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Grenada: emerald isle in an azure sea
September 14, 2011 | By:

The history of this Caribbean country is as colourful as its topography, says Oliver Bennett, which explains why the old colony has its own Guinness brewery

Grenada_sunset_Flickr-udo schuklenk_620

Grenada, the Spice Island: a Bounty ad come to life

In Grenada, I had an experience that many 1970s schoolboys would envy. I parked my rented car down a track, walked to a hotel of open wooden rooms overlooking a beach full of hammocks and palms where pelicans dived for snappers, and up walked a statuesque and vaguely family woman. “I’m Julia Montgomery,” she purred. “You might remember me as Fiona Richmond.”

What? The vicar’s daughter and sex symbol, squired by the king of Soho, Paul Raymond, and driven around the world in an E-Type with the number plate FU2? Yes. The very same.

Julia now runs a couple of hotels including the Petit Bacaye in Grenada, with her partner Peter Pilbrow. It’s charmingly like that other Seventies throwback, the came-in-search-of-paradise Bounty ad. “It’s real Robinson Crusoe,” she said. “We’ve just planted five types of banana.”

‘A retro-Caribbean treat’

In many ways, Grenada seems to fulfill the sybaritic promise of Seventies travel, when normal people – civilians, if you will – began to join the jet set. It’s a rare retro-Caribbean treat. As I walked over to Clarke’s Court Marina, I looked across a flotilla of yachts and discreet houses poking through the canopy, enough to conjure the ghosts of glamour past.

Barbados is more celebrated; Jamaica more famous, or infamous. But almost 30 years since Ronnie Reagan’s invasion rudely raised awareness of the small Caribbean island – one US intervention that the UK declined to rubber-stamp, by the way – Grenada has become a Caribbean destination of quieter charms. It is less populous, with just over 100,000 people and a lovely and particular flora, It is sold on the deserved slogan, the Spice Island.

I drove back past Grand Anse, the beach with the highest concentration of hotels on the island, and up into the hills. By now I could smell the nutmeg, a Grenadan cash crop, along with cinnamon, tumeric, cloves, bay leaves, pepper, ginger… you name it. Aficionados of Grenada, who tend to be loyal, will know that the island has long made a splash at the Chelsea Flower Show with spicy displays.

The island by foot

I trekked to the Mount Carmel waterfall, one of Grenada’s shortish repertoire of sights, through the rainforest that covers much of the interior, watching raccoons gambol and enjoying hairdryer air. OK, Grenada isn’t a place for ambitious monument-stompers – the Grand Etang National Park and Mount Qua Qua are its killers – but there is something fabulously manageable about the island, 20 miles long and 12 miles wide.

After a dip at L’Anse Aux Epines beach in aquamarine water, I went to see the Calabash Hotel: a stately old dame that is the paterfamilias of Grenada’s hotel scene and has long attracted clients like the Duke and Duchess of Kent and the late Conservative minister Lord Thorneycroft. It reminds one that Grenada was a UK colony until 1974. There are red telephone boxes here and a manor house completed by Lord Brownlow.

Grenada also has an Irish flavour. The Grenada phonebook is full of Ryans, O’Reilly’s and Kennedys, partly as this was a place where the Wild Geese – the Jacobite soldiers of the late 18th century – settled after taking the fight with the British on to foreign soil.

Guinness is made here, too, and I had an odd hybrid moment when I met an Indian-derived tourist guide called Kennedy (one name, like Madonna). He was a charming chap and took me to eat a roti: as in Trinidad, the lunchtime snack of choice is sub-continental in origin.

Guinness, anyone?

The tumbledown capital St George’s, despite the name, felt something like a harbour from the West of Ireland transported to the tropics. By late afternoon, the only thing affecting my feeling of calm, tropical lassitude was the local, pedal-to-floor, driving style, causing me to jump into the gutter on a few occasions. I drank a cold Carib beer in the Nutmeg bar and watched a quayside pageant of sunburned yachties, American cruise ship shoppers and spice-toting locals: the typical Grenadan mix.

After a well-deserved swim, I went to LaLuna, run by Bernardo Bertucci, an Italian ex-fashion buyer who adds a dose of the homeland to the gumbo. Here, the food is Italian – really good Italian, flown from Emilio Romagna – and the ambience more Far Eastern than Caribbean. Model types lounged around, gunked with LaLuna’s propriety skin-saver, made in an Italian monastery.

But it was time for some Caribbean flavour, and I spent the late afternoon at a beach party for the annual regatta, cheering on boats with names like No Mercy to the sound of pumping soca and calypso. Guinness, calypso and Seventies sex bombs – why fight it?