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An island with lots to do, including reinvent itself

The fishing village of Gouyave.
The fishing village of Gouyave. (Necee Regis for The Boston Globe)
By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / January 18, 2009
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ST. GEORGE'S, Grenada - "Watch out! Get back!"

It took a moment to register that the warnings were directed at me, as I blissfully paddled through the crystalline pool at the base of Annandale Falls. I ducked beneath a rocky ledge just in time to avoid being hit by a human torpedo, one of a group of local young men called Annandale Jumpers who leap from a cliff above the 50-foot-high falls to entertain visitors and make money.

There are a half-dozen of so waterfalls on the tropical West Indian island of Grenada, which lies 100 miles north of Venezuela at the southern end of the Grenadines. With only three days to explore its many charms, I had chosen to visit the most easily accessible waterfall, not far off a winding road in the 3,800-acre Grand Etang National Park. I was rethinking my decision to visit this popular site when the jumper broke the surface of the water.

"How can I stay in touch with a beautiful woman like you?" he asked.

It was then I decided that even the most popular parts of Grenada are worth a visit, at least once.

The largest of a three-island state, including Carriacou and Petite Martinique, Grenada's 21-mile length and 12-mile width may not sound large but its varied terrain - from tropical rain forest heights to sheltered coral reefs, from the white sands of Grand Anse Beach to Atlantic mangrove habitats perfect for kayaks and bird-watching - offers more than enough to keep a curious traveler busy.

Many people know Grenada as the Spice Island, or they might have a vague memory of the political upheaval that led President Reagan to order an invasion in 1983. The political situation, now resolved with a freely elected democratic government, combined with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which decimated the nutmeg and spice crops, left the island bereft and looking for ways to bring in cash.

That was when Grenada turned to tourism. Its delay in development, compared with its neighbors, may be a blessing in disguise, as new projects aim to promote eco-friendly tourism, spa hotels, and architecture that complements the landscape. At the same time, the island is making an effort to preserve historical architecture and create wildlife sanctuaries.

With many coral reefs, Grenada attracts scuba and snorkeling fans. A prime example of eco-friendly tourism can be found along Molinere Reef, on the west coast two miles north of the capital, St. George's. Within an area designated as a national marine park, underwater explorers will encounter 65 sculptures by Jason de Caires Taylor, including a piece called "Vicissitudes," a circle of life-size children holding hands. The sculptures serve the dual purpose of acting as a new reef for marine life as well as diverting activity from reef areas endangered by overuse.

For hiking and trekking, the interior of the island is a mountainous rain forest with waterfalls, hot springs, and Grand Etang Lake, a crater lake that is part of a large nature reserve. Along marked trails that meander through a tangle of foliage, red cocoa pods sway amid shiny oval leaves while competing branches laden with nutmeg, breadfruit, and jelly coconuts carpet hillsides leading down to the sea. Driving through the Grand Etang Forest Reserve, from the west side of the island to the east, can be equally rewarding for those without the time or inclination to hike.

As expected, beaches ring the island. The most celebrated is Grand Anse, two miles of white sand along the calm, leeward side. Water sports and scuba and snorkeling excursions are available along this stretch populated by hotels, restaurants, and a craft and spice market.

Not far from Grand Anse, St. George's rises in tiers from a horseshoe-shaped bay. Along Wharf Road, which rims the harbor, well-preserved English and French early-19th-century government buildings with red tile roofs are interspersed with restaurants, shops, and seafaring businesses. The area, called the Carenage, was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago.

In the bustling and colorful Market Square vendors sell local products brought in from the countryside. In the labyrinth of stalls baskets are piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables. If you're thirsty, vendors will lop the top off jelly coconuts and insert a straw.

Grenada's famed spices are available in abundance: thyme, nutmeg, mace, bay leaves, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, and cloves are packaged in baskets in small, tourist-friendly amounts, or strung whole on necklaces designed to be hung in the kitchen.

The Grenada National Museum displays artifacts from the pre-Columbian through the post-colonial periods, though history can be observed by just walking through town. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the English and French fought over the island and their respective forts, Fort Frederick and Fort George (originally, Fort Royal) which are open to the public. Both offer sweeping island views from their craggy bluffs though the latter is more easily reached through the winding, cobblestone streets above the Carenage.

Currently, Fort George houses the Royal Grenada Police, but some areas are open to the public, including a courtyard with a plaque commemorating the spot where Prime Minister Maurice Bishop was executed in the coup that led to the US intervention. At the summit, where old cannons still face the sea, it's easy to see the curve of Grand Anse, the cruise ship terminal, and enjoy a view of town with its four 19th-century churches.

From these heights one can also see Grenada's tourism future. In the former industrial port of St. George's, adjacent to the harbor, an ambitious project named Port Louis is well underway. Designed to restore the reputation for luxury Grenada enjoyed in the '50s and '60s as "Gateway to the Grenadines," Port Louis is planned as a Mediterranean-style community of residential villas, townhouses, cliffside apartments, hotels, spas, restaurants, stores, and a 300-slip marina.

Other regions of the island offer places to eat, drink, and experience the area's tropical bounty. On the eastern side, the Westerhall Distillery, which began operating in the late 1700s, continues to distill alcohol into rum today. Inside a small stone building, a museum filled with rum-making artifacts tells the history of the estate, and various rums are available for tasting and purchase, including the 180-proof Jack Iron.

The Grenada Chocolate Co. produces ambrosial organic dark chocolate with solar-powered vintage machinery. If you cannot make it to the northern tip of the island, you can buy the colorfully packaged bars in most markets.

Midway up the western coast, the colorful fishing village of Gouyave sponsors Fish Friday, a weekly island event where street vendors cook freshly caught seafood over open fires. Wash your meal down with locally distilled rums and home-brewed beer.

Grenada may be the Spice Island, but for me it is the island of reveries.

Necee Regis can be contacted at neceeregis@gmail.com.

If You Go

Where to stay

Mount Cinnamon

Grand Anse, St. George's

473-439-4400

www.mountcinnamongrenada.com

Boutique resort features 21 spacious suites and villas set above Grand Anse Beach, poolside bar and restaurant, Moi Spa, and beach club. One-bedroom villas $500-$650.

Bel Aire Plantation

St. David's Point

473-444-6305

www.belairplantation.com

Eleven villas and cottages with private verandas overlooking a secluded bay. Restaurant, pool, snorkeling equipment and kayaks available. One-bedroom cottages $275-$350.

Where to eat

Savvy's at Mount Cinnamon

(See above)

Mediterranean food with a West Indies twist. Sweeping sea views from terrace seating; entrees $15-$29.

Laluna

Morne Rouge

473-439-0001

www.laluna.com

Reservations are required at this hip, romantic, thatched-roof Italian restaurant that opens to the bay; entrees $24-$37.

B.B.'s Crabback

Progress House, St. George's

473-435-7058

www.bbscrabback.com

Authentic Caribbean cuisine featuring curry dishes, callaloo soup, and the signature crabback. Views of the harbor and the Carenage; entrees $16-$40.

What to do

Sunsation Tours

Grand Anse, St. George's

473-444-1594, -439-4447

www.grenadasunsation.com

Full and half-day tours and hikes. They also coordinate with other vendors for sail, snorkel, golf, or other activities. Hotel pickup and return services, $10-$85.

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