There’s something special about Grenada. In most Caribbean countries, a rift exists between visitors and residents. That’s not to say locals aren’t friendly, but there’s a world established for tourists and it’s not one the locals frequent. Breaking beyond the idyllic facade of the tourist world can be challenging, if not near impossible as you can still receive the sanctioned treatment for foreigners even in the most remote roadside food shacks. Dine in one of the touted restaurants, and you may find a few token locals, but from a select subset of the population, and they themselves are often somewhat culturally removed from the rest of the country. Not so in Grenada. Maybe it’s been the nearly 40-year influence of foreign students attending St. George’s University for medical school, but whatever it is, mingling happens.
I assumed the Gouyave Fish Fry would be a tourist trap and only leerily attended, but I was greeted in an unsigned parking area by sounds of a practicing high school steel pan band and groups of residents huddled over styrofoam containers of fried fish. Rounding the corner to the food stalls, it was clear that tourists were in the minority. This every Friday event was first and foremost a town tradition, one that embraced St. George’s diverse students and curious tourists alike. Similarly, The Aquarium Restaurant at Magazine Beach hosted a diverse clientele. A cavernous entrance tunneled past simulated boulder streams and a grotto wine cellar, all shouting tourist establishment. Once inside though, it was clear that there was something for everyone and everyone was welcome. Businessmen clustered around a formal dining table along the ocean-view verandah, university students played a round of cards on the beach patio, couples sipped cocktails on their ocean-side beach towels, families splashed in the ocean itself and an elderly Rasta woman grooved around the beach bar in time with the live band – locals and tourists intermingled, all seemingly pleased with their piece of this eclectic venue.
It’s not that there aren’t tourist destinations in Grenada. Ask for an itinerary and you will be directed to the island’s many rum distilleries, nutmeg plantations, favored beaches, the abandoned Pearls Airport, the underwater sculpture garden or Carib’s Leap, the cliff where Carib Indians chose to plunge to their deaths rather than accept French rule in 1651. But the beauty of Grenada is that the lines between tourist sites and lesser-known attractions are blurred, and you can find Grenadians enjoying the same places.
By far the most touristy attraction I found myself at was Concord Falls. It was among the the list of sites recommended by my hotel’s concierge and I’d read that it was a somewhat challenging hike along a series of streams and falls. It sounded stunning and seemed promising when signs directed up a long dirt road through forested hills only sparsely populated with humble homes. The end point was less than satisfying though with local touts directing parking, a row of vendor stalls, and two larger souvenir shops controlling access to the actual falls. I hoped for a trailhead beyond the changing rooms, but the vegetation was thick and the slopes steep. It was designed for a dip in a pool between the two visible falls, but little more – pretty enough but not at all what I had in mind. Yet even here, amidst obvious tourist infrastructure, locals sat and chatted on shop steps. One man was enjoying a soda with his daughter, another was reading the paper, others were simply liming (local term for hanging out) and all were quick to helpfully notice the quickly flattening tire on my rental car and direct me to the tire repair shop at the bottom of the hill. The tire shop was decidedly not a tourist destination. The owner guided me to his duo-purpose parking spot/ work area that was little more than a shoulder barely off the main highway, and had me back on my way in no time at so little cost it could only be the local’s price.
Carib’s Leap, a widely advertised destination, lacked signage on the main road and proved somewhat challenging to find. Once there, parking was in a church lot, the walk passed an altar to “Our Lady of the Caribs” and the monument itself was appropriately placed at the back of an active cemetery, proximal to the fateful cliff. The only other visitors were a group of Grenadians.
Bathway Beach, an ideal people beach on the northeast edge of the island, has a visitor center that allegedly includes tourist-oriented displays on the area’s geology. Good luck stopping to see it though as the parking lot and surrounding roadside were as packed as South Beach during spring break, including a contingent of “cruisers”. Strapping men leaned from car windows to chat up giggling young ladies, a couple napped serenely on a grassy patch in the shade, clusters of shower cap-clad women gossiped in the shallows while the men strutted up and down the sand or ventured manly into deeper waters. This was clearly a beach favored by locals. Just up the road at Levera Beach, a beautiful sea turtle nesting beach lacking Bathway’s party scene, brightly colored fishing boats were pulled up on the dune and a pair of neighborhood lovers strolled along the shoreline. In the southwest, La Sagesse Bay is widely advertised to tourists for its La Sagesse Nature Center and Hotel Restaurant. Yet locals were driving, walking and hitchhiking from the main road and its small community to this peaceful alcove for a day at the beach. And as for the nature center? The name is rather misleading as there is no building with displays. Bird tours are drawn to a shorebird-rich wetland on the far side of the cove and the hotel can arrange such trips, though this only makes sense for those staying elsewhere without a car as the salina is readily accessed just down the beach. There is, however, a lovely beach-side restaurant with delicious local food. Our waitress informed us that there were other nature trails too, but insisted that these were currently closed due to vegetative overgrowth, being so tangled that no one could conceivably follow the trail nor should one want to. Only after much wooing did she point me to the trailhead – a narrow and bushy but thoroughly passible path leading along the property fence to an incredible circuit of cliff-top trails and observation towers above.
Grand Etang Forest Reserve, with its numerous waterfalls, centrally located lake and network of wooded trails, is also advertised as a tourist destination and there actually is a building with environmental displays here. There’s also a parking lot lined with vendor stalls selling local crafts and a stunning array of local spices, nearly essential for the “Spice Island” really. It was all but deserted on my late in the day, low-tourism season visit but I was drawn to a row of sliced fruit arranged on the railing that divided the gravel parking lot from the forested valley sloping away below. My lingering drew from the cafe across the street, Selma, the owner of the corner stall beside this fruit offering.
“It’s for the monkeys,” she informed me in a gentle voice.
She then faced the forest, took a deep breath and bellowed an impressive series of monkey howls and cackles. We waited in hopeful silence but there was no response.
She shook her head sadly, “People been poaching the monkeys for food. They used to come every time I call, but no more. There’s not so many now and they’re shy. This fruit been sittin’ there all day.”
The monkeys, Mona Monkeys, were introduced from Africa centuries ago. They’ve become a tourist attraction with guides, and apparently stall vendors, adept at calling them from the trees for fruit hand-outs, often luring them onto the tourists themselves. But now they seem to be on the menu for some at least, a point clearly distressing people like Selma and disgusting others I met. One cab driver in particular repeatedly shook his head as he pondered the health hazards of such heathen action. As for Selma, it was clear that her concern for these creatures went well-beyond their entertainment of potential clients, she mourned the loss of her friends, undoubtedly unaware of their status as ecological pests.
My personal introduction to the Reserve was actually Grand Etang Lake, a bit further down the road. It was, for a forest reserve, shockingly well-groomed and park-like with picnic pagodas, manicured lawn and a well-constructed dock. I had anticipated a more rugged setting engulfed by rainforest, but found myself facing a tour busload of non-wilderness types feeding giant carp from the dock and lake edge. No sooner did the bus leave than a group of boys tentatively emerged from a nearby pagoda, they checked for incoming traffic, then settled down with homemade fishing lines and began catching crayfish that they added to their hidden stash. Sanctioned or not, this was clearly their playground. And while a little exploring yielded a few forested trails, it was clear that these too were the domain of locals who knew back trails between the various waterfalls and who occasionally even hosted hash runs within the maze, I later learned.
Less popular with mainstream tourists, Mt. Hartman Dove Sanctuary is nonetheless an essential stop for birders. Roughly 154-acres of dry lowland forest were set aside as a national park in 1996 to protect habitat for the critically endangered Grenada Dove, an endemic to the island with fewer than 180 individuals left at the time. A development scare that would have decimated the population in 2008 was thwarted by national and international conservation efforts and has elevated the dove to national notoriety. Pride for this dove is now great and locals all over the island will wrongly tell you that Grenada Doves visit their property regularly, but the Mt. Hartman Sanctuary is the only reliable place to see the doves and it’s hardly guaranteed. A small visitor center is more-or-less open for standard business hours, but the trails can be accessed earlier in the morning when chances of seeing the dove are greatest. Having a hard time finding it, I arrived a bit late my first visit and was informed by a guide, whose group was glowing after having just seen the dove, that I really needed to come super early and sit very still, listening intently for their rustling in the underbrush. I wandered hopefully, but settled for views of a similarly endemic Grenada Flycatcher that day. I later discovered that a couple who had arrived just after me did see one of the coveted doves right after I left. Both frustrated and reinvigorated by this news, I returned another day before sunrise and planted myself where the sightings had allegedly occurred. Just as the lighting seemed perfect for dove activity, a massive bird watching group stomped by. Not surprisingly, neither they nor I saw the dove that day and it had been my last chance. I was, however, entertained by a bananaquit building its nest, becoming totally entwined in its nesting material at one point. I also followed a Grenada Wren, a local race of the House Wren, to its nest tucked inside an electric box on a barn just outside the sanctuary. Amidst my photography, an elderly man emerged from a small cottage nearby. He was wearing dress pants, but was topless and asked for the time. He was apparently awaiting a Sunday morning date, a woman he wouldn’t keep waiting for the world, but would really like to have some breakfast first if he was able. He rambled on about life, love and iguanas (when asked about the topic), seemingly appreciating his park-side but apparently clockless outpost.
And then there were the more truly off-the-beaten path destinations. Between Bathway Beach and Levera Bay in the northeast, I stumbled upon a prominent sign and trailhead to the Levera Wetland – a protected Ramsar (international wetland conservation treaty) site. Probably the best constructed and maintained trail I saw anywhere on the island, it led through mangroves to an equally impressive observation tower overlooking a lake. Caribbean Coots, Ruddy Ducks, Common Gallinules, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Pied-billed Grebes foraged amongst the floating vegetation. A Green Heron skulked among roots of the shoreline vegetation while Gray Kingbirds and one of the island’s all-black Bananaquits flitted in the canopy. And overhead, above a flock of Laughing Gulls, soared a Grenada Hook-billed Kite, an endangered subspecies of this impressive raptor that dines modestly on lake snails. This particular location we had to ourselves (though it is on the bird-watching circuit) and it inspired a quest for more of these apparently underutilized parks.
The Woburn/ Clarks Coat Marine Protected Area. I had no idea what this would be, but it sounded promising and became a goal. After much exploratory wanderings and many U-turns, a similarly prominent sign announced my arrival at the protected area, which appeared to be simply roadside lawn. It was only after getting out of the car that I noticed an observation tower tucked at the edge of a barely existing inlet and a screen of mangroves. Kids raced around the base of the tower and as I walked up, a couple of men in suits greeted me amiably on their way down. I nearly stumbled over another suited man at the top who was asleep on the floor of the observation tower. Three women in Sunday dresses and hats sat on the benches flanking the napping figure, a stack of bibles piled in the corner between them. It seemed I’d just missed their bible study, but they were relaxing now and the women politely encouraged me to the viewing area. It was low tide and the mud flats weren’t particularly attractive. There were, however, interesting bamboo enclosures built to protect mangrove seedlings that were clearly being tended. A small group of Wilson’s Plovers were working the area, but more intriguing was the conversation behind me – ladies of the Spice Island discussing spices.
“It’s not saffron y’know,” one of the ladies proclaimed.
“What do you mean it’s not saffron?” another queried.
“What we have here in Grenada. They call it turmeric elsewhere.”
A gasp of shock filled the air.
Only in Grenada could I be standing in a tourist-quality observation tower, overlooking a meager but dedicated mangrove restoration project while listening to a bible study group discuss the nuances of spices. I for one appreciated the island’s blurred lines.
- I stayed at the True Blue Bay Resort and highly recommend it. The property is on a mellow bay across from St. George’s University, between the airport and bustling St. George’s. There are a range of room options, all individually and beautifully decorated, including kitchenettes. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable and helpful, making car rental, luggage storage, activity planning, bookings and anything else you might need easier to accomplish. Their water-side Dodgy Dock Restaurant and Lounge offers good food that rotates on a weekly schedule of themes and the homemade ice-cream and signature cocktails, many of which included the local specialty flavor “nutmeg”, were always tasty. Continuing the blurred lines theme, Grenadian businessmen and families were also staying here, the restaurant and lounge attracted community members with regular dance classes and DJ nights, and there were plenty of critters using the facilities – Caribbean Grackles at breakfast, Bananaquits in the eaves, other birds and lizards everywhere, including one poor Ameiva lizard in the mouth of a giant Cane Toad. It’s the perfect venue for a home away from home.
- Other lodging options I was able to explore were Petite Anse at the north end of the island and La Sagesse on the southeast corner of the island. Petite Anse is set in a forest atop a cliff overlooking a secluded beach and the ocean beyond. It is tranquil and luxuriously-landscaped, with a garden pool above and access to the beach below. I didn’t see the rooms, but judging by the restaurant and other public facilities, it would be a relaxing place to stay and the food was great, including several local foods like roti on the menu. As mentioned above, La Sagesse is a bit misleading in that one expects an associated nature center that just isn’t there. It is, however, set in a stunning bay near a birdy wetland at the far end of the beach and a network of trails and observation towers with incredible views on the cliff above. Tucked between the cliffside and beach, there are minimal gardens with the emphasis being the beach itself. That seems to be true of the facilities as well. The rooms I saw were exceedingly simple – clean but on the sterile side, lacking much character other than their patios that were practically on the beach, though only a select few of the rooms have this privilege. The staff were exceedingly open and friendly though and the restaurant was the perfect lunch-time respite.
- The Aquarium Restaurant near the international airport is a great place to dine, have a drink or even spend an entire afternoon. The Heights Cafe and Bar near Sauteurs sits atop a steep mountain-side drive to provide unbeatable views. I wish I could comment on the food itself, but despite ads claiming that they’re open for lunch Monday to Saturday, reservations are apparently required at all times. All accounts are that the food is good though, so likely worth the pre-planning if for no other reason than the sensational view.
- Grenada boasts many hiking trails. I took this to mean that they would be easy to find and do on my own, but that wasn’t quite the case. Granted, it took considerably longer to drive around the island than I anticipated and that diminished my trail exploration time, but it’s best to arrive prepared. Wikiloc outlines several hikes to try and while I have no advice to offer, there are many local hiking guides for hire. For beer-drinking runners, there is a local chapter of the Hash House Harriers that meets every Saturday, welcomes visitors and is a good way to explore some of the locally favored trails.
- The Gouyave Fish Fry occurs every Friday starting around 6 PM in the fishing town of Gouyave. It is well worth a visit. Many hotels and tour operators organize trips to the event. Technically you can drive yourself, though be warned that it’s not as easy to find as you might expect. It’s better to hire a taxi or some other car and driver for a round trip fare. More information can be found on Facebook.
- I’m not normally a shopper, but I fell in love with a clothing line in Grenada by the Baobab Company. Their stylized lizard design was what first caught my eye. Then I realized that all the pants, shirts and dresses in the line were also made from soft cotton with perfectly fitted cuts. That is apparently what they strive for – tropical designs on comfortable, island-style clothing. I got a pair of their pants from the True Blue Bay Resort’s gift shop and now I practically live in them. The brand is originally from the Indian Ocean and there are several franchises in Africa, but it’s also made its way to the Caribbean where many shops in both Grenada and the Grenadines carry the clothing, and they even have an online store that ships worldwide.