Eastern Grenada surprised us big time. People often skip it because it lacks beautiful beaches that people tend to associate with Caribbean islands. And while it is true that you will not find heavenly beaches here, the region is home to some fantastic off the beaten track activities. The best part is that all sights are located close to each other, within a 10-mile stretch.
One of the best places to visit in the east is River Antoine Estate Rum Distillery, known for its Rivers Rum. We’ve been on distillery tours before and did not expect much from this tour. How different can this distillery be from other distilleries we visited before? It turned out - very different. River Antoine has been producing rum since 1785, and the production methods have not changed much over the centuries. The equipment is quite primitive, and most tasks are still completed manually. Visiting it felt like traveling back in time.
Maybe because we were there in the morning and most people don't do rum tours this early (especially, when you get to taste rum at the end of the tour) or maybe this place does not receive a lot of tourists in general, but we were the only visitors that morning. After we paid the admission price, we met our tour guide. He gave us a brief introduction and then took us to a working watermill for our first stop. The roofless concrete building looked so rustic and worn out that we had no doubts we were touring the oldest rum distillery on the island. As we approached it, workers were loading sugar cane collected from nearby fields onto the conveyor. The sugar cane traveled to a giant steel wheel, where it was crushed to allow for the extraction of sugar cane juice. The guide pointed out that the mill was powered by water diverted from River Antoine and hence, the name of the rum, Rivers. The extracted juice flowed via a series of funnels into the adjacent “boiling house”. Bagasse, leftovers from sugar cane extraction, was left to dry in the sun to be burned later to warm up boilers of the boiling house. The watermill also had built-in tracks to help to move bagasse away from the mill. We walked past mountains of dry bagasse into the boiling house. Inside, the guide demonstrated how the extracted sugar cane juice was boiled in large vats and transferred manually between them with a giant ladle to create syrup that would later go through a fermentation and distillation process to create rum. The methods were quite simple, and the guide repeatedly boasted that the production was green and environmentally friendly.
As he walked us through different stages of rum production, the guide peppered us with interesting facts. For example, sugar cane collected during the dry season has more concentration of sugar, and therefore rum made during the dry season is stronger. In the wet season, sugar cane contains more water and as a result, rum is not as strong. However, local farmers, who are paid per volume of sugar cane juice sold to the distillery, prefer the wet season as they can sell more juice and make more money.
This distillery does not export rum. Everything that gets produced is sold and consumed locally. The only reasonable way for rum connoisseurs to get their hands on Rivers Rum is to hop on a plane and come to Grenada. Throughout the tour, we wondered why this distillery has not yet been consumed by corporate greed, forcing it to expand the facilities, upgrade the production methods, and start exporting rum to grow its profits. But the guide explained that owners were content with the volumes they were already producing. In fact, the distillery barely satisfied the local demand. Also, chasing the increase in volume would have drastically changed the way the distillery operates, losing part of its identity.
The guide walked us through the rest of the process, including manual bottling and packaging. The tour ended at a gift shop with rum tasting. We were offered to try 69 percent rum that burnt our mouths mercilessly, and 75 percent rum that, despite containing more alcohol, was surprisingly very smooth. If we could buy a bottle to take home, we would have gone with 75 percent; but that was not an option. To his credit, the guide did not try to make a sale to gullible tourists and instead told us that, per TSA regulations, beverages containing over 70 percent alcohol were not allowed on planes due to their flammability. And that’s the reason why the distillery even bothers to sell 69 percent rum. We left the distillery empty-handed but were still buzzing through the morning even after taking only tiny sips of potent Rivers Rum during the tasting.
Just a short drive from the distillery is another landmark, Belmont Estate. In one of the prior posts, Julia wrote about our visits to three chocolate farms in Grenada. Out of all places, Belmont Estate had the best chocolate tour. The tour was comprehensive and covered all aspects of chocolate production from a cacao bean to a chocolate bar. We’ve read that they also serve great lunch, but we did not get to try it as we visited late in the day.
We spent the night in Grenville, the second-largest town in Grenada. Interestingly, to be the second-largest town in Grenada, all you need is a population of … 2,400. The town is gritty and authentic. Like Sauters in the north, it is not geared towards tourism, and finding a breakfast place, for example, was quite a challenge here. But Grenville makes a logical base for stopping overnight to take a break in sightseeing on the eastern coast of Grenada.
A very cool and unique place to visit in the east is Pearls Airport. Located just a couple of miles north of Grenville, Pearls was the first airport in Grenada. It was captured during the invasion of Grenada in 1983. Now, the airstrip is abandoned as all planes arrive at Maurice Bishop International Airport near St. George’s. We dropped by to look at two dismantled Soviet planes that the U.S. Marines seized and disabled at the beginning of the invasion. Remarkably, An-26 of Cuban Airlines arrived in Grenada just the day before the invasion. The other plane, An-2, was a gift from the Soviet Union, ostensibly for agricultural spray. We walked around the planes, snapped a lot of pictures, and then raced our rental car down the abandoned airstrip.
Just because there are no beautiful beaches in the east does not mean that you cannot take a quick dip. South of Grenville, you can visit and swim in the lovely Mt. Carmel waterfalls. We drove to the falls when the Caribbean midday heat started to get to us. We parked on the side of the road, paid a very symbolic entrance fee to the person who was collecting payments (not sure if we even had to pay to get in, but we did not mind paying), and then took a short walk through the forest to the falls. While the waterfalls are not the most impressive that you will see in your lifetime, they are worth a quick stop to refresh.
Finally, because food options are very limited in this part of the island, we should probably mention some recommendations here. After leaving Mt. Carmel Falls, we drove through Marquis, a colorful fishing village. Outside the village, as we were turning the sharp corner on the main road, we spotted a family restaurant with a fitting name, Bumpy Corner Bar. The owner greeted us and served us what can be described as a Grenadian comfort seafood meal. The dishes were simple but delicious and filling.
Overall, renting a car in Grenada and driving around the island for four days was one of the highlights of our visit. Discovering the less-visited north and east of the country gave us a complete picture of this island nation and allowed us to fall in love with it and its people.