Tuesday, 4 November 2008

The Island Of Scents & Sounds: Grenada

Previously off the tourist track, Grenada offers unrivalled hospitality, picturesque beauty and authentic Caribbean charm.

Wherever you are on the island of Grenada, sights and sounds permeate the air and invade the senses. Against the backdrop of a blue azure sky, towering palm trees wave their many frond-fingers in the cooling breeze, orchestrating the multiple-pitched chatter of several species of birds engaged in their skyline opera.

Elsewhere, the sound of the undulating turquoise Caribbean Sea lapping at the white coral sand shore is accompanied by the smell of fresh fish as the fishermen haul in their catch; and in its rainforest core, the humidity-laced air combines with the raw natural energy of majestic waterfalls, creating an untainted environment seldom experienced.

Located in the eastern Caribbean at the southern extremity of the Windward Islands, 100 miles north of Venezuela, Grenada offers a unique Caribbean holiday experience. At 21 miles in length and 12 miles wide, you can snake along the well-tarmaced roads of this compact, once volcanic island in about five hours, but the terrain is anything but flat. A mountainous backbone runs through the core with its steeper slopes to the west and its highest peak, Mount Saint Catherine towering 800m above sea level.

Near the centre of the chain, in lush tropical rainforest, is Grand Etang, an enormous lake lodged in the crevice of an extinct volcano. And it's this untouched landscape, coupled with its history that make Grenada quite unlike any of the other Caribbean islands.

Known as the spice island, Grenada has more spices per square mile than anywhere else in the world, and it is this which enabled the island to survive economically without the need to invest in tourism like many of its sugar-producing Caribbean neighbours. All that changed in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan ravaged the island, damaging 90% of homes and felling many of the ancient nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice berry trees. The panic and the devastation in the aftermath highlighted the need for another string to its economy and since, the island has actively opened it's doors to tourism.

Hurricane-free for forty-nine years, when the threat of hurricane Ivan was close, many islanders believed it would pass them by - as countless others had done in the past. After the Armageddon, everyone on the entire island came out of their shelter and just cried. Today they describe it as feeling like the end of the world had arrived and joke that it must have been the work of the devil because in the capital of St George, the liquor store survived intact whilst most of the churches, including the Roman Catholic Cathedral and the Anglican church, suffered severe roof or structural damage.

The odd abandoned building lies testament to Ivan's damage, as does the rainforest with brown-toasted smaller shrubs that have been scorched by the sun because they are no longer shaded by the leafy umbrellas of giant trees.

Understandably, the memory of Ivan is still fresh in the minds of the people, but the onus is not on it's destruction but the fantastic regeneration the island has experienced since, uniting the population in forging a future. The islanders want tourism, Peter de Savary is investing millions in building a millionaire yachting harbour with full support of the Government, and numerous new resorts are being developed all over the island. But in this development, the Government is keen not to repeat the same mistakes of the neighbouring islands. Laws prevent any building being taller than palm trees, and one-ninth of its land mass is preserved in the parks, natural sanctuaries and wildlife preserves.

Since Grenada never courted tourism in the past, it is comparable to a Barbados of the 1960s, before the army of high rise hotels stationed themselves on the beach. There are still fabulous resorts, but when you start exploring this island, you realise it has retained much of its natural Caribbean charm. In the capital of St. George you can still see the odd chicken pecking along it's steep pavements, and the market - a must for any spice purchases - is still the shopping centre for the locals, not only tourists. There aren't any pavement cafes or fashionable bars either, just proper liquor stores offering an array of rums, and friendly locals happy to chat.

Grenada has very little crime, and other travellers I met, some single women in their forties, said they felt perfectly safe walking alone to a restaurant at night. The atmosphere is welcoming, people friendly, and there is not the feeling that one should stay in their resort in the evening. The cab drivers are knowledgeable of the prime spots and enthusiastic to show off their island. There is also a large American university with a well-respected School of Medicine, so there is plenty of night-life to be had for twenty-something travellers too.

Part of the commonwealth until 1974, Grenada still has a very British feel - from the place names, the odd red telephone box, and a British accent amongst a crowd. The locals call them JCB's - the Just Come Back's - and they are the descendants of those who emigrated from Grenada to Britain in the 1960s, and who have now sold their UK homes to return permanently to the island.

With an average temperature of 23C all year long, Grenada has a pleasant climate all year round, making it the ideal destination for beach lovers. The rainy season lasts from July to December, but even then, the showers are brief but deliciously tropical with large luke-warm droplets of rain and fantastical thunderstorms.

As you would expect, the island has miles of pristine beaches and it's most famous, Grand Anse beach is often named as one of the best beaches in the world, but make sure you take time to go off the beaten track and explore any of the forty-five white sand or nine volcanic black sand beaches. The landscape below the sea is as captivating as that upon the shore, and snorkellers or divers can enjoy coral reefs rich with marine life, an underwater volcano and the largest shipwreck in the Caribbean.

Picturesque shorelines also await you in Carriacou, an island politically attached to Grenada and accessible by a 90 minute boat ride which costs around £17 return. This sleepy island with a population of a only 7000 and has no exports except fish and a tradition in boat building which was brought over by Scottish settlers in the late nineteenth century. In spite of its Robinson Crusoe coastline, it has not yet started catering for tourists and as such, it exudes a totally different character to Grenada.

You won't see ice cream sellers walking the pristine white sand on this island, and in fact you won't find it in the meat-packed freezer of the local shop in the main town of Saint Vincent either, but that’s the essence of its charm. Simply relax in your hammock, soak up the sun, sip rum or explore the fantastic coral reef to the west of the island.

The Carriacou Maroon Music Festival in April, showcases the drum, dance and crafts of the people and is very African in tradition, as is the celebration when a completed boat is ready for its maiden voyage. An animal is sacrificed to quell the passions of the sea god and drumming, dancing and feasting takes place.

No trip to Grenada would be complete without a day in the rainforest where a plethora of greens dazzle you so much, you will wonder if you ever knew so many different shades existed. Nature trails take you through a lush rainforest brimming with tropical birds and multi-coloured flora. The island is home to several waterfalls, many of which are accessible only by foot.

The most spectacular is the Seven Sisters, a group of seven waterfalls which is reached after a forty-five minute hike through rainforest and cocoa, banana and nutmeg trees. If you are not a walker, Concord Falls, situated on the edge of the forest reserve on the western side of the island is easily accessible by road. It is the last of a series of three waterfalls, and you can swim in the refreshingly cool pool.

Just outside the town of Gouyave is one of the many spice plantations where you can see how nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cloves, allspice berries, cocoa are grown and processed. A tour around a spice farm will only take a morning, and is well-worth the trip. Gaze in wonder at the brilliant red of mace when it is first picked, see how loofahs grow on trees, how the calabash fruit is used for maracas, and how nutmeg, the islands primary spice, is prepared for its use in the islands many syrups, jams and medicines.

The coastal town of Gouyave is also the setting for the Friday's Fish Festival, a weekly evening event that brings visitors and tourists together as the back streets fill with regulated street vendors, selling local fish dishes of snook, sword fish and flying fish. This is a relatively new event and although still in it's infancy, is worth a visit.

Of course no holiday to the Caribbean would be complete without a trip to a rum distillery and Rivers Rum Distillery, first built in 1785, is the only distillery still producing rum in the original way. It takes twelve days to produce rum from the sugar cane which is first crushed by the colossal water wheel and distilled in enormous copper pots. The bars on the windows hark back to the era of slavery, and it's gigantic water wheel, the only operating one left on the island has 'Made in Derby' stamped across it.

The distillery makes 2000 bottles a week and each has to be classified over 75% proof to be 'good' - although they also make a 69% proof version for tourists to take home with them on the plane.

If you are seeking a destination that has retained that Caribbean charm and escaped the overwhelming tourist industry which has hit the other islands from the late 60s onwards, look no further than Grenada. The welcoming warmth of its people, it's spectacular natural beauty and rich rainforest make this a diverse holiday destination for the traveller looking for a little more than just idyllic Caribbean beaches.

Fact File

Grenada is 6 hours behind GMT. The national language is English and the currency EC$.

Getting There

Many tour operators offer holidays to Grenada. Both British Airways (www.baa.com) and Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com/) fly there twice a week.

Where To Stay

The Calabash Hotel enjoys a secluded bay setting and it's own private beach, offering accommodation in individual villas around a pretty green. The hotel restaurant is essential dining, offering gourmet cuisine directed by Gary Rhodes. For further information visit www.calabashhotel.com/

The Spice Island Beach Resort offers luxury accommodation on Grand Anse beach in individual villas, some of which have hammocks on their private terraces. A further seventeen rooms have their own private swimming pools. It is also home to Janissa’s Spa, is an oasis of serenity tucked away behind private walls and within the tropical gardens. For further information visit http://www.spicebeachresort.com/

Mount Hartman Bay is an exclusive upmarket vacation villa on the south coast of Grenada. It comes fully staffed and serviced with a personal concierge service. The food is second to none, as are the luxurious bedrooms. If you have a budget, this is a must. http://www.mounthartmanbay.com

For further information on where to stay visit http://www.grenadagrenadines.com//accom.html

When To Go

February is carnival month and celebrations prepare for the coming of Lent with parades, feasts and beach parties.

Music lovers should visit in April when the Grenada Drum Festival and Carriacou Maroon Music Festival takes place.

The Grenada Sailing Festival takes place in January, and in August the Carriacou Regatta, a weekend of Yacht & Work Boats Races, takes place

For further information on all aspects of planning your trip visit the Grenada Tourist Board's website at http://www.grenadagrenadines.com

Rachael Hannan: 2007

Published on 50connect.co.uk

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