Caribbean ocean view with the scent of spice
09/07/2013 12:00 AM
09/04/2013 2:57 PM
All I wanted to do in Grenada was veg on the beach. I had a stack of paperbacks, SPF 70 and reservations for a Balinese massage. It was my first time back to the Caribbean in 10 years, and my first beach vacation in nearly as long. The prospect of eternal days of sunshine, frothy novels and morning yoga to keep me from morphing into a true sloth seemed like heaven.
I had good reason to spend a few nights on this remote island, 100 miles north of Venezuela: It was my 40th birthday. I wanted to retreat and reflect. But after 40 years, you’d think I knew myself better. Day after day of mindless loafing at my bohemian-luxe resort, Laluna, where I bounced between my cottage-sized bungalow — one of 16 on the hillside property — and a chaise longue on the small, private beach, no matter how indulgent and quasi-spiritual it sounds, gets old. I wanted stimulation, not to sit still.
Luckily Grenada’s rising tourism trade offers plenty of activities. With lush rain forests and bustling villages, nutmeg factories and cocoa plantations, the island is filled with natural and agricultural delights. Indeed, Grenada is nicknamed the Spice Isle, and sensory adventures abound. I let my nose lead the way.
There are several ways to get around the 120-square-mile island, including rental cars and public buses. But the easiest — and most informative — is renting a taxi with a local driver at the wheel. Which is how I found myself riding shotgun in a minivan next to a guy named Elvis.
We were heading to Belmont Estate, a 300-year-old plantation that harvests spices like cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, ginger, nutmeg and mace, and supplies the Grenada Chocolate Co. with organic cocoa for its chocolate bars. As Elvis navigated the winding, hilly roads up the island’s eastern side, taking us past fruit stands stocked with breadfruit, mangoes and bananas, goats tethered to telephone poles, and pastel-colored homes covered in bougainvillea and perched on stilts, he gave me a brief lesson on the island’s agricultural history.
In 2004, after 49 hurricane-free years, Hurricane Ivan roared across Grenada, damaging 90 percent of the island, including its nutmeg trees — source of a chief export. Hurricane Emily, which hit in 2005, further damaged crops and infrastructure. In the storms’ aftermaths, Grenadians started cultivating more cocoa than nutmeg since cocoa trees take half as long to mature. This shift in priority was evident at Belmont Estate.
The 400-acre estate is carved into a green hillside. Rows of royal palm trees lined a path through wild vegetation, everything from towering tamarind to petite bergamot trees. Goats from the dairy farm grazed in a fenced-in patch. A soft-spoken guide took a small group of us inside a cavernous barn, where the funky scent of fermenting cacao beans, still white and gooey, permeated the air. As she explained the process — drying, roasting, pressing, conching — she brought us outside, where beans were turning brown under the tropical sun. But the estate’s expertise really came to life inside the boutique, where you can buy everything from rum truffles to chocolate-covered pineapple to pate de mango, a sweet, gummy bonbon enrobed in dark chocolate.
On the way home, Elvis suggested we take the west coast.
“You get a lot of ocean views in the west,” he said in response to my breathless “Whoa!” as we rounded a bend and saw the turquoise water before us. Not long after, he pulled over to a roadside stand and ordered a couple of local Carib beers. Elvis was a sales rep for the company and, with quiet pride, he handed me a bottle. I don’t know if it was the chocolate aftertaste or Caribbean views, but it was one of the best brews of my life.
A couple of days later, I was on my way back up the west coast, this time with a driver named Francis and two addresses that seemed to offer definitive Spice Isle experiences: Dougaldston Estate and the Gouyave Nutmeg Processing Cooperative.
If Belmont Estate is Grenada’s “finest agri-tourism experience,” then Dougaldston Estate is its forgotten cousin. With a worn boucan — a building with long drying trays on rails that can be pushed under the building during rain — the estate has the broke-down beauty of Miss Havisham’s mansion. Inside, the spices were displayed as artfully as if a food stylist had prepped them. Branches of cinnamon and pimento trees were splayed on work stations along with giant cocoa pods and calabash shells filled with allspice, bay leaf, nutmeg and mace: the perfect prelude to our next stop.
A short drive away in the fishing village of Gouyave, the nutmeg cooperative enveloped us in the spice’s unmistakable citrus-cola scent. Tons of nutmegs occupied long, shallow beds on the warehouse’s second floor, where they soaked up the heat beneath the roof’s eaves. Unlike cacao seeds, nutmegs can’t be exposed to direct sun and take two months to dry. They’re then fed into a machine that spins and cracks them, and workers do the rest by hand: separating the shells and testing the nuts for quality before bagging them for export.
Having by now explored the full perimeter of Grenada, I decided it was time to venture inland, which led me to another driver: Lenox. As we putted up the mountainous interior in a boxy diesel van, lush ferns lined the road and bamboo trees bowed overhead, creating a green tunnel. The air became dramatically cooler. We’d entered the Grand Etang National Park.
Cassava, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, hibiscus, passion fruit, star fruit, pineapple, avocado, yam, banana, mango, coconut, soursop, sugar cane — the worn trail on which we started our hike was a botanist’s dream. And Lenox, a dream guide.
He explained how papaya seeds can expel parasites from the digestive system. He demonstrated how the tiny Mimosa pudica recoils at a human’s touch. And passing a guava tree, Lenox plucked a couple of the ripe green fruit, instructing me to bite off and spit out the stem, and enjoy the firm, pulpy insides.
As the aromatic vegetation gave way to wild forest, Lenox stopped. “We are going to do a spiritual exercise, OK?” For one full minute, he instructed, we were to close our eyes and just listen. I heard water babbling in the distance. Wind rustled through leaves, and birds chirped. Somewhere, a piece of fruit dropped with a soft thud. “As we go deeper into the forest,” Lenox said, “it’s important to really listen. It is important to hear what nature has to say.”
I did keep my ears peeled during our hike, but more to Lenox’s continuous observations and instructions. “Do you want to do a little extra?” he asked, about 45 minutes in. Fully under his — and Grenada’s — spell, I said yes.
He veered off the path, leading me through branches, over streams and around fallen trees. Up and away, deeper into the unknown, we finally arrived at a sloping rock wall with water shooting down: the end of the line. Or so I thought. Following Lenox’s careful instructions, I slid off my shoes and followed him as he started slowly sidestepping up the rocky ridge, through the rushing water, groping — sometimes clinging to — the facing rock wall for support. It was an intimidating climb, but we eventually reached the top. The water’s roar subsided, and all was calm again. Then I saw my reward: Honeymoon Falls. One of several waterfalls in the park, and rarely reached by tourists, as it is off the well-traveled trails. As I took in my tropical surroundings from the bracingly cool, heart-shaped pool under the waterfall, I felt nothing but gratitude — for Lenox, for Grenada, and for my inability to sit still.
I didn’t entirely eschew the beach. In between chocolate tastings and nutmeg lessons, the forest and the falls, I found time to honor my original intent for visiting Grenada. I watched the sunset each evening while paddling in the warm water. I watched local men pull in their catch from fishing nets. And in the afternoons, if only for an hour or two, I observed the mellow parade of joggers, uniformed schoolgirls and the politest of peddlers straggle by. It was, I decided, a good life in Grenada.
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