Getaway: Luxury upgrade coming to Grenada

Fran Golden

Invading American troops are one thing. Invading wealthy tourists are another.

And the path to a tourist invasion is in place on the sleepy Caribbean island of Grenada as developers seek to create ``a new St. Bart's'' for the high-end travel set.

British entrepreneur Peter de Savary is leading the way, making a multimillion-dollar investment, including a redesigned harbor for the capital, St. George's, so his new Port Louis marina can welcome yachts - very, very big yachts.

The attitude is build-it-and-they-will-come - the businessman envisions a place of luxury hotels and villas, eco spas, restaurants, shops and other niceties geared toward a chic set that includes his friends (he is an unabashed name dropper, peppering conversations with mentions of Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger and the like). The marina will be able to accommodate yachts of up to 300 feet.

With a population of about 102,000, Grenada has previously held a low-key position on the tourism map. In fact, the English-speaking West Indies island nation may be the last of the truly authentic places in the Caribbean.

Once a favorite of sailors as a gateway to the Windward Islands, there hasn't been much of a tourist trade of late beyond small hotels and resorts. Most businesses cater to locals rather than tourists, though a new cruise facility is attracting visits by cruise ships on Southern Caribbean itineraries.

Grenada serves up white-sand beaches, deep-blue waters, mountains, rainforests and much lush greenery - one-sixth of the land is protected as national parks.

Yet it is best known as the place where Ronald Reagan sent troops in 1983 - following a coup and amid increasing coziness with Cuba and the Soviet bloc - to ``rescue'' American students attending the island's medical school. The country has had a stable democracy since 1984.

The economic mainstay for generations was nutmeg, with one-third of the world's production coming from the ``Spice Island.''

Then came Hurricane Ivan, the 2004 storm scoring a direct hit, destroying about 85 percent of the structures on Grenada and stripping most of the nutmeg crop.

It takes nutmeg trees about 10 years to regenerate. So island officials took a serious look at tourism and opened the door to more development, with de Savary leading the way. He is known as the developer of the St. James's Clubs in London and New York, the Abaco Club in the Bahamas, Skibo Castle in Scotland and Bovey Castle in England. Tax incentives were part of the deal.

Grenada currently has only 1,500 hotel rooms. But with de Savary's plans for villas and luxury hotels, and the unrelated construction of a Four Seasons Resort and other small projects, that number is expected to double by 2012.

Grenadians see their island as ``the sweetest island in the world,'' according to Junior Cuffie, harbormaster for de Savary's Port Louis marina. And they want to keep it that way, at the same time welcoming the opportunities development provides. Tourism officials are quick to point out the emphasis is on luxury and lesser projects have been turned away - the floodgates are not open.

At de Savary's Mount Cinnamon, a boutique resort, 21 luxury villas sold out in a matter of months last year. A second phase is under way with two- and three-bedroom villas priced from $795,000. Nightly rentals, available after March 1, are from $500 per night.

The white-walled complex occupies a hillside above Grand Anse beach, Grenada's main beach, with two blissful miles of white sand and not a high-rise in sight - though you can see the colorful Georgian buildings of St. George's harbor in the distance.

Elsewhere, the coast - Caribbean on one side and Atlantic on the other - is rippled with fjords and isolated tiny beaches, some accessible only by boat.

The scenery is stunning, and so is the unspoiled local charm.

In little villages, there is dancing in the street, literally, especially on weekly Fish Friday, centered in the northern village of Gouyave.

Visitors will see donkeys and goats crossing small winding roads. Some locals still wash their clothes in streams and you may see women carrying goods on their heads.

In one town, Victoria, a bridge just went up a few months ago to connect a main road to the school. Before that, the children, in full school uniform, would cross stones in a roaring stream to get to school.

Traffic lights have only been a factor on Grenada for the last decade, and there are still very few.

Will this all change with the upcoming development? Probably.

But, promised Cuffie, ``We don't want to spoil it. We don't want it like Barbados and those places. We want it like Grenada.''