Kyron Adams knows Grenada. He was born here back in 1947, and he grew up in St. George's, right across from the new and exclusive Port Louis marina, where he now lives and where he works as a security guard. In 1955 he rode out Hurricane Janet, a storm that flattened about three-quarters of Grenada's iconic nutmeg trees, and he endured Mother Nature's wrath again in 2004, when Hurricane Ivan pummeled the island, killing 39 people and leaving nine-tenths of its homes in ruins. He saw the former British crown colony proudly establish its independence in 1974, and nine years later witnessed a savage Marxist coup d'état - and a liberating invasion by 7,000 U.S. Marines.
"We had a lot of setbacks in this country," he says. "We had two hurricanes; we had revolution; we had strife. But we're still going good. We still remain the same: unspoiled."
Adams was there too when the cameras rolled in 1957 for a big-budget Hollywood film called Island in the Sun, based on a best-selling novel by Alec Waugh. The film itself is a campy, tangled mess, but it remains memorable for one bona fide star turn: Grenada's dazzling portrayal of the fictional island of Santa Marta. The opening sequence depicts a winsome, widescreen vision of a Caribbean island and a way of life that are now mostly forgotten. It's a Technicolor glimpse back to a time before the incursion of mass tourism and the arrival of megaclass cruise ships, when attending to crops was more pressing than attending to tourists.
Adams remembers how Grenada was in those days, and to my surprise, he tells me he doesn't see much that's changed. "It's still the same thing I knew as a little boy," he says, looking out over the water toward St. George's and the Carenage, a harlequin queue of squat buildings that defines the city's vibrant harborfront. "It's more advanced, yes; it's a little different, but it's nice. Everybody likes it." He smiles. "We're just getting along fine."
Fifty-odd years have passed since Hollywood came and went, but Grenada's first city remains a dead ringer for the character it played in Island in the Sun. Architecturally, St. George's is a happy hodgepodge of West Indian and European influences: stucco walls colored peach and cream and watermelon, with roofs of red clay tile or corrugated metal; steep cobblestone streets linked by a warren of narrow alleyways; and an array of churches - and one stately fortress - made of appropriately solemn limestone. Its vibrant harborfront curves around a lovely protected anchorage, within which sherbet-colored fishing boats and gleaming motor yachts commingle. All that's missing is Harry Belafonte crooning the title song.
Grenadians agree that the best views in St. George's are had not from some swank resort or chic eatery, but rather from the town hospital, the town jail and the town cemetery, each of which occupies a supremely covetable tract of hilltop acreage. No matter: You don't have to be infirm, incarcerated or interred to appreciate this city's panoramic grandeur. There is hardly an open window or patch of sidewalk from which you can't catch a glimpse of cool Caribbean blue.
On the whole, Grenada is devotedly easygoing, but St. George's is another matter: It's brisk and busy, the air permeated by city noises and cooking scents. The Grenadian people seem perfectly pleased to welcome visitors to their island, but as a visitor, I can't quite shake the sense that they wouldn't have missed me if I hadn't shown up. Fishermen would still sell fresh-caught jack off their boats along the Carenage; kids in dark uniforms with striped ties would still trudge to the schoolhouse every morning; and fruit sellers would still jam shoulder-to-shoulder into Market Square to hawk papayas and breadfruits and coconuts. Look up at imposing Fort George: Built by the occupying French between 1705 and 1710, it straddles a volcanic spine 175 feet above the waters of St. George's harbor. What is it today? A museum? A cheesy tourist trap with a gift shop and a frozen-drink bar? Not on your life: It's the police headquarters.
Five years after Ivan, the physical wounds inflicted by the storm's 160-mile-per-hour winds appear almost entirely healed. Yes, vivid reminders of Ivan's fury linger, such as St. George's 128-year-old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which stands defiantly roofless as parishioners slowly but surely raise the funds to repair it. But by and large, formerly roofless homes have roofs again, and formerly denuded trees have leaves; and the island's hotels have long since rebuilt and reopened - and in most cases look better than they did before the storm. Despite its swift recovery, though, Grenada hasn't been able to pick up quite where it left off on September 7, 2004.
Before Ivan, the tourist trade was a secondary consideration on the island, if that. Agriculture was king. Grenada's dark, volcanic soil is spectacularly fertile, and its wild middle is a crush of tropical greenery: trees heavy with cacao pods, mangoes, bananas, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg - especially nutmeg. This historically prized seasoning arrived here from its native Indonesia during the 19th century, introduced by spice traders. It flourished, and Grenada soon emerged as the world's second-biggest nutmeg producer. Just how much does it mean to this nation and its 90,000 people? That's a nutmeg pod on the flag.
But with the nutmeg industry so traumatized by Ivan (most estimates suggest at least 60 percent of pod-producing trees were obliterated in the storm), the government has spent the last few years courting tourism investors. New hotel and resort properties have opened, and more are on the drafting table, though the world's economic doldrums have clearly slowed things down in recent months. By most accounts, developers seem keen to preserve the island's oldfangled charms along with its matchless natural beauty. But change is change, and as the bleached bulk of a lone cruise ship weighs anchor and fills the basin of St. George's harbor with the bellow of its horn, I can't help but think that as the business of tourism gains momentum here, something's got to give. How much longer will the Grenada of today resemble the island in the sun that Kyron Adams knew as a boy?
Online Editor's Note: To keep reading Grenada: Island in the Sun, pick up a copy of the November 2009 issue, or view the full PDF version on our Scribd page. Like what you see? You can also download full digital issues of Caribbean Travel + Life from Zinio.