The barman poured me a shot and then explained the problem he had with his driveway. “I wanted to extend it,” he said as I cautiously sniffed the 75pc-proof rum. “But I accidentally dropped some seeds on the dirt that I wanted to concrete over, and pumpkins just started to grow. So I though I’d drop some more seeds. Now I have a lot of pumpkins. But I can’t do my drive!”
He shrugged. I sipped. A not-unpleasant throat-burn of fire, fruit and smoke.
“Things just grow here,” the barman continued, ignoring my watering eyes. “They say: stand still in the soil too long in Grenada and even you’ll start to grow.”
I didn’t doubt that for a second. The southern Caribbean isle of Grenada, with its volcanic earth and generous lashings of both “liquid” and regular sunshine, is ludicrously lush. Every backyard, mountainside, valley and verge seems rife with nutmeg, cocoa and soursop, banana palms, guava, ginger lilies and dreadlock crotons; the island is like one big Christmas tree, baubled with scarlet immortelles and strung with bougainvillea. However, I wasn’t intending to do a lot of standing still.
The majority of people visit lovely, laid-back Grenada for rest and relaxation – and why not? However, I was here to sample a new group walking tour, spending time away from the beach to explore the Spice Island’s wild forests, hill-perched villages, headlands and history via a series of short hikes. The idea being that you can learn more about a place at walking pace. And that, as the strolls we’d be tackling weren’t too long, there would still be time for more traditional Caribbean beach-lounging each afternoon.
As yet, Grenada has few dedicated walking trails. What it is does have, though, is Mr Edwin Frank, one-time fast bowler and radio presenter turned verbose tour guide with an encyclopedic knowledge of his island. Edwin had created a trip that would, he hoped, give us a “holistic appreciation” of Grenada’s food and rum, nature and culture.
A walking tour of St George’s, the island’s hilly capital, provides a good introduction. We started amid the boats and frigatebirds on the waterfront Carenage – from the French caréne (hull), where ships were once brought for cleaning and repair.
The island was first discovered by the Spanish in 1523, but it was the French and British who fought over ownership throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, with the latter eventually victorious, and in charge until Grenada gained independence in 1974.
We climbed from sea level, sweating up a cobblestone path and along the Old Fort Road. On Cemetery Hill, we looked over the tombstones of the rich – “poor people were buried on lower ground” – towards the port. A cruise ship was docked and a rusting cargo boat listed offshore, awaiting the $200,000 (£144,000) clean-up needed to become Grenada’s latest wreck dive.
Then we descended (or, as Edwin liked to put it, “proceeded in synergy with gravity”) to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Now fully restored, this simple 19th century church stood wrecked and roofless for a decade after Hurricane Ivan pummelled the island in 2004. “Ivan destroyed or damaged 28,000 buildings,” Edwin said. While the church has been restored, many other structures have been left to decay. “Only around 6,000 buildings had insurance,” Edwin added. “People can’t afford to fix them.”
We dropped down a steep hill, patriotic with red-yellow-green bunting, to reach the spice-scented market. Business wasn’t booming; many stalls were bare, one vendor snoozed in a chair by her coconuts, while others were busy discussing a neighbour’s outdoor toilet (“It was knocked down by a paw-paw tree”).
Busier was the Chocolate Museum – really just a shop, but liberal with free samples of delicious home-grown cocoa. These morsels powered us upwards again to Fort George, the now dilapidated bastion that dominates the bay.
Completed by the French in 1710, the fort has witnessed much conflict over the centuries, most recently in 1983, when Maurice Bishop and his closest allies were killed in the old parade ground. In 1979, Bishop led the socialist Grenada Revolution, but four years later the movement had started to self destruct. Following Bishop’s assassination, the US briefly occupied the island. Edwin was working at Radio Free Grenada at the time. “God intervened on our behalf, misleading the invaders who were on a mission to destroy the building,” he recalled. “It took them 36 hours to realise where the radio station was; they destroyed the wrong place.”
Exploring at walking pace, the trip felt like an immersion and an unravelling rather than a history lesson. This was certainly the case on our morning’s circuit a little north of St George’s, via a few unremarkable villages and Annandale Falls. The jungle-set cascade was billed as the headline attraction, but I preferred the stroll there: walking with the goats and the chickens, past the fruit-filled gardens, the cocoa beans laid out to dry, the man grating coconut on his stoop, the devout dressed in their Sunday best.
Everywhere, we saw the roofless shells of Ivan-battered homes, now draped in vines like sets in a tropical gothic horror. “We hadn’t had a hurricane since 1955,” said Edwin. “We’d got this idea that God was a Grenadian.” How wrong they were.
As we walked, I enjoyed the stories that came out of our chance encounters. We exchanged greetings with a man who turned out to be one of the Grenada 17 – the 17 individuals convicted for their roles in the murder of Maurice Bishop. “He spent over 20 years in jail,” Edwin said, as we continued up the road.
Then, seeing a truck bearing an incongruous ski federation logo, Edwin revealed how he’d once tried to register the Grenada Figure Skating Association: “My niece, who lives in New York, wanted to compete for the island. But one stipulation was that we had to build an ice rink here.” I could envisage the Hollywood movie that had almost happened.
Edwin exchanged a “Morning Boss” with almost everyone we passed – the builders, the car washers, the porch dwellers just shooting the breeze. Many were acquaintances or relatives; Grenada isn’t a big place. “We have the lowest crime rate in the Caribbean,” said Edwin. “You can’t commit a crime here. Someone will know you, or know someone who knows you.”
All this walking was a good counterpoint to all the eating. Grenadian portions veer to the large, whether that’s a fresh fish sandwich at a smart marina or a plate of breadfruit pie at a simple shack. However, it would have taken some walk indeed to offset our night at Patrick’s Restaurant, where we were served a smorgasbord of 16 dishes, running from callaloo soup and green banana salad to Creole fish, ginger pork, conch and oil down, a starchy one-pot stew of breadfruit, coconut milk, vegetables, meat or fish. We ate very little of the latter, and Edwin seemed disappointed. “You’re not keen on our national dish?” On the contrary, it was tasty, but posed a formidable challenge, 12 courses in.
Though our hikes weren’t long, they took us all over the island. We climbed short trails in Grand Etang National Park, for views across the volcanic crater lake and emerald highlands. We strolled affluent Fort Jeudy, a promontory of expensive houses and neat gardens ending at a wave-slapped headland that proved ideal for a picnic.
We wound our way to an old rum distillery that was pungent with engine grease and molasses; in the gift shop, we were proffered samples that ranged from the sweetly sorrel-flavoured to the over-proof hard stuff, too potentially explosive to be allowed on the plane back home.
One morning we walked along a quiet, palm-lined road to Laura’s Spice & Herb Garden, where Hazel Ann, our guide, introduced us to many of Grenada’s most important plants: the cocoa and cinnamon trees, the prickly soursop and, of course, the nutmeg. Hurricane Ivan destroyed 83 per cent of the island’s nutmeg trees, but the industry is recovering.
Nothing from the process goes to waste: the seed gives the nutmeg spice; the surrounding red mace is sold as a flavouring and preservative; the flesh can be made into jams and jellies; even the hard seed coat is recycled – the path we followed around the garden was laid with the shells, which crunched beneath our feet.
From the garden, we drove towards the east of the island, to make the short walk to Royal Mount Carmel Falls. The off-road track led through leafy plantations to end at the 82ft (25m) high cascade, one of Grenada’s highest. I felt like I’d strolled into a shampoo advert: clear waters tumbled off the rock face, plunging into pools and bubbling between boulders. Sweaty from the walk, I eagerly waded in, revelling the chill, letting the froth massage my shoulders and clear my heat-fugged head.
But even if we didn’t have a waterfall moment, each day we’d be done walking by mid-afternoon, when long, golden Grand Anse beckoned. Although this is Grenada’s most popular stretch of sand, the southern end, where we were staying, was away from the capital and the cruisers, and was always quiet by the time we arrived to wade into the waves.
How delightful to finally be cool. But how satisfying to bob about in the blue, looking up to the hills and the distant villages and feel I knew just a bit more about Grenada beyond the beach.
How to do it
Sarah Baxter travelled with HF Holidays (0345 470 7558; hfholidays.co.uk). Its 10-night adventure to Grenada costs from £3,825 per person, including flights, accommodation, all meals, transport, a full programme of guided walks and the services of an expert local guide. Book by March 31 2018 to save £150. The next departure is 14 November 2018.