Travel: A Grenadian spice odyssey

Grenada may not be one of the most popular destinations for winter sun-seekers flocking to the Caribbean but, beyond the beach, Abi Jackson discovers culture and colour on the Isle of Spice.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 23rd December 2013, 9:00 am
The Concord Falls, Grenada. Picture: PA Photo/Abi Jackson.
The Concord Falls, Grenada. Picture: PA Photo/Abi Jackson.

There’s something comfortingly festive about the sweet, warming aroma of nutmeg.

The Caribbean, famed for its beaches, bananas and palm trees, may seem an unlikely setting for Christmassy flashbacks, but throughout my stay in Grenada, the spicy scent is never far away - nutmeg is sprinkled atop cocktails, used to add a kick to ice cream, and the seeds are threaded with cord to create spice garlands sold at street-side stalls.

“Welcome to the Isle of Spice!” says tour guide, Mandoo.

It’s easy to assume that the picture postcard scenes of white, palm-lined sands, azure seas and rum cocktails sum up the region, but venture beyond the sun lounger and a diverse, colourful culture awaits.

For Grenada, spice is at its heart, with mace, cinnamon and cloves all in starring roles, while nutmeg sits centre stage.

Despite being just 21 miles long and 12 miles wide, I learn that up until nine years ago, the country was the world’s second biggest producer of the spice.

Then in late 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit, causing catastrophic damage to infrastructure and wiping out almost 80% of the crops.

“It devastated nutmeg crops,” Mandoo explains. “New trees were planted, but they take seven years to bear fruit.”

Almost a decade on, in many ways, Grenada’s still recovering. Skeletons of ravaged houses remain dotted across the landscape and unemployment is high. Tourism also took a knock.

Yet - fittingly for an island that started life as an underwater volcano some two million years ago - a sparky resilience ensures that Grenada has lots to celebrate. And despite economic challenges, crime rates remain low.

Mandoo has a theory about this. “There’s a real sense of community,” he says. “Families are very traditional and everybody knows everybody, so young people may be out of jobs, but they’re not getting into trouble.”

We split our stay between two hotels, starting with Mount Cinnamon, ideally situated on the south-west coast just off the two-mile-long Grand Anse Beach, arguably the island’s best sandy stretch.

A cluster of charming white-washed villas climbs the hillside, with a pathway leading down to the beach bar which hosts regular music nights and barbecues - and where we toast the start of our holiday with our first rum punch, and first sprinkling of nutmeg.

With its relaxed, bohemian vibe, Mount Cinnamon feels special yet laidback, and the food is outstanding. Andrew, a talented young chef in his early twenties who cooks like a seasoned pro, whips up a mouth-watering blackened king fish and ginger-infused chocolate and mango mousse.

He recently moved here from Jamaica and tells us he loves it so far. “It reminds me of Jamaica in the Eighties,” he says.

Indeed, Grenada has endearing time-warp qualities.

While tourists flock to the big resorts and nightlife on islands like Jamaica, Barbados and Antigua, things are very peaceful here. Even the capital, St. George’s, retains authentic charm. Apparently the rule is that no building should be taller than the tallest palm tree. Instead, pristine red-bricked Georgian buildings line the city port, while classic Caribbean pastel-coloured timber and corrugated roofing scatter the backstreets. It’s a pleasing mix, and a big nod to the country’s eclectic political history.

For the locals, party night is the Friday Fish Fry at Gouyave, a fishing town on the northern coast, where workers still sort and pack spice by hand at the Nutmeg Processing Station.

Outside, on market stalls across the road, mini bags of powder sit in colourful rows, a reminder of just how integral the island’s natural bounty is.

In pride of place on the tourist map is the Belmont Estate, a plantation dating back to the 17th century which, among other things, produces cocoa. The nearby Grenada Chocolate Factory Company turns it into delicious bars, some of which end up on shelves at Waitrose.

The brand was founded by Mott Green, who had a vision to produce quality chocolate, ensuring every step of the process was fair, ethical and environmentally sound.

Tragically, just weeks before our visit in June 2013, 47-year-old Mott was killed in an accident.

His dream lives on, and seeing it in action is a joy. We watch workers chop cocoa pods from trees with machetes then follow the beans’ journey, right through to seeing how the creamy, dark bars are wrapped.

Another of Grenada’s highlights is its bountiful plant life. (Grenada exhibits a number of local plant species at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, and has won a string of Golds in the past.)

Mandoo knows the island like the back of his hand, showing us some of its most stunning sights as we drive up into the hills, dense with lush rainforest.

If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a mona monkey - they arrived on slave ships during the 18th century and have been amusing visitors (and pinching their bananas) ever since.

But, not all of the island’s attractions are on land.

After checking in at our second hotel, True Blue Bay Resort, which has more of a family feel, we head off on a snorkelling trip with Native Spirit Scuba.

A boat whisks us northwards to the Underwater Sculpture Park. Hurricane Ivan destroyed much of the coral here, but artist Jason deCaires Taylor has created a stunning seabed exhibition which, over time, has become a living habitat for marine life. His sculptures, including a ring of children holding hands, are haunting and unforgettable.

Last up is a day trip to Grenada’s sister island, Carriacou, far smaller at 13 square miles and with a population of just 6,000.

Many visitors take the 90-minute ferry, but we go by air which takes just 20 minutes.

Hillsborough, the capital, has one main street and, with its shabby-chic charm, looks as though it hasn’t changed since the Seventies.

Boat building’s the main industry here, and ships in various stages of completion sit in makeshift yards along the shore.

We catch a speedboat to Sandy Island, a sandbank a few minutes from shore, where we snorkel above the coral.

As we dry off afterwards, a fish burger lunch at the candy-coloured La Playa Beach Bar and Bistro is the perfect end to a wonderful day - washed down with a rum cocktail, complete with a dusting of nutmeg, of course.

Now when I sprinkle spice into my mulled wine this December, it’ll be visions of a lush, tropical paradise flashing in my mind.

Travel facts - Grenada

:: Abi Jackson was a guest of the Grenada tourist board (www.grenadagrenadines.com).

Kenwood Travel (www.kenwoodtravel.co.uk; 020 7749 9245) offer seven nights at True Blue Bay Resort from £1,088 per person (based on two sharing), including breakfast and flights with Virgin Atlantic.

:: Rooms at Mount Cinnamon (www.mountcinnamongrenadahotel.com) start from 375 dollars (approx £233) per night (two sharing).

:: Tours with Mandoo can be booked through www.grenadatours.com