The Spice Isle


By Liz Tosoni

Having studied Chris Doyle’s Sailor’s Guide to the Windward Islands before our arrival in Grenada, Tom and I thought we had a pretty good notion about what we were going to find, but were truly taken by surprise at the amazing proliferation of vegetation and the sheer, natural beauty of the place. Feel Free has transported us to countless landfalls and this one definitely ranks high on our list of “memorable” ones.

The Windward Islands are at the southern end of the huge necklace of Caribbean islands sweeping in a wide arc from Florida to Venezuela. To get there from the many other British possessions, you had to sail to windward, hence the name.

Now just picture a small, mountainous, tear drop shaped, verdant island with bountiful tropical forests, crystal waterfalls cascading into cool, clear pools, an abundance of flora and fauna, lots of indented bays and harbours and you have Grenada. It is the Spice Island of the Caribbean. The literature from the tourist bureau says that the aromatic scents of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and ginger waft in the balmy air as you stroll through markets or wander rainforests and it’s true. No wonder as there are more spices here per square mile than any other place on the planet.

The state of Grenada is actually comprised of three main islands: Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique. Grenada is the largest, at 120 square miles, Petite Martinique is one square mile. The tiny nation gained full independence from Britain in 1974.

Volcanic eruptions from the sea gave birth to the island aeons ago. Arawak Indians made it their home first, having canoed from the nearby South American continent, all the way up the Caribbean chain. Then came the Carib Indians who were the inhabitants when Christopher Columbus sighted the island back in 1498. Passing Spanish sailors were reminded of a region of southern Spain on seeing it and called it “Granada” and somehow the name stuck in one form or another as it changed hands over centuries. The British were the ones who gave it the current pronunciation (Gre-NAY-da) and spelling. “Morne des Sauteurs” or Leapers’ Hill is a cliff where the last of the Caribs, 40 sad brave souls, including men women and children, jumped to their deaths rather than submit to European rule. The French and British battled it out until 1783 when the British won and began importing large numbers of slaves to develop an agricultural economy.

One of the things I find interesting about world cruising is learning about local spices and herbs and how they got to the different areas. 1843 was probably one of the most important years in the history of this wee nation as it was the year that nutmeg was introduced, taken albeit clandestinely, from the Banda islands of Dutch-occupied Indonesia, the only place in the world where it grew. Grenada proved to have ideal soil and climate for the little nugget, which was considered nearly as precious as gold at the time, for its healing, preservative and flavour qualities.

Despite the devastation caused by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and Emily 10 months later in which over 80% of the houses and buildings were damaged or destroyed, the hardy nutmeg tree still thrives and the island is the world’s second largest supplier of nutmeg and mace, the lacy red covering on the shell. Nutmeg is used in Indian curries, puddings, cream sauces, sweet breads, peas and beans, eggnog and many milk drinks. Tom is sure the design for the modern bicycle helmet came from the shape of the half nutmeg.

The boat jobs on our “to do” list were growing when we arrived in green Grenada. We’d been on the move since leaving Barbados and had put aside many chores, so we hunkered down in Prickly Bay, a large and well protected harbor full of cruising boats. Now when I say “hunker down” I don’t mean “sit back and relax” as you might think. I mean that we found a really good spot in the harbor and set the hook well so that we could settle in and get to work. When I tell non cruisers that “cruising is a full time job” they often look at me blankly. “Yeah right”, they say to themselves. Well, if they were a fly on the bulkhead of Feel Free while we were in Prickly Bay, they’d soon learn the meaning. We were whirling dervishes, busy from dawn to dusk. Here are some of the jobs I did: cleaned the boat stem to stern (where does all the dust come from?), major laundry, took inventory of stores, made courtesy flags, baked bread, repaired and put in place sun shades, re-stitched the dinghy cover, re-organized lockers. Together, Tom and I removed the large furling jib from the head stay, bagged it and dropped it off at a sail maker for re-stitching (that darned UV cover again), then we picked it up when it was ready and raised it in calm conditions. Among Tom’s jobs were: fixing the gen-set, repairing dinghy pads and handles, changing the engine oil, replacing zincs. The hull under the waterline was beginning to develop a healthy garden of plant life so both Tom and I regularly dove on the bottom to scrub and scrape away the fuzzy growth. Grenada has two excellent chandleries so we stocked up on many marine items we hadn’t been able to find for months.

Grenada has a very active “yachtie community” with a morning “net”, barbeques and potlucks, book swaps, organized island tours, etc. With its marinas, haulout facilities and easy sailing among picturesque islands, some boats make it their base and stay for years on end. Of course at sunset there were happy hours at “De Big Fish” or on the beach to network with old friends and new. Recent pirate attacks on boats between Grenada and Trinidad were a hot topic of discussion as many were heading that way next, a passage of about 80 miles. Some were actually having stainless bars fabricated for use on hatches and companionways, to prevent pirate and robber attacks. Never in all our years of sailing, with the exception of “Pirate Alley” in the Gulf of Aden have we had such concerns so it was a bit of a shock for us. In most places around the world we didn’t need to lock up, but things are different in the Caribbean we were quickly finding out. One morning on the net there was a report from a boat about being robbed of two computers and other valuables while the couple was ashore for dinner the previous evening. They were in Grand Mal Bay on the west coast, the only boat at anchor when the theft occurred. Lesson learned.

On our rest days we would head for the hills to take advantage of the great hiking on offer. Our first hike was to Mount Qua Qua with pals “the Djarrkas” (GB and Sarah) and “the Ascensions” (Gord and Ginny).

Despite blustery weather and fog, we did manage to take in some splendid views and get up close and personal with some of the 20,000 species of plants.

Subsequent hikes were with German friends on Eiland (Mike and Uli) and Lucky Palima (Edgar and Hella), finding us meandering along muddy trails and steep inclines to Seven Sisters Falls, Concord Falls and Mount Carmel Falls. We salty sailors relished those cool pools of glorious fresh water, our skin tingled with delight, glowed with the refreshing comfort the waters provided. With no one else around, it was like arriving at our own personal wilderness spa.

The teacher in me couldn’t resist joining the Saturday morning tutoring sessions with the Mount Airie Education Program, organized by one of the yachties who is based in Grenada during the winter months.

Anyone interested in helping kids, aged 7- 14 with their reading, writing or arithmetic, can take part in the program every Saturday morning. Not only is it a great cultural experience, it’s worth it for the bus ride through the pastoral countryside to get to the community center, in the shade of a huge mango tree on the edge of a large sports field.

It’s impressive to see how yachties in the Caribbean contribute to the local communities. The Carriacou Children’s Education Fund (CCEF) for example, was conceived by a group of cruisers in 2000 and sponsors an event every year to support needy kids with uniforms, books, supplies, hot lunches (Meals from Keels), technical upgrades to computer labs, and scholarships to the community college. Last year, their annual event raised almost $20,000. One woman, Ann Wallis-White, who happens to be a charter broker, has over the past 30-plus years, “begged, borrowed and got donated” thousands of books that have been distributed to Antigua and other Caribbean islands such as Dominica, Bequia, Grenada, St. Vincent and Union Island. Wallis-White has partnered with a non-profit group called B.I.G. Books (Books for International Goodwill), recycling books for the benefit of people as well as the environment. Like someone said, “It’s the detours in life that can be much more rewarding than the well planned route.”