Unchanged Paradise

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 6th February 2004.

Unlike the first time. I was the cook on a charter yacht at the end of a three-week cruise from Antigua, with another three crew and six bejewelled, drink-sodden guests from whom I was keen to part company. With mounting relief we approached our anchorage at the capital, St George’s, when our engine suddenly broke down. We tried to sail in under canvas but in light winds we were swept sideways towards the rocks at the harbour entrance. Seconds from doom, and with the guests frantically gathering up their baubles, we were spotted by a laid-back Texan in a passing speedboat who threw us a line and towed us away from danger. I loved all the Caribbean islands during my two years there, but when given the chance to choose just one of them, I didn’t hesitate to pick the Spice Island. (Just 21 miles by 12, Grenada is the world's second-largest exporter of nutmeg, and the largest producer of spices per square mile.)

It was always my favourite, not just for its tropical beauty but for the exuberance and friendliness of the people and their touching pride in their country. I was happy to be going back, but apprehensive too. I remembered the Caribbean as nothing short of paradise, and had listened with dismay to reports of islands ravaged by large-scale tourism or changed forever into sanitised playgrounds for the rich.

What exactly had 30 years of tourist development in Grenada – and 21 years of stability and economic growth since the 1983 revolution and subsequent U.S. invasion – done to spoil my idealised set of memories? What of colonial St George’s, always known as the prettiest town in the Caribbean, its houses climbing away from the harbour in pinks and greens and blues, punctuated by church spires? And the Carenage (harbour front) where I would sit in the first floor Nutmeg Café eating roti (curry-stuffed pancake) and nutmeg ice cream while watching the banana, spice and cargo boats and the local work boats laden with improbably large fish caught on hand-held lines? And the white powder sand beaches, particularly the wonderful sweep of Grand Anse close to St George’s? Of course there have been changes, but mainly for the better. After a ten-year post-invasion hiatus, the relatively slow but steady increase in tourism has paid dividends to Grenada’s inhabitants without in the least spoiling its beauty.

The island now has good roads, and smart cars are the norm. The new hospital is a landmark at the mouth of the harbour. And a new port opens in October to welcome the cruise ships that call several times a week. But the feel of the place, its spirit and its exotic beauty remain untouched. As for the capital itself, it’s virtually frozen in time: even the Nutmeg Café is still there, just the same, the service just as slow. The rustic daily market still occupies the central square, a colourful canopy of umbrellas shading the haphazard fruit and vegetable stalls. There's talk of modernising it, but it hasn't happened yet. And fast food joints, shopping malls and heritage trails are nowhere to be seen.

Inland, amongst the tropical rainforest and steamy mountains, their slopes ablaze with orange-bloomed immortelle trees, the spice estates and beauty spots have done no more than to spawn a few low-key souvenir stalls and minibus tour groups.

As for hotels, there are certainly more along Grand Anse and elsewhere (including a clutch of new, privately owned guesthouses) but nowhere near enough to dent those memories. Someone recently told me they were bored on their holiday in Grenada. Sorry? We went on sailing and snorkelling expeditions; took the local buses and lunched in the hills at Belmont cocoa estate and at Morne Fendue, an enchanting old family-owned plantation house; swam in Concord Falls, hiked in the rainforest and picnicked on lovely Bathway Bay in the far north-east. One night we ‘jumped up’ on the beach to a reggae band and cooled down with a midnight swim in the moonlight, the water sparkling with phosphorescence. Another day we flew in a little plane to Union Island in the Grenadines and there boarded a schooner for the Tobago Cays, five idyllic uninhabited islands.

Back at our hotel on Grenada, the excellent all-inclusive La Source, we were pampered with a complementary spa treatment each day, drank quantities of cocktails, and spent hours and hours doing absolutely nothing on Pink Gin Beach.

Besides self-catering cottages and villas to rent, there are at present some 60 hotels and guesthouses on Grenada, making a total of about 1,800 beds. The Board of Tourism would like to see the number of hotel beds increased to 3,000 in order to attract more tour operators and airlines to the island. Although four new hotels are being built this year, including the first resort in the north east, complete with golf course and airstrip, progress towards their goal is likely to proceed at a trot rather than a gallop. And flying over the island, one can see plenty of empty beaches where new hotels would fit in with ease. Of course Grenada is more tourist-oriented that it was when I first visited, but the damage wasn’t nearly as bad as I had feared, or been led to believe. For me, Grenada is now what it was then, and, I hope, always will be – the perfect Caribbean island.

Travel Facts

Getting there

Golden Caribbean (01342 316900) has weekly flights to Grenada with Excel Airways from £349. British Airways and Virgin also fly to Grenada.Tour operators covering Grenada include Elegant Resorts (01244 897999, www.elegantresorts.co.uk); ITC Classics (01244 355527, www.itcclassics.co.uk); Harlequin Worldwide (01708 850300, www.harlequinholidays.com); Sovereign Holidays (0870 607 0770; www.sovereign.com); Just Grenada (01373 814214 www.justgrenada.com).

Staying there

Independent travellers should take a look at the Grenada Board of Tourism’s website, www.grenadagrenadines.com which has links to the websites of all the island’s hotels. The elegant Calabash is a long-standing favourite with the well-heeled, while Laluna and the new Bel Air Plantation attract the thongs-and-sarongs set and Petit Bacaye is a simple barefoot retreat. La Source, with its spa treatments and classes, and land and water sports, including scuba diving, is the pick of the all-inclusives.

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