The Incredible Caribbean Island That Americans Always Overlook

grenada caribbean island
Saint George's town and bay in Grenada | Glaudio306/Shutterstock
Saint George's town and bay in Grenada | Glaudio306/Shutterstock

“You have to see a nutmeg still in its shell,” Chris, my driver, told me. He spotted one several feet above us -- the only problem was he’d have to stand on a concrete ledge over a deep ravine to get it.

“It’s fine!” I said. “Please -- we can get nutmeg somewhere else. Anywhere else.” This was true. Grenada, the island country I was touring, produces gobs of nutmeg, exporting enough to earn its moniker as “The Spice Island.” Chris laughed in my face, stretched on his tiptoes, plucked a freshly cracked nutmeg fruit, and handed it to me. I’d never really thought about where this particular spice came from. In my hand, it looked like an alien. A fleshy, pallid, yellow outer fruit gave way to a black seed covered in waxy red veins -- like someone had spilled a candle in a sliced pear.

This was the first of many surprises I found in Grenada, a deceptively rad Caribbean destination in the lesser Antilles that Americans tend to forget about. (Some 110,000 people live here, yet it supports just 1,600 hotel rooms.) Before I arrived I could tell you embarrassingly little about the country. I knew of the large medical school, St. George’s University, which since the ’70s has trained thousands of American physicians. I also knew that back in 1983, in perhaps Ronald Reagan’s most infamous military venture, the United States invaded Grenada after the country had an unsuccessful Marxist coup. Even Americans who don’t remember that invasion recall the association, perhaps keeping Grenada largely off the mainstream Caribbean tourist track.

Grenada, St. George's, Caribbean
Grenada, St. George's, Caribbean | Laszlo Halasi/Shutterstock

As it turns out, the island’s inner core -- its multi-textured, brightly colored seed -- was something else altogether, and something you’ll see only once you go. New York and Miami offer daily direct flights; you can generally find flights in the $300s from NYC and in the $400s from Miami. These routes serve a few purposes: bridging the island to the Grenadian diaspora, ferrying medical students back and forth, and bringing the occasional tourist who knows what, in fact, is up.

Grenada is ruggedly beautiful but built out for creature comforts

If you go, you’ll find pristine, near-empty beaches; understated eco resorts; a varied and delicious homegrown cuisine with priority on sustainable foods; and a laid-back people who recognize you could’ve gone elsewhere, and who appreciate your efforts.

What you won’t find is almost as important. Throngs of tourists, for one. They mostly stick to Downtown St. George, where the cruise ships dock. There’s a closer relationship between the tourist economy and locals than you find on other islands -- you don’t get the feeling that the entire island exists just to serve rich tourists, like you do on St. Barth’s. The main beach, Grand Anse Beach, is dotted with a few hotels but remains fully open to the public. You won’t find the back-to-back, walled-off mega resorts a la Jamaica or Grand Cayman.

fresh nutmeg
fresh nutmeg | Studio Barcelona/Shutterstock

Yet it’s also a snap to get around and feel comfortable. Unlike other off-the-radar tourist islands, Grenada has the added bonus of being well-developed, thanks in part to long-ago Soviet money and the medical school’s stability and income. English is the official language. Crime is lower than it is on other islands. The roads are good, making it easy to tour the entire island in a day -- ideal for exploring all of Grenada’s parishes and hidden beaches and towns. Grocery stores near the university and many resorts are well-stocked, if expensive, and suited to foreign students’ needs and tastes.

Hike, sail, or just explore a Caribbean paradise

So, about that exploring. Grenada is paradise for eco tourists. Prices are going to vary based on how much driving and how much boating you’re doing; if you budget $100 a day for a driver and guide, you’ll come away satisfied with what you get for the money.

Closest to St. George’s is La Sagesse in Saint David parish. It’s a mangrove estuary along the southwestern coast of the island with three secluded beaches, a salt pond ideal for birdwatching, and a vibrant coral reef just off the shoreline. Spending your entire vacation here wouldn’t be cheating. Hunker at La Sagesse Hotel -- a deal at around $125 a night.

On the northern shore of Grenada is Levera National Park, covering over 450 acres in Saint Patrick parish. Here, too, are mangroves, seagrass beds, white sand beaches, and reefs ideal for snorkeling. Sea turtles lay their eggs on the beach here during the late spring and summer. Hikers can take walks around Levera Pond or Lake Antoine, a crater lake.

Grenada | Galina Savina/Shutterstock

Next door to Lake Antoine is a discovery of a different kind -- River Antoine Rum Distillery, a privately owned rum factory that dates back to the 1800s. Also down the road is the Belmont Estate, a 17th-century plantation that has been repurposed into an agritourism showpiece, and one that’s well worth the visit to learn about the history of Grenadian food culture and history. Visitors can tour the property, visit the organic farm and gardens, learn about chocolate production, and dine on traditional Grenadian dishes. To stay, try Petite Anse Hotel in the bustling village of Sauteurs.

Farther inland is Grand Etang National Park in Saint Andrew parish, which at its center has a large, post-volcanic crater lake, Grand Etang Lake. In the middle of a rainforest at the heart of the island, it’s one of the most stunning, lush places to hike in Grenada. On a clear day, climbing to its highest point offers views above the trees to the ocean beyond.

If you have extra time or who want to go farther afield, consider staying on Carriacou or Petite Martinique -- the country’s far less inhabited islands, which have small hotels and are ideal for hiking, camping, sailing, fishing, snorkeling, diving, or just about any other natural pursuit someone could be interested in while in the Caribbean.

Just before the sun sets, I recommend booking a sunset cruise with Danny at Savvy Sailing Tours. A Grenada native, he commandeered an old sloop, the traditional lifeblood of commerce on the islands. Danny and his captain, Walter, provide snacks, water, and a potent rum punch, perfect for drifting up and down the main island’s coast as the sun dips into the ocean. Even though I travel for a living, this particular sailing trip was one of the most serene and enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a long time.

grand anse in grenada
grand anse in grenada | Hugh O'Connor/Shutterstock

You have wide options for food and lodging

If you want to go big, stay on Grand Anse Beach. Mount Cinnamon Resort is a favorite among locals, long-time visitors and first timers to Grenada alike. Perched atop Mount Cinnamon -- it really is the Spice Island, don’t forget -- the hotel offers villa-style accommodations, a small pool, beachside spa services, organic, and local homestyle cooking and its own beach area, right on Grand Anse, which is a short walk down the hill and through the resort’s gardens and lawn. The beach has a view of St. George and Grenada’s lush, green mountains that tumble right into the ocean. A top-flight meal here might set you back $40 or $50.

Street food, though, you can get for the price of a beer, as cheap as $5. For a feast on a budget, hit up Patrick’s Local Homestyle, where the menu is a 16-course Grenadian feast that runs a bit over $20. My meal included green plantain with cheese, fried ripe plantains, rabbit, callaloo, stewed pork, conch, breadfruit, and cake made with Grenadian chocolate. And, of course, about five rum punches.

Grenada | Galina Savina/Shutterstock

This is a crash course in Grenadian cooking at its best and a good place to celebrate the beginning or end of a trip -- or even just life, in general. If you need a night cap -- take a taxi to nearby West Indies Beer Company, which has a thumping, yet distinctively laid back, night scene. Post up for a few hours and try the IPAs -- you’ll be doing what the locals call “liming,” which is less an activity so much as a state of being, I’m told. The art of hanging out, let’s call it.

And you’ll keep noticing the nutmeg everywhere. It’s on the flag, in the rum punch, dangling from the trees and coursing through the veins -- literally and figuratively -- of this independent Caribbean nation. Don’t write off the spice or this sweet place because of their humble shells. Grenada is exciting particularly because it has been written off, and even more so because it has something to offer every kind of traveler. If you’re looking for good food: Grenada has it. Stunning beaches, minus crowds? Grenada has that, too. Nightlife, nice hotels, and a vibrant local culture? Grenada, again. Don’t want to see anyone at all? Looking for untouched natural beauty? A history buff? You know what I’m going to say.

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Jackie Bryant is a food and travel writer based in San Diego who is best described as a human Roomba: eating and drinking everything she bumps into. Find her on Twitter and on Instagram.