Thursday, March 22, 2012

To Cruise or Not To Cruise - Day 3

We got to St. George's, Grenada at 8:30. This was as far south as we would sail. We were just off the coast of South America. It was tropical hot.

Grenada is a small island, 21 miles long and 12 miles wide, known as the spice island and is famous for its nutmeg, cloves, cocoa and cinamon.

The Spanish were the first ones to drive off the native Carib Indians and plant their flag. They made a fortune off of the slave trade until the French took charge and started changing the names of everything. The British eventually laid claim to the volcanic treasure chock-full of rain forests, spectacular waterfalls, and shimmering beaches.

We were an hour late because of the medical detour, so it was pretty much a Chinese fire drill getting off the boat. A steel drum band played energetically outside the sprawling visitors center at the shore-side end of the dock.


Everything was very laid back and chill until we walked out into the parking lot. We were unprepared for the aggressive cab drivers who tried to sell us a tour of the island or some other magnificent adventure.

You can book an excursion directly from the boat for almost anything imagineable, but we had been warned that they charge almost twice the going rate as on land. They justify the cost difference by pointing out that their tour operators guarantee that you will return to the boat at the appointed time - usually 4:30 - while private tours may get you back late and leave you standing on the dock watching the Serenade of the Seas sailing into the sunset.

About five people miss the boat at every stop.

And, yes, you are totally screwed if that happens.

We didn't know how to deal with all the different tour guides shouting offers and claiming to be the best ride in town. We got confused when the cost seemed higher than than the RC excursions, so we fled the scene, crossing a busy road and climbing a very steep dirt trail to the ruins of a crumbling stone fort that overlooked the harbor.

One local guy kept following us up the path, spouting insane gibberish and Inna finally ordered him away. She was awesome.

We paid a couple bucks to walk around the fort and were amazed at its rundown condition. There were people living inside colonial-era brick barracks that were being taken over by blossoming plants and trees like building-strangling snakes. But it had an outstanding view of the whole town and there was a fragrant sea breeze to cool us down.

The first thing we noticed about St. George's was its decrepit condition. It was like the place had been hit by a bomb. And it sort of had. On September 8th, 2004 Hurricane Ivan devastated the island with 130 mph winds. They have never really recovered from that killer storm and many of the structures, from churches to homes, have no windows and look abandoned, but for the hanging laundry.

It was the day before Grenada's independence day and everyone was amped up, wearing their national colors - red, green and yellow - and drum bands were parading around the crowded streets clogged with cars. The whole place seemed a bit sketchy but everybody we encountered was friendly.

We ended up down at the market where large, happy ladies tried to sell us spices. We bought a hollowed out coconut filled with various spices, and checked out the local scene while reggae and calypso music blared around us.

There's definitely a strong Rasta feel to St. George's. Lots of dreads. I had several offers to purchase fresh weed.  I just laughed. 

We were drinking water non-stop but it was dangerously hot and by the time we had climbed to the top of town to see a beautiful Catholic Church, I was in the initial stages of heat exhaustion.

Churches are always a good sanctuary. They are open to the public. They are attractive, quiet and peaceful. They usually have a bathroom. And they are forgiving.

I soaked the Grenada flag bandana I had purchased in the market in cold water from the tap and then sat under a fan by a large window, cooling my neck and head. A wonderful sense of happiness washed over me and we lingered until we were recharged.

You take your life into your hands walking the streets of St. George's. Not because of the people - hell, they are as nice as spice - but because there are no sidewalks and you are usually walking along the edge of the chaotic streets.

Nestled below the church we spotted an inviting harbor area filled with white-washed stone buildings capped with orange roofs. We decided to check it out and maybe find some air conditioning.

We passed through urban blocks of "we have everything and we have notin", dodging cars and other walkers in an intricate dance. And it was hot as hell.

There were small, colorful fishing vessels bobbing in the sheltered bay and very few tourists in this part of town. Frigate birds and brown pelicans dived for fish with graceful abandon.

Inna went into meltdown from the relentless heat and there were no cool places to escape the sun. At that point we just wanted to get to Grand Anse Beach a few miles south and get into some cool water. But there didn't seem to be any cabs working the dock and we couldn't figure out how to get away from the scorching sun and hustle and bustle of the busy commercial fishing market.

A young Grenadian girl suddenly came up and asked us if we needed a bus. "Follow me. I will get you to the beach."

The Grenadian bus service is a trip.

A dirty white van pulled up with music blaring, two smiling young happening dudes in command. Technically, there are bus stops - though no actual busses. Most of the time the drivers just careen along the narrow, twisty roads, honk-honking their horn at the multitude of people doing their thing along the road. If you need a ride you wave. The bus stops - illegally - and people get on and off. The driver plays DJ as he toots and jams while his buddy pops the doors, loads and unloads, and takes the money. Then you're off to the next wave.

A few minutes later we stopped at Grand Anse Beach, a major destination for the boat people. The beach is kick ass. We dickered with one of the many young men renting beach recliners and staked out a shady spot under a giant Sea Grape tree. Then we ordered food & drink from Sarah, one of the colorful vendors working the beach.

After swimming in the crystal blue Caribbean Sea and lathering on the Bull Frog sunscreen, we settled in to read. 

Our cruise ship was still within sight, a few miles up the beach. All was right with the world.

Suddenly two people appeared with lawn chairs and planted themselves right in front of us. Two white people seeking refuge from the sun. They quickly realized that they were blocking our view and apologized. We suggested they join us to our right in the shade and they did.

They were from Manatoulin Island, on Lake Huron in Ontario, the largest island on a freshwater lake in the world.

They told us about their adventures, which sounded enticing.

Somehow the conversation turned to politics and my wife Inna said, "Please don't start talking politics around Steve because he won't stop."

Esther laughed and said, "Well, Peter was the mayor of Gore Bay for twelve years so I'm sure he will love chatting with your husband."

And so we did.

After listening to them explain how they had only paid $20 for an island tour that included a jungle rain forest and a place where locals dived off a big waterfall, and then were delivered to Grand Anse Beach, it was clear to me that these people knew how to find a very nice excursion at a reasonable price.

Something we didn't.

As they left to hook up with the van driver who was waiting for them as part of their original tour, I said, "I don't want to be the gum on your shoe that you can't get rid of, but you obviously know how to find a cheap tour that rocks, so could we join you tomorrow in St. Lucia and see what you find for us?"

Peter and Esther said they'd love to have us on their team.

Not wanting to take any chances missing the boat, at 3 o'clock we walked a little way down the beach where a jovial father and son ran a water taxi service. We motored along the coast basking in the afternoon, cathedral light sun and taking in the lush beauty of St. George's harbor and the see-through ocean.

We were dropped at the dock in front of the long pier where the ship was moored. Small groups of happy passengers made their way back to the ship carrying bags of loot and laughing like children.

We noticed Brent, the Royal Caribbean language jukebox, walking nearby and Inna walked over and asked him why he had not greeted her in Russian at the Captain's Reception the night before. He giggled and then started talking Russian. He was like a little doll that spoke every language in the world.

Back in Margaritaville, we downed a few boat drinks by the pool as the ship steamed away from Grenada, and then we cleaned up for dinner with a relaxing sauna & shower.

After another five star meal and good conversation with out friendly table mates, we walked around the upper deck, caught the nearly full moon, and then checked out the Showtime Production - a "Salute to Broadway shows that made their way from Broadway Stage to Silver Screen." It was "Hairspray" and "Little Shop of Horrors" with a very tight big band that kicked out the blocks. The dancers and vocals were spot on.

We went to bed singing a little tune from "West Side Story".

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