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Photo courtesy of Grenada Tourism

Grenada, West Indies -- Paradise has Great Hotels

Paddle 100 miles north of Venezuela. Veer slightly to the right splashing between the azure Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Run smack into the exotic West Indies' southernmost tip of the Windward Islands and get off at Grenada. If you pass Kickem' Jenny (an active underwater volcano), you've gone too far. The tri-island nation includes Grenada, Carriacou (Carry-a-koo), and Petit Martinique.

A Bit of History

For the past 20 plus years, Grenada has been developing as an independent nation within the British Commonwealth in a quiet cocoon, remaining virtually untouched by the spotlights of the tourism industry. Initially, the island was inhabited by peace loving Arawak Indians who were eventually replaced by the more war-like Caribs. Then came the French, who bought the island from the Caribs in 1650, for a bottle of booze. But in 1651, a group of Caribs jumped over the cliffs to their deaths at what is now known as Leaper's Hill rather than submit to colonization.

For the next century, Grenada was tossed between the French and the British depending on the political climate. With the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, the island landed in the hands of the British. Today, the French influence remains in the names of the towns and restaurants, while the British impact is apparent in the English language, the native passion for cricket and their rule for driving on the "wrong side" of the street.

The 133 miles of this spectacularly beautiful tropical island seductively beckons its visitors with tropical jungles, 45 baby-powder beaches, waterfalls, historic forts, the fragrance of spices and flowers, island rum and home-brewed aphrodisiacs.

Now, let me tell you about my story...

Arriving at Point Salines International Airport via a no-complaint flight by American Airlines, I immediately relaxed as soon as I inhaled the warm island breeze. I love little international airports that are smaller than my hometown post office (they're so cute).

We settled in at the famous Rex Grenadian and my room had a lovely view of dreamy rainbows and sunsets over the ocean. Situated on 30 acres above Tamarind Bay, this five-star resort offers daily activities, including stress reduction and yoga. The Grecian style pool high above the beach is neighbored by the scuba and sailing hut.

Photo courtesy of Grenada Tourism First stop in touring the island: Dougaldston Spice Estate in the fishing town of Gouyave. I confess I've never given spices the attention they deserved, I thought they grew in super grocery stores. Little known facts: Did you know that mace (the spice, not the weapon) comes from the nutmeg nut shell? That cocoa looks like sci-fi brains in a papaya? That a little ol' bayleaf can become bay rum or aftershave? And, that a coffee bean can be a calabash bowl? Grenada boasts being the third largest exporter of nutmeg in the world, in fact, it is the secret of their rum.

Now, after being all spiced up, we went on to the Plantation Great House, run by Betty Mascoll. Dining was buffet style in this great stone house held together for three generations with lime and molasses. Perched on top of a steep hill, this 80 year old plantation home is draped with purple bougainvillea and healthy scarlet poinsettia edge the front walk, which are covered in crushed nutmeg shells. Opening the heavy etched-glass door, I felt as though I was entering the home of a distinguished family. As I wandered through the house, old family photographs that decorated the walls and stood proudly on the grand piano stared back at me. A framed commendation for community service from Queen Elizabeth hung on the wall. The buffet selection was most definitely West Indian: a very tasty pork and oxtail pepper pot, callou soup, fried plantain, sweet potato casserole, and soursop ice cream.

Photo courtesy of Grenada Tourism Thoroughly satiated, we continued on our way and headed through the Grand Etang Forest Reserve, a naturalist's paradise. Bamboo, enormous tree ferns, banana leaves, cocoa, elephant ears and ripened breadfruit combined to make a lush, thick jungle. We spun through our little excursion, sucking on sugar cane sticks as we zipped up and down steep mountainous roads gasping ooohs and ahhs when we dipped into valleys exposing panoramic views of royal seas and forest greens. Earth crunchers have the opportunity to hike several fascinating trails: one leads to the summit of Mt. Qua Qua (2,372 feet); Grand Lake Etang' perimeter, an extinct vocanic crater; or to the waterfalls.

We stopped at Concord Falls right along the road where soft drinks and spices were sold. After paying a man a dollar to use his changing facility I jumped off the rocks into the water. This gloriously refreshing mountain waterfall crashed down all around me and I swam through it as the power of the current carried me away.

Having never been in a rain forest before, I was very excited to explore it. Within a few steps, I was in a new world leaving behind the muted voices of people chatting around the sun soaked lake. Long Tarzan vines hung from towering trees that blocked the sun and then there was silence, broken only by the "caw" of birds and my crackling footsteps. It was very dark, cool and eerie in there. I found that my instincts were on alert and my senses were fine-tuned to the slightest sound or scent. As I stumbled upon a cave, someone hollered my name, startling me so, that I must have leapt three feet. I reluctantly trudged back to the group waiting at the lake and found it had begun to get dark there too. In the forest, I would never have realized that the sun had set.

We lunched at La Source, one of the most spectacular all-inclusive luxury resorts in the Caribbean nestled on 40 acres sandwiched between Pink Gin Beach and tropical cliffs. We walked past the two bars, the terrace overlooking the sea, beyond the free-form pool and up the hill to the 3 story Spanish- tiled building.

White light poured through the French windows illuminating the cool Italian marble floor and mahogany carved four poster king-size bed. The room was very spacious with a vaulted ceiling and a fan that whirred above the bed. Further inspection revealed a door that led to a small patio overlooking the beach. The whole scene was pristine lace and Victorian elegance.

One of the best buys in the Caribbean, La Source includes spa facilities such as seaweed wraps and Swedish massage in their price as well as all water sports, even scuba diving. Some of the more unusual land sports you can experiment with are fencing and archery, also included at no extra charge.

We stopped at several white sand beaches as we traveled back to the "Rex". One secret, very secluded spot was Petit Bacaye, which offered thatched cottages on the beach. They only have 4 cottages: 2 double bedrooms and 2 single bedrooms.

Two exceptional resorts that remain my personal favorites are the Calabash Hotel and the Spice Island Resort. The Calabash's open-air Cicely's Restaurant is a fairy tale setting all lit up with white Christmas lights and trellises covered in ivy. The food is gourmet-fabulous prepared by the same chef, Graham Newbould, who served Charles and Diana for three years. The Calabash offers 8 suites with small private pools and 22 suites with private whirlpools, each with private maids who will prepare and deliver your morning meal to order.

The Spice Island Resort is situated on 1,600 feet of white, soft, magnificent Grand Anse Beach and crystal clear water. Privacy is ensured in the Royal Pool Suites that are surrounded by bougainvillea-draped walls and fence. But beyond the gate lies the pinnacle of elegance and luxury. As I entered, I walked onto the patio and first saw the large, private swimming pool right under the beautifully appointed bedroom. I could actually dive out of the bedroom straight into my pool. There was also a huge dressing room with a whirlpool and a small workout room and sauna. Guests can choose the M.A.P. plan or the all-inclusive. Watersports, tennis, fitness center and conference rooms are also available. What a great place to do business!

My friend and I flew to Carriacou for a day and toured the little island. There really isn't much there except a little village where chickens, pigs, roosters and cows roam. But we did take a little taxi boat over to Sandy Island. A little party was happening where a circle of men were singing island drinking songs and playing make-shift instruments of bamboo while chicken boiled in a kettle in a pit fire. But what the island does have is a good spot for snorkeling and bumping into thousands of exotic, friendly fish. It turned out to be a Tom Sawyer kind of day.

Grenada has, so far, retained its original character, unblemished by tourists and commercialism. You won't find polished, pastel streets with European boutiques. The islanders are rather unsophisticated, friendly, relaxed and most are willing to help a stranger. It's the way life used to be.

Award-winning journalist, Karen Hamlin has a travel column in Around the Ranch, a Florida publication, and is a regular contributor to The Sun. She has published in magazines and newspapers including The Sun, Travel World International, Big Apple Parent, Experience Travel, Senior Travel, and the Springfield Union and was travel editor of City & Suburban Magazine. Karen is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association , the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association and Women Writers Association. She's also a regular contributor to Talking Travel radio show.