You do a bit of a double take when you drive through the winding, roller coaster, streets of Grenada’s capital, St George’s. You’ve got the picture hat, the shades, the Factor 50 and the camera for those Kodak moments, so your clicking finger’s at the ready for the backdrop of charming clapboard houses in bold pastels straight from a child’s paint-box, festooned with gaily coloured awnings. You’re in the Caribbean, so you’re probably anticipating the palm trees and the Persil white yachts bobbing gently in the turquoise water of the perfect horseshoe harbour, shaped by what was once the crater of a (fingers-crossed) extinct volcano. But you’re possibly not expecting a row of stout red British telephone boxes, looking as awkward and out of place as a red-haired calypso band on a wet day in Clacton. When you cross the world to the most southernmost tip of the Windward Islands, a short hop, skip and jump away from the coast of Venezuela, the last thing you expect to see is a home-style BT call box.
However, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise if you remember that Grenada was one a British Crown Colony. Though originally named Concepcion in 1498 by the first tourist to pass by, Christopher Columbus, this small volcanic island eventually became known as Grenada because its lush greenery and white beach coves reminded homesick Spanish sailors of their native Andalusia. Originally settled by the Arawaks who were later given their marching orders by the much more fierce Caribs, Grenada was the subject of much protracted Anglo-French wrangling before it became one of the last British pink bits in 1877, finally gaining full independence from the Commonwealth in 1974. This explains the telephone boxes as well as the fact, if not the fashion, of driving, swerving and speeding, on the left, and the smart band-box Colonial-uniformed policemen who wave traffic round the blind corkscrew corners of St George’s narrow swooping, streets. However, the French influence lives on in the local culture, and features in many of the place names as well as the language. Officially, Grenadians speak English, but most locals switch seamlessly to a rapid fire Franglais patois which will leave you blank-faced with incomprehension – though it’s easy to guess when you have inadvertently upset someone by the escalating tone and pitch of voices. No-one seems to suffer in silence in Grenada. The quickest way to experience this is to whip out your camera and take someone’s picture. Grenadians do not want to be famous even for five minutes – especially in your holiday snaps.
This is a shame, because street life in Grenada and St George’s in particular, is one wall-to-wall -photo opportunity, especially around the bustling market square, which is a riot of colour and voluble activity. Saturday is the main market day when, as early as 5am, vendors from Caribbean central casting spill out of crammed minibuses bringing produce in from the countryside to sell. Agriculturally, Grenada is a veritable Garden of Eden. Stalls are heaped high with locally grown cantaloupes, grapefruit, mangoes, papayas and a whole identity parade of different varieties of banana. Baskets overflow with plantains, yams, coconuts, callaloo, a leafy vegetable akin to spinach, a knobbly local squash called christophene (similar to a watery courgette), butternut squash, pumpkin and, in December, the red sepals of tall shrub that the locals call sorrel (no relation to our plant which they infuse into a special Christmas drink containing rum and spices. Nearby the fish market sells slabs of multihued, be-spotted fish – barracuda, grouper, conch, known locally as lambi and basis of the Grenadian national dish ‘oil down’, a stew of conch, salted fish, coconut, vegetables and calaloo. Everything is so fresh it could get up and ask you for your telephone number. But as you squeeze through the labyrinth of stalls the only proposition you are likely to encounter is the repetitive, seductive chant of the Grenadian national anthem of commerce, whose chorus you are soon going to know off by heart: ‘Spices, spices, d’you want t’buy any spices t’day?’
Grenada is synonymous with spices. Also known at the Spice Island, it is the second largest exporter of nutmeg and its twin spice mace, made from the aril surrounding the nut which changes from vivid red to gold to brown as it dries. It is so important to the island’s economy that the nutmeg is even pictured on Grenada’s flag. It also produces ginger, cinnamon, bay leaves, all spice and turmeric, which the locals call saffron. Market sellers offer tiny packs of various spices for a few East Caribbean dollars, sold in hand woven baskets, but for an true grasp of the size of the crop, you need to visit one of the nutmeg factories, such as that in the sea-side town of Gouyave, meaning guava. Here trays of nutmeg fade into the distance and photo-shy women work industriously, grading and separating the nutmegs from their shells. Away from the tourist areas, which are mostly strung along the south coast of the island near the capital, where a necklace of fine, white sand beaches link the mercifully few, smart hotel complexes, you can understand why the locals might not want to be seen as mere photogenic extras in your holiday snaps. Grenada is more than just a palm-fringed beach with all-day sunshine and 24 hour air conditioning from the cooling trade winds – fundamentally, it’s is a working island. What might be seen as exotic to those of us who buy our nutmeg in a Schwartz jar in the supermarket, is just another hard-working day in paradise for the Grenadian.
Wherever you go on the island, the scent of spices will follow you. You can’t lie on a beach, or walk in the street without someone entreating you to ‘buy spice’. Beach traders sell necklaces made of cinnamon and nutmeg, which reputedly repel moths and mosquitoes, though, I might point out guys that accurately enumerating the number of bites on a woman’s inner thigh isn’t much of a marketing ploy. Apart from bananas, sugar, a little coffee and tobacco, another important island crop is cocoa, harvested together with nutmeg and other spices in the Dougaldston Plantation, just outside Gouyave in an area originally settled by Scottish migrant workers.
In St Patrick, in the north of the island you can also visit the Belmont plantation, where you can have lunch and sample some typical Grenadian callaloo soup, or pepper pot, a local stew consisting of whatever meat happens to be around and, as the anme suggests, hot fiery pepper sauce. There’s a quaint little museum and the opportunity to enjoy ‘authentic’ African dancing and drumming, though our dancer looked as if he was rather desultorily shaking loose change out of a hole in his combat trousers, so I can’t vouch for the authenticity. Here you can watch women walking as slow as mourners through trays of cocoa beans, turning them with their feet as they dry in the sun, or taste the white sticky sap inside a ripe pod of cocoa beans – already imbued with a distinctive chocolatey flavour. After the beans have been fermented, dried, polished and either exported to countries like Switzerland and Belgium, or ground and mixed with spices for a thick creamy, super-sweet, hot-chocolate drink enjoyed by Grenadians.
You don’t have to be terribly intrepid to explore the island’s perimeter. It’s only 21 miles long and 12 miles at its widest, and the round trip can be done in a day. However, it’s worth taking your life in your hands and venturing up into the dizzying heights of interior, where pristine tropical rainforest is criss-crossed by a torturous road. A journey into the Grand Etang National Park feels like a protracted switchback ride, with added sound. Drivers sound their horn at every opportunity – when going round a bend, when meeting another vehicle, because their name is Desmond and it’s Tuesday, and just because it’s been a while since you made any sound. Guided walks of varying rigour can be taken through the rainforest, passing by some of Grenada’s famous waterfalls, but when I saw the word hike on my itinerary I came out in a nervous Prada-shoed induced bout of soft, white capitalist hysteria and insisted on tripping back to the car in my high heels. Sensible people would wear proper footwear, but there are no creepy crawlies or slithery things in Grenada so you don’t have to worry about snakes or other poisonous wildlife. Away from my fellow yompers, I lost myself in the solitude of the forest, sitting alone in the dappled light, shaded by banana trees, listening to the wind blowing through the leaves, banging the trunks of the giant bamboo together like god’s own wind chimes. I walked idly back up the track wondering if I’d see any of the native Mona monkeys that we had been lucky enough to spot earlier at the impressive crater lake, again formed out of the mouth of an extinct volcano, when I looked up and, out of no-where, encountered a man wearing spotted underpants and a dazzling white vest, carrying a machete.
Now you’re never far from a machete in Grenada. Vendors point with them, gardeners prune with them and workers trim roadside verges with them – they’re like the mobile phones of the Caribbean …. but still, if you see a machete in Notting Hill Gate you run. Fast. More worryingly, he wanted to wash my feet in a large drum containing brackish water – like the equivalent of windscreen washers at traffic lights. I demurred. Prada and all that. Instead, we chatted about his aunt in Streatham and his grandmother in Forest Hill.
However, if you do decide to turn your back on nature and propel it instead towards the sun, Grenada is ideally placed to fly and flop. With a steady year round temperature of around 80F, even in the rainy season which runs from June - December, it’s rarely wet for longer than an hour or two – though at night it can sound like the weather hounds of hell are raging outside your bedroom. There are 40 odd beaches, hand picked from the Caribbean Dulux collection, all clinging to the coast line, with the no building taller than a palm tree. Hotels line the longest beach on the island – Grand Anse, running on to the tip of Pink Gin Beach near the airport.
Diving is good and local whale watching trips offer a ninety percent chance of sighting at least schools of dolphins, but do take the recommended travel sickness pills even if you’re not usually prone to problems. On our trip, the only whale we saw was wearing polyester and hanging over the side of the boat. On another day, taking the ferry to Grenada’s sister Island Carriacou, smaller, quieter and less claustrophobic than Grenada, I was quietly wishing myself dead from seasickness as the once sparkling blue sea boiled around me like black tar. Thankfully fellow local travellers were friendly and solicitous, even over-concerned. A rasta with dreadlocks and muscled arms like small, flexed, mountains, pointed out as I lifted my green-tinged face from my knees that I was wearing the Trinidad national colours on my t-shirt, and invited me to drinks, dinner and bed, in that order. Who knew when I bought it from Marks and Spencer that it would have this sort of appeal?
Carriacou, is bit of a backwater with lots of deserted beaches where you can ask the local taxi drivers to drop you for a couple of hours. It also has a lot of good reefs. Alternatively, nip over to Sandy Island for snorkelling – if you can face another boat. During my visit, I inadvertently found myself in search of my roots. Originally settled by Scottish boat-builders, the island boasts a village called Dumfries who, as my guide pointed out: ‘like a bit of cocoa wit’ der milk’. Several of my clansmen are even listed in the telephone directory: ‘I saw d’name and I taut you must have family here. There’s one woman, she works in town, she called McGilvary.’
‘Now ah’m lookin’’, said my guide, watching me from behind, ‘When you walk over dere, I see dere's a resemblance.’
Naturally, I stopped by town to visit my doppelganger, hoping for a Nicole Kidman lookalike. Well, she was a big lass, but no one could take us for sistas - unless my father had something severe to say to my mother about the ethnic origin of the milkman. But the guide was right - from d’back, indeed, we were dead ringers.Things to Know
Grenadians do not like having their photograph taken, so ask first and be prepared to pay.
Grenada is quite conservative, so leave the thong bikini in the hotel and don’t go out in skimpy Kylie shorts unless you want to be the main attraction.Tourist Office
Grenada Board of Tourism
P.O. Box 293,
473 440 2279
This is in the Carenage facing St George’s and offers tours, information and adequate tourist maps.
For smaller, more modest apartment rentals and lodgings see www.grenadaintimateinns.com
Pink Gin Beach
PO Box 852
473 444 2556
Offers and action packed spa experience - sort of club 18-30 for dinkie couples
PO Box 382
473 444 4334
Bournemouth with a tropical beach and fantastic foodThe current chef trained with Gary Rhodes and the restaurant offers the best food on the island.
Spice Island resort
Grand Anse Beach
PO box 6
All inclusive, high end comfort and luxury, with friendly staff and hands on management by owner Royston Hopkin. Laluna
Morne Rouge Beach
PO Box 1500
473 439 0001
Honeymoon wet dream - thin blondes with crisp American accents and even crisper bundles of dollars, which you are going to need – very low key, select hotel for those with lots of dosh.
Coconut Beach – French Creole cuisine right on Grand Anse beach – approx £20 per head for dinner. 473 444 4644 -Calabash – see above
Laluna – Italian food - see above
The Beach House – shares a beach with Laluna – international/Caribbean cuisine. 473 444 4455
Aquarium – located on a beach with own reef – snorkel and eat fresh seafood. 473 444 1410
Belmont Plantation. Caribbean home cooking 473 442 9524
473 440 3678
Guide – www.lonelyplanet and www.roughguides.com
Foodies try A Carriacou Cookbook by Rosamund Cameron – email@example.com