Travel: Grenada a Caribbean island where community spirit thrives
Some 35 years since the end of its revolution, Grenada is striking the perfect balance between tourism and tradition, Hannah Stephenson discovers
THE smiling bus driver pulls up on a steep, narrow, winding road, opposite a ramshackle spice stall where I'm perusing nutmeg, cinnamon, cocoa pods and a variety of other fragrant home-grown fruits and spices.
He's made an unofficial stop to drop off lunch to the stallholder, who might or might not be a relative, and with a cheery wave he's on his way, his passengers unperturbed by the brief unscheduled detour.
Nowhere is community spirit better demonstrated than on the public buses on the little Caribbean island of Grenada. Away from designated bus stops, drivers will stop if they think you need a ride - and I'm told that if you're carrying heavy shopping, they may well drop you at your door and even carry your bags in for you.
Known as the 'Spice Island' due to the profusion of spices grown in its fertile, volcanic soil, Grenada measures just 21 miles by 12, but its lush, mountainous landscape and snaking roads, where you don't get much beyond 20mph, make it feel much bigger.
The picture-postcard warm, calm Caribbean Sea licks the west, and the choppy waters of the Atlantic provide a raw seascape on the east, while inland lies a cornucopia of rainforest riches, mona monkeys, mountain views, secluded waterfalls and peaceful lakes which fill natural volcanic craters.
A smattering of low-rise sophisticated beachfront hotels - predominantly in the south west - offer luxury and fine dining for the discerning traveller, while the warmth of the close-knit communities gives the visitor a feel of what makes the island tick.
Grenada has been on the tourist map for more than 50 years, yet development remains refreshingly slow.
During the revolution between 1979-83, the People's Revolutionary Government took power and established close relationships with Cuba, which helped fund its large, much-needed international airport, named Maurice Bishop after the revolutionary leader.
But in 1983, an economic crisis led to political in-fighting, resulting in Bishop's execution, providing the pretext for a US invasion of the island. Free elections were reinstated a year later and democracy was restored to this Commonwealth country.
Grenadian hotelier Sir Royston Hopkin, the island's tourism ambassador at large, who has been in the hospitality industry for more than 50 years, explains: "Tourism in Grenada is not big. We only have 1,500 hotel rooms on the island at present [hence, no direct flights from the UK; you land in St Lucia first]. There has been growth, but not [enough to] spoil what Grenada really is."
He says there is no chance of over-development, because of the infrastructure of the island, the interior landscape - much of which is protected - and the fact that, unlike Antigua, it doesn't have 365 beaches.
"I've seen a migration from Barbados to my resort, primarily between December and May, from visitors who see Grenada as what Barbados was 25 years ago," he observes.
While tourism has helped the economy, Grenadians don't see it as a be all and end all. They utilise every scrap of land to grow what they eat. Fishermen provide their families with a constant supply of tuna, rainbow runner, mahi-mahi, lobster and lionfish. Some of their catch serves the hotels.
Grenada is also deemed one of the safest islands in the Caribbean, perhaps because no-one goes hungry and because communities and wider families look after their own.
They have also had to be hugely resilient, dragging themselves out of the devastation of Hurricane Ivan, which damaged more than 90 percent of homes on Grenada in 2004.
"We Grenadians have a different fabric," Sir Royston says. "Community spirit is our greatest attribute. A lot of locals have their own little piece of land and are independent. They relate to tourists as individuals, not as walking dollar bills.
"You could stop on the side of the road to get a beer and the shopkeeper's the sort of guy who'll cut down a mango for you to try - and won't charge you for it."
Sir Royston is the chairman, managing director and owner of the five-star multi award-winning Spice Island Beach Resort, a low-rise, high-end boutique hideaway tucked behind sea grapes and palm trees on the island's flagship Grand Anse Beach.
He hosts regular cocktail parties for guests at his home and 55% of his clientele are repeat visitors.
They return because of the resort's luxurious and personal feel, haute cuisine, prime location, attention to detail both in accommodation - the royal suites each have a plunge pool, sauna and even an Alexa to answer your every whim - and the friendliness of the staff, who address you by name from Day One.
News of the imminent opening of the swanky new five-star Silver Sands hotel just along the beach doesn't worry him. He believes there's room for all.
"I don't measure who is coming or going. I measure myself and I measure what I'm doing. I welcome Silver Sands. If it gives more exposure to Grenada, I will benefit."
Hotels may be slow to emerge, but adventure opportunities are growing. Rainforest hikes, yachting, river tubing and diving - another wreck has been sunk this year off Grand Anse - are all expanding, providing an alternative to the chocolate excursions, spice market visits, rum tastings and agro-tours at the historic Belmont Estate plantation.
Indeed, hiking to the Seven Sisters waterfall in the Grand Etang Forest Reserve, feathery bamboo wafting below towering mahogany trees, pink and orange ginger lilies peppering the lush landscape with colour, gives me the adventure fix I need.
Out of the dense, verdant awning, the eye stretches across a rich carpet of trees to Mount St Catherine, Grenada's tallest mountain at 2,757ft, and a short ride away I become lost in the serenity of Grand Etang Lake, a natural water-filled crater of an extinct volcano where koi carp occasionally skim the surface.
Back on the road near the pretty capital of St George's, we stop at Charlie's Bar, a brightly coloured roadside haunt you can't miss thanks to an array of red, yellow and green-painted tyres piled high opposite.
The eponymous bar owner, a gregarious Grenadian sporting an incongruous Chelsea FC shirt (he supports the Blues), explains that he collects the tyres from a local dump, paints them in the Grenadian flag colours and piles them by the road to stop the land sliding. That's creative recycling for you.
From under the counter, he produces a bottle of milky liquid, then beckons us through the back to his tiny garden, to show us the soursop tree laden with the prickly fruits which made the delicious juice. It tastes of apple, but not quite as sweet - and he doesn't charge us.
Grenada may not be a virgin to tourism, but nor is it a slave to it, I reflect, as a bus pulls over to see if I want a ride back into town.
Destinology (destinology.co.uk; 01204 474 801) offers a seven-night stay at Spice Island Beach Resort (spiceislandbeachresort.com) from £2,689pp, based on two sharing an Oleander Superior Garden Suite on an all-inclusive basis, including return Virgin flights from London Gatwick and private car transfers.