Grenada's pristine beaches await a fresh invasion of tourists. Controversial airport now lifts island's leading industry

Most Grenadians welcomed the October 1983 invasion by the US Marines and would like another: by US tourists. A spanking new, modern international airport -- which opened Oct. 28 -- is expected to help re-attract the island's once-solid core of repeat vacationers from the United States, Europe, and Canada, as well as South America. Previously serviced only by LIAT, the Caribbean airline, through connecting flights at Barbados, Grenada now boasts additional BWIA (British West Indies Airline) flights direct from Miami and Port of Spain, Trinidad. A special package tour put together by Pan Am was offered on opening day.

``This has been the most pressing tourist problem for years and years, the thorn in every side,'' says tourism director Richard Cherman of the puny Pearls airport that accommodated only small planes -- and was an hour by car over terrible roads to the capital city and hotels. ``Once this new airport gets up to full steam, I can't see us not significantly increasing our tourism arrivals,'' he adds.

It is perhaps ironic that the invitation of Cuban ``workers'' to help build the sorely needed facility near town was one of several moves by former Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, interpreted by President Reagan as proof ``that Grenada was a Soviet-Cuban colony being readied as a major military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy.''

Now, over one year after US paratroopers rained down to ``halt the emergence of a second Cuba,'' the same airport is expected to help Grenada's economy -- the invasion's biggest casualty -- back to its feet.

Since 40 percent of the tiny island's income is tourist-related, major formal efforts are being made.

Grenada -- about the size of Martha's Vineyard -- is small but well-endowed with attractions. Today's tourist, stepping off a plane or cruise ship will find:

Forty-five pristine, white-sand beaches surrounding the lushest, hilliest Caribbean isle of the nearly 25 that I've visited. Plantation crops -- banana, mango, nutmeg, cocoa -- veritably choke the island, with the resulting feel of a verdant rain forest in many regions.

Exactly 645 hotel rooms, spread through a dozen or so posh resorts -- more or less in the same area (called Grand Anse) -- and a few more moderately priced hotels, mostly in the capital.

People who are as friendly and outgoing as any in the Caribbean. But roads are the worst I've ever seen. Though Project Aid and Project Help divisions of Reagan's Caribbean initiative have targeted this problem, ubiquitous, giant potholes make for slow, tortuous driving just about everywhere. Occasional sections have caved in or slid down hills saturated with rain.

The mood since the December election is jubilant. One 13-year resident explains life on the island as moving from ``darkness into light,'' since the party of new prime minister, centrist Herbert A. Blaize, won 14 of 15 Parliament seats. ``There is a spirit of, `Oh thank goodness,' '' she says. ``Cruise ships are coming back, money is coming in, people know there will be work.''

Fears lingered well after the invasion that revolution could break out any minute, or that former Prime Minister Eric Gairy -- whose abuses were said to have inspired the leftist revolution of 1979 -- could return to power. That element of instability had been visible to tourists, but islanders were unwilling to talk -- about deteriorating roads, electricity, phones, the economy as well as politics. Now, a new openness prevails.

There are, however, still physical remnants of revolution and invasion.

Fatigue-colored pickup trucks, carrying Jamaican and other peacekeeping troops, patrol the island -- albeit in as low a profile as possible. Since the election, their numbers have dwindled, remaining mostly to help train the Grenadian police force. If you were to drive behind them you would pass such remains as the bombed-out mental hospital high above the capital city, a burned-out police station, radio station, abandoned East German and Soviet trucks.

A field of army-green US helicopters behind tumbleweed-style barbed-wire spreads out next to rows of abandoned shacks. These empty dwellings -- some recently bulldozed -- once housed the hosts of Cuban ``guest workers,'' ostensibly builders of the new Port Saline airport. But invading US Marines discovered they were also combat-ready troops.

It is into this climate -- and the still settling atmosphere from elections -- that today's tourist will visit. If you plan to sightsee as well as lounge on the beach, visit the tourist bureau in town for maps or guides around the island. Taxis (about $50 a day), guide buses, and rental cars are available -- and one can certainly take in most of the island in a day.

I augmented my own somewhat inauspicious first tour (in which my overzealous taxi driver flattened a colorful rooster) with a second day's outing by rental car. In about five hours, I tried to hit some of the most talked about spots: the Gouyave Nutmeg Cooperative, with some elderly women who've spent their entire lives separating nutmeg from mace; Carib's Leap (where islanders leaped into the sea in 1652 rather than surrender to the French); the Annandale Waterfall high in the hills, where native boys asked for tips to perform dangerous dives; Black Bay, where volcanic sand makes a black line at water's edge; numerous villages and sugar plantations connected by serpentine roads.

Corrugated-roof shacks, often supported by visible foundations of different size rocks -- typical throughout the Caribbean -- are everywhere.

I competed with ubiquitous Land Rover jeeps for space on the narrow, clackety wooden bridges across streams and gorges. Natives carrying machete-knives called ``cutlasses'' -- and bags to hold their lunch harvest in -- appear from backyard gardens and steep hillside underbrush.

I had a wonderful, hot creole lunch of pork pepperpot, chicken frickasee, and guava with cream at the plantation home of Betty Mascal. If you call ahead, as I did, you may be able to stay in one of three upstairs rooms. Even Betty couldn't describe how to find her house; she said to ``ask the locals.''

My finest meal was at La Belle Creole -- given three stars by Fielding's Caribbean Guide, 1984. Though the restaurant boasts a new menu everyday, I hit on their best-known specialty: stuffed crab and callaloo quiche, both worth the steep prices island food is known for.

Back in the capital, I strolled the steep hills of St. George's -- considered one of the most pictureque ports in the Carib- bean. Young Grenadian children poured from street-level porches to ask for coins.

As I fought my way through the mass of humanity for my flight home, I realized what has kept Grenada off the Caribbean's beaten-path for US tourists: distance and inaccessibility.

Now, with the modern airport open, and completion set for early- to mid-1985 (the ``arrivals'' terminal remains in temporary status at this writing), the latter hurdle has been virtually removed. Call the Grenada Tourist Office (212-687-9554) for more information.

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