Story and Photos by Alison Gardner, Editor, Travel with a Challenge
Tropical beaches, surf-fringed coral reefs and the occasional ship wreck on shore are all part of Carriacou’s scenery.
My personal experience with the Caribbean islands of Grenada confirms that, as deliberately planned by its government, this is “a country bypassed by mass tourism”. As this applies to the island of Grenada itself, it even more emphatically defines two additional inhabited islands within its national waters, Carriacou and Petite Martinique. My initial desire to visit these smaller outlying islands had been met by several Grenadians with a skeptical “Why?” “Well, I hear they are different,” was my rather vague reply, but I needed a better answer than that. So I boarded a catamaran ferry from St George’s, the historic capital of Grenada, for a two-hour high-speed ride to Carriacou (pop. 5,000). Two days later, I boarded another ferry for a 20-minute trip to Petite Martinique (pop. 1,000) because it was there and, after all, petite.
My headquarters for a two-night stay on Carriacou was the 14-unit Grand View Resort, owned by an island couple who have spent most of their adult lives working and living in the US before returning to to try their hands at the risky business of tourism. Not an unusual story. Owner, Shirley Stiell, makes the perfect hostess, anticipating every need in North American-style. There is no exaggeration associated with the accommodation’s name … it does have the grandest view on the island, each floor stepped up a steep hill above Carriacou’s only town, Hillsborough. I had Room #1 on the top corner to prove it. Though modest in size, Shirley told me that my room is always requested by Grenada’s Governor General whenever he visits Carriacou. He obviously appreciates grand views as much as I do.
Grand View Hotel owner, Shirley Stiell, offers en suite rooms, apartments, and a fine dining restaurant featuring local cuisine.
I arrived late Saturday morning with a plan to cram as much into my two days on the island as any good international visitor expects to do. Of course, I had done my guidebook and Internet research, and with local taxi driver, Lincoln Bedeau, aka Linky, I set out to check things off my modest to-do list. We spent the afternoon rimming the island on a rather rugged road where speed was sometimes reduced to a fast walker’s pace, stopping to admire spectacular views and beaches from lookout points, picking up and dropping off local people who flagged us down in the island way. I wanted to learn all I could from Linky about living in this “Land of Reefs”, understandably popular with an international snorkeling and diving community.
Year round, Osprey Lines’ high speed catamaran offers ferry service between Grenada’s three islands.
Thinking ahead to the next day, I had planned to walk down the hill and visit Hillsborough’s highlights, so I asked Linky if he could confirm the hours of the Carriacou Museum housed in a restored cotton gin mill and recommend a lunchtime eatery in town with a local menu.
“Tomorrow is Sunday,” he pointed out, perhaps not realizing that tourists generally operate on a seven-day-a-week agenda. “It is a day of rest and play so nothing much is open.”
By the time Linky dropped me for dinner at a beautifully restored clapboard home set in a spacious waterfront garden, I was beginning to think my final day on Carriacou would be a check-list write-off. I expressed these concerns to my lively hosts, Claudia and Max Nagel, thinking that, since they had emigrated from Germany nearly two decades earlier to open a popular diving business, they might appreciate my dilemma more than Linky. While Max (aka Scuba Max) took up his gourmet chef station in the spotless kitchen to prepare our evening’s “European meal with a Caribbean Twist”, Claudia flew into action on the phone, consulting friends as to where I could best mix and mingle with the good citizens of Carriacou.
Hilltop-perched Grand View Hotel lives up to its name, with a commanding view of Hillsborough and its picturesque harbor.
As she returned to join me, Claudia reported back, “Linky is absolutely right. Sundays are definitely for unwinding or lyming, as we call it … pretty much everyone goes to church in the morning and then they are eating and visiting with family for the rest of the day. Paradise Beach is a great place to meet the local people in the afternoon. I’ll call Linky and arrange it all for you.”
Dinner tasted so much better, knowing I was back on track with at least a partial mission to accomplish next morning.
Linky had plenty of Sunday taxi bookings to and from various churches, but he good-humoredly fitted me in for a ten-minute drive to the 158-year-old Christ the King Anglican Church, whose incense-fragrant service brought back childhood memories. I was startled by the “Happy Mother’s Day!”greeting at the church door. Far from my own adult children and husband, I had quite forgotten the day. I couldn’t take my eyes off the women, some into their eighties and nineties, dressed in their best flower prints and topped with creative, whimsical hats that would impress Queen Elizabeth at her annual garden party and cost big bucks in a North American shop. I was definitely drab with no hat either, and one of only two foreigners out of 200 parishioners there, the other being a middle-aged American who visits every year. This morning she was pounding out hymns on the organ. We made a very visible minority.
A colorful Mother’s Day service at 158-year-old Christ the King Anglican Church in Hillsborough proved to be a Sunday highlight.
At the end of the service, I chatted with people and asked if there was a leaflet about the church’s history (there was not) before Linky whisked me off to the grand sweep of Paradise Beach and its turquoise water. Still wafting incense from my hair and clothing, I walked the long length of this wide cream-sand beach admiring the multi-colored wooden boats at anchor and chatting with local fishermen … noticeably lyming, not fishing! I even met a couple who lived in my home city 9,000 miles away in Victoria, British Columbia, and we compared notes for a few minutes about who we knew in common there.
While feasting on lambi (conch) fritters at the open-air Hard Wood Bar & Snacket, I pondered the merits of lyming more often in my own life. I returned to my hilltop accommodation well-satisfied that I had mirrored some of what the locals do on their Sundays. In my absence, Hilda, a lady from the Anglican church had tracked me down at the Grand View Resort, though I am sure I had not mentioned where I was staying, and left a gift at the front desk — a 45-page book on the church’s first 150 years!
Carriacou and Petite Martinique Festivals
Lively cultural festivals, many harking back to the islands’ slave history, happen throughout the year. They are very much for the locals and by the locals with visitors always made welcome. Varying from year to year they may feature the Big Drum Festival, the Quadrille Dance Festival, the Maroon Festival, Carnival (including the fascinating ‘Shakespear Mas’ competition found only on Carriacou), the Parang Festival, and a four-decades-old Regatta that celebrates the islands’ deep association with seamanship and boat building.
The Carriacou Maroon and Regional String Band Music Festival (April) is a non-stop, three-day affair with bands from other Caribbean countries, as well as traditional food, big drum dancing and other cultural activities. Accommodation is impossible to find if you don’t book your bed early. I wanted to attend but was deterred by firm declarations of sold out accommodation. From the lively, colorful photos I saw when I visited Carriacou a week after, I regretted not being bolder, jumping on the ferry anyway and taking my chances! After being on a COVID hiatus since 2019, this festival promises to return in April 2023.
If people seemed puzzled by my interest in visiting Carriacou, they were absolutely mystified that I would devote even half a day to the small volcanic island of Petite Martinique, another 5 km/3 mi northeast of Carriacou. With a church, a primary school, a supermarket, and one road, why would I do that if I didn’t have any family to visit? Linky just smiled as he put me on the Osprey Express ferry for the 20-minute dash there.
The ferry staff agreed to store my suitcase aboard the vessel for the 4 1/2 hours it lingered at the Petite Martinique dock before leaving on a direct run of two hours back to St George’s protected harbor on the main island. This time my taxi driver was Coco Boy, a towering well-built merchant mariner who had roamed the world until he decided to return to his home island and cobble together a living fishing, farming and operating the Super Best Fast Food & Taxi Service.
Petite Martinique is famous in the Caribbean for the skill of its boat builders. If you’re lucky during your visit, you might witness a traditional boat launch.
Coco Boy traveled the world as a merchant mariner, but ultimately returned to his roots.
While we slowly navigated a road that must severely limit the lifespan of any vehicle, we talked about nature’s abundance on land (as long as it rained) and in the surrounding sea, and, of course, the laid-back lifestyle — clearly people enjoyed a lot of lyming time on Petite Martinique. However, it is not quite paradise: there are obvious challenges in convincing young people to stay. We visited the school where one of Coco Boy’s children played in the school yard, and we stopped to admire the efforts of a couple of boat builders working in an open field. The builders of Petite Martinique are famous in the Eastern Caribbean and justifiably proud of their fine workmanship.
Though Coco Boy’s cell phone never rang, residents seemed to know we were coming, and sometimes came running out of their houses to flag down the laboring van either to jump in with us for a short distance or to hand him a bag of fresh picked produce from the garden or some warm fragrant baking with a request to deliver it to a relative further along the road. I never saw any money change hands, so either I was paying for these spontaneous services or he bills his clients monthly!
After two hours, we came to the end of our island exploration because, as Coco Boy said, he didn’t have a 4WD vehicle to navigate the steep dirt tracks crossing to the island’s far side. Or you could walk, which is probably what most people do on an island where vehicles are expensive and of limited use anyway.
Near the ferry dock, I sat on the patio of Palm Beach Restaurant & Bar enjoying a late lunch and reflecting on the outer islands lifestyle. The owner even offered to rent me a room in his newly built guest house high on the volcanic hillside behind the restaurant. Sharing the ferry with four of Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity in their distinctive white habits bordered in blue, I wondered, had they been on the island doing a bit of lyming too?
Boat building and fishing are the mainstays of Petite Martinique’s economy.
Despite the French having given up colonial ownership to the British in 1763, Carriacou and Petite Martinique have retained more of a visible French heritage, not only with their geographical names but also with the French-English-African patois language and even a certain je n’est ce quoi style less detectable on the more internationally-connected island of Grenada.
Pure Grenada is the official tourism website for all three islands. It has a web page about Carriacou and Petite Martinique which includes individual listings of villas, apartments, inns and guest houses on Carriacou.
Pay a visit to the tourist office opposite the Carriacou dock where staff will assist with Carriacou and Petite Martinique information, accommodation recommendations, maps and brochures.
Getting There: Air service to Grenada is available from other islands in the Caribbean, and from a few eastern North American and European cities. There are less than 140,000 visitors a year arriving by plane, cruise ship and sailing vessels.
Osprey Lines Ltd, www.ospreylines.com, operates a high-speed catamaran ferry service between Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique year round.
Recommended guidebook: The Bradt Guide to Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique by Paul Crask (Bradt Travel Guides, UK and The Globe Pequot Press, USA; 2018).
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.