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Grenada: Free spirits

A maverick energy shapes the hurricane-lashed Caribbean island of Grenada — home to derring-do locals, rugged peaks and fiery rum. But a gentler side is on show in its waterfall-dotted jungly interior, white sand beaches and pretty clapboard villages

Grenada: Free spirits
Curtis Malcolm, Paradise Beach, Carriacou, Grenada. Image: Slawek Kozdras

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Telfor Bedeau doesn’t believe in mermaids. Unlike the faithful who visit Grenada’s highest crater lake to make offerings to Orisha — the fishy deity said to lure men to their death in its inky depths — Telfor isn’t a fan of scaled goddesses. “People say Grand Etang is bottomless,” he says, shaking his head. “They say those who drown here reappear far away — St Vincent, Trinidad, Venezuela. But I know different. I measured it. Grande Etang is 18ft deep. Course, they then tell me Orisha swam up and put a stone under my boat to give a false reading. Well, the lady must have mucky hands ’cos my sounding weight was covered in silt.”

Such talk understandably peeved Telfor’s pious compatriots. “They didn’t talk to me for months,” he grins. A reliably maverick spirit prevails in Grenada. Perhaps it’s the seasonal onslaught from hurricanes or the fact that volcanoes had a violent hand in shaping this Eastern Caribbean island. Or it could be the rum. There’s always rum; under-the-counter, tonsil-shattering stuff that makes unbridled use of the pungent native plants that give Grenada its Spice Island moniker. Regardless, a defiant stamina seems to drive life onwards here.

Take Telfor. This wiry 78-year-old Grenadian doesn’t so much not care about being a social misfit, as thrive on it. As a young man he turned his back on the small east coast town of Grenville to travel the world on an ocean liner. He braved a “freezing” year in the UK and gained a college education that’s allowed him to map lakes and forge a Cartesian, can-do attitude that’s made him something of a local legend. This is a man who, in the sheer spirit of exploration, circumnavigated Grenada solo, nonstop, in a rowing boat several times, and celebrated his 70th birthday summiting the island’s highest peak, Mount Saint Catherine.

Telfor and I spend an amiable morning ambling around Grand Etang National Park, learning about the plants and flowers his grandmother’s generation used daily as cures and in the kitchen. “We’re losing this knowledge now,” he shrugs before admitting he’s also losing his mountain climber’s edge. “The knees are rebelling,” he says, while effortlessly beating me down a steep, mud-slick trail to one of the park’s Seven Sisters Falls. Here, I cool off swimming at a standstill under the water’s powerful torrent, a black hummingbird hovering in the palm flowers above, apparently mimicking my frantic strokes.

One hairpin bend on the mountain road beyond the park is known, says Telfor, as ‘Hit Me Easy’. Thus, he directs my hire car with due care away from island’s rugged spine towards the coast where I’m headed, and he’s happy to be dropped off. I’d collected him that morning in Grenville, making the rendezvous at “the traffic light”. I’d know exactly where this would be, Telfor had assured me on the phone, as “there’s only two and it’s the one that doesn’t work”. Working or not, these are the first I’ve encountered so far on the island.

Amid the comparative bustle (and several traffic lights) of the capital, St George’s, I exchange a cheery wave with Telfor before he vanishes into the crowds. Where he’s off to or how he intends to get home I’ve no idea, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he walks.

I know where I’m going: Patrick’s. I’m greeted on the porch of this home-style Grenadian restaurant by Milton, a six-foot, six-inch wall of a man with shoulders as angular as his flattop hair cut, and a grave voice sweetened by the shyest of smiles. I commend Milton on the music pumping out of the porch speakers — an early-’80s hip-hop-pop mix that suggests an aficionado’s taste and a DJ’s ear. “Oh, that’s my mum’s collection,” he says. “She left me in charge of the music once. I put on Iron Maiden. That was the last time.” I make my way through a heaving table-load of local “tapas”, as Milton expands on his musical tastes. “People think it’s funny for a black guy to know about rock,” he says. “But I’m planning my own radio show, for the early hours; there’s a lot of ladies who’d be wanting my voice at that time of night.”

We shift our focus to the food. Among the 15 small dishes I’m served are callaloo soup. The eponymous ingredient of this classic Caribbean recipe is a spinach-like plant; others include okra and coconut milk. I also sample ginger pork, stir-fried rabbit and the locally loved lambi (conch) in Creole sauce. Possum and lizard, other Grenadian favourites, aren’t on the menu. “You can’t hunt them when it’s mating season,” explains Milton. “They’d better be keeping in the mood for love, otherwise my menu is coming after them.”

Hiking in Grand Etang National Park with Telfo. Image: Slawek Kozdras

Hiking in Grand Etang National Park. Image: Slawek Kozdras

Among the mangroves

The following morning, nature is under strict observation in the mangroves of Whisper Cove Marina, south of St George’s. At Conservation Kayak, I meet Jamie, the UK-raised grandson of Charles Felix Percival Renwick, the Grenadian lawyer who introduced co-op ‘penny banks’ to the island in the 1940s. What his grandfather did to help the working classes conserve their pennies, Jamie is trying to do for the island’s natural wealth. After becoming disillusioned with life as an artist in the UK, he went travelling, gaining PADI Master Scuba Diver certification plus kayak and bird-watching guide qualifications along the way, before moving to Grenada where eco-initiatives are scant. Jamie is evangelical about spreading the word and that word is: mangroves.

As we kayak around, he extols the mangroves’ many virtues — a nursing ground for reef fish, a natural obstacle to intertidal erosion, and a vital carbon sink. He balances critiques of Grenada’s El Niño-battered nearshore reefs with delightfully gory tales of early Carib tribes tying victims to ‘poison apple’ manchineel trees, where they’d simultaneously starve, and burn to death in the acid sap. Paddling into open water, we take a turn around Hog Island, one of the last remaining homes of the endangered Grenadian dove. While this national symbol proves elusive, an osprey momentarily eclipses the sun overhead, its belly as brilliant white as the wild frangipani flowering on the surrounding cliffs.

There’s no lack of idyllic places to play in the water. Boating out from Prickly Bay, the long crescent moon that fronts my hotel, Calabash, there’s diving and snorkelling to be had in deep wrecks, and more mermaids (concrete statues) to be found at Grenada Underwater Sculpture Park. But I find myself being pulled inland, on trips around switchback, cliff-edge roads whose ditches and potholes will either delight or daunt. It’s freewheeling stuff. Stopping for directions in villages where clapboard houses and tall-steeple churches overlook lawns grazed Home Counties-neat by roaming livestock, the greeting is generally, “How you doing princess?” — followed by, “Why you not ask me for directions?” from whoever you’ve passed over in the queue of people offering route suggestions.

Most of these suggested routes include a Stag beer shack. These ubiquitous wooden lean-tos — typically painted in neat, patriotic Grenadian red, gold and green stripes — look all the more ramshackle flanking kerbsides. The sounds of reggaeton, socca, and, less frequently, old school satirical calypso shake these shacks to their splintering foundations. Sadly, I don’t hear a peep from the Mighty Sparrow, Grenada’s undisputed Calypso King. Once an anti-establishment figurehead of the People’s National Movement, which championed independence for Caribbean islands in the 1950s, Sparrow was recently awarded an OBE, perhaps making him more national treasure than radio iconoclast.

A French-English flip-flop nation during the 17th and 18th centuries, Grenada didn’t gain independence (from the British) until 1974. Some of the old colonial-era industries remain — rum distilleries, spice factories and old plantation houses creaking out production and cashing in on tourists. One of the most atmospheric is the snappily titled Gouyave Nutmeg Processing Station, a crumbling cathedral-like wooden warehouse overlooking the surf in the beach town of Gouyave. Here, native nuts are still sorted by hand, by an army of head-scarfed ladies who sit under signs that read ‘Bring God’s peace inside and leave the Devil’s noise outside’. Despite this directive, I feel quite giddy inhaling the spice’s heady fug, leaving me to wonder if there’s any truth in the student myth that nutmeg is a marijuana substitute.

For a more familiar stimulant, I head to Mocha Spoke, a cafe-cum-bike rental outfit on the coast outside St George’s. Here, Canadian founder Darryl Kotyk sets me up with a killer espresso served out of Mocha’s distinctive yellow shipping container kiosk, before kitting me out with a nifty trail bike and a guide called Troy, who sets an energetic pace around the hills of Hardy Bay. We stop for a breather on a tatty stretch of beach to watch a fisherman bring in lambi, whelk and lobster. “This is a campground during August’s carnival season; people cook up and party,” he says with a hazy, nutmeg smile before zipping off again across the sands, me giving chase.

Jetty, Conservation Kayak. Image: Slawek Kozdras

Jetty, Conservation Kayak. Image: Slawek Kozdras

Somewhere beyond the sea

My legs are further challenged climbing up Mount St Catherine’s cloud-piercing 2,757ft peak. Striding ahead of me is Philip Clift, a six-foot-plus (most of it legs) champion ‘hasher’. Troy may have affectionately referred to Philip as “granddad” but he nonetheless sets a blazing trail up and down the island’s densely forested summit. We’re not on a hash, one of the weekly meets that take a ‘motley crew’ of runners on ramshackle races through the bush, but my flailing limbs say otherwise. Rain has made mud baths of the trails and I half walk, half crawl on all fours up the mountainside, with far less grace than Philip’s two dogs, who nose ahead of us through banks of jungly bromeliads, succulents and the occasional stoic palm poking through the canopy.

At the top, we all sit panting, willing the clouds to burn off and reveal Carriacou and Petite Martinique, part of Grenada’s three-island state. Instead, the swirling mist lingers, occasionally retreating to reveal dense vegetation — the widespread devastation of 2008’s Hurricane Ivan now undetectable.

Back at sea level, inland from the wild, white-sand beaches of Levera National Park, we explore the north island’s abandoned plantation houses, where the scars of time and hurricanes are clearly visible. Clambering around the skeletal remains of an Edwardian house that could’ve been lifted from the streets of Boston, I poke my head into what I take for the coal scullery, a shadowy underground recess no more than a few metres square, barely head height. “The slave pen,” says Philip. The dogs stay well back.

Along with his wife, Annie, Philip runs Petite Anse, a laid-back beach inn on a rugged clifftop at the wildest northern end of the island. A homespun counterpoint to the polished charms of my previous digs, Calabash, Petite Anse proves delightfully bonkers. Potent cocktails and pots of tea sweltering in knitted cosies set the tone in the terrace restaurant; surf pounding in the bay below, around which simple cottages are secluded among the palms. Annie and Philip are a decidedly glam British couple gone native — I spot a faded photo of the pair resplendent in white linen aboard a yacht that hints at a youth well spent. Annie retains a determinedly Côte d’Azur chic, even riding to work daily, bareback, on a recalcitrant donkey from their tumbledown mountaintop mansion.

This ex-pat couple are a key part of the community; their home, for one, is no lofty retreat but also a home for vagrant boys with whom Annie does charity work. This couple are clearly the people to know in the north. Having been told there was little chance of boating from here across to neighbouring Carriacou, Annie and Philip almost instantly sort it. We leave from nearby Sauteurs, a fishing village whose name recalls the last remaining native Caribs who jumped from a clifftop in 1651, rather than face subjugation by the conquering French. We set out from these shores with a burly, snag-toothed sailor called Dragon, in an ominously small fishing boat, to hoots of laughter from a couple of locals: “You’re going across in that?!”

The 15-mile journey is made on millpond waters, past a string of teeny desert islands where barely a palm can be counted, to dock, an hour later, at Carriacou’s tiny wooden jetty. Sandy roads through pristine coastal forest lead to Bayaleau Point Cottages — four in all; brightly painted and hammock-strung. If Grenada is laid back, Carriacou is comatose; a Caribbean of yesteryear that’s delightfully off the map — although that’s likely to change soon after the big international airport opens in 2016 on nearby St Vincent.

I bid Grenada farewell in view of a very different tropical outpost: Calivigny Island, a private resort where Oscar de la Renta furnishings outnumber guests (there’s room for just 50) and the vibe is vigorously VIP. It feels like no Grenada I know, and I’m content to merely watch it twinkle across the water from the house of Ann Greaves, one of Grenada’s growing number of homestay hosts. This former British resident retired to her motherland but not content to fly and flop, she leads numerous initiatives addressing the island’s distinctly patchy social provision. It’s certainly no holiday, her causes often rubbing the island’s establishment up the wrong way but Ann remains steadfast. “I may not be popular,” she smiles. “But I am determined.” It’s a Grenadian thing.

Essentials

Getting there
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly to Grenada from Gatwick via St Lucia, with a flight time of around 10 hours. Local airline Liat connects Grenada to other Caribbean islands like Barbados, where there are frequent UK flights.

Getting around
Buses run from Monday-Saturday, 7am-7pm. Taxis are plentiful at hotels and in big towns. Hiring a car makes sense, even if just for a day or two to explore remote villages and beaches. A temporary Grenadian driving licence is mandatory, usually arranged by hire companies (EC$90/£22). Consider buying a waiver policy before you travel, through outfits such as insurance4carhire.com

When to go
Temperatures hover around the steamy 20Cs year-round; it’s most humid and rainy June-November with hurricane season September-October. January-April are the driest, most expensive months to travel.

Need to know
Visas: British passport holders don’t need a visa to visit Grenada.
Currency: Eastern Caribbean dollar (EC$). £1 = EC$4. US dollars are accepted; change given in EC$.
Health: Mosquitos can be pesky, with sporadic cases of chikungunya fever reported. Pack a good bug spray.
International dial code: 00 1 473.
Time: GMT -5.

Places mentioned
Telfor Bidou, private guide. T: 00 1 473 442 6200
Gouyave Nutmeg Processing Station. Central Depradine St, Gouyave, St John. T: 00 1 473 444 8337.
Hash House Harriers.

Where to stay:
In the south: Calabash, a sleek waterfront resort with old school Caribbean charm and a Gary Rhodes restaurant. Doubles from $475 (£309), including breakfast.
In the north: Petite Anse, a family-run hotel with beachside cottages. Doubles from $190 (£124), B&B.
Across the island: Homestays Grenada organises rooms in local houses, including with Anne and Dennis Greaves in Egmont Place where a double room costs from £66 per night, including breakfast and dinner for two.

More info
puregrenada.com

How to do it
Seven nights’ B&B at Calabash plus British Airways return flights from Gatwick,from £1,335 per person. kenwoodtravel.co.uk
Seven nights, B&B at Petite Anse from £1,075 per person, including return flights with Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick. justgrenada.co.uk


Published in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)