Hidden Gem


All images ©Doug McKinlay

First published in Tempus Magazine

It’s an unusual viewpoint; looking up at falling rain as it pockmarks the surface of the water. Perhaps how Salvador Dali might have envisioned bath time. I’ve snorkelled in many tropical seas but never while the heavens opened above. Through this surreal windscreen I can just make out sharp mountains as they rise out of the deep blue forming a thick rainforest canopy; a canopy so verdant it looks as if anything dropped would grow. Indeed, I’m swimming along the rocky southern shore of the Caribbean island of Grenada, also known as the Spice Island for it’s near monopoly on nutmeg and mace.

Part of the Windward Islands in the West Indies, Grenada is a bit of an odd child compared to it’s other Caribbean siblings. It’s arguably the most self-sufficient island in the whole region, growing enough food crops not only to feed itself in abundance but also to have enough leftover to foster a healthy export economy. And unlike most of its near neighbours tourism on Grenada is still in its infancy, which makes a visit here a relaxing affair.

It has all the requisites of a Caribbean paradise – warm tropical breezes, turquoise waters bordered by coral reefs, powdery white beaches and a mountainous rainforest interior – but it also has that one element that is almost intangible; a sense of self-confidence. And it’s this self-confidence that visitors immediately pick up on. Everyone is on equal footing here, islander and foreigner alike. Grenadians recognize that tourism is an important part their economy – a healthy 21% – but if it disappeared tomorrow there is a feeling they wouldn’t miss it too much, and because of this, the tension between islanders and visitors that often afflicts other Caribbean destinations simply doesn’t exist.


All images ©Doug McKinlay

It’s something cocoa farmer Nathan George says is at the centre of life on Grenada and why his island is relatively crime-free and enjoys a happy existence. “We have a lot here,” he says. “No one goes hungry on Grenada. We all have our plots of land where we grow some cash crop like cocoa beans plus lots of plantains, breadfruit, corn and avocado, so all the bellies are full. There is no need to rob and steal.”


All images ©Doug McKinlay

The timing for my Grenada visit is at the end of the rainy season. Not known for suffering too much at the hands of Caribbean hurricanes, the island was nonetheless badly mauled by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

“Virtually every tree was ripped out by the roots,” explains Joseph Livingstone, my guide. “What you see today is a lush tropical island, but after Ivan practically nothing was left. It was a lot of work getting our island back to normal.”

Looking at the sheer abundance that surrounds me it’s hard to imagine how the island looked the day after Ivan’s departure. But as Joseph and I drive the narrow roads into the vertiginous mountains he points out the ruins of houses hidden among the thick vegetation. Now empty and abandoned, many with missing roofs, few people had the finances to take on serious repair work. However, with a gritty and determined community spirit, and generous aid from the international community, Grenada was on its feet and practically self-sufficient again within a year of Ivan’s destruction.


All images ©Doug McKinlay

I think for all Grenada’s natural attributes – sandy white beaches, quiet lagoons, lush interiors – it’s this entrenched community spirit that I find most attractive; and nowhere is this more on display as when visiting some of the smaller villages that dot the island. There is a real sense of curiosity and openness that I didn’t expect; I even got invited for tea on more than one occasion.

Getting around Grenada is relatively easy. There are only a handful of roads that circumnavigate and bisect the 21-mile long island. Public transport is a fleet of minivans that reach every nook and cranny. Even for non-Grenadians the minivans are a cheap, if somewhat crowded, way of seeing what Grenada has on offer.

Nestled inland, among the dense cloud forests of Grenada’s uplands, is the 3,800-acre Grand Etang National Park and Forest Reserve, home to the mona monkey, the island’s sole primate. There is fantastic hiking opportunities here, whether it’s a short walk around the volcanic crater that makes up Grand Etang Lake or a more formidable three-hour hike through mahogany forests littered with all kinds of tropical flowers. Twitchers will keep those spotting scopes busy here too, hunting for glimpses of the 160 species of birds that call these forests home.


All images ©Doug McKinlay

Mount Saint Catherine, an 841 metre-high dormant volcano, commands the sky on the north end of the island and is the source of most of Grenada’s freshwater streams and rivers, collecting all that tropical moisture like a sponge and then releasing it down its steep slopes. In turn, creating a number of picturesque waterfalls. Where, at the Concord Waterfalls, one enterprising 20 year-old has taken entrepreneurship to the extreme. Jumping from the top of the 50ft high falls into the natural pool below Robert Johnson collects donations from onlookers. Impressive maybe, but without any set fee and few visitors, at least when I was there, one can’t help think that ultimately it’s a zero sum game.


All images ©Doug McKinlay

Most of the island’s population of 110,000 inhabit the south, near St George, the capital. The town is situated on the slopes of an ancient volcano crater, forming a natural horseshoe-shaped harbour, the Carenage. Secluded and protected from the elements the Carenage has provided refuge for ships of all sizes and shapes for at least the past couple of hundred years. Today, colourful houses line the steep inclines that tumble down to the sea where shops and restaurants line the promenade; a panorama view can be had from the nearby heights of Fort George.


All images ©Doug McKinlay

Grenada is a true working island. Mass-market tourism has yet to reach here and because of this people just get on with their lives, free from the dark side that sometimes goes hand-in-hand with large-scale tourist infrastructure. It’s something clearly in evidence on Saturday mornings at Market Square in St. George.

Once a notorious slaves market it is now the point of sale for most of the island’s produce. On market day it teems with farmers who have come down from the high country not only to sell their colourful produce but to catch up with friends and family. It’s a bit of a carnival atmosphere with lots of shouting and laughing, not to mention a good portion of the local over-proof rum being drank. Just a short walk along the High Street, past the bus terminal, is the Victorian-era fish market where the contents of freshly landed nets are on display. Fat tuna, bright red snapper and menacing looking swordfish fill white-tiled basins as the fisher ladies call out to passing customers with the hope of making a sale. Meanwhile, on the pavement, just outside the entrance, independent fishermen try their luck at flogging bucket-loads of crab, bream and butterfish.


All images ©Doug McKinlay

However, Grenada is definitely not without its tourism appeal.

A short 15-minute minivan ride from St George is Grand Anse beach, a 2.5-mile strip of pristine white coral sand that would like right at home in a Bounty Bar advertisement. Despite its jet set looks and reputation though, Grand Anse is surprisingly quiet; it feels like a neighbourhood beach rather than some Gucci-clad tart that attracts only the uber rich and the perennially tanned.


All images ©Doug McKinlay

Still, accommodation in this area definitely leans toward the five-star market. For my digs I was billeted at Mount Cinnamon Resort and Beach Club, a collection of very comfortable whitewashed villas huddled among the thick foliage of a hillside just above the beach. From my balcony I had sweeping views across Grand Anse Bay toward St George, which are especially dramatic in the afternoon as torrents of tropical rain are released over the capital from clouds that build as the day heats up.


All images ©Doug McKinlay

My last evening was spent aboard a locally built sloop, drinking sumptuous Mai Tais and watching what has to be the most perfect Caribbean sunset I’ve ever experienced. Lost in reverie, and ignoring my fellow passengers, I couldn’t help think how special Grenada is, an almost faultless tropical paradise that has no idea how special it really is; a true gem hidden in plain sight. Long may it stay that way.


All images ©Doug McKinlay

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