To the uninitiated, the Southern Caribbean island of Grenada is better known for its political history than it is for being a vacation paradise. (U.S. troops intervened in a coup during President Reagan's administration, at the time a controversial volley in the Cold War.) But for the tourists pouring in to explore its numerous beaches or hike its mountainous rainforests via the island's increasing cruise business -- on a recent day, five ships were docked at the capital of St. George's -- such associations belong in the past. So, too, does Hurricane Ivan, which damaged 90 percent of Grenada's buildings, destroyed 85 percent of its nutmeg trees, and left more than half the population homeless in September 2004.
Nearly 15 years later, St. George's is as colorful and charming as ever. Restaurants, tourist attractions and hotels are back in business -- in many cases refurbished and looking even better than they did before.
Visitors can still bask in the sun on the wide, white-sand Grand Anse Beach, visit the Mona monkeys that live near Grand Etang National Park, or enjoy a lazy waterfront lunch along the horseshoe-shaped Carenage harbor. Take advantage of Grenada's topography and work up a sweat as you hike to one of the island's multi-tiered waterfalls; then, cool off with a relaxing swim in the chilled waters. Make sure to sample some of the diverse, wonderfully seasoned cuisine, befitting Grenada's "Isle of Spice" nickname. At St. George's market, you'll find ginger, cinnamon, mace, turmeric and nutmeg sharing space with coconuts, bananas and more exotic fruit, such as star-shaped carambola.
Grenada's famous nutmeg industry is still recovering from the 2004 hurricane; the trees take between seven and 15 years to mature enough to bear fruit. But interested visitors can still tour spice plantations and processing stations to learn about the hardy new varieties of nutmeg trees that are being planted -- varieties that will hopefully survive the next big storm. Or tour River Antoine Estate, a rum distillery that still uses a 19th-century water wheel to produce 152-proof liquor, considered too strong for visitors to bring home on a plane. Either way, the natural bounty of one of the Caribbean's friendliest islands will entice those searching for eco-tourism adventures or laze-the-day-away relaxation. Grenada truly has assets to fulfill both.
Most ships dock at the Melville Street Cruise Terminal, which exits through the Esplanade Shopping Mall and then out into downtown St. George's. Other (mostly smaller) ships dock nearby at the Carenage, a horseshoe-shaped waterfront area with shops and restaurants.
Those docked at the Melville Street Cruise Terminal are within walking distance of the major sights of St. George's, including the Grenada National Museum, Market Square and several pretty churches. The Carenage and the city's forts are just a quick cab ride (or, in the case of Fort George, a steep walk) away. Those docked at the Carenage can enjoy the area's duty-free shops and waterfront restaurants or walk to nearby St. George's.
Busy port days bring up to three ships, but the vibe here, while bustling, lacks the hustle of some islands. The world-famous Grand Anse Beach is only a 10-minute cab ride away from the port. Many of Grenada's hotels are located at Grand Anse, as are numerous water-sports operators who can help you arrange activities such as diving, snorkeling, windsurfing, parasailing and kayaking.
The streets in St. George's are steep, with deep gutters running under very narrow sidewalks. Make sure you watch where you are going so you don't turn an ankle -- or worse.
On Foot: Ships dock within walking distance of downtown St. George's, which boasts shopping, dining, historic forts, churches and a museum.
By Taxi: Cabs are plentiful at the cruise terminals and in downtown St. George's. The government of Grenada sets the rates; a trip from St. George's to the Grand Anse Beach area is $10. (You can also take a water taxi from the Carenage to Grand Anse for about $4.) Private or group tours can be arranged with cab drivers, with average hourly rates running about $25; make sure you agree upon a price ahead of time. A two-and-a-half-hour tour hitting four highlights -- Grand Etang National Park, Grand Etang Lake, Annandale Falls and Fort Frederick -- costs about $70 for one to four people.
By Bus: Grenada's colorful local buses -- essentially vans that bear personalized monikers like "Upper Level," "Hot Boys" and "Spectacular" -- are the most cost-effective way to move about Grenada. Available from St. George's for most short rides (such as the Grand Anse beach area), bus rides can cost as little as 75 cents. The trip from Melville Street Cruise Terminal to Grand Anse costs $1.
By Car: Grenadians drive on the left side of the road. Driving permits are required; they cost between $11 and $12 and can be purchased from car rental agencies. Local companies include Y&R Car Rentals (473-444-4448) and Indigo Car Rentals (473-439-3300). Rates start at $60 a day and $63 a day, respectively.
Grenada's local currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar. You can use American dollars around the island, though you may receive change in the local currency. ATMs are plentiful in St. George's and other major tourist areas. For the latest exchange rates, please visit www.xe.com.
English is the official language spoken in Grenada. You will also hear a French-African patios spoken by the locals.
Aquarium Restaurant: The Aquarium Restaurant is located on the beach at Point Salines, just off the airport road (20 minutes from St. George's) and serves up some of the island's best seafood and international cuisine. If you're in port on Sunday, check out the fabulous lobster beach barbecue. (473-444-1410; open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m.)
Nutmeg Restaurant: For great harbor views, try the Nutmeg Restaurant at the Carenage. This casual waterfront joint offers continental dishes as well as Grenadian cuisine, with specialties like callaloo soup and curried conch. We especially love the nutmeg ice cream. (473-440-2539; open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m.)
Sails: Also at the Carenage, Sails sports a sleek interior with windows that open to the harbor. Menu offerings range from burgers to steamed lobster and grilled fish. (473-440-9747; open daily from 8 a.m.)
Galley at Grenada Marine: The Galley at Grenada Marine is a friendly, casual beachfront spot serving Caribbean fare. It's on the island's southeast coast overlooking St. David's Harbour. (473-443-1064; open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., and weekends, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.)
Stop by the raucous market in St. George's to buy a ubiquitous necklace made up of spices. Or pick up some nutmeg syrup; it tastes great on pancakes, over ice cream or in coffee.
Whether it's a Painkiller (rum, pineapple juice, cream of coconut and orange juice) or punch made with potent, local Clarke's Court rum, most drinks in Grenada come topped with nutmeg, one of the island's major staples.