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In Grenada, Leaving the Past Behind

By Ned Martel
February 8, 2009
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IN Grenada, I am greeted as a liberator. My welcome is smaller than the one an American might have hoped for in post-Saddam Iraq, but who cares about scale? I don’t want a parade any more than I want to have to stitch a little Canadian flag on my luggage for fear of recrimination. What I get is a feeling that folks are happy to see me, even if they see me on occasion as a human dollar sign.

It’s November, just a few weeks after the 25th anniversary of the United States’ invasion of this island nation — which the locals I meet politely refer to as “the intervention,” as if their excesses had to be corrected. It didn’t exactly go down like that.

In 1983, American satellites peered down on Point Salines, the southwest corner of Grenada, and detected a newly paved lane toward the sea, plus some nearby armaments and fuel tanks. Cubans had arrived on the island, abetting some coup plotters who captured and then executed the prime minister, and the Reagan administration realized they were watching a hostile military base under construction, some 1,500 miles southeast of Miami. Point Salines was seen as a tiny pinprick in the American sphere of influence.

Intervene the United States did, sending 6,500 Marines, and the violence was mostly over in a matter of days (19 Americans, two dozen Cubans and at least 69 Grenadians died).

The political unrest gave way to rest, and the Grenadian outlook is now resolvedly sunny and leisurely. Islanders have savored relaxation so heartily that there’s a daily docking of cruise ships, disgorging passengers who want to be a part of it. Full-service resorts are opening or expanding, and wealthy property developers laud the terrain of this volcanic island, which is about twice the size of Washington, D.C., as having all the history and vistas of the French Riviera. (Not quite: as hard as I try to think Cap d’Antibes, I think Cap Weinberger— in a good way).

Grenada, despite being buffeted by foreign troops and then major hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, has an air of gratitude that suggests it couldn’t have enjoyed the freedoms of today without the despairs of yesterday.

“When the sun went down, the frogmen came out of these bushes,” I am told during a drive around the Point Salines area, where the international airport has gone up on that insurgents’ airfield. “And they took over antiaircraft guns at these intersections.”

I revisit these real-life G.I. Joe moments through the cheerful narration of Welcome Cummings, a grandfatherly chauffeur to diplomats, medical-school professors and standard-issue tourists. We enjoy a windshield tour of St. George’s University, whose American medical students once provided a rescue rationale for the invasion. The school now occupies a 42-acre beachside campus for roughly 4,500 students, with neo-Classical buildings slathered in flamingo-pink stucco.

Mr. Cummings’s well-suited first name is a maternity nurse’s joke that stuck, after his mother’s extra-long labor, and he’s an able salesman for the island’s virtues, as well as his own. We stop a half-dozen times for him to flirt mercilessly with this woman walking home with groceries or that one hurrying to get to work.

He shows off his neighborhood and points out houses some secretive Cubans occupied in the old days. And here and there he imparts some Creole-flavored stories, like the one about the local bigwig who once owned the west-coast hillside where I am staying.

I’ve been waking up to views down a sweetly leafy slope, chirping with tree frogs at night and buzzing with weed whackers by day. But early in the 20th century, this area was denuded for a sugar plantation owned by a Grenadian who hit it big in the American gambling industry. Legend has him shipping his profits home in the white-walled tire of his fancy car, arriving some time later to dig it out and buy his part of paradise.

My perch at the newly renovated Mount Cinnamon Resort, on Grand Anse Beach, a few miles south of the capital, St. George’s, is pretty and luxe — tile floors, huge bed, ceiling fans, Hockneyesque palette. The one-bedroom suite with a balcony and snapshot-ready vistas of St. George’s is a lot for one person, though I share mine with some needy mosquitoes. (My ankles become pink and pocked as coral.)

In the lobby, there’s an open patio where I eat sausage, passion fruit and grilled yellow tomatoes every morning, among several older couples, while speakers pump in global-traveler techno music. The staff is extremely good-natured though the service is somewhere between desultory and confused: whenever I have a small request, an unnecessarily large team is marshaled, with me serving as something like a project manager on “The Apprentice.”

Welcome shows me some other lodging options for future visits, all in the southwest region, where some stately, grim homes have gone up to encase the newly rich. Environmentalists are on alert to make sure the mangroves nearby do not get mowed down for new resorts, none more potentially grand than the Four Seasons planned for the tiny offshore landmass called Hog Island, with a rudimentary bridge from the mainland just completed.

I see surfers straddling their boards in True Blue Bay, which locals note as a new phenomenon, and I drop by La Source, a development fresh from an extensive rebuilding after the horrific Hurricane Ivan of 2004. Inside the compound are European couples spooning, punchy teenagers thwacking table tennis balls and languid moms leafing through Elizabeth Gilbert. It was capacious but a little lonely.

Welcome finally takes me to an understated and elegant destination that stands apart from the many that try seriously hard. It is the Calabash, his preferred resort, which was built in the early 1960s by a Scot and comprises many rustic modernist pavilions and comfy-chaired dining rooms on Prickly Bay. The scene evokes those vivid photos of Babe Paley’s famed Montego Bay getaway in Jamaica and, more broadly, socialites of her era who sought the healing sunshine after eyelifts and heartache.

For dinner, Welcome sends me to the rich-folks’ preferred seaside restaurant, the Aquarium, where the catch of the day is best plainly grilled over rice, instead of blackened or breaded. I overhear my neighbors — an intensely glamorous young black couple and a huffy middle-aged white couple — toast South Africa, for unknown reasons.

WELCOME keeps steering me toward the opulent end of the island, and I tell him I don’t need all that — I am interested in the recovery, especially the slow-to-recover features, like the reefs and the churches. He sends me on a walking tour of St. George’s, where four houses of worship lost their roofs and remain in ruins after the hurricane.

On the Catholic church walls are graffitied prayers and a tribute to a priest who apparently fell to his death from the tower. Each church is a mess of crumbling icons and stalled reconstruction — though I accidentally interrupt the Episcopal minister as he counsels a few congregants en plein air.

The churches seem especially obliterated compared with other structures, and one man, asking for anonymity, relates the local maxim that “the rum shops were spared but the churches fell because there’s more hypocrisy in the churches than in the rum shops.”

Atop some cliffs in the harbor, Fort George is roofless, too, and this 1983 battle site is still bullet pocked. Welcome eventually takes me to the hill across the harbor where the coup plotters kept the prime minister, Maurice Bishop, under house arrest until he was released, recaptured and shot by a firing squad. Of course, this perch is now seen for its postwar potential: soon it will be home to a splendid resort with harbor views.

The intervention stirs painful memories in Welcome, and angry tears come to the surface when discussing the soon-to-be-released Grenada 14. These coup-plotters were given death sentences and then forgiven with mere 25-year prison terms, which are coming to an end. How these released convicts will fare when they leave the St. George’s jail, presumably one by one in 2009, is a matter of passionate debate.

In the land rush that is Grenada’s new development era, several grumbling locals see another injustice: from the hilltop jail, convicts enjoy the best views on the island.

A few hours before sunset, Welcome drops me off at a dock at the bottom of the hill where diving excursions begin, and I rev up an inflatable Zodiac with all the purpose of a Greenpeace diehard, staying close behind an instructor named Patrice, a salt-and-pepper French dad whose wake includes plumes of diesel and Gauloises. We bump along the north coast and then tie up beside the Lizie S, a cargo ship that was seized by the government for stowing some kind of contraband a few years back, then blown inland by Hurricane Ivan.

Its beachside berth in Halifax Harbour seems peaceful enough, and Patrice shows me and three other clients where to snorkel on the reefs that were once a bit fuller of life, but still are home to reticent lobsters and various fish species that, taken together, look like a kindergarten paint set, including one spindly guy who wiggled like a rubbery paint brush. There were undulating sea fans whose planes were broken by something mossy, and also forbiddingly spiky black sea urchins that looked like a negative image of a fireworks blast.

Back on land, as suggested by guidebooks, I try for a seat at a cottagey hideaway close to St. George’s called Patrick’s, whose chef, Patrick Levine, offers feasts of local fare, and Welcome manages to get me a table on my second night on the island. Patrick sets an array of 20 dishes — saucer-sized, roughly — in front of me, and joins me at the table, even though he’s tired from the raucous night before, when a few dozen friends mingled there with some naughty yachties from the lagoon.

Anyway, his specialties range from green-banana-and-cheese deliciousness to a tasty, earthy flan, and when I ask the flamboyant chef which dish is his favorite, he points to the sea urchin.

“Because it’s delicious,” he says. “And because it’s expensive.”

I could spend all week at Patrick’s and with Patrick himself, but I don’t really taste the purest Grenadian goodness until l embark on a journey to the center of the island. It is a rainy day, and my next guide is Cyril (One Dog) Adams. (I know it must seem that I was choosing guides based on their colorful names, but Mount Cinnamon made these matches.) Bearded and muscular, One Dog used to mix drinks on the Rhum Runner, a booze cruise vessel, till he tired of bosses and tip jars. A friend praised the decision with the maxim “One Dog, One Bone,” a cryptic salute to self-employment.

He takes me first to a shantytown inland from the airport, where squatters have rehabbed Day-Glo cottages, hillside homes set up on stilts at precarious angles. On the asphalt of the winding roads are political slogans — Love The Progress: Vote NNP — from last summer’s roiling election, and on every other street, a nonchalant, death-defying dog crosses our path.

With the same gusto that Welcome enjoyed showing me moneyed “improvement,” One Dog reveals the island’s unchanged realness, even pointing out a few factories and the local dump. He speaks with pride about the post-catastrophe assistance from other countries — a community of prefabricated houses sent by Venezuela after another era’s devastating hurricane, and a bridge from Japan and a cricket stadium from China after the more recent storms.

He shows me the little bluff where the local hero Billy Ocean resided after returning with his royalties from his “Caribbean Queen” dance hit. He brings me by a crater lake near the rain forest, where an ongoing deluge makes a hike to the waterfalls too risky, though One Dog wishes he could show me the 35-foot jump he made on his 35th birthday: “I was jumping from nonsense into sense.”

In the east coast seaside burg of Grenville, the second largest city, One Dog and I wander through the best spice market on the island (open only on Saturday), where I stock up on ground ginger and whole nutmegs, and get a lesson on how a nutmeg shell can add muskiness to grilling coals and its kernel can prevent strokes. One Dog takes me to a shaman of sorts who sells aphrodisiacal incense: I pass on the lurid “Lick Me All Over” and settle for the still-sultry sandalwood.

Next, we drink cold Carib beers in a rum shop in an area called Trenchtown, where One Dog excels at the pool table and I gab with a plump bartender who scans American cable offerings and wants to know if I know Paris Hilton (sort of) and also a certain nameless newscaster (again, sort of), whose appearance on her flat screen prompts an out-of-nowhere declaration: “I think it’s wrong for man to be with man.” (Pink-triangle traveler’s advisory: There’s a lot of that down there.)

The rum shops would be smokier if they weren’t open-aired, and they seem to sell only hard rum (the kind made from sugar), soft rum (beer, wine and clear liquor), potato chips and, for some reason, studded condoms.

I stand outside to look at the waves and I am soon approached by a blond-dreadlocked Rasta in a loincloth with a knife tucked into it (somehow). He bums a Dunhill and proposes a diving lesson, suggesting last week’s client, a visiting member of the Navy Seals, as a reference. Apparently, he uses no tanks and he teaches students to duck the waves with a blade in one’s teeth. I pass.

One Dog and I head north, and find the airfield that was once the only place for planes to land. It now looks like a drag strip in the boonies, with weeds and cow patties pocking the pavement. Several of the offending cattle are chewing thoughtlessly beside two abandoned military planes — one Russian, one Cuban, I’m told— that are falling into decrepitude.

The eastern coast of the island suits me better — a noisier but more solitary shoreline, with the occasional surfcaster braving the waves. Northern Grenada is where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean, but the third-world poverty there seems quite apart from the first-world amenities of the more populous southwest. Scrambling from one tourist destination (sugar plantation) to another (a historic home where Princess Margaret once spent the night), I endure a lot of stares and the occasional shout of “White Man!” even as I sit safely in One Dog’s passenger seat.

We reach a spooky town called Sauteurs, and at Top of the Rock, a country kitchen with a nice patio, One Dog sits me down for some soup and a dark chapter of local lore. He points toward Carib’s Leap, describing it as the cliff from which natives jumped to their deaths to avoid enslavement.

The broth we are served is greenish brown, from the callaloo leaf that many dishes feature. There were yams (a blander, whiter tuber than our sweet potato), chicken and dumplings (gooey, fingerlike cylinders of flour). “The soup is good for the back,” he says, and makes a humping motion that one shouldn’t perform so close to a church.

We are in the wilder section of the island, and the air is pungent with what smells like wet marijuana except in the sulfurous zone around the hot springs. In one inland village, Chanticelle, One Dog urges a little caution, since this town is known for its “warrior” mentality, as he calls it, and we pass a painted slogan encouraging citizens to “Walk Away. Be a Bigger Man.”

On a steep street there, we hear hollers from a rum shop, and decide to stop. The tipsy dozen inside range from teenage to grizzled, and when I approach, there are unsettling rumbles until someone yells, “Obama!” and laughs and back-slaps ensue. To celebrate the new president, they offer tastes of their “one-pot,” and even though we are full, we have to sample this stew.

Again the liquid is green, but somehow fresher and junglier — flavored by “ground seasonings” or herbs of the forest floor, according to our cook, who tended a fire by a tall wet tree. His meaty base is wild turkey, and I see more of the yams and dumplings fall out of his ladle into my bowl.

“Good for the stand,” declares One Dog, by which he means another aspect of virile performance. And I hear what the islanders are telling me, in many various ways: Grenada has a healthy post-occupation preoccupation — to make love, not war.

FROM FANCY RESORTS TO BASIC BEACH BARS, A CHANGING ISLAND

HOW TO GET THERE

Air Jamaica (800-523-5585; www.airjamaica.com) has nonstop flights on Wednesday and Saturday from Kennedy in New York, and a recent Web search for round-trip fares throughout March found prices as low as $424, including taxes and fees. One-stop options started at $485 on American.

WHERE TO STAY

Mount Cinnamon Resort (866-720-2616; www.mountcinnamongrenada.com) is a hillside, beachfront resort with good stay-put, eat-in options, plus easy access to the activities of downtown St. George’s. A Hacienda suite, which sleeps two, is offered at $420 a night, with breakfast. After April 16, it drops to $315.

Calabash Hotel and Villas (Lance aux Épines; 866-978-6194; www.calabashhotel.com), is a luxurious, peaceful resort with fine beachside dining and a dive and snorkel center. Standard doubles with breakfast, $570; after April 6, $295.

WHERE TO EAT

At Patrick’s Local Homestyle Cooking (Lagoon Road, St. George’s; 473-440-0364) a 20-course tasting menu, a kind of tour of every possible flavor on Spice Island, is $23 without drinks.

The Aquarium (La Source Road, Point Salines; 473-444-1410; www.aquarium-grenada.com) is an airy, bustling place. Callaloo soup, grilled catch of the day and a Carib beer cost about 85 East Caribbean dollars, or $30 at 2.78 local dollars to the U.S. dollar.

Fish Fridays, a street fair in Gouyave, features all manner of seafood in a village just north of St. George’s. Expect crowds, carbs and a full belly for under $20.

WHERE TO DRINK AND DANCE

Club Karma (the Carenage, St. George’s; 473-435-2582) is a destination for the bottle-service crowd, with a doorman, a dance floor and various V.I.P. amenities. Cover charges vary ($10 and up) and vodka drinks are about $5.

Lazy Lagoon (Lagoon Road, St. George’s; 473-443-5209), a tiki-like hangout, verges in the Jimmy Buffett direction, with cheeseburger-in-paradise-style menu options. The bar of this lodging-and-lounging complex is actually called the Horni Baboon, but locals refer to it as the Lazy Lagoon. A Carib beer is 5 local dollars.

Le Chateau (Le Marquis Mall, Grand Anse Beach; 473-444-2552) is an open-air beach bar, with cheap beer (5 dollars) and cricket matches on television.

<i>NED MARTEL writes about politics and popular culture.</i>

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