are no high-rise hotels (only one has blatantly sneaked past the law that says you can't build anything higher than a palm tree); precious few souvenir shops and, as far as I could judge, a complete lack of the kind of surliness blamed elsewhere in the Caribbean on the commercialism tourism promotes. Here, you are nowhere more than six miles from a blissful beach; why get worked up?

Grenada's claims to represent the original, laid-back Caribbean carry conviction in a place where perceived stereotypes spread wall to wall: Bob Marley T-shirts and rasta hats; corn rows in little girls' hair; fishing nets on fences, old men on donkeys. Today, every last builder, distillery worker and nutmeg grader seemed to have downed tools to listen raptly to radio reports of the West Indies cricketers trouncing India.

But a comprehensive tour soon put a depth-charge under such clichés. Life for the islanders has been far from stress-free. Much of Grenada's appeal lies in the variety and richness of the terrain packed into its tiny 21 miles by 12, not least a cloud-snagging mountain range. (Pack your boots – the rainforest hiking is special.) This has generated a history in which land hunger, economics and strategic importance have played equally unprepossessing roles.

A Russian biplane rots beside a Cuban comrade at Pearls airfield, skeletal wings smothered in creepers, a cow tethered ignominiously to its tail. Both were abandoned after the American invasion of 1983 put paid to Grenada's short-lived affair with Communism: a chapter, said my guide, still causing great resentment in the islands.

Lunch provided a forgiving reminder of plantation days. Once a genteel Edwardian villa, Morne Fendue now has balconies that sag under hectic swathes of bougainvillea; flaking cornices sport joyously unsuitable colours; from the kitchen waft mouthwatering local smells: pepper-pot pork, yams and callaloo.

"Slightly over proof" reads the label on River Antoine rum bottles, whose 80 per cent alcohol rocket fuel has, since 1785, been perfuming the air over the oldest distillery in the Caribbean. It might just have been the cricket scores (by now Carl Hooper was on 199 with the Windies 449 for 4) but everyone seemed inordinately cheerful; not least the bats, hanging in stupefied rows above the fermentation tanks.

If scents make sense of the island, then colour defines its coasts. Coral beaches and azure seas may be the stuff of further Caribbean cliché, but Grenadian beaches are also quiet, clean and, with the exception of Grande Anse, largely uncommercialised.

A friend and I sampled a self-catering cottage at Lance aux Epines. Well equipped, friendly and with housekeeping and babysitting laid on, this, we both decided, represented excellent value as a place to return to with our families. Pushing the boat out, we spent two nights at the chic designer hideaway, La Luna, with food to match. Our hired 4x4 proved essential for beach research. Top marks went to La Sagesse, a nature reserve with a relaxed, toes-in-sand café, shaded by a fringe of handsome trees.

We struck gold in choosing a ship-and-shore option, offering a week in Grenada and a second week afloat among the staggeringly beautiful Grenadines. Our yacht charter awaited at Carriacou, a 37ft catamaran all to ourselves, plus skipper Bill and Viv, not only first mate but also a superb cook.

Pottering between the sheltered bays of Union Island, Mayreau and Petit St Vincent, we spent the next few days being plied with rum punches and freshly caught lobster, occasionally heaving ourselves overboard to swim in seas that felt less like water than liquid light. We idled royally: no shoes, no mobiles, no worries except whether the supply of novels and sunscreen would hold out.

On Union Island we anchored off a quay made of discarded conch shells to buy mangoes streaked in parrot colours. We snorkelled inside the turquoise and gold ring of James Bay, spellbound by the rainbow life of the Tobago Cays. Now and then a Carriacou-built trading boat with a patched linen sail propelled a cargo of cattle, contraband or day trippers across the horizon. The Para Handy outlines of these boats, together with Carriacou's tribe of pale-skinned islanders, are the legacy of Glaswegian shipwrights, imported during the heyday of the sugar trade.

We could have bought our fish from passing boats but I caught my own, my very first, a bluefin tuna which Bill, in true Caribbean style, stunned with rum and Viv cooked up a dream.

At breakfast, small black birds perched on the taffrail to take breadcrumbs from my hand. At night a huge moon floundered in the rigging, caught in a net of stars.

I felt as lucky as a distillery bat.

The Facts

Getting there

Juliet Clough was the guest of Just Grenada (01373 814214; www.justgrenada.co.uk). A Ship & Shore holiday – one week at Lance aux Epines Cottages and six days cruising around the Grenadines with Horizon Yacht Charter ( www.horizonyachtcharters.com) ranges from £1,270 (based on six) to £1,930 (based on two). Includes flights from Gatwick, private transfers, seven nights at Lance aux Epines Cottages and a skippered cruise with all food and drink.

Further information

Grenada Board of Tourism (020-7771 7016; www.grenadagrenadines.com).

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