Grenada: Unspoiled favorite of nature lovers

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n 1983, Grenada was invaded by U.S. troops when its government was toppled in a Marxist coup. Today, this lush, mountainous country is hoping for a different kind of invasion altogether: an array of tourists.

But don't get me wrong. This is not the kind of island that will ever become a darling of mass-market tourism. Grenada wants a larger share of the tourism pie, but not at the expense of ecological assets.

One-sixth of the island's land mass is, in fact, preserved as parks and natural wildlife sanctuaries. In large part, Grenada's appeal is firmly routed in its unspoiled setting.

Grenada, located at the southern point of the Windward Islands chain just 100 miles north of Venezuela, is home to 100,000 people and 1,900 hotel rooms.

Location, location, location. Spice Island Beach Resort sits squarely on Grenada's two-mile-long Grand Anse Beach, the island's most popular beach. Many of the resort's 66 suites and public areas have views of the beach. Ten pool suites feature private gardens ideal for honeymooners. Known as the "Spice Island," Grenada (Gren-AYE-da) is the top producer of nutmeg outside of Indonesia, turning out one-third of the world's supply of the spice -- more per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. Scents of other spices wafting through the island's air include vanilla, ginger and cinnamon.

Grenada is actually a three-island nation: Grenada (the largest, at 12 by 21 miles); Carriacou; and Petite Martinique. There are six parishes, or districts, all named after saints, and 45 beaches, of which Grand Anse's two-mile stretch of uninterrupted white sand is the most famous.

Located on the western, or leeward, side of the island, Grand Anse's waters are typically calm. It's a peaceful spot to sunbathe, and the vendors who sell their wares on the beach are not overly aggressive or intimidating.

Grenada is a turn-on for birders, hikers, mountain bikers and anyone who appreciates nature.

Active vacationers can climb 2,756-foot-high Mount Catherine, the highest peak on the island, or visit Grand Etang National Forest, whose centerpiece is a 13-acre lake in a volcanic crater 1,740 feet above sea level. Agents also can recommend a visit to scenic Concord Waterfalls, located on the edge of the forest reserve.

I visited Grenada in June during the rainy season, and I wouldn't recommend hiking right after a serious rainfall. The more intrepid members of my group attempted a hike in Grand Etang and came back pretty muddy.

Travelers looking for a knowledgeable hiking guide should contact Telfor Bedau of Explore Grenada on Foot at (473) 442-6200. He's a mountain-climbing specialist with vast knowledge of the island's flora and fauna.

Other attractions for active travelers and birders are the 450-acre Levera National Park and Lake Antoine, a crater lake that attracts an array of species.

Those seeking more sedentary pursuits will not be disappointed, either. The River Antoine Rum Distillery tour is interesting, but visitors should think twice about sampling too much of the over-proofed rum at the end of the tour. They just might lose consciousness. Phone: (473) 442-7109

The 300-year-old working plantation called Belmont Estate, at (473) 442-9524, recently opened its doors to guests, who are encouraged to walk the grounds, visit with Lipstick the donkey, Princess the horse and try to spot Cutie the monkey.

Here, a buffet-style lunch for $15 is served on a patio with sweeping views of grazing horses and cocoa fields. The soup, dessert and beverage give visitors a sense of authentic Caribbean fare. Reservations are required.

Carriacou, the diminutive sister isle 23 miles northeast of Grenada, is seven miles long and three miles wide.

Travelers can take the Osprey shuttle to Carriacou. Roundtrip fare is approximately $34. For more information on the shuttle, call (473) 440-8126.

Visitors to Carriacou should pop into the tourism offices behind the shuttle pier upon arrival. Officials there can arrange a taxi tour for an hour or so for $30 for up to four people and $60 for two-and-a-half hour tours.

I visited Carriacou on a holiday, so attractions such as museums were not open, but it was plenty of fun just to take in the island's hilly vistas by minibus.

The Osprey shuttle also transports passengers to the even smaller sister island of Petite Martinique, whose 486 acres are inhabited by 900 people.

Back in Grenada, the capital of St. George's is definitely worth exploring, especially on Saturdays, when locals sell and buy at the outdoor produce and spice market.

Whenever I smell nutmeg now, I think of open-air Caribbean markets. More specifically, I think fondly of Grenada.

To contact reporter Claudette Covey, send e-mail to [email protected].

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