Only a sprinkling of early stars and a few twinkles of light from the runway poked through the black sky the night we arrived at Grenada's small Point Salines International Airport. The next morning we awoke to a Technicolor world of lush, misty-green mountaintops and transparent azure seas -- a panorama unspoiled by the concrete jungle of high-rise hotels found on some Caribbean islands.
We found this quiet paradise by chance as we researched destinations for our belated honeymoon. Put off by pricey sprawling resorts and glittering nightspots, my husband, Bret, and I chose Grenada (gre-NAY-da) for our May visit because it promised the exact opposite and much more. The southernmost of the Windward Islands occupies 133 square miles -- it's about twice the size of Washington, D.C. -- and lies north of Venezuela. It is a beautiful and verdant land, a wonderful place to explore, with an extensive rain forest, numerous beaches, waterfalls, volcanic mountains, mangrove estuaries and crater lakes. There are 150 species of birds. Spice plantations, rum distilleries and colonial forts round out the picture.
Grenada's pluses don't extend to its accessibility, though. With few direct flights, it took us three planes to get here. But after flying over congested San Juan, Puerto Rico, we knew we had made a wise choice.
We spent most days unwinding on uncrowded, crescent-shaped Morne Rouge Bay, where we stayed at Gem Holiday Beach Resort. To escape the equatorial sun, we dragged our chairs under manganeel trees that dot the sugar-fine, slightly shelly beach. We cooled off by snorkeling over kelp beds close to shore.
We experienced a surreal solitude throughout our visit: It was hard to believe this island had suffered so much turmoil. The island was originally inhabited by Arawak and Carib Indians, and Christopher Columbus sailed by in 1498. Because of Grenada's profitable sugar cane industry, the British and French fought over it from 1650 to 1783, when it was ceded to the British. In 1974 Grenada gained full independence.
Revolutionary leader Maurice Bishop seized power in 1979, establishing a Marxist government. In 1983 Bishop was executed by a radical faction within his party.
In October that year, U.S. Marines led a mission to liberate the island from an alleged Cuban-backed takeover. The nation is now part of the British Commonwealth.
Many U.S. residents remember the invasion. Many also know about the medical school and university here, St. George's, which draws more than 2,000 U.S. students annually.
But most are unaware of Grenada's charms.
A fragrant round of shopping
To learn more, we ventured into the quaint hillside capital of St. George's to sightsee and shop. After a 10-minute taxi ride from our lodgings on Morne Rouge Bay, we climbed the steep road to Ft. George, which was pivotal in numerous colonial battles.
We caught our breath when we saw the amazing view of pastel-colored, red-tile-roofed buildings encircling the harbor below, which is said to be the most picturesque in the Caribbean.
With shopping on our minds, we headed down to Market Square, a sensory feast with dozens of vendors selling fresh produce, local straw crafts and fragrant spices. Known as the "spice island," Grenada produces one-third of the world's nutmeg -- its main export -- as well as cloves, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric and cocoa.
We zigzagged around the open-air stalls, finally purchasing a bargain bag of whole nutmegs, which resemble pecans, and several reversible island dolls handmade by a sweet elderly woman named Anita.
Our next stop was the Carenage, St. George's inner harbor, which serves as an anchorage for vessels ranging from small fishing boats and expensive private yachts to the occasional cruise ship.
Famished, we stopped for lunch along the Carenage promenade, lined with outdoor cafes, gift shops and banks. At the Nutmeg, a popular watering hole, I ordered a cheeseburger, a break from the spicy food I'd eaten.
Influenced by an Indian minority, some island cuisine packs heat. One local dish we savored was lambi roti -- conch and potatoes in curry sauce -- served in a burrito-like shell. We found the tastiest and cheapest at Sur la Mer, the beach-side restaurant at Gem Resort.
But for a gastronomical tour of the island, you can't beat Patrick's Homestyle Cooking on Lagoon Road. On the front porch of his cozy home, colorful proprietor Patrick stuffs guests with 20 petri-dish-size portions of island specialties such as breadfruit salad, callaloo soup -- made from the spinach-like leaves of the dasheen plant -- and spice cake. We left slightly tipsy from his potent rum punch.
Rum that packs a wallop
Another palate shocker came at River Antoine Distillery, where we sipped pure rum, a body-shaking 150 proof that evaporates down your throat like rubbing alcohol. We visited the Caribbean's oldest working rum distillery, built in 1785, during a private tour of the island with Simon "Mandoo" Seales.
Mandoo was a walking, talking museum. At every turn, he pointed out local flora -- bougainvillea, frangipani, allamanda; rattled off historic dates; and filled us in on Grenada's 10-year plan to conservatively expand tourism.
Our eight-hour tour wound around most of the island, taking in sparsely settled villages of colorful concrete homes built on stilts. Our first stop: Concord Falls, one of Grenada's tallest at nearly 41 feet. We then toured Dougaldston Spice Estate, an original 19th century plantation still in operation. At a nutmeg processing station in the fishing village of Gouyave (pronounced Gwav) we marveled at seemingly infinite rows of the spice.
We saw few remnants of the U.S. invasion in 1983. Tourists now land south of St. George's at Point Salines airport, which the United States had said was being built for military purposes. Pearl's Airport in Grenville, on the east side of the island, where Marine forces once landed, lies vacant, overgrown with weeds. A Russian plane sits there rusting, partly dismantled by vandals.
As we circled the island, we investigated beaches and resorts. We found that Grenada can accommodate most every taste and budget, with many of its lodgings on secluded bays along the southwestern tip in St. George's. Several high-end resorts, small by north Caribbean standards, line Grand Anse, a gorgeous two-mile powdery white sand beach just south of St. George's Harbour.
We had chosen the Gem Resort to stretch our dollars. For the first week of our vacation we stayed there in a clean and comfortable but modestly furnished apartment, where we could cook our own meals. After a side trip to the nearby island of Carriacou, we stayed in a basic dorm-sized room at Roydon's, one of several inexpensive family-run guesthouses on the road overlooking Grand Anse.
Mandoo had given us such an interesting tour of the island that we decided to hire him again, to guide us on a three-hour hike to Seven Sisters Falls in the 3,800-acre Grand Etang Forest Reserve. While we easily spotted lobster claw flowers and banana and bamboo trees, the Mona monkey and endangered Grenada dove remained elusive.
A city girl by nature, I wasn't prepared for the steep, slippery ground. With some good-natured ribbing and encouragement, Mandoo helped me most of the way. I forgot about my frayed nerves after an invigorating swim in the falls.
Adventure travelers have plenty of options besides strenuous hikes. For water lovers, Grenada offers good snorkeling and diving and boasts the region's largest underwater shipwreck -- the Bianca C., 100 feet down just off Grand Anse.
After a week on Grenada, we headed north for a three-day stay on Carriacou. At just 13 square miles and 6,000 inhabitants, it is the nation's second-largest island. The third island, minuscule Petite Martinique, lies farther north.
Adventures on a desert island
The 90-minute Osprey Express ferry ride to Carriacou lurched back, forth and sideways. One of several passengers to get seasick, I was glad to disembark in Hillsborough, the dusty main town no more than a few blocks long. We considered Grenada tranquil; Carriacou was downright sleepy.
We took a reggae bus -- so called because of the music the drivers like to play -- to the Green Roof Inn, a cozy seaside guesthouse run by a young Swedish couple. The bus system is a simple one: Wait at a designated stop or wave down one of the minivans (designated with H or HA on the license plate) headed in your direction. Knock on the roof to get off. Pay the doorman.
Taxis are also minivans, so we always asked about rates before getting in: Taxi fares are set at $20 an hour. At 50 cents to $2 a ride, the reggae bus is a bargain.
Cactus and thorny bushes stud the volcanic island, which has no water pipelines. Goats and fowl roam the steep hillsides. Roosters often awakened us well before dawn. Locals collect water in large cisterns during the rainy period; the water must last throughout the dry period, from January to May. We arrived at the end of the dry season so had to be extra conservative in our water use.
We had two purposes for going to Carriacou: snorkeling off Sandy Island and meeting 89-year-old folk artist Canute Caliste, whose primitive-style paintings hang in museums worldwide. We managed the first without a problem the next morning, arranging gear and a boat ride in town. One of only three couples on the coral reef-encircled sand spit, we felt as if we were on a deserted island.
We floated over the extensive reef, spotting various angelfish, schools of trumpet fish and manta rays. It was by far the best snorkeling we'd experienced in Grenada.
Toward noon the wind picked up, making the current harder to swim against and sometimes sliding us near large coral. By 1 p.m., the sun was beating down on us. We headed back just as the water got crowded with snorkelers from private yachts.
Finding Caliste proved difficult. After three attempts to locate him at his studio in L'Esterre Bay, a rum shop owner told us the artist now paints above the tiny one-room Carriacou Museum in Hillsborough -- a place we'd visited our first day, not knowing that Caliste's daughter, Clemenica Alexander, runs it.
We found him busy painting. Caliste, a charming and frail-looking man, loves to share island lore. He told us the story of the mermaid painting that stood beside him: "You can't eat her fish or she'll kill you."
Caliste offered a buy-two-paintings-get-one-free deal. On a tight budget, we purchased only one. An hour before taking the Osprey back to Grenada, we realized we had forgotten to take his photo. We returned to the museum, but Clemenica told us he had just left.
On one of our last days on Grenada, we ventured to St. David's, in the southeast, the only part of the island we hadn't visited. We hopped a bus to La Sagesse Nature Centre, which sits on a secluded bay, for lunch and an afternoon hike.
We walked to a black sand beach and then ventured across several wide bluffs. There were unspoiled views in all directions. On one of the bluffs we came across a sign for a new luxury resort, to be built smack dab in the middle of this amazing vista. We were glad we had come to Grenada, and to this tranquil spot, before it becomes just a pricey room with a view.
Grenada in a nutshell
The Osprey Express offers ferry service from Grenada to Carriacou six days a week (no service Wednesday) for about $33 round trip.
WHERE TO STAY:
Gem Holiday Beach Resort, P.O. Box 58, Morne Rouge Bay, St. George's, Grenada; (473) 444-4224, fax (473) 444-1189, www.gembeachresort.com. Twenty modestly decorated air-conditioned apartments, with kitchens, adjacent to Morne Rouge Bay beach. Beach-side restaurant, bar, dance club. Doubles $75-$135, depending on season.
Green Roof Inn, Hillsborough, Carriacou, Grenada; telephone/fax (473) 443-6399, www.greenroofinn.com. Family-run guest house offers cozy but primitive rooms with ceiling fans and mosquito netting. Breakfast included. Restaurant. Doubles $70.
Laluna Resort, P.O. Box 1500, St. George's, Grenada; (866) 452-5862 (toll-free) or (473) 439-0001, fax (473) 439-0600, www.laluna.com. Exclusive Italian/Indonesian-style resort on secluded beach has ocean-view cabanas with private plunge pools. Restaurant, bar. Doubles $290-$530, depending on season.
La Sagesse Nature Centre, P.O. Box 44, St. George's, Grenada; telephone/fax (473) 444-6458, www.lasagesse.com. On a secluded beach abutting a mangrove estuary, this English country-style resort has two air-conditioned rooms and others with ceiling fans. Hiking trails. Beach-side restaurant, bar. Doubles $75-$150.
WHERE TO EAT:
Carenage Cafe, on the Carenage, St. George's, Grenada; (473) 440-8701. Owner Alberto Olivetti serves individual thin-crust pizzas and gelato in local flavors like soursop. About $8 for a medium pizza.
Cicely's, Calabash Hotel, L'Anse aux Epines, St. George's, Grenada; (473) 444-4334. Located in the island's oldest resort, this open-air restaurant offers British-style service and international and local cuisine. Live entertainment. Reservations required. Entrees $19-$35.
Patrick's, Lagoon Road, St. George's, Grenada; (473) 440-0364. Buffet with 22 local dishes -- Grenadian specialties like breadfruit salad, conch roti and callaloo soup. Reservations required. About $20 per person.
TO LEARN MORE:
Grenada Tourism Office, 317 Madison Ave., Suite 1704, New York, NY 10017; (800) 927-9554, fax (212) 573-9731, www.grenada.org.
-- Rita Colorito