Grub's up in Grenada

 

Fabulous food and stunning scenery are just half the story in Grenada, writes Marie-Claire Digby, as there’s lots more for the visitor to experience

YOUR STARTER for 10: which tiny Caribbean island restaurant earned the following comment from the normally acerbic UK journalist and restaurant critic Giles Coren? “The most beautiful dining environment, with the most beautifully conceived menu, and the best food for the best value I have seen on earth.”

His effusive praise was directed at a small guest house, Green Roof Inn, which serves a casual, seafood dominated menu on a terrace with an extraordinary view of a curving, turquoise-tinted bay. It’s on the island of Carriacou, second largest, although second smallest would make more sense given that they’re all minuscule, of the tri-island nation that is Grenada.

Grenada, which gained its independence from Britain in 1974, is one of the lesser-known islands in the Caribbean, although the Reagan administration-led US invasion in 1983 (Operation Urgent Fury, launched to restore stability and wrest power from a left-wing military regime), brought it worldwide attention. Just over a decade later, the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Ivan in September 2004 put the island back in the spotlight – again, for the wrong reasons.

Islanders still measure time in terms of pre-Ivan and post-Ivan (and pre-Janet, which struck in 1955, for the older generation), but in the six years since the most recent hurricane, Grenadians have rebuilt their tropical paradise, with more emphasis on attracting income-generating tourism. And the spice islands’ income-generating nutmeg trees, which take seven to 10 years to reach maturity, are flourishing again.

Although the population of Grenada is around 90,000, that number is augmented every year by almost 6,000 students following courses in medicine, veterinary medicine, sciences and arts at the University of St George’s. Most of them are from the US, which is why you’ll see supermarket shelves stocked with well-known American food brands and why at times you might wonder if you’ve strayed into a “spring break” zone.

There are also 114 Europeans registered at the college this semester, including six from Ireland, who pay hefty college fees of up to $39,000 (€29,000) a year to study in paradise. Given that the students have to live on Grenada for much of the year, and will have several visits from family or friends during the course of their sojourn, it’s clear that the college is a major revenue contributor.

However, studying couldn’t be further from the minds of most visitors arriving on the island: it’s a place to come to “lime”, the local word for lounging about, preferably on a beach.

LIKE MOST OF the Caribbean islands, Grenada has its share of luxurious four- and five-star holiday resorts in which to chill out, many of them all-inclusive, and most of them keen to keep the tourist dollar within their own well marked boundaries.

It’s also a popular stop for cruise ships, which disgorge their human cargo in the capital, St George’s. Few of them venture further afield than the town’s spice market, and the two-mile stretch of beach at Grande Anse, where many of the island’s most upmarket hotels – none of which can be built higher than a palm tree – are situated.

But if you break free of the confines of the resort developments, you’ll find lots of interesting smaller hotels and guest houses from which to soak up the Caribbean sun and get a feel for the real Grenada with its white sandy beaches, aquamarine waters and mountainous interior crowned by tropical rainforests. You’ll most likely also meet some fascinating people along the way.

On a recent visit to the island, some of the UK and Irish press party luxuriate in the five-star surrounding of the Spice Island Resort, while I and two other adventurers strike out on a tour of what the Grenada Board of Tourism describes as some of the “small and friendly” places to stay on the island – and I think we get the better deal, by far.

By taking to the island’s twisty, hilly roads, we are able to chill out at the delightful north coast hotel where former jockey and Tattersalls Ireland bloodstock expert Tom Rudd married Katie Clift last July. En route, we eat excellent chocolate from the award winning Grenada Chocolate Company that goes from tree to hand-wrapped bar within a couple of miles; stock up on locally grown nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and allspice for Christmas cakes and puddings; and taste locally-made River Antoine rum that prides itself on being too strong to export (at a minimum of 75 per cent proof, it’s considered a fire hazard on airplanes).

In the south of the island, we hang out with former UK professional footballer and trainer of the Grenadian national squad Michael Adams and his wife Debbie, at their guesthouse high above St George’s. On tiny Carriacou, two hours away by ferry, we follow in Giles Coren’s footsteps by staying at Green Roof Inn, and visit the aptly named Paradise Beach.

Carriacou is also where we meet eco-warriors and turtle rescuers Dario Sandrini and Dr Marina Fastigi, whose passion for their work is infectious. You can visit their KIDO Ecological Research Station by prior appointment (see kido-projects.com if you’d like to volunteer to help out during the turtle breeding season).

We couldn’t possibly have had such a wide ranging experience in the space of a week by staying put in a luxury beachside resort. So get out there, either in a hire car or with a tour guide. It’s not hard to get around the island, but although it’s only 34km long by 18km wide, you’ll have to bear in mind that the roads are twisty and hilly in the extreme. Reckon on taking 90 minutes to drive from south to north.

“It is so nice of you to take us the scenic route, but where’s the highway?” one bewildered new arrival asked his hotel driver, as they meandered around one corner after another at a stately pace. Of course, there is no highway, but the roads are safe, in daylight at least, and the views astounding.

Setting out on our round-island expedition – after a relaxing two-night acclimatisation stopover at the new Kalinago Beach Resort on the picturesque horseshoe-shaped Morne Rouge bay – we wonder what’s ahead of us. However, no hyperbole could overstate the levels of comfort that await at Petite Anse, the laid-back, rustic colonial-style hotel on the rugged north coast of the island, run by Philip Clift and his wife Annie.

Philip sold his beef and hop farm in Worcestershire 10 years ago to pursue his Caribbean dream and, after a period running a yacht charter business, he designed and helped build this unique hotel.

Here, 11 comfortable individual suites dotted about the tropical garden setting look out on a private beach and a vista of the Atlantic ocean and the Grenadine islands. There’s an infinity pool and jacuzzi for those not inclined to take to the waves, and in the main house with its sea view verandas and comfy sofas, you can order a sundowner of an expertly made rum punch while perusing the reading material table, where copies of Country Livingsit alongside Hello!magazine, with The Fieldin the buffer zone.

Petite Anse has only been open a year and a half, but it feels like it has been there forever. “We encourage guests to kick off their shoes when they arrive, and not put them on again until they leave,” Philip says. Good food and wine are part of the experience, and what they cannot buy locally, they grow themselves. “Where does the lobster come from?” someone asks. “Just over there,” Philip says, pointing out to sea.

Back in St George’s, our final stopover is at Mi Hacienda, an elegant whitewashed colonial-style villa high above St George’s, with views over the entire two-mile stretch of Grand Anse beach in one direction, and the distant Atlantic in another.

Michael and Debbie Adams relocated here from London, but are from Grenadian families. They are in the process of upgrading the hotel, which was formerly owned by an antiques dealer, and even after a recent dispersal sale is still packed with genteel pieces of furniture, china and paintings.

When the renovations are completed, Mi Hacienda has the potential to become one of the island’s most stunning places to stay. Some of the rooms are rented to students from St George’s University. Sitting on their terraces overlooking the sparkling blue sea, and with delicious aromas wafting from the open kitchen from where resident chef Debbie Phillips sends out delicious and beautifully presented meals, they must think they’ve died and gone to heaven rather than to college.


Where to stay, what to do

Things to do

Do a trek with Telfor Bedeau. The 71-year-old was celebrating his “birthday month” when we visited and planned on celebrating by climbing the island’s tallest peak, Mount St Catherine not once but twice on the big day itself. His trek to the Seven Sisters Falls in Grand Etang National Park is an easy two-hour hike that offers a chance to cool off in the icy pool beneath the falls. Telfor Hiking Tours, tel: 00-1473-442-6200.

Take a cooking lesson at BB’s Crabback. This waterfront restaurant in St George’s, run by chef Brian Benjamin and his wife Anna, is the place to go for really fresh fish, tropical fruit juices, and flaming banana deserts made with a good dose of strong rum. Shop for ingredients at the market with Brian and help him cook your three-course lunch in his tiny kitchen. Cost: $100 (€74) per person. Book with Anna on 00-1473-435-7058 or bbscrabback.com.

Go to Fish Friday in Gouyave. It seems like the whole island heads for this coastal town on Friday nights, where a couple of narrow streets are blocked off for a street party where food stalls cook up anything that swims. Try some snapper in a bag; fish kebabs, fried breadfruit and wash it all down with a chilled carib beer or rum punch topped with nutmeg.

Where to stay

Kalinago Beach Resort, Mourne Rouge Beach, St George’s.

Tel: 00-1473-444-5255, kalinagobeachresort.com. Spacious rooms with satellite TV, fridge, and balcony overlooking one of the prettiest beaches on the island. Doubles from $160 (€118).

Petite Anse Hotel, Sauteurs, St Patrick’s. Tel: 00-1437-442-5252, petiteanse.com. Stylish, ultra-private individual lodges in a tropical garden setting. Excellent restaurant. Don’t miss the home-made tropical fruit ice-creams. Doubles from $120 (€89).

Mi Hacienda, Jean Anglais, Grande Anse, St George’s. Tel: 00-1473-439-2799, mihacienda.gd. A work in progress, but new owners Michael and Debbie Adams are open for guests while they put their own stamp on the place. Doubles from $80 (€59).

Green Roof Inn, Hillsborough, Carriacou. Tel: 00-1473-443-6399 or greenroofinn.com. Simple rooms, with unbeatable views from the communal terrace. If you don’t mind getting up close and personal with nature, two garden cabins offer castaway-style informality, and hammocks. Doubles from $70 (€52).

Getting there

Monarch (monarch.co.uk) flies to Grenada from Gatwick on Wednesdays. There are also flights from the UK with BA (britishairways.com) and Virgin (virgin-atlantic.com). Tropical Sky (tropicalsky.ie or 01-8077996) offers return flights from Dublin to Grenada via Gatwick from €590 including taxes.

Useful website

Grenadagrenadines.com.


Marie-Claire Digby travelled as a guest of the Grenada Board of Tourism