I started searching for the scent as soon as I landed at the Maurice Bishop International Airport. For many people, the fragrance is redolent of grandma’s kitchen during holiday cookie season, or of potpourri. For me, the blend of nutmeg, cinnamon, mace and cocoa smells of Grenada.
I first visited this Caribbean island more than a decade ago on a family vacation that fell somewhere between the U.S. invasion (1983) and Hurricane Ivan (2004). My lasting memory of that trip was not of the talcum-soft beaches or the snorkeling reefs rife with tropical fish. Rather, I remember how the air was seemingly perfumed with spice cake.
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Since then, I’ve inhaled the aromas of many other islands. They smelled nice enough, though perhaps a bit heavy on the fish and rum. But my nose always drifts back to Grenada.
Nutty for nutmeg
The country is a Gordian knot of squiggly streets, steep inclines, dense rain forest and utter confusion: Ivan swiped most of the road signs, and the government is on a slow track to replacing them. The most reliable guideposts are the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Caribbean Sea to the west.
In advance of my trip, my tour guide, Edwin Frank, and I assembled an itinerary that was heavily skewed toward spices, once the country’s main industry. We would visit a nutmeg processing center, a cocoa plantation and a chocolate factory. If we moved like Kirani James, the Olympic sprinter who grew up in Grenada, we could possibly squeeze in a produce market and the Spice Basket, a cultural center with the magic word in its name.
We had to make sacrifices, though. My beach time would be reduced to a blur of sand and water seen through the car window.
We scheduled our excursion for Friday; I arrived on Wednesday night. After such a long absence from Grenada, I couldn’t wait another day. I started the hunt for nutmeg early Thursday morning.
My lodging, the Flamboyant Hotel, was a short walk to Spiceland Mall (yes, I know). I hugged the side of the gnarled road, hopping between speeding cars and land crab holes. Inside the IGA supermarket, I browsed through the aisles alongside shoppers dressed in scrubs, sweatshirts and backpacks, the medical students from nearby St. George’s University.
I found the things-you-spread-on-toast section and scooped up two jars of nutmeg jam. In the bakery aisle, I grabbed a crusty baguette — lest you forget, the French ruled Grenada in the 17th and 18th centuries — though the bread was superfluous. A spoon was all I needed.
I should partially thank the British for my jam. The colonists brought nutmeg over from Indonesia in the mid-1800s. Before Ivan, Grenada was the world’s second-largest nutmeg producer, behind only that Southeast Asian country.
When I met Edwin, I quickly admitted that I was questioning my olfactory memories. The island didn’t smell as nutmeggy as it had before. He assured me that my nose wasn’t delusional.
“The hurricane was devastating,” he said. “We lost 83 percent of our nutmeg trees. But we have planted a more resistant variety and are en route to returning” to the No. 2 position.
Despite the setback, the farmers are sticking by the brown nut. At a nutmeg processing station in Grenville, an employee led six of us on a tour of the warehouse-sized facility. Burlap bags bulging with nuts rested on wooden pallets and filled shelves that climbed like beanstalks to the ceiling rafters.
On the drive to Dougaldston Estate, a whiff of chocolate floated through the open window. I excitedly announced my discovery to Edwin.
Cocoa plantations typically harvest the bean in September, though this year, the season is a bit behind schedule. However, at the 17th-century estate near Gouyave (French-ish for “guava”), Edwin pulled out a drawer containing the drying beans. I crushed one between my fingers, releasing the bitter odor of burnt chocolate.
The facility sells bags of spices for a few dollars apiece. But before I could shop for myself, I had to take care of the mosquitoes.
Last year, the Caribbean reported its first cases of chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus that causes high fever and achy joints. The country’s health ministry documented 183 infected individuals last month. I didn’t want to start October as No. 184.
The Dougaldston guide, who was recovering from the illness, recommended nutmeg oil as a bug repellent. I dripped the liquid onto my arms and legs, hoping that the biters smelled danger, not pie.
TAKING A HIKE
The announcement rang through the parking lot of a secondary school in Grenville: Anyone with new shoes must approach the podium. I looked at my sneakers, caked with mud from yesterday’s rain, and smiled. A girl never tells the age of her footwear.
A handful of folks, however, walked up to a small pile of single shoes, one foot bare or socked, took a deep breath and then proceeded to chug beer out of the athletic vessel.
After the sartorial rite of passage, the leader of the Grenada Hash House Harriers, a local chapter of the international hiking group, quickly reviewed the rules for the Saturday afternoon trek. We would follow trail markers, circles of shredded paper set on the ground. However, at three intersections, the prankster planners had plotted false routes. If we happened to lose our way, we were instructed to yell, “Are you?” and wait for the response, “On on.” The newbies to hashing practiced the call for help — twice.
The group has been meeting every weekend since 1985. Typically about 250 to 300 hikers and runners attend (we had half the numbers, due to chikungunya), a roving pack of locals, expats, tourists, university students and dogs. Athleticism is not required; a thirst for Caribbeer is.
We started the trek in the streets of Grenville, passing yipping dogs and residents waving from their porches. We walked along a stretch of beach before entering a dense rain forest. I’d fallen into step with a British woman who lived on the island and went by the hashtag Mucky Drawers.
The two of us scrambled over rocks, leaped across streams and climbed hills sloppy with mud. We used roots and branches as ropes. I followed Mucky’s lead, listening for her warnings: “Mind the thorns,” “Mind the hole.”
On easier stretches, we chatted about life on Grenada. I asked her if the country still practiced English traditions, despite 40 years of independence. For example, I knew that Grenadians were mad about cricket, and that the Spice Basket runs a museum dedicated to the English sport. But what about tea and scones, or ale and steak pie? Mucky D said that the island doesn’t have any proper pubs, but the rum shops do sell bottles of Guinness. Thank goodness, she gets her Guinness.
Midway through the hike, we picked up a third person: Kim, aka Wet & Dry. We stood in a banana plantation overlooking the coastline and heard the strains of music coming from our starting point. We were getting close. But the trail snaked back into the black maw of the forest. We looked at the road, glowing in the waning light, and made the wise choice.
Back at the parking lot, we received a heroine’s welcome. Then I was called to the front, where a small crowd doused me with beer. I was no longer a Grenada hash virgin.
A tall man in running shorts approached me, saying, “You took that like a real hasher.”
I thanked him kindly, then returned to squeezing the beer and sweat out of my hair.
Sundays on Grenada are as quiet as a congregation of church mice; off-season, you can barely even hear them squeak.
Most Grenadians spend the day in services and/or with family. Museums and attractions are closed. Even the roads are sparsely populated.
For my Sunday on Grenada, I’d originally planned to ride the 90-minute ferry to Carriacou, one of Grenada’s two islands. However, Bruno and Iris, who run Cabier Ocean Lodge, warned me that I would spend a very lonely, hungry and thirsty three hours there. My Plan B: take a snorkeling tour of the Underwater Sculpture Park, an aquatic Hirshhorn. Unfortunately, my rental car died on the side of the road, and I missed the starting time.
I hoofed it back to the lodge and mulled alternate plans while the company fixed the vehicle. I roped in the other two guests, Felicia and Kim, who were lazing around on the beach. We decided to take a Sunday drive and make the most of the empty roads. If I strayed from the left, or Brit-Grenadian side of the road, to the right, or Yankee side, I had little fear of bumping into another car.
The three of us set off in a northerly direction, fixing our navigational dial on Bathway Beach. We drove without incident to Pearls Airport, site of an abandoned Russian plane and a Cuban passenger aircraft that was grounded after the 1983 overthrow of the prime minister, Maurice Bishop. A grazing cow manicured the grassy grounds.
We saw a sign to Belmont Estate, a lavish property that grows cacao and provides tours of its operations. We stopped at a restaurant for a cold drink and a bowl of callaloo soup, made from a leafy green vegetable. We still hoped to make it to the beach, but we got ridiculously lost. We drove past the same woman selling fruit four times.
Throughout my stay, I’d seen vendors selling roasted corn along the side of the road. Since we weren’t getting anywhere fast, I stopped to inquire about a cob. The cook had just warmed the grill; ETA of eating was a half-hour.
We followed a bystander’s BMW along twisty roads that sometimes swirled around traffic circles. We were still unsure of our location when the man stopped and got out of his car. He pointed out the road that we needed to follow, then directed our gaze across the street: to a roasted corn stand.
I bought two pieces from a vendor. He handed me the pair wrapped in banana leaves.
I gingerly placed the food in the back seat, the earthy scent of roasted corn filling the interior. We drove back to the hotel reeking of Grenada.
Going to Grenada
Getting there: American Airlines flies nonstop from Miami to Grenada, a 31/2-hour flight, with roundtrip airfare starting around $405 in early December.
WHERE TO STAY
Flamboyant Hotel and Villas, 1 Morne Rouge Grand Anse Beach, St. George; 473-444-4247; www.flamboyant.com. The 67-room property with a pool, a diver center, a beachside restaurant and a fitness center is across the street from Grand Anse Beach and near the capital. Rooms from $185 a night.
Cabier Ocean Lodge, Crochu, St. Andrew; 473-444-6013; www.cabier-vision.com. Villas and studios on the island’s Atlantic side. On-site restaurant with French chef, plus an animal sanctuary including an armadillo, Mona monkeys and iguanas. Rooms from $105.
WHERE TO EAT
Belmont Estate, Belmont, St. Patrick; 473-442-9524; www.belmontestate.net. Serves Grenadian classics, such as callaloo soup, papaya salad, mutton and cinnamon ice cream. About $25 for the lunch buffet.
Cabier Ocean Lodge, 473-407-5666. The French chef prepares Carib-inflected dishes, such as green banana soup, grilled fish and chicken roti, plus burgers and sandwiches, from about $6.
Gouyave Fish Fridays, Gouyave, St. John. On Friday evenings, street vendors sell local fish cooked in various styles. Prices vary but start at a few dollars.
WHAT TO DO
Grenville Nutmeg Processing Center, Grenville, St. Andrew; 473-442-7241. Under renovation, but tours are still held on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. $1.
Edwin Frank Tours, 473-407-5393. The Grenadian tour guide customizes tours based on your interests. From $25 an hour, or less if he drives your car.
Grenada Hash House Harriers, www.grenadahash.com. Hiking and running group meets every other Saturday at 4 p.m.; about 75 cents to participate. Meeting places and routes change. Check the Web site for info.
Dougaldston Estate, Dougaldston, St. John; 473-407-6809 or 473-437-0426. Weekdays 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. By appointment on weekends. Free.