Posts Tagged ‘caribbean’

I’ve been to Grand Cayman before. It was 16 years ago…I was single and found myself “stuck” on the island for an extra 4 days at the end of my vacation because of 9-11. (I was due to fly home on September 12, 2001.) The airport security systems we don’t even think twice about today didn’t exist back then, and I remember getting to the airport at 6AM to stand in a security line for a 1PM flight. Every piece of luggage was hand-searched…twice. It seemed like forever.

Coming in for a landing!

What I remember from that trip was how empty and primitive the island was…and how ancient the airport was, even for the Caribbean. Sixteen years later, the island has changed drastically: massive construction everywhere you look…huge investment properties are built, then stand empty, waiting for buyers. One “for sale” sign after another along the roads that line the island’s waterfront properties. A giant, soulless shopping center called Camana Bay is a stone’s throw from a very crowded 7-Mile Beach. And the airport? It now gets my award for one of the worst airports in the Caribbean: low-tech, crowded, disorganized, dirty.

What made–and still makes–the Caymans shine are the beaches and the people. Despite the oversized resorts lined up on 7-Mile Beach, the sand and water are pristine. It’s still a scuba diver’s and snorkelers’ paradise. And the people, if you go out of the crowded tourist areas to find them, are as friendly and helpful as ever. They just seem a bit lost in their own home.

The waters of 7-Mile Beach are still beautiful.

 

The Caymans were hit by a hurricane in 2004, and a billionaire investor by the name of Dart decided this was his opportunity to make the investment of a lifetime. The people of the Cayman Islands no doubt looked at him as somewhat of a savior–at least in the beginning. Here was a guy that was willing to invest a lot of money in rebuilding their beautiful island. And though he did invest a lot of money in real estate–it’s estimated that he now owns 25% of all the real estate on Grand Cayman–sadly that money went into condos, shopping malls, and hotels. Little by little, the real heartbeat of the Cayman Islands was being replaced by large, sweeping generic slabs of concrete and glass reaching for the sky, and huge roadways connecting them to each other.

Georgetown, the capital and where the airport is located, is crowded, dirty and hosts several cruise ships every day, dumping thousands of passengers for a few hours to buy the typical souvenirs and duty-free goods every cruise ship port holds.

 

 

OUR TRIP

We chose to stay off the beaten path for our first couple of nights, finding a cute waterfront condo on AirBnB in Boddentown, the original capital of the Caymans, and much quieter than 7-Mile Beach or Georgetown to the west. The condo was clean, but the beach in front of it was full of weeds. Winds and currents were strong. We realized that it was a good home base to settle in at the end of the day, but that’s about it. We would spend our first couple of days exploring the rest of the island, from Boddentown to the East End to the North Side to Rum Point.

A simple map of Grand Cayman.

There’s nothing better than finding a great little food place just steps from your condo, and the Czech Inn Grill hit the spot. They don’t sell alcohol, so it’s another few steps to a liquor store to pick up a few bottles before we finally sat down at the bar.

Celebrating its first year the very weekend we arrived, we met the owner, George, and sampled several dishes from his extensive menu which did feature a half-dozen hearty Czech dishes. We passed on those and enjoyed more local fare: a delicious freshly caught wahoo ceviche, smoked ribs, and a huge cheeseburger for my daughter. It was a very welcome meal, along with my Mount Gay Rum that I purchased a few doors down, after a long day of flying and settling in.

 

 

That evening, we headed for Tukka, a restaurant on the East End that got good reviews. It was already dark, so we saw no scenery, but we knew we’d be back this way the next day anyway. Among other things, Tukka boasted they had the largest rum selection on the island.

 

The rum bar at Tukka.

 

What we found when we got there were a couple of truths that guided us throughout the rest of our trip. First, though Tukka’s rum selection was excellent, many places layed claim to the biggest rum bar on the island. And second: the majority of menus at the so-called better restaurants on Grand Cayman are very similar. Only a handful of dishes really separated them. Part of the reason for that is that everything comes from off-island, and everyone uses the same companies to deliver their ingredients.

As for Tukka, we all thought the dinner was good, not great. The only exception was my lion fish tacos, which were a highlight. Lion fish is a nasty little invasive bugger, and requires hand protection when touching them, making them difficult to harvest and clean. But their meat is absolutely delicious, and I was very glad I tried it.

 

 

Leaving Boddentown the next day, we headed east again, and started exploring the coast. The south coast was too rough for swimming, but we enjoyed stopping at local fish shacks like Captain Herman’s for a quick snack of fried snapper with freshly made juices of cucumber, and carrot. I say “quick,” but I mean island-time quick. We were the only customers there, with 3 women serving, and it took an hour. Still, it was a beautiful day and they were fun to talk to.

Our next stop: the Blowholes. Fun to watch these ocean-carved tubes pressurize and blast water high in the air.

We searched for more local eats, wanting to stop at the “famous” Vivine’s, but my daughter craved a ham and cheese from Subway instead, and there was one located on the property of the Windham Reef Resort on the East End. (There are Subways and Burger Kings all over the island.) There was also an out-of-service ATM across the street, surrounded by a strip mall of closed stores. (It was Sunday.) Lesson learned: if you need cash and you see an ATM that works in the town you’re in, don’t think you’ll find one later…you won’t! Grab the cash while you can!

We stopped when we saw a local fellow selling coconuts and enjoyed his highly skilled demonstration of how to crack one open with a machete.

 

A stop at Old Man Bay, another possible snorkeling spot listed in various books and websites, was disappointing: strong winds and currents and trash on the beach. We saw that elsewhere, too. One brochure even said that the trash “comes from cruise ships and that if you can get past it, you’ll find great snorkeling!” Uh…no, thanks.

We made a stop for lunch at Kaibo Restaurant Beach Bar and Marina, just a turn away from Rum Point. We enjoyed an excellent lunch–the jerk chicken was a standout–and contemplated returning there for dinner at their finer dining restaurant on the second floor. It, too, boasted one of the largest rum selections on the island. We never made it back to find out.

 

After lunch, we headed to Rum Point, where we finally had our first attempt at snorkeling. A small reef off the shore offered us a chance to see some tiny, colorful fish, and Rum Point itself offered beach chairs, sand, food, and bathrooms…everything we needed to spend the rest of day in the sun.

 

One of the signs at Rum Point.

At the end of our day, we headed back toward Kaibo, because that’s where we found Starfish Point, a pretty patch of sand that attracts a large number of starfish. It was fascinating to see them. It’s OK to touch them, but never lift them out of the water. They need to stay underwater to stay alive.

Rather than going to Kaibo for dinner, we chose to head back to Georgetown and dine at Guy Harvey’s Bar & Grill. The food was mediocre at best, as was the service. We should’ve known, because its location was right where the cruise ships drop off their passengers. As we would find out the more we ate on this island, it was pretty much the same food as everywhere else: Ceviche of the day? Wahoo. Special of the day? Snapper. Etc., etc.  And with the Cayman dollar worth $1.25 US, even bad dining became an expensive part of the vacation, about $250 and up USA per dinner for 2 adults and 1 child.

Our third day, we stopped in Georgetown for lunch, making a stop at The Rock Hard Cafe. (Just a stone’s throw from Guy Harvey’s.) I have only myself to blame for being in this tourist trap: I got my daughter hooked on visiting Hard Rocks when I took her to the one at Universal Studios in Florida last year. After that, she wanted to visit every city with a Hard Rock! I promised her I’d take here to the one on Grand Cayman for lunch. We enjoyed good burgers and salads.

 

We continued north after lunch and eventually arrived at the Westin Grand Cayman 7-Mile Beach Resort and Spa, where we would spend the next 5 nights. 7-Mile Beach is crowded, with one resort lined up after another. But they’re not stupid: they know their money comes from tourism, and despite the crowds, 7-Mile Beach remains pristine.

 

 

Dinner that night gave us our first glimpse at the massive investment and construction that was moving at full speed in Grand Cayman. We dined at Mizu Asian Bistro + Bar, a sushi restaurant located at the sprawling (and sterile) Camana Bay shopping center. We (again) read good reviews about this restaurant and we (again) were disappointed. The sushi wasn’t bad, just not great. My daughter’s cooked dishes were better. And the price of half-decent sake was outrageous! I joked about how we should’ve brought sake from the States. Price gouging was apparently common at restaurants in the Camana Bay shopping center. I’m guessing they have huge rents to pay.

 

 

Clever little gadget. A button attached to each beach umbrella. Press it, and you get food and drink service without searching high and low for help!

 

Once we settled into the Westin, we enjoyed several days of simply swimming, snorkeling and being lazy on the beach. The Westin is one of the headquarters for Red Sail Sports, a company that rents any water sport equipment you can imagine. They also have a fleet of boats for snorkeling and diving trips. Everyone (and we) agree they’re the best on the island. My daughter rented a bicycle, literally a bike on a pontoon boat that you pedaled in the water! And she and my wife enjoyed a wild parasail ride as well.

 

Balcony views at the Westin.

Good cheap eats across the street from the Westin at Eats Cafe.

 

 

 

Scattered throughout our stay at the Westin, we took on a few trips. Probably the smartest way to see the stingrays at Stingray City, a must if you’re going to Grand Cayman, is to go first thing in the morning. Red Sail Sports offers a “Breakfast with the Stingrays” trip that gets you out there before the real crowds arrive…and it can get really crowded with cruise ship passengers showing up by the boatload. The staff on our beautiful 65′ catamaran was friendly and helpful, and they literally bring the rays to you, grabbing the attention of the stingrays they’ve handled many times before. The rays themselves are extremely gentle, and even though it wasn’t my first time swimming with them, it’s never anything less than amazing to bond with them. The females are the large ones, and we were fortunate enough to hang out with everyone’s favorite, Sandy, for some time.

 

 

Another great trip was with George’s Watersports (www.stingraycitygrandcaymans.com). George is a young guy that runs his own company. He’s literally a one-man show, from the van driver that picks you up at your hotel, to the captain of the boat. But he’s energetic, upbeat, and a young businessman I was glad to support. Among the many trips George does every day, he offered a nighttime snorkel in the bioluminescent bay. A fast boat ride from the marina got us to the “Bio Bay,” as they called it. Nighttime settled in, the stars came out, and we jumped in the water with our snorkeling gear to swim among the billions of bioluminescent plankton that live in the bay. It was a wild experience to see your whole body sparkle as you swam through the water! My daughter was particularly thrilled, waving her hands through the water, her fingertips sparkling like some character from a Harry Potter movie. Sadly, photos just don’t pick up the bioluminescence. You need to put on a snorkel mask and dive in. It’s worth it!

 

 

We took a road trip up the 7-Mile Beach coast and made the mandatory stop in the little town of Hell. Of course, we did all the silly tourist things you do when you go to a town named Hell…

 

 

On our way back, we made a stop at Cemetery Beach. Park your car along the street, then walk the marked path on the side of the cemetery to the beach. The water is beautiful, and the snorkeling was the best we had on our entire trip.

It’s pretty common to find beaches located behind the cemeteries, even fast food restaurants. For example, there’s one beach, appropriately called “Cheeseburger Beach,” because it’s located behind a Burger King.

 

The cemetery at Cemetery Beach.

 

…And the beach at Cemetery Beach.

Heading back south toward Georgetown, and then further east toward Boddentown, other snorkeling adventures included stops at two public beaches: Smith Barcadere (or Smith’s Beach) and Spotts Beach, a favorite of locals and a hangout for sea turtles. The waters were a bit rough…we didn’t see much of anything. But it was a fun adventure nonetheless. Both beaches are clearly marked, with parking nearby.

 

 

OUR TOP 3 DINING EXPERIENCES ON GRAND CAYMAN

Great food is an important part of any trip we take. It doesn’t have to be fine dining…a shack on the water is totally fine, as long as the food is fantastic. Most of Grand Cayman lacks that old island charm, with the exception of the few places I mentioned earlier on the East End.

7-Mile Beach is where the luxury resorts are located, and that means fine dining, or at least the Cayman version of it. As I mentioned, because everything is imported to the island, the menus at most of these restaurants is pretty much the same. What varies is the dining room and the view. So despite the fact that the Cayman Islands tourism board brags about being “The Culinary Capital of the Caribbean,” there are really very few excellent restaurants. They are, for the most part, nice hotel restaurants. (And that’s not a complement.) It probably should come as no surprise, then, that the 2 best restaurants we found are at the fanciest hotel: the Ritz Carlton.

Blue by Eric Ripert. A newcomer to the island, Blue has made a big splash, totally reinventing the idea of fine dining. Eric Ripert is the Michelin star award-winning chef of NYC’s Le Bernardin, widely considered one of the top restaurants in the world. For him to put his name on another restaurant had to mean drastic changes in the way they do business in the Cayman Islands.

For one thing, the same importer that brings all the same mediocre products to the other restaurants, was not going to cut it. Ripert uses exotic, expensive, hard-to-get ingredients in his recipes that certainly required a new source, someone who could consistently bring him the highest quality tuna, foie gras, and other luxury ingredients.

The staff at Blue is well-trained: the service is beyond reproach, yet they don’t hover over you while you try to eat. And the kitchen staff was hand-picked by Ripert himself, who visits regularly.

What it all amounts to is the finest dining experience on the island: impeccably fresh seafood with the lightest touch of the finest ingredients to make the dishes really shine. One example was the tuna with foie gras, a combination that couldn’t possibly work on paper, but turned out to be a mindblower.

Tuna with foie gras. Tuna pounded thin, with a foe gras “wafer” underneath.

Of course, you pay a hefty price for all this luxury, and as expensive as dining is on this island, Blue kicks the price tag up a notch. All I can say is, go cheap somewhere else and treat yourself to Blue.

 

Taikun at the Ritz  Carlton. The fact that Taikun is the best sushi restaurant on the island is no doubt in part possible by the influence of the new and exotic ingredients imported for Blue by Eric Ripert. Hey, if one restaurant at the Ritz is getting them, why not two? They even had their own version of tuna with foie gras on their menu. Beautiful sushi, and an excellent, though expensive sake list.

The dining room at Taikun.

 

 

Ristorante Pappagallo: Our third favorite restaurant caught us by surprise. We thought for sure that it would be touristy, yet they served some of the most delicious and authentic Italian food we’ve had in a long time: handmade gnocchi, fabulous beef carpaccio, eye-rollingly good risotto…and an excellent wine list. Also, one of the best bars and bartenders on the island…real mixology.

 

The bar at Ristorante Pappagallo.

Plus, a wonderful old parrot that’s been there for 35 years!

 

 

The worst part about our trip to the Cayman Islands was the airport. For all that money invested in this island, you’d think they would have a state-of-the-art facility. Quite the opposite. It’s crowded, disorganized, low-tech, and dirty…enough of a negative that it makes you think twice about coming back…which is too bad, because it’s the last memory you have of your vacation.

 

With so many other island choices in the Caribbean, it’s hard to say whether we’ll be back to Grand Cayman any time soon. But we needed the rest and relaxation…and despite a few snags, we got that!

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not a jealous guy. But when I saw my buddy, Lee, post a photo of himself and his family sipping Painkillers at my all-time favorite beach bar, the Soggy Dollar on the island of Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands, I have to admit, I wasn’t happy.

I mean, when I heard he was going to vacation in St. Thomas, I was the one who told him to go there. But seeing them sipping Painkillers on that amazing white sand was just too much to handle.

The Painkiller is one of the tastiest rum drinks you can make, and one that certainly brings you back to the Caribbean. And it was invented at the Soggy Dollar. Located on White Bay, a stretch of the whitest most beautiful sand in the Caribbean, surrounded by beautiful turquoise waters, there is no dock. You have to anchor your boat offshore and swim…hence the name: the Soggy Dollar.

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Daphne Henderson was the owner of the Soggy Dollar years ago, and she is credited for inventing the Painkiller, which used Pusser’s rum, a British rum that is readily available here in the United States. Charles Tobias, a businessman that received permission from the British Royal Navy to commercialize Pusser’s rum in 1980, tasted the Painkiller and realized the potential of this amazing drink. He took some Painkillers home to the island of Tortola, where he experimented in recreating that drink, coming up with what he thought was something that was as good as—if not better than—the original. He called it the Pusser’s Painkiller.

Tobias never found out what Daphne Henderson’s original recipe was, but when he brought his own Pusser’s Painkillers back to the Soggy Dollar, and had a tasting battle between the two recipes, his recipe apparently won 10 out of 10 times. With 4 Pusser’s bars and restaurants in the Caribbean and 2 more in the states, Tobias quickly made the Pusser’s Painkiller the signature drink of these now-famous establishments…and perhaps the most popular drink among the sailing community in the US, Caribbean and West Indies.

The drink itself is simple…

PUSSER’S PAINKILLER
4 parts pineapple juice
1 part cream of coconut
1 part orange juice

Combine these 3 ingredients, with lots of fresh grated nutmeg in a glass with ice. How much Pusser’s rum you use depends on how hammered you want to get! A Pusser’s #2 uses 2 parts rum…a Pusser’s #3 uses 3 parts rum…and a Pusser’s #4 uses 4 parts rum!

I’ve had several Pusser’s #4’s back in the day when there was a Pusser’s bar on the island of St John in the USVI many years ago. I’ve also sampled them in the BVI at the 2 Pusser’s locations on Tortola.  But I still prefer going back to Jost Van Dyke and knocking back a few at the place where the Painkiller was born, the greatest beach bar on planet Earth: the Soggy Dollar Bar.

I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to go back. But my bathing suit is already packed. Me, below, in happier days…

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And now I hear my buddy, Rick, is on his way to the Soggy Dollar, sailing from Tortola. I think I’ll avoid Facebook for a few days.

You could say I’ve done it all in St. John. My first visit 25 years ago was a week-long stay in a tent at Cinnamon Bay campground. I returned in later years to rent villas in the Chocolate Hole area as well as Coral Bay. I rented apartments and condos in Cruz Bay. And, I’ve stayed at the Westin Resort St. John several times.

St. John  has rapidly become the island of the Jeep Wrangler. You'll find this as a rental more than any other kind of vehicle. Always reserve your car while you're still at home, before your trip. They go fast.

St. John has rapidly become the island of the Jeep Wrangler. You’ll find this as a rental more than any other kind of vehicle. Always reserve your car while you’re still at home, before your trip. They go fast.

 

St. John is a small, mountainous, tropical island, one of the three US Virgin Islands. (The other two are St. Thomas and St. Croix.) The Rockefellers fell in love with this island many years ago, and established what is now the Caneel Bay Resort. More significantly, they secured about two-thirds of this island (and much of its surrounding waters) as a National Park, which means limited construction on land and no annoying jerks in loud motor boats and jet skis off shore. Those areas where construction is allowed, outside of the National Park, like the town of Cruz Bay, have seen significant growth in the last two decades, and it’s not always for the best.

Local markets have kept up with the times, and you can now find gluten-free and organic foods easily on St. John.

Local markets have kept up with the times, and you can now find gluten-free and organic foods easily on St. John.

There’s no airport in St. John…just a helipad at the top of the island where the hospital is located. So that means everyone arrives here by boat. Vacationers land in St. Thomas and take a series of taxis and a ferry to get to St. John. Easy to do. The lack of affordable living space for locals that work here means many of them have to commute every day from St. Thomas, where the rent is cheaper.

Talk to most store or restaurant owners and they’ll tell you that they came to St. John on vacation and decided this was where they wanted to stay. I can’t say that I blame them. And if they had a radio station here, I’d be really tempted to do the same!

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Photo by Kelly Milukas.

 

 

Westin Resort St. John

Some of the flowers at the Westin.

Some of the flowers at the Westin.

 

We stayed at the Westin and a lot has changed since our last visit five years ago, especially the attitude of the staff in general. Where before they seemed bored, this time they went out of their way to be friendly and helpful. And it rubbed off on the guests, too. (At least the ones that weren’t total a-holes.)

We were here once again on Starwood points and got a poolside room with King-size bed and a roll away for our 8-yr-old daughter. The room was clean and comfortable, and housekeeping was there every day to make sure we had plenty of clean towels.

The push is definitely on to get you to see their time share properties, and so the sales pitch was annoying at times. But it didn’t take away from our enjoyment of the property.

My daughter loved the Kids’ Club (gives parents some private time.) My wife loved the spa. The staff of the dive shop was helpful in guiding us where to go snorkeling on the island, depending on water conditions.

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Nothing, I mean nothing, beats the private Westin ferry service that takes you from the airport to the resort and back again without any stress or hassle. After two-and-half decades, I can tell you: the public ferries and taxis can get tiresome. The Westin ferry makes you feel like a rock star. It’s $120 per adult roundtrip. That may sound steep until you realize that it takes the place of a bumpy 45-minute taxi ride in a crowded van from Cyril E. King Airport in St. Thomas to Red Hook, on the eastern side of the island….and dragging your stuff out of the van to the ferry at Red Hook that takes you to Cruz Bay in St. John…and fighting the crowds to unload your luggage and put it on a taxi that takes you from Cruz Bay to the Westin Hotel.

With the Westin ferry, you don’t lift a finger. When you land at the airport, you check in at the Westin desk, where they immediately give you your room keys and plan your return home (not that you want to think about it then, but you get peace of mind.) Then you get your luggage off the carousel and the Westin people put it on a taxi for you. The taxi takes 10 minutes to get to Charlotte Amalie, where the private Westin ferry is waiting for you. You board, and they load your luggage. You enjoy a beautiful 45-minute ferry ride and you arrive at the Westin resort’s private dock. You are greeted with a rum drink while they unload your luggage and bring it to your room. You already have your room key, so you get to your room when you feel like it. That’s the way it’s done! Of course, you do have to stay at the Westin to use the ferry service. But you also get unlimited free rides to and from St. Thomas on the ferry when you want to go there to shop, dine or explore. (We never do. We love this island too much.)

Poolside room view at the Westin.

Poolside room view at the Westin.

The food at the Westin poolside cafe/bar called Snorkels was great, with many healthy options. Room service was good, not great. Their only other real restaurant, Lemongrass, had a Thai theme which wasn’t very family friendly. And the previous fancy steak restaurant, in the main building, was now a big empty space. This meant that you had to leave the property and get a taxi to Cruz Bay (at $5 per person one-way) if you wanted a decent dinner. This was, in our opinion, the biggest fail on the part of what could be a great resort. (Like I said, we were there on points, and we’re foodies, so we were heading into town every night anyway. But if I was paying $700+ a night, and hoping to eat there with my kids, I’d be pissed. I guess there’s always room service.)
We arrived just before winter break. It was really peaceful and serene. Then the screaming parents and their brats arrived, and it became a whole different place. (We nicknamed our next-door neighbors the Awful-Awful family.) That’s when we rented a car and explored the island for a few days, returning only to shower and sleep. If you’re a couple looking for romance, beware of holidays!

 

The taxis on St. John, pick-up trucks with benches in the back, will take you just about anywhere on the island. Great when you don’t want to drink and drive…

 

 

Eating and drinking in Cruz Bay…

 

The Beach Bar

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I’ve listed the Beach Bar first, because it’s the first and last—and in between—place you need to be when you come to St. John. You have not officially arrived until you’ve had a drink here.

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Nothing fancy. Just a bar along the beach with good bar food. But at night, the Beach Bar jams with live music of every kind, and it’s the most fun you can have in Cruz Bay with your pants on! I have walked back–okay, stumbled back–to my condo many times from the Beach Bar in the last 3 decades. Like I said, it’s the first place I go to when I get to the island, and where you’ll always find me on my last night before I head home! Everyone comes here: singles, couples, families. No worries.

Bar games powered by Shirley Temples at the Beach Bar.

Bar games powered by Shirley Temples at the Beach Bar.

 

La Tapa

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Our choice for #1 restaurant on the island. We go to La Tapa every time we’re in St. John, and the food and service is always outstanding. This is where you go for a romantic dinner or a nice quiet time with the family. This is where you go when you’re tired of fritters and Caribbean tastes and you’re craving a high-end dining experience. Wonderful wines, well-made cocktails. Deliciously fresh gazpacho. An intriguing cheese plate. Foie gras and pork belly (what’s not to like?) House-aged steaks. Tasty desserts. Located right next to Woody’s, you could say that these two places are the opposite extremes of the St. John experience. Both great in their own, very different ways!

 

 

The Terrace

A bean martini at the Terrace, featuring house pickled haricot vert.

A bean martini at the Terrace, featuring house pickled haricot vert.

This wasn’t just excellent for St John. It was truly excellent. Inventive cocktails, like a martini with house-pickled haricot vert…foie gras…fresh monk fish…beautiful aged ribeyes…and more. Sophisticated flavors and combinations found in big city restaurants back home. No kids’ menu, but that’s OK. They made a wonderful dish of pasta with tomato sauce for our daughter. Knowledgeable and friendly service, quiet atmosphere despite their location across the street from the Beach Bar. Family friendly as well as a great spot for a romantic dinner. Reservations a must. #2 of our favorite restaurants on St John.

 

Morgan’s Mango

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Morgan’s Mango is a lively place where you can get a great cocktail and feast on wonderful Caribbean flavors. When you’ve just arrived in St. John, this is exactly what you want! I’m glad we came here first, because after several days of similar food, we started looking for a change of pace. But what they served us, they did well: tuna tartare, Caribbean ceviche, grilled mahi and more. Look for the sign outside…it means they’ve got fresh lobster that day! If you’re looking for a quiet night out, this is not the place. People are here to party and enjoy some great food. Morgan’s Mango delivers. Our #3 choice overall and best choice for local flavor.

The first sip. At Morgan's Mango.

The first sip. At Morgan’s Mango.

 

 

Waterfront Bistro

Not a bad place. What the server lacked in skills, she made up for in genuine friendliness. What makes this place special is that you’re on the water in Cruz Bay, and any restaurant that has that going for it is going to do well. Basic salads, okay apps, familiar entrees.

 

 

Uncle Joe’s Barbecue

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Located right in the center of Cruz Bay, in the large parking area across from the Post Office, there’s a small covered seating area with an equally small cooking space known as Uncle Joe’s Barbecue. The wait can be excruciatingly long, and in the old days, it was worth it. But we haven’t been here in 5 years, and it seems to me that the recipe, maybe the ownership, maybe the staff, has changed. Believe me, it’s not bad. But it just didn’t match the memory I had of it. And you better be OK with “island time” to eat here. Place your order, and go shopping. Come back in an hour, and maybe it’ll be ready. If not, go back out and shop some more. That’s the way it goes at Uncle Joe’s. Good ribs and chicken, just not what it used to be.

 

 

Rhumb Lines

The strange entrance to Rhumb Lines: through a convenience store.

The strange entrance to Rhumb Lines: through a convenience store.

Probably the most disappointing dinner on our entire trip to St. John. This place was recommended by several friends and we found the food to be just plain bad. When the best thing at the table is your kid’s chicken tenders and french fries, you know you’ve got a problem.
The atmosphere is fun and energetic, but all of our dishes were a real disappointment: summer rolls (flavorless), pot stickers (burnt), pad Thai (like out of a can), Cuban pork (mystery meat.) All served very quickly, to get you in and out as soon as possible. Thank goodness for cocktails and a decent bottle of wine.
In all honesty, St. John is not a foodie mecca anyway. So it wasn’t surprising to find this place packed nonetheless, especially during winter vacation week. But there are better places to eat in Cruz Bay. I would suggest sitting at the bar, and having a drink just to soak in the fun atmosphere. Then go eat somewhere else.

 

Woody’s Seafood Saloon

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You’re not going to get fine cuisine at Woody’s, but you’ll realize that the minute you see it. Crowded, loud, and absolutely insane, it is all about Happy Hour. And it’s a landmark you’ve got to visit, even if it’s just once. Besides, where else can you get a couple of Painkillers to go at their outdoor service window? And they make theirs with Cruzan rum, not Pusser’s. I prefer their recipe. Cheers!

 

Donkeys, cows, iguanas, even mongooses roam the island. And the roosters pose for photos.

Donkeys, cows, iguanas, even mongooses roam the island. And the roosters pose for photos.

 

Eating and Drinking In Coral Bay…

 

Ekaete Pink Corner

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This is what you do when you go to Coral Bay. You support the locals that are working hard to feed their families by feeding you a taste of their culture. Over the years, we’ve seen this little place grown from a trailer to a quaint outdoor restaurant, and the food has always been wonderful and served with a smile. On our last visit, we did the Sunday brunch, which consisted of a buffet with pork ribs, curried goat, mahi, jerk pork, and more. Everything other than the mahi, which dried out on a buffet table, was excellent. We washed it all down with a beer and their homemade sorrel drink.

Sunday brunch: ribs, mahi, chicken, curried goat, and veggies.

Sunday brunch: ribs, mahi, chicken, curried goat, and veggies.

And for dessert, the homemade soursop ice cream was a special treat. If you’re in Coral Bay, you can’t miss this place. Stop by, and if you can’t dine in, get some take-out for the beach.

Soursop ice cream.

Soursop ice cream.

 

 

Shipwreck Landing

There’s nothing horribly wrong with Shipwreck Landing. It’s just not great. In an area like Coral Bay, where the food choices are limited, you could do worse. We chose it as our dinner spot for Valentine’s evening and the food was mediocre at best. As I’ve said before, you don’t come to St. John for the food…and if you do, you stay in Cruz Bay. We take our dinner more seriously than our lunches, where Shipwreck has been fine with salads and burgers. But none of the dinner entrees we had (fish, steak) really impressed us. Coconut shrimp was overcooked and tasted like it came out of a box. Who cares, I suppose. It was snowing back home and we were in St. John!

 

You can even find deer on St. John. Maybe this means venison on someone's menu soon?

You can even find deer on St. John. Maybe this means venison on someone’s menu soon?

 

Eating and Drinking In the East End…

 

Vie’s Snack Shack

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My first visit to Vie’s Snack Shack was 25 years ago, when Vie herself ran the shack. Back then, the shack was open when Vie felt like it, and I was lucky enough to catch it almost every time I was on the island. Now, years later, the shack is run by her daughter, and she keeps regular hours…something the average tourist can appreciate! (They’re open Tuesday thru Saturday from 10 to 5.) The garlic chicken is still fantastic, especially when you drizzle honey on top. Same with the Johnny cakes. But nobody, and I mean nobody in St. John makes conch fritters like Vie’s! Worth the car rental and drive out to the boonies just for that! Plus, for a mere $2.50 per person, you can swim at Vie’s private beach, which is on a beautiful cove with decent snorkeling. The definition of the good life.

Fun to see how many customized "Dip" signs you can spot while driving around the island.

Fun to see how many customized “Dip” signs you can spot while driving around the island.

 

Where We Didn’t Go This Time But Have in the Past…

 

Skinny Legs: Where the Coral Bay locals go. It can get pretty rowdy in here, but families are always welcome. Great burgers, cheap drinks. You can smell the grill a mile away!

Miss Lucy’s: Famous for their full-moon parties, it’s just past “the main drag” in Coral Bay. On the water, and lots of fun, with a Caribbean flavor.

Asolare: At the top of the hill as you leave Cruz Bay to head to the north shore, and a favorite for dinner at sunset. Good food, not great, but the views are spectacular.

 

The Beaches…

Used to be that none of the beaches on St John had services like snack bars, showers and bathrooms. Now some do. The ones that do are always the most crowded and that’s why I avoid them. But you certainly can’t go wrong with any beach on St John! Taxis will take you just about anywhere if you don’t have a car.

Money shot: a view of Trunk Bay from the cliffs above.

Money shot: a view of Trunk Bay from the cliffs above.

Trunk Bay: If it’s your first trip to St John, especially if you have kids, you’ll want to go to Trunk Bay to see the underwater snorkeling trail. Unfortunately, that’s what the cruise ships do as well, so talk to your hotel and find out when the crowds are less likely to be there.

Hawksnest Bay: The first public beach you see on the north shore. Small beach, good waves.

A great place for kids to learn how to snorkel!

A great place for kids to learn how to snorkel!

Cinnamon Bay: It’s a campground, with a restaurant and a convenience store…and a beach. Where I first stayed on St. John, 25 years ago, and discovered that Cruzan rum was much cheaper than a crappy can of Coors Light! I never looked back!

Francis Bay.

Francis Bay.

Francis Bay: This used to be our favorite beach until they opened up a large parking lot next to it. Not only do cars fill the lot, they spill out for a half-mile onto the narrow road that takes you to the lot. Still, it’s a beautiful beach and a personal favorite. Lots of pelicans flying around. Decent snorkeling. Years ago, I had a great barbecue party on the beach here…something you just can’t do at Francis Bay anymore.

 

What the parking is like…

 

What the beach is like…

 

 

 

 

 

Salt Pond Bay: You have to drive all the way around the island, past Coral Bay and south to get here. Then you have a hike down to the bay. But it’s worth it. Nice snorkeling, calm waters. No services.

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Great Lamshur and Little Lamshur Bay: If you’ve driven all the way to Salt Pond, drive a little further to the end of the road and you’ll get to the Lamshurs. About as out-of-the-way as you can get on this island, and the snorkeling can be great here. No taxis here. You need a Jeep.

A sign at Honeymoon Beach. Hiking trails in this area have many wild donkeys, which were brought here in the 1600's from Spain to help in sugar cane harvesting.

A sign at Honeymoon Beach. Hiking trails in this area have many wild donkeys, which were brought here in the 1600’s from Spain to help in sugar cane harvesting.

Honeymoon Bay: Why we didn’t know about this sooner is beyond me. This is a beach just off the Caneel Bay resort property. You basically take a taxi to Caneel Bay and then walk…a lot. But you end up on this beautiful beach that has a snack bar and offers some beach rentals, too. Kind of a secret beach.

 

Tips for a great St. John vacation…

 

  • No matter what you need: a taxi, some information, whatever…the first thing you always say to a local, in person or on the phone,  is “Hello, how are you today?” You’ll be surprised at the smile you’ll get.
  • If you’re a U.S. citizen, you don’t need a passport to come here. But if you decide that you want to go to the BVI at the last-minute, you will need one. So bring it anyway. Snorkeling trips to Jost Van Dyke are awesome, and they’ll take you to the greatest beach bar on planet Earth: The Soggy Dollar, home of the original Painkiller. Also the famous Foxy’s. Just remember: it’ll cost you extra cash and time to go through customs in the BVI as well as customs back in St. John when you return.
  • You really need a full week to appreciate St. John, but two is even better. Plan to rent a car for at least a few days if you stay in Cruz Bay. You may need it the entire trip if you rent in Coral Bay or if you’re staying in a villa that’s away from it all. Always reserve your rental car from home, way before you make your trip, or you’ll be out of luck.
  • Explore all the beaches, especially those on the south shore, beyond Coral Bay. They’re quieter and they’ve got great snorkeling.
  • There’s nothing on St. Thomas that you can’t get on St. John, except, crowds, traffic and obnoxious cruise ship tourists. You came to get away from it all. Stay here.
  • Bring some of those special things you need every day from home. You won’t always find herbal teas or special coffees, Truvia, certain cereals, etc. But you will find what you need for the most part.
  • Duty free booze on St. John is a great deal. And if you buy local Cruzan rum, you’ll save a ton. But beware: wine is twice as expensive as it is at home! If you’re staying for a long time and you love fine wine, it may be worth it for you to bring a case from home.
  • Embrace “island time.” If you’re impatient, this is not the place for you.

 

 

I know that winter has only started. But I’m cold, dammit, and I’m thinking about the Caribbean!

One of the tastiest rum drinks you can make, and one that certainly brings you back to the Caribbean—or at least makes you feel like you’ve been there—is the legendary Painkiller. It was invented on the tiny island of Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands, at the famous Soggy Dollar Bar. Located on White Bay, a stretch of the whitest most beautiful sand in the Caribbean, surrounded by beautiful turquoise waters, there is no dock. You have to anchor your boat offshore and swim…hence the name: the Soggy Dollar.

SOGGY1

Daphne Henderson was the owner of the Soggy Dollar years ago, and she is credited for inventing the Painkiller, which used Pusser’s rum, a British rum that is readily available here in the United States. Charles Tobias, a businessman that received permission from the British Royal Navy to commercialize Pusser’s rum in 1980, tasted the Painkiller and realized the potential of this amazing drink. He took some Painkillers home to the island of Tortola, where he experimented in recreating that drink, coming up with what he thought was something that was as good as—if not better than—the original. He called it the Pusser’s Painkiller.

Tobias never found out what Daphne Henderson’s original recipe was, but when he brought his own Pusser’s Painkillers back to the Soggy Dollar, and had a tasting battle between the two recipes, his recipe apparently won 10 out of 10 times. With 4 Pusser’s bars and restaurants in the Caribbean and 2 more in the states, Tobias quickly made the Pusser’s Painkiller the signature drink of these now-famous establishments…and perhaps the most popular drink among the sailing community in the US, Caribbean and West Indies.

The drink itself is simple…

PUSSER’S PAINKILLER

4 parts pineapple juice

1 part cream of coconut

1 part orange juice

Combine these 3 ingredients, with lots of fresh grated nutmeg in a glass with ice. How much Pusser’s rum you use depends on how hammered you want to get! A Pusser’s #2 uses 2 parts rum…a Pusser’s #3 uses 3 parts rum…and a Pusser’s #4 uses 4 parts rum!

I’ve had several Pusser’s #4’s back in the day when there was a Pusser’s bar on the island of St John in the USVI many years ago. I’ve also sampled them in the BVI at the 2 Pusser’s locations on Tortola.  But I still prefer going back to Jost Van Dyke and knocking back a few at the place where the Painkiller was born, the greatest beach bar on planet Earth: The Soggy Dollar Bar.

I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to go back. But my bathing suit is already packed.

SOGGY2

Thanks to my buddy, Dr Chezwick, for the photos. No children were harmed during this catamaran trip.

I know that winter has only started. But I’m cold, dammit, and I’m thinking about the Caribbean!

One of the tastiest rum drinks you can make, and one that certainly brings you back to the Caribbean—or at least makes you feel like you’ve been there—is the legendary Painkiller. It was invented on the tiny island of Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands, at the famous Soggy Dollar Bar. Located on White Bay, a stretch of the whitest most beautiful sand in the Caribbean, surrounded by beautiful turquoise waters, there is no dock. You have to anchor your boat offshore and swim…hence the name: the Soggy Dollar.

SOGGY1

Daphne Henderson was the owner of the Soggy Dollar years ago, and she is credited for inventing the Painkiller, which used Pusser’s rum, a British rum that is readily available here in the United States. Charles Tobias, a businessman that received permission from the British Royal Navy to commercialize Pusser’s rum in 1980, tasted the Painkiller and realized the potential of this amazing drink. He took some Painkillers home to the island of Tortola, where he experimented in recreating that drink, coming up with what he thought was something that was as good as—if not better than—the original. He called it the Pusser’s Painkiller.

Tobias never found out what Daphne Henderson’s original recipe was, but when he brought his own Pusser’s Painkillers back to the Soggy Dollar, and had a tasting battle between the two recipes, his recipe apparently won 10 out of 10 times. With 4 Pusser’s bars and restaurants in the Caribbean and 2 more in the states, Tobias quickly made the Pusser’s Painkiller the signature drink of these now-famous establishments…and perhaps the most popular drink among the sailing community in the US, Caribbean and West Indies.

The drink itself is simple…

PUSSER’S PAINKILLER

4 parts pineapple juice

1 part cream of coconut

1 part orange juice

Combine these 3 ingredients, with lots of fresh grated nutmeg in a glass with ice. How much Pusser’s rum you use depends on how hammered you want to get! A Pusser’s #2 uses 2 parts rum…a Pusser’s #3 uses 3 parts rum…and a Pusser’s #4 uses 4 parts rum!

I’ve had several Pusser’s #4’s back in the day when there was a Pusser’s bar on the island of St John in the USVI many years ago. I’ve also sampled them in the BVI at the 2 Pusser’s locations on Tortola.  But I still prefer going back to Jost Van Dyke and knocking back a few at the place where the Painkiller was born, the greatest beach bar on planet Earth: The Soggy Dollar Bar.

I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to go back. But my bathing suit is already packed.

SOGGY2

Thanks to my buddy, Dr Chezwick, for the photos. No children were harmed during this catamaran trip.