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Getting ready to rum-ble in Grenada

AAP logoAAP 21/11/2016 Karen Bowerman

On my first evening in Grenada, I sit on a dock overlooking a bay and order a "dodgy rum punch", named - I'm assured - after the bar that serves it, rather than its ingredients.

It proves a potent and very drinkable concoction, staving off jet lag, re-setting my body clock and warming my soul, as if tuning me into Grenadian life.

When Prince Harry visits at the end of November, he'll no doubt be sampling the island's finest tipple. By royal appointment, of course.

In his honour, I order another, then flop into bed, listening to waves break gently over Grand Anse Beach: a five-kilometre stretch of pristine, coralline sand, said to be the most beautiful in the West Indies.

Grenada, together with its sister isles of Carriacou and Petite Martinique, form a tri-island state, about 160km north of Venezuela.

Grenada is known as the Spice Isle, its volcanic soil giving rise to nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon, plus cocoa, various root vegetables, affectionately known as "ground provisions", and, of course, sugar cane, hence all the rum.

At the River Antoine Rum Distillery on the east coast (Grenada is just 34km long and 20km wide, so nowhere's far), rum is still produced as it was in the 1700s.

The distillery, a handful of stone buildings, is powered by the river, which drives an old waterwheel that was made in Derby.

Beside it, a chute feeds a decrepit-looking conveyor belt. Four guys are using it to play cards.

"Why aren't you working?" I ask, mimicking the direct, but friendly, manner of most Grenadians.

"No more sugar cane," one replies. "We're waiting for the next lorry load."

"Which won't come 'til Monday," his mate adds, nonchalantly. (It's presently Thursday).

Nearby, in huge cauldrons, rum-to-be bubbles like hot treacle. A saucepan, strapped to a long pole, serves as a ladle.

The end product contains 88 per cent alcohol - too inflammable to take on a flight home. A special version, clocking in at 79 per cent is distilled for visitors.

My friends and I head north to the Belmont agro-tourism estate for lunch, where everything served has been grown on site. I try soursop juice, which tastes a bit like frothy grapefruit; green banana soup, which reminds me of Thai green curry, and a chocolate brownie which delivers a gloriously bitter kick.

But nothing can top the cacao-infused cheesecake we discover at the House of Chocolate in St George's, Grenada's small capital.

After learning about life on the plantations in the tiny museum, we perch on stools resembling giant choc chip cookies and, between us, order most of the cocoa-inspired menu.

I choose a 100 per cent chocolate shot: an espresso-sized cup of melted indulgence.

Opposite is a batik studio run by artists Chris and Lilo, who employ local women to make the garments they decorate and dye.

Their shop is in one of the oldest buildings in town, built from bricks used as ballast on a ship that sailed from England in the 18th century.

"What brought you here?" I ask Lilo, after learning she used to live in Switzerland.

"A sail boat," she replies. "I'm a gypsy, but when I came here, I never left."

Down the hill is St George's Market, where women sell ground spices in neatly-labelled packets. We stroll from here to the harbour, the Carenage, before taking in the view from the canons lining Fort George, a 17th-century hilltop battery.

Beyond the funky-coloured buildings surrounding the bay, a sweep of sand signifies Grand Anse beach, home to the Coyaba Resort.

Barely ten minutes later, I'm there, my towel hanging from the branch of a knobbly sea grape tree, as I take a dip in the sea.

One afternoon, I go kayaking; on another, a group of us take a catamaran to the island's quirkiest attraction, its Underwater Sculpture Park in Molinere Bay.

While divers sink to the ocean bed, there's still plenty to see if you snorkel, since none of the sculptures are more than seven metres deep. A mermaid flicks her sinuous tail; a ring of children, cast from local youngsters, attract a shoal of parrot fish, and from a sun-dappled gully, female figures gaze upwards, draped in coral and sand. The park was the first of its kind in the world, forming an artificial reef to encourage marine life.

While Grenada has around 110km of coastline, inland, there are mountains, rainforests and waterfalls. A renowned hiker, 77-year-old Telfor Bedeau, shows me round.

We meet in the mountainous Grand Etang Forest. Telfor arrives - on foot - from his village 10km away. He's wearing jelly shoes and is carrying a machete.

"It's what I always take, along with a compass," he says. "Nothing else!"

"No phone or GPS?" I ask.

"No, never. And I've only got lost once, in 1960, when I was 22. But I didn't have to sleep in the bush; I found a way out anyway."

He has no need for his machete today; our walk is on a marked path through giant ferns, bamboo and bois canoe trees, their hollow trunks once used for rafts.

At one point, we see Mount Qua Qua and the crater lake of Grand Etang, along with the Caribbean Sea on our left and the Atlantic on our right.

Below, in Beausejour Valley, there's the bark of mona monkeys; Grenada is the only place they are found outside West Africa.

I spend my final days at True Blue Bay, a boutique resort with a small marina on the south coast. The feel is "driftwood chic" - buildings are yellow, lilac and pink, and the bathroom in my waterfront duplex has wrought iron turtles and a pebble-edged mirror.

After hearing talk of "liming" (slang for taking life easy) it's a chance to put it into practice. I relax by the pool and on my balcony, then head off for beginners' yoga, in a pavilion set high in the trees.

"Enjoy the breeze and the sound of the sea," our instructor, Fay, whispers. The others close their eyes, but I can't miss the spectacular view of the bay.

It's surpassed only by sunset, which I enjoy from a traditional, wooden sloop, the kind once used by smugglers who used to run rum between St Barts and Barbados.

As our skipper, Walter, unfurls the sails, the owner, Danny, serves us punch, warning: "You won't taste the rum straightaway, but it'll certainly hit you later."

The sun disappears; the sky turns gold, then purple, then pink. But they're not the gentle hues you find elsewhere in the world; these are bold, riotous and exuberant, as if reflecting the spirit of this lesser-known Caribbean isle.

Of course, it could just be the rum punch talking - Danny's cocktail finally kicking in - but why worry, when this is a country where even the minister of tourism says, "There's a rum for every occasion, and then one just for the fun of it!"

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