Spice and all things nice

Its laid-back appearance belies the amount there is to see and do in Grenada, writes Ian Henderson.

GRENADA is an island with a wild history, even by the piratical standards of the Caribbean. Its past is scribed into place names, the buildings, even the trees in the forests. Something to think about as you sip a cold Carib beer in your hammock by the sea.

Columbus called by when Grenada was still home to the Carib Indians who gave their name to the sea (and the beer). Pretty wild themselves, they had already wiped out their predecessors, the Arawak.

Not that it did them much good - the last of the Caribs leapt from a cliff rather than surrender to the French, who marked their sacrifice by calling the place Sauteurs (French for "jumpers"). Even the agreeable Bay of Beausejour ("have a nice day") is said to be named after the ironic farewell of a particularly unpleasant sea captain as he abandoned his unwilling passengers there.

History is everywhere. The capital, St George's, has the unmistakable look of a military outpost, dominated by a 300-year-old fort. Many buildings have the barred cellars where slaves were held before market day. There have been wars and rebellions, and even more-recent events like a revolution in the 1980s are commemorated with colourful roadside paintings.

On every car radio, calypso singers give a running social commentary that has won and lost elections - regime change through music seems a suitably relaxed way of doing things. And, according to the number of smiles we encountered, Grenada is one of the friendliest islands in the Caribbean.

Maybe its turbulent past has helped keep tourism at bay. Geography may have had something to do with it, too - the spectacular volcanic terrain does mean fewer beaches to choose from, as well as inviting a lot of tooth-sucking from your average hotel builder. Easily Grenada's finest beach is Grand Anse, a 3.2-kilometre slice of white coral sand backed by palms, bougainvillea and a few low-rise buildings.

Popular with locals as well as visitors, the beach is far from crowded but on a fine morning (which is pretty well every morning) it's a social club, a gym and a fresh fish shop as the day's catch is sold straight off the brightly painted wooden boats.

Halfway along Grand Anse is the Spice Island Resort, where we stayed in a beautiful room with the sea just a few sandy steps away through the palms. Unlike rivals such as Carlisle Bay in Antigua and Sandy Lane in Barbados, Spice Island is locally owned - by Grenada legend Sir Royston Hopkin. Behind his relaxed charm, there's clearly a very determined hotelier; he built the hotel from scratch then had to start all over again in 2005 after hurricane Ivan had destroyed it.

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Over an excellent dinner in his restaurant, Oliver's, Sir Royston told us that the sliding doors of our rebuilt and now hurricane-proof room would stand 257km/h winds. Thankfully, during our stay the breeze was only strong enough for a gentle cruise on a catamaran - our biggest challenges were resisting another apple pancake for breakfast and deciding how to spend yet another flawless day. We walked to beautiful waterfalls high in the hills, where young men bounded across a sheer cliff face before performing acrobatic dives to earn equally spectacular tips from visitors.

We visited the atmospheric River Antoine rum distillery, antique nutmeg factories and Arawak rock drawings. Pierre Badin and his pack of two-seater inflatables took us to explore the beaches and coves.

Then, with divemaster Marvin from EcoDive, we went to an underwater sculpture park where, among the submerged works, The Lost Correspondent, a man staring blankly at a typewriter on a desk, struck a chord.

Also striking a chord was the London accent that welcomed us to an otherwise very Grenadian restaurant that night.

BB's Crabback is right on the seafront in St George's, open to the harbour with brightly painted walls covered in messages from fans all over the world.

Brian Benjamin is island-born but spent most of his life in Ealing running a popular Caribbean restaurant - he's now gone back to his roots quite literally, using the freshest home-grown vegetables, herbs and spices in his delicious traditional dishes.

Then, of course, there's mountain biking, sailing, golf and kayaking. And if you start to feel tired, just go for a walk with local guide Telfor Bedeau. Every day for the last 48 of his 70 years, Telfor has hiked the mountains of Grenada - and in the same sandals, by the look of them.

He's also rowed twice around Grenada in a boat he built himself (but won't do it again because, as he says, he's done it both ways). He will take you to the top of a mountain or deep into the rainforest and teach you about the profusion of trees and herbs that springs from the rich volcanic soil. According to Telfor, almost every plant has a part in the island's history. As well as the indigenous rainforests, exotic crops brought in by the "plantocracy" of 18th-century plantation owners now grow luxuriantly by the roadside, in gardens and under the care of local farmers - including the cocoa that makes Grenada the source of some of the world's best chocolate.

A sneaky Creme Egg or two needs little excuse in our house, so we couldn't leave without a pilgrimage to the Grenada Chocolate Factory, where chocolatier Edmond Brown welcomed us into his modest, freshly painted wooden house. Inside, organic and forest-fresh ingredients go into old-fashioned but lovingly tended machinery to make brightly wrapped bars for the world's best chocolate shops.

We brought plenty of bars back with us as presents but very few made it as far as their intended recipients. It's not only delicious chocolate; each dark, mysterious square tastes of a wild and complex history. A perfect reminder of a beautiful and fascinating island.

Trip notes

Getting there

American Airlines flies direct to Grenada from Miami, Florida, (07) 3329 6060, americanairlines.com.au.

Staying there

Spice Island's relaxed but sophisticated atmosphere is perfect for families with older children. All-inclusive rates from $US860 ($790) a double room a night. +1 473 444 4258; spicebeachresort.com.

For accommodation for a range of budgets, see grenadagrenadines.com.

See + do

Ask the tourist office (grenadagrenadines.com) about guides or do it yourself.

EcoDive (ecodiveandtrek.com) is recommended for under-the-water activities.

Don't miss the nutmeg factory, River Antoine rum distillery and Grenada Chocolate Factory, grenadachocolate.com.

More information

grenadagrenadines.com.

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