Harbour master: the capital St George's

This tiny Caribbean spice island offers visitors plenty of historical and cultural diversions, plus some dazzling beaches. Pull up a sunlounger

Here's a question fit for a pub quiz: which country won the most Olympic gold medals per capita at London 2012? The answer is Grenada, with just one for the 400m. This little volcanic island at the southern end of the eastern Caribbean, just 12 by 21 miles with a population of 111,000, is the home of Kirani James, the 20-year-old who beat the rest of the world over one lap of the track in London and won Grenada's first ever Olympic medal.

Take a ride to his hometown, Gouyave, a fishing community on Grenada's west coast – which used to be best known as the venue of the island's Friday-night Fish Fry – and you'll sense the local pride over Kirani's exploits. The coastal road disintegrates just south of the town, forcing motorists to loop inland. But once they emerge again at the sea wall, they are confronted by a huge hoarding bearing a picture of the young athlete, proclaiming: "Welcome to Kirani Town." (It's just next to the running track where he did much of his training.)

It's a testimony to this small island, which may be economically poor but is rich in character. Grenadians are feeling the pinch, especially since Hurricanes Ivan (2004) and Emily (2005) devastated the crops that earned Grenada the nickname "the spice island" – this is the world's second biggest exporter of nutmeg after Indonesia and visitors can take a look around the island's main processing station at Grenville (001 473 442 7241; US$1/60p).

Tourism has become Grenada's main earner and visitors are warmly welcomed. So, when LaSource, a locally run resort, shut earlier this winter, nerves jangled. However, the news that Sandals (08000 223030; sandals.co.uk/grenada) has acquired the site and is refurbishing it with the intention of reopening in autumn has revived hopes. Projects such as Peter de Savary's swanky Port Louis (001 473 439 0000; portlouisgrenada.com), a development of villas and a marina on the outskirts of the capital, St George's, are also boosting confidence.

Those who do holiday here find much to recommend and as it takes less than a couple of hours by car to get from the main resort area in the south to the island's northernmost reaches, it's easy to tick off most of the sights and experiences during a week's stay.

There is the history to explore. Settled by the French in the 17th century, who called it La Grenade, the island was taken over by the British in 1762, and renamed Grenada. Surviving heritage includes the rum distillery at Westerhall (001 473 443 5477; US$2/£1.30), the cocoa plantation at the Belmont Estate (001 473 442 9524; belmontestate.net) and forts George, Frederick and Matthew (grenadagrenadines.com), overlooking St George's harbour.

The story of the revolution of 1979 – when an attempt was made to set up a socialist state which was eventually put down by the US in 1983 – is told at the Spice Basket Museum (001 473 439 9000; spicebasketgrenada.com), and at the derelict Pearls Airport, by the presence of decaying Soviet planes on the weed-ridden runway.

Take a walk around St George's to see its Georgian architecture and rumbustious market and drop in at High Five, the West Indies Cricket Heritage Centre (001 473 417 9030; windiesheritage.com; EC$10/£2). And, if you visit the island in the first week of August, you can also join the annual carnival as it hits the streets.

You can go trekking in the rainforest, Grand Etang, at the island's heart, cooling off in the waterfalls at Annandale and Concord (see "Natural highs"), and take a day trip to Grenada's quiet sister islands of Carriacou and Petite Martinique.

But most holidaymakers come to Grenada for the beaches – the white sands at Grand Anse and Morne Rouge, both on the south-west coast, and the shallow waters of La Sagesse in the east, are favourites – for this is the Caribbean and the sun lounger always beckons.

Tasting notes

Follow the making of chocolate on the Bean to Bar Tour at Belmont Estate (entry US$64/ £40), in St Patrick. Cocoa has grown here since the plantation was built in the 17th century. Today, visitors can see workers carefully crop the Forastero, Criollo and Trinitario varieties of bean, learn about the fetid process of fermentation and see the beans spread across huge trays to dry in the sun. Next, it's off to the Grenada Chocolate Factory (001 473 442 0050; grenadachocolate.com) in Hermitage, to see the beans roasted, winnowed and ground. Then back to the estate, to browse in the museum and shop before lunch in the restaurant.

Short orders

Grenada has a surprising mix of food. The luxury Calabash Hotel (001 473 444 4334; calabashhotel.com), above, at L'Anse aux Epines is best known for evening meals. Here, Rhodes, run by Gary Rhodes, serves such dishes as buttered dorado with shrimp, while the Grenadian-style tapas by Mark Banthorpe at the seafront Bash Restaurant by Mark B has such inspiring tastes as callaloo espresso and coconut bake. Patrick's Homestyle Cooking in St George's (001 473 440 0364; grenadaexplorer.com/patrick) dishes up Caribbean flavours such as dasheen fritters. For superior nigiri, try the dishes prepared with local fish at Carib Sushi (001 473 439 5640; caribsushi.com) at Grand Anse.

Natural highs

Strike out into Grenada's wilderness at the Grand Etang Forest Reserve (001 473 440 2279), less than 30 minutes' drive from St George's. The Grand Etang is a water-filled crater surrounded by woods, where you can spot birds such as the purple-throated carib and lesser antillean swift, and watch out for armadillos and mona monkeys. There are lots of trails to follow, from 15 minutes to a day's duration, and guides to hire. Pack swimming cossies for a refreshing dip by the waterfalls.

Beneath the waves

Book a ride on a powerboat with Grenada Seafaris (001 473 405 7800; grenadaseafaris.com; US$69/£43) and they will take you along the island's west coast to Molinière-Beauséjour Marine Protected Area. Here, the crew leads snorkellers and scuba divers down to see the extraordinary works of sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, pictured. There are 65 pieces, spread across 800sq m of seabed. Two of the most famous works were replaced this winter by new versions: Vicissitudes, a ring of 28 children holding hands, honours slaves thrown overboard by slavers, and Cyclist, a man riding a bike. But they are not just artworks. The reefs here were damaged by Hurricane Ivan and the structures create new habitats for marine and coral life. The tour also takes in more of the coast and covers Grenada's history and geography.

Where to stay

Until the arrival of Sandals, Grenada's hotel scene had been free of international chains. Grand Anse hosts most of the island's quality accommodation, including two of its top hotels: Spice Island Beach Resort (001 473 444 4258; spiceislandbeachresort.com; from US$733/£458), an elegant cluster of 42 suites and villas, which has just gone all-inclusive; and Mount Cinnamon (001 473 439 4400; mountcinnamongrenada.com; from US$518/£324), with 21 suites on a hill overlooking the beach. This winter, Mount Cinnamon has added Cinnamon Heights, a modern three-bedroom villa. Just south at Morne Rouge, the 16-room shorefront hotel La Luna (001 473 439 0001; laluna.com; from US$438/£274) is adding seven new villas this year. There are few hotels of quality, pricey or budget, beyond the south. However, the west coast has Mango Bay (001 473 535 6827; mangobay grenada.com; from US$110/£69) near Concord, which offers four one-bed gingerbread-style cottages for self-caterers, set on a cliff above a black-sand beach. (It also has the only vegetarian restaurant on the island.) And, at the northernmost point near Sauteurs, there's Petite Anse Hotel (001 473 442 5252; petiteanse.com; from US$180/£113), with 11 en suite rooms (two more are just being finished) and a great restaurant serving gourmet-style Grenadian food, all set above its own Atlantic-side beach.

Travel Essentials

Getting there and getting around

Kate Simon travelled to Grenada as a guest of the Grenada Board of Tourism (020-8328 0650; grenadagrenadines.com), Spice Island Beach Resort, right, and Mount Cinnamon, and Caribtours (020-7751 0660; caribtours.co.uk). A week in Grenada with Caribtours costs from £2,335pp, including return flights with BA, transfers, three nights' all-inclusive at the Spice Island Beach Resort and four nights' room only at Mount Cinnamon. British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com/grenada) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 2770; virgin-atlantic.com) both fly to Maurice Bishop airport from Gatwick twice a week, but stop along the way. Most hotels offer guests airport transfers but taxis are also available outside arrivals. The fare to Grand Anse, about 10 minutes' drive away from the airport, is £12. McIntyre Bros Auto Rentals (001 473 444 1550; caribbeanhorizons.com/car.html) offers car hire from £38 a day.

Public minibuses are cheap to ride – the trip from Grand Anse to St George's costs about EC$2.50 (60p). Just stick out your arm to hail them – they can be identified by a number and list of destinations displayed on the windscreen.