ST. GEORGE, GRENADA - Pierce, a hulk of a man from Florida who has come to Grenada to dive in the shipwreck-rich waters off the coast of this lush West Indies’ island, tells us this is the first time he’s been back here since “the mid ’80s.”
“Oh, so then you must see a real change,” says Nadine, an attractive British woman who is driving us along the country’s breathtaking coastal highway — its only highway — in the direction of Gouyave, a small fishing village.“No, not really” replies Pierce matter-of-factly, “from what I see, nothing much has changed here since my last visit.”
“Well,” Nadine assures her American guest, “things are about to change now.”
After decades of being the Rip Van Winkle of Caribbean tourism, sleepy little Grenada is being shaken out of its slumber and entering the big leagues of travel, thanks in large part to the hundreds of millions of dollars being invested here by some major hotel organizations including Four Seasons (and probably Ritz Carlton), as well as a group of top international developers headed by Britain’s Peter De Savary, the man whose luxurious Abaco Club creation at Winding Bay, Bahamas, a few years ago is still the talk of the Caribbean.
Soon, Grenada’s current inventory of quaint but aging hotels, nestled along pristine beaches and surrounded by a backdrop of dramatic volcanic mountains and rainforests, will be joined by an A-list of resorts, million-dollar luxury homes and an ultra-modern marina now being built in St. George’s harbor to attract the mega yachts which ply the azure waters in these parts.
“This is a very exciting time for Grenada,” says Nadine as we enter Gouyave, where locals are setting up cooking stands along the narrow main street for the village’s weekly Friday evening fish fry.
“For a long time, people stayed away from Grenada, mainly because of the bad rap it got when the U.S. invaded it in 1984,” she says, referring to the island’s darkest period in modern times when then president Ronald Reagan ordered American troops to invade Grenada to free U.S. students being held hostage by the island’s Marxist government, which had close ties with Cuba.
The Marxists and the U.S. troops have long gone, but the students, over 4,000 of them from a variety of countries attending world renowned American University in St. George, remain, adding their own spice of life to a place known as “Spice Island.”
As we slowly make our way along main street, Nadine’s wide Range Rover is in danger of scraping the sheen off the colorfully-painted homes that make up charming Gouyave, an idyllic place whose waters are rich with seafood and whose shore is lined with an array of locally-made boats, all, like the town, painted rainbow colors.
This is also where much of Grenada’s treasured nutmeg plantations, at least the remaining ones, are located. Much of that industry was destroyed when Hurricane Ivan touched down here in 2004. Most of the nutmeg trees were uprooted and the ones planted to replace them need seven years to reach maturity.
“We’ll come back here later for the fish fry but first I’d like to show you what makes Grenada unlike any other island in the Caribbean,” says Nadine as she leaves the main highway just outside the fishing village and begins to climb a steep mountain road bordered by lush rainforest vegetation.
Left: Grenadians are arguably some of the Caribbean.
As she slowly maneuvers the bulky 4x4 along the tight path, neatly attired school children wave while men carrying large machetes and riding donkeys with sacks of fruit strapped to the animal’s side, offer us shy smiles.
“Grenadians are the nicest people in the Caribbean,” states Nadine emphatically.
No one dares disagree.
Soon, the vehicle starts to slide down a small hill made slick by a morning rain, and comes to rest within earshot of the sound of rushing water.
“Come and see this,” insists our enthusiastic guide as she leads us to a mountain stream where a small swimming hole has been formed by the rushing water. She invites us to don our bathing trunks and enjoy a swim in “paradise.”
Nadine’s paradise is known locally as Tufton Hall, named after the once beautiful plantation house built on this property in the 1800s by a British land owner.
The now dilapidated home, which was hidden under decades of rainforest growth when Nadine and her boss de Savary “hacked our way with machetes to reach the entrance,” will be returned to its former glory and form the cornerstone of a new multi-million-dollar eco spa the developer is building here.
Soon we were all playfully bobbing in the natural pool, forcing our backs against giant boulders to allow the cascading water to rush over us. From shore, Nadine points upstream and reveals “if you walk up there a few miles you’ll come upon several waterfalls.”
A grouping of remarkable waterfalls is located in the Tufton Hall area — to go along with the dozens of others on Grenada. Some reach over 200 feet in height and represent just some of the many “natural highs” offered here. Which leads some in our group to ask: Will all this new-found development disrupt the eye candy in front of us? Nadine quickly assures us “that will never be the case because a fifth of Grenada is already designated a national park and Mr. de Savary is committed to enhancing, not threatening the delicate eco-system” he now rules over. A few hours spent amid the dramatic splendor of Grenada’s rainforest whets our appetite for more of what this spicy island offers so, instead of returning to St. George by car, Nadine suggests we board a boat at Gouyave — after sampling some fish dishes, of course — and return to St. George by sea.
En route, she instructs the captain, “stop at the water sculpture park where my guests can snorkel and view the statues standing at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea.”
The water sculpture park is one of Grenada’s most fascinating features — a virtual Louvre under the sea. They were put their by British artist Jason de Caires Taylor, who designed a number of stone statues and then lowered them into the sea where they’re now admired by divers and snorklers. The statues, from a circle of women to a man sitting at a desk, are a fascinating sight and one that should not be missed.
The boat ride back to St. George also gives us a glimpse at the capital’s renaissance — a multi-phased makeover of its already-impressive horseshoe-shaped harbor, featuring Port Louis, the marina complex being built to accommodate the hundreds of mega yachts de Savary, a keen yachtsman himself, is hoping to lure away from other Caribbean ports of call.
When completed, the harbor will be ringed by upscale shops, a 5-star hotel, fine restaurants and is already being compared to Italy’s Portofino, the colorful Riviera town that has provided Hollywood with many beautiful backdrops. Those among our group who have visited Portofino agree St. George already offers an uncanny resemblance to the Italian outpost.
As we enter what’s called The Carenage, or inner harbor, glimpses of Grenada’s colonial past come into view — from large forts (Fort George and Fort Frederick) to grand churches (their roofs were ripped off by Ivan and still have not been replaced) built by the French and English when those countries used St. George as a slave-trading post.
Like many countries in the Caribbean, Grenada has a long and checkered history. The first European to pull into port was Christopher Columbus in 1498, who found the island inhabited by Carib Indians. He also found an abundance of fauna and flora that flourish in the rich volcanic soil here.
Grenada’s trees hang heavy with every kind of tropical fruit imaginable — much of it enjoyed by the African Mona, a handsome species of monkey that patrols part of the island and entertains the busloads of tourists, most on day trips off the cruise ships that dock in St. George.
There’s very little that can hurt you on Grenada, with the exception of the spicy Creole food served up in its charming waterfront restaurants and the potent rum products produced here.
The variety of food offered on the island is endless and some of its restaurants are recognized among the Caribbean’s best. May we recommend the Water’s Edge and their coconut fried shrimp for lunch. There’s also Rhodes for dinner — it’s the only Gary Rhodes (the Michelin star chef) restaurant outside Britain and reservations are a must. Savvy’s at the Mount Cinnamon Resort is also highly recommended for its Italian fare and spectacular views of St. George harbor.
Grenada is also a deeply religious island, its inhabitants belonging to a variety of churches. As pious as it may appear, though, Grenada has one of the liveliest carnivals in the Caribbean, with semi-clothed partygoers parading and dancing to sultry music during the annual Lenten festival.
Probably most important for travelers, Beaches abound in Grenada. Many are located in romantic hidden coves tucked along its rocky coastline, but Grand Anse Beach is the grand daddy of them all, offering two miles of sugary sand. It’s located a few steps away from charming Mount Cinnamon, another property de Savary’s group purchased and renovated recently.
As mentioned earlier, the medical and veterinary students attending St. George’s American University — its campus sits perched overlooking a breathtaking ocean vista — bring a youthful spice to the pubs and bars of Grenada. The favorite student hangouts after classes are the Wine Bar and Bananas, which rock well into the night.
There’s much to celebrate in Grenada and it appears the party is just getting started.