The Grenadian Spell

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
News for Adventurous Travelers, December 1996

The Grenadian Spell

It starts with a whiff of nutmeg on the tarmac. A few jungle pools and plates of lambie later, you may never go home.
By Bob Howells

Twelve degrees north latitude is a good address in the Caribbean. Well south of the path of hurricanes and most cruise ships, Grenada quietly remains a place where abundance is still in abundance. The 12-by-21-mile island so overflows with natural endowments--healthy coral reefs, solitary beaches, and mountainous rainforests--that you don't care if the way to them is over roads (slowly) under construction. If you've ever wondered what the splendors of some more smoothly paved islands must have been like 50 years ago, Grenada fills in the blanks.

That bounty comes partly by design, partly by default. By government decree, no building on the island may rise higher than a palm tree, so development must defer to a natural scale. The national park service has preserved 3,800 rainforest acres near the center of the island, plus a choice strip of north-coast beach and mangrove swamp. And the islanders have survived quite well extracting a living from the sea and the spices. Wooden dories bob in the gentle surge of pristine coves as they always have, while the nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove trees of small farms are difficult to distinguish from the thick woods of the rainforest.

Not to overstate the-place-that-time-forgot scenario. The phones work, you can drink the water, and Grenada has a number of fine, small resorts, with water sports enough to keep you soggy and windburned for weeks. But it's all a bit like those nutmeg trees amid the rainforest: Nothing's glaring, obtrusive, or obvious. There are far fewer resorts than thatch-roof rum bars. And there's always the possibility of surprise: You clatter down to the end of some potholed road, passing cows and goats on long tethers (fences are rare) and lots of shacks built on stilts and painted in primary colors, to arrive at a reef-protected cove and a coral-white beach. If any sign hints at what lies ahead, it's tiny, handpainted, and crookedly posted on a coconut tree.

The Capital Zone
With its cluster of resorts and water sports centers, Grand Anse Beach, just south of the capital, St. George's, is the nexus of things touristic on the island. (It's also the site of the American medical school that U.S. troops "liberated" during the 1983 invasion. The island is politically placid these days.) Grand Anse is two miles of white sand with a parallel fringe of sea grape, manchineel, and coconut palms, under which vendors set up shop with ice chests full of drinks while reggae thumps from their boom boxes.

The largest and nicest of the Grand Anse resorts is the Renaissance Grenada (doubles, $193-$256; 809-444-4371), which has 186 rooms in a garden setting just back from the beach and is home to Sanvics Watersports, a full dive and rental shop that runs trips to Grenada's best dive sites. Smaller but still full-service is Coyaba Beach Resort (doubles, $175; 800-742-4276 or 809-444-4129), also with its own dive shop, Grand Anse Aquatics. Lower-key still, where you'll find better value and views, is the Flamboyant Hotel, set on a hill above the south end of the beach (doubles, $125; 800-322-1753 or 809-444-4247).

Divers could do two-a-days for a week and not exhaust Grenada's dive sites: The water's clear (visibility is 60-100 feet) and the coral is thriving. The reef just off Grand Anse is good for a warm-up; after that, commute by boat with one of the dive shops. Dive Grenada (809-444-1092) specializes in wreck sites, most notably the Bianca C, a 600-foot Italian passenger liner that burned off St. George's in 1961. Molinere Reef is a popular reef dive, with both shallow coral for snorkelers and 40-foot valleys for divers, all abounding with small reef fish. Grand Anse won't make boardsailors forsake Aruba, but ten-knot breezes blow in the afternoon, and boards are available from the water sports centers.

St. George's will seem pleasantly authentic after any time in the manipulated realm of the resorts. Market Square is the place to be on a Saturday, when vendors cram the aisles with everything Grenadian: nutmeg, cocoa, cinnamon and other spices, breadfruit, papayas, and sugarcane juice, sold by women clad in hues as diverse as their produce. Stick around St. George's for a couple of real meals: Go to The Nutmeg, on the harbor, for great grilled fish and lambie (conch), and to Mamma's for local specialties like oil-down (a breadfruit casserole), fish fritters, goat meat, and occasional delicacies such as opossum and armadillo.

Grand Etang
Sooner or later you'll be drawn from the languid beaches to Grenada's thickly forested interior and the jagged amplitude of its mountains. Grand Etang National Park is the rainforest showcase of the island, with short hikes that give a taste and longer hikes that serve up a full plate of steep, slick, rooty, stream-crossed trails through woods that get drenched with 160 inches of rain a year. Listen for the screeching of mona monkeys and watch for tree boas hugging the hardwood.

A winding, 30-minute drive from St. George's brings you to the fringe of the rainforest; look for a fork to the left and a small sign indicating Annandale Falls. A short drive and a short walk lead to the falls and a swimming hole. The main road crests in the heart of Grand Etang at park headquarters, where a visitor center inside an old colonial home dispenses trail maps. Another short walk leads down to Grand Etang, one of the island's two volcanic-crater lakes. From there you can continue hiking an hour and 15 minutes up a steep trail to Mount Qua Qua (2,373 feet), one of the prominent peaks that overlook the lake--the view from the rocky summit takes in the eastern mountains to the northeast coast.

Bagging waterfalls rather than peaks is more the tradition in Grenada, but you'll probably need help to navigate the unsigned and unmapped maze of slick trails that lead to Grand Etang's septet of cascades, called the Seven Sisters. The guides from Henry's Safari Tours (809-444-5313) know the trails and the flora well; one will drive you to the trailhead (about a mile beyond park headquarters) and take you on the half-day hike to the falls and back for $40 per person. Each cascade tumbles out of thick forest into a cool pool; take a suit and take your pick of swimming holes.

If seven's not enough, ask your guide to lead you on to Honeymoon Falls. After a couple of hairy stream crossings (forget any notion of staying dry) and a 20-foot rock-climb right through the middle of one waterfall (the footholds are good, though rendered invisible by the steady flow), you reach Honeymoon, a 45-foot tumble that emerges from an aperture in a cliff and falls into a small, churning pool. Wind funnels through the cleft and fills the air with spray--the closest to cool you'll ever be on Grenada.

North Island
That scent in the air as you approach Gouyave is nutmeg--for a better whiff, stop in at the processing plant as you drive north on the road that hugs the western coast toward Levera National Park, the far northeast corner of the island. Levera has two beaches: Bathway is a local favorite for its calm water, excellent snorkeling, palm and sea-grape shade, and vendors hawking slurps of fresh, machete-cut coconut. A bumpy mile away is more secluded Levera Beach--on a clear day, it has a great view of the Grenadines, including Carriacou, and by night there's a decent chance of seeing a huge leatherneck turtle lumber ashore to deposit her eggs. Narrow paths radiate into a blackwater mangrove swamp where you'll spot small blue herons, ospreys, hooded tanagers, and maybe a three-foot-long iguana--though most of the tasty reptiles have ended up on Grenadian dinner plates.

Come lunchtime, head for Betty Mascoll's Great House, also known as Morne Fendue, just two miles inland from the village of Sauteurs. The hilltop mansion is a little frayed around the edges, but it still wears Caribbean colonial charm like a thick perfume--and serves a mean buffet lunch (callaloo soup, chicken with pumpkin and tania, all the rum punch you dare drink, for about $17). Book one of the two upstairs rooms ($60 and $75; 809-442-9330) and disappear for a night or two. About four miles away is Lake Antoine--like Grand Etang, a freshwater lake that fills a deep crater (and that locals call bottomless and generally avoid). A ten-minute hike leads down to a swim.

When you're ready to return south, loop down the east side of the island as far as Grenville and then cut southwest by way of Grand Etang. Along the way, you'll pass the forlorn site of Pearls Airport, where cows graze beside the hulls of an Aeroflot transport and a Cubana passenger plane, moldering in the sun since 1983.

South Island
The dozen or so densely green peninsulas of Grenada's southern coast comprise an appealing mëlange of subsistence living, small luxury resorts, and--for now, anyway--the trappings of unsullied paradise. The village of L'Anse aux Epines is the island's yachting center; it and nearby sheltered coves are frequently the southern terminus for sailors hopping through the Grenadines. Club Mariner Watersports at The Moorings Secret Harbor Resort (809-444-4439) hires out a skippered 50-footer for full- and half-day sails to some of the uninhabited islands and coves around the southeast coast, starting at $50 per person. Or you can go bareboat in a 21-footer for $100.

Guide Dennis Henry grew up in this part of the island and runs a somewhat autobiographical half-day motorboat tour ($60) to south-island sites off any tourist path. Ask him to take you to The Conchs, where divers have created mini lagoons out of millions of conch shells; little-known snorkeling reefs; and a solitary beach on Hog Island. See it while you can: Hog, and Mount Hartman Point on the mainland, are targeted for a golf course resort.

The fishing's so good here that much of Grenada's commercial catch goes to less fortunate Caribbean islands. About ten miles out are fecund currents that carry tuna, blue marlin, and dorado. Club Mariner can arrange a half-day charter for three anglers for $250.

To make a night (or a week) of the south island, stay at La Sagesse Nature Center, where expat Floridian Mike Meranksi has converted the manor house of an old estate owned by a second cousin of Queen Elizabeth into a beachfront lodging: three rooms in the main house, plus a new two-room cottage next door. (Doubles cost $80-$90; phone 809-444-6458, E-mail [email protected]) It's a self-contained patch of serenity, with an open-air bar-restaurant serving superb fresh fish and fruit smoothies, a quiet beach that draws only a few residents of nearby villages, and hiking trails that lead across headlands to adjacent snorkeling beaches. At one end of La Sagesse Beach is a salt pond fringed with mangroves, and a river outflow cools the water of the cove. At night you feel as if the waves are breaking at the foot of your bed. In the morning, you realize it's true.

Southern California-based Bob Howells is a longtime contributor to Outside.

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