Now is the ideal time to visit the Caribbean. Max Davidson looks at two of its greatest draws.
Barbados and Grenada, islands on the move
Barbados is the ultimate blue-chip holiday destination: a reliable investment. It's a brand name in its own right, and in many ways it just gets better and better. Every year seems to bring some new international festival, some new restaurant opening, some new celebrity property-owner for the paparazzi to stalk.
Very few tropical islands have come so far so fast. Not all that long ago, the little enclave of Holetown on the west coast was as run-down and unprepossessing as the name suggests. Paunchy holidaymakers wandered the streets in flip-flops, looking for souvenirs on the cheap-and-cheerful market stalls before repairing to the beach for a little light sunbathing and a few chapters of John Grisham. Not any more.
In the spanking new Lime Grove development, built at a cost of US$50 million (Dh184m), some of the most illustrious names in retail have set up shop. Cartier, Bulgari, Burberry, Louis Vuitton ... It could be Dubai or Monte Carlo, there is so much cash splashing about. The flip-flops are diamond-encrusted - and not all the diamonds are fakes.
Leisure opportunities in Barbados have expanded exponentially. The sort of high-end golfers who had to choose between Sandy Lane and the Royal Westmoreland, where sports stars like Ian Woosnam, Rio Ferdinand and Andrew Flintoff own villas, now have another option, equally beguiling: the prestigious Ape's Hill Club, on the crown of the island, with sea views in every direction.
The club hosts polo events as well as golf tournaments, and there are photographs of the Queen and Prince Charles on the clubhouse wall. No island in the Caribbean is more unashamedly Anglophile than Barbados, which is both a strength and a weakness. As Home Counties accents ring across the beach, a certain romantic charm does get lost. Seekers of that charm could do worse than train their sights farther afield and check out some of the less well-known islands in the region.
Grenada, closer to the South American mainland, is a prime example. There may be fewer direct international flights to Grenada than Barbados, but if that is an inconvenience, it is an inconvenience with compensations. Within minutes of landing, you find yourself in a raw, untamed environment redolent of Pirates of the Caribbean. The roads are good, but the surrounding fauna and flora have a quirky, unpredictable quality.
Trees lean at odd angles. Creepers sway hither and thither in the wind. Hibiscus and bougainvillaea run riot around the shacks and bungalows. Driving around the island is a continuous adventure, an assault on the senses.
Scrawny hens peck their way across the road. Vervet monkeys come scuttling out of the trees when you least expect them. In the little cemetery beside the beach, goats wander unchecked among the gravestones, as if they own the place. There is a stiff sea breeze and a smell of jasmine and rotting vegetables.
Grenada is known as the Spice Island and is a major exporter of cinnamon and nutmeg. Most of the northern half of the island is rainforest, ravishingly beautiful, punctuated by muddy banana plantations and other crops such as breadfruit. Plump, purple cocoa pods drip with condensation. Calabashes the size of footballs dangle from the trees. A farmer with grey dreadlocks plods down a dirt track, machete in hand.
At the highest point of the forest, the trees are shrouded in mist, giving the landscape an eerie quality. A waterfall hisses in the distance. Something rustles in the undergrowth. Birds screech overhead. Then we round a corner and come across a mountain pool, calm and clear, with children swimming in it. Signs of habitation are few and far between. Deep in the forest, we come across a rickety old plantation house that looks as if it was abandoned years ago. The roof has caved in, bats flutter through the upstairs bedrooms and the veranda is overrun with foliage. "Notice pigs no allow" reads a handwritten sign above the doorway. Have we got stuck in a time warp?
It comes as a surprise to find a team of workmen busy in the back garden, and even more of a surprise to learn that they are slowly turning this noble wreck of a house into an eco-spa fit for the 21st century. But then, Grenada is that sort of place - an island on the move, for all its apparent somnolence.
Foreign investors may have been deterred for a while after Hurricane Ivan, which devastated Grenada in 2004, but they are fast returning, and confidence is high. A lot of the roads have been built with Kuwaiti money, and there is a big new Japanese-owned fish-processing facility on the west coast. Nothing is certain, but there is a sense of new beginnings in the air, and the start of a new chapter for Grenada.
The island has a fascinating, chequered history, with both French and English colonial influences clearly visible. The capital is called St George's, the main beach Grand Anse. There is that same dichotomy everywhere you go, with Flamingo Bay cheek by jowl with Beausejour Bay and Sauteurs, the principal town in the parish of St Patrick.
The Americans have also made their presence felt. In 1983, when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, they intervened to halt a Marxist coup. Older Grenadians remember the intervention with gratitude and seem to think quite fondly of Uncle Sam. There are murals of Barack Obama dotted across the island, plus the odd ragged Stars and Stripes fluttering above a corner shop.
Driving around the capital, St George's, is not for the faint-hearted. The town rises so steeply from the harbour that some of the roads seem almost vertical. But it is certainly picturesque, with its higgledy-piggledy streets, colourfully painted houses and handsome Anglican cathedral. Scruffy garages and hairdressers blend seamlessly with real estate agents and air-conditioned offices. We even come across a bustling sushi bar, just about the last thing we expected.
If the rainforest dominates the north of Grenada, the southern half, where most of the development has taken place, is graced by Grand Anse beach, one of the prettiest in the Caribbean. It stretches for three glorious kilometres to form a perfectly curved bay, plied by fishing smacks, motorboats and yachts of every size and shape.
Long known as a yachting destination, Grenada is finally acquiring the facilities to go with its geographic advantages - the island is well to the south of the main hurricane belt. Port Louis, a major new development, is on track to become one of the biggest marinas in the region, with mooring for 10 mega-yachts, and an impressive range of luxury villas, bars, restaurants and upscale retail outlets.
"When will it be finished?" I ask the sales manager.
"Seven years after the end of the recession," he says, with a wry smile. They may have set their sights high in Grenada, but they cannot buck the world economy.
South of Grand Anse, there are a string of smaller bays and inlets, each one a picture. Luxury hideaways dot the coastline. Our own spa resort, LaLuna, established in the 1990s by an Italian couple, is the acme of civilised living, with lazy days by the beach finished off with fine Italian food with a Grenadian twist.
For those who like Caribbean islands to be unpretentious and unhurried, Grenada ticks all the boxes. Laid-back types in T-shirts loiter by a sign that reads "No loitering". Motorists stop to chat to each other at traffic lights, oblivious of other drivers. Immaculately dressed schoolchildren meander homewards, with time on their side. There is a wonderful air of calm, whether you are exploring the rainforest on foot or having a simple conch chowder in a quiet cafe on the beach.
"I ended up here because I wanted a slower pace of life," says Miami-born Wendy, now an estate agent in St George's. She has got her wish on the Spice Island, a land wreathed in timeless romance, where nobody ever seems to break sweat and the fastest thing you will see is a pelican swooping to catch a fish.
Yet nothing ever seems to stand still in the tourist industry. With so many new developments coming, Grenada can look forward to a more prosperous, and probably more hectic, future. But, as a holiday destination, it is far too beautiful to be rushed. It needs to be savoured in tranquility, like one of those perfect Caribbean sunsets you never want to end.
If you go
The hotels Cottage suites at LaLuna Resort & Spa (www.laluna.com; 00 473 439 0001) in Grenada cost from US$495 (Dh1,818) per night, including taxes. Double rooms at the Sandpiper Inn (www.sandpiperbarbados.com; 00 246 422 2251) in Barbados cost from $445 (Dh1,634), including breakfast.