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Grenada’s Beaches Still Make History

GRENADA - Friends gave Amanda Robinson and Tim Schenk strange looks when the couple announced they were spending their honeymoon on this southeastern Caribbean island, still better known to most Americans for its political past than as a vacation paradise.

"They said, 'Isn't that the place we invaded?' " says Robinson, of Greenwich, Conn. She's referring to the military action ordered by President Reagan in 1983.

But for this active pair, who spent their week snorkeling off white sand beaches and trekking throughout the island's mountainous interior, such associations are merely a historical footnote.

So, too, is Hurricane Ivan, which devastated much of Grenada (gre-NEH-dah) five years ago. Maca Bana Villas, the boutique resort where Schenk and Robinson are staying, is just one of several Grenadian hotels geared toward upscale travelers that have opened or revamped since the Category 3 storm.

Far more enticing are the recreational prospects of this island of 100,000, about 100 miles northeast of Venezuela. Visitors can easily work up a sweat hiking through the rain forest in the morning, then loll on an almost deserted beach in the afternoon.

"It's great if you want to relax or completely unplug, but there's still adventurous things to do," says Schenk, who knows from experience. With the help of a guide, he dived off six of the cliffs at Seven Sisters Falls.

"We don't want to tell any of our friends about it because it's almost undiscovered."

Not so by the British, who traditionally have been the predominant nationality traveling to Grenada. The worldwide recession and reduced airlift caused their numbers to fall dramatically this year, however; non-cruise ship tourism dropped 14% from January to September compared with the same period in 2008, according to the Grenada Board of Tourism.

A rich culture

Part of the appeal is historical. Although originally settled by the French, Grenada was an Associated State of the United Kingdom until it achieved independence in 1974, and it remains a member of the British Commonwealth. Signs of its affiliation abound, from uniformed schoolchildren playing cricket in fields to the bank of red British phone booths on the Carenage, the walkway surrounding the harbor in Grenada's capital, St. George's.

The rest is practical. Unless Americans nab one of the limited non-stop flights out of New York or Miami, getting to Grenada from the USA requires several connections and lengthy layovers.

For Kristine Jugo, the travel hassles are far outweighed by the island's cultural touchstones - nutmeg sprinkled on potent rum punch, a well-attended Fish Friday street fair in the Gouyave fishing village, a diverse cuisine encompassing everything from callaloo soup to breadfruit-based "oil-down" (a throw-everything-in-the-pot stew that serves as the country's national dish).

Inside Boots Cuisine, a home-based restaurant that serves up Grenadian specialties such as lambie (conch) steak and pumpkin soup, Jugo envelops Roland "Boots" McSween and his wife, Ruby, in a hug. An IT specialist who has visited Grenada six times since 2007, Jugo orders the usual - a Big Daddy, made with rum, lime, bitters and bark from the local mauby tree.

For Jugo, the island is all about the people. "Grenadians are very friendly and not as reserved as the locals that we've met in other islands," she says. "When they find out that you are interested in learning about their culture, history and cuisine, they are excited and are so willing to share."

The 'Spice Isle' on display

Tourists disembarking from the increasing number of cruise ships that stop in St. George's often go no farther than the city's market, especially raucous on Saturdays. Here, the island's natural bounty is on full display, from the familiar (bananas, coconuts) to how-do-you-eat-that exotics (spiky soursop, star-shaped carambola).

Or they head to Grand Anse, the showpiece of Grenada's 45 public beaches. This 2-mile stretch of white sand justifiably ends up on Caribbean "best beach" lists, and boasts the island's most luxurious hotel, the Spice Island Beach Resort.

Still, Grenada's real appeal lies outside its resort areas, in the small fishing villages and rain forests that locals call "the countryside." Here, visitors can 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.

Another window into Grenadian life is on view at nutmeg processing stations, where many hand methods are still used to extract oil, butter and the spices nutmeg and mace from the fruit that gave Grenada its nickname, the Spice Isle.

The factories are quieter now than before Hurricane Ivan, as the storm destroyed up to 90% of the island's nutmeg trees, says Frank Edwin, a guide at the Gouyave Processing Station. Nutmeg is in short supply, he says, and not likely to come back soon. Trees take up to 15 years to reach maturity and many farmers have switched to short-term crops to stay viable.

Lingering reminders of Ivan can be seen while driving around the island: churches without roofs, homes still being rebuilt. Yet the national forest around Grand Etang Lake has grown back lush enough to remain home to Mona monkeys, introduced to Grenada during the African slave trade.

"If you could have been here two weeks after Ivan, it would have looked like a desert," says Christopher "Mac" McDonald. "Trees on the ground, everything broken. Now it's back as Grenada."

Like many Grenadians, McDonald makes his living off tourism, still the country's top industry. His specialty is leading visitors through rain-forest hikes that can be as strenuous as climbing the 2,767-foot Mount St. Catherine.

Today's agenda is the far-easier hike to the multi-tiered Seven Sisters Falls. A 30-minute trek down occasionally slippery rocks results in reward: a plunge into a chilled pool fed by the rushing water. Says Mac: "This is the best of Grenada."

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