PALM TREES. SUNSHINE. TOURISTS. WHAT’S THE CARIBBEAN GOT THAT WE DON’T HAVE HERE IN SOUTH FLORIDA? A SKEPTIC PUTS OUT TO SEA TO FIND OUT.
BY JOHN TANASYCHUK
It’s not that we had anything against the Caribbean. It’s just that we had avoided it.
After all, isn’t living in South Florida kind of the same thing?
Do we really need to see more palm trees? More sunshine? More cruise ship passengers?
When I allowed myself to think about the Caribbean, that horrible Kenny Chesney song inevitably came to mind. No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem. For a guy like me — whose vacations more often involve big cities, new restaurants, museums and shopping — the mantra of the Caribbean felt anathema to my aesthetic.
But then in January, the Caribbean — the British Virgin Islands in particular — came calling.
Our niece, Staci, cheffed on yachts for almost two decades before the arrival of her first child a year ago. She and her captain husband, Dusty, had invited us on board luxury yachts countless times.
We had said no to the south of France. No to Italy’s Amalfi Coast.
So I’m not sure why four days in the BVI suddenly sounded like a good idea. But it did.
Our only plan, if you will, was that we’d sleep aboard the Victoria Del Mar, a 121-foot Moonen with five state rooms (IYC.com). It’s the yacht Dusty captains. His crew would be coming off a busy two-week holiday charter and they too could use some R and R. We’d be guests on the yacht and get a taste of the rock star pampering that guests on a chartered yacht receive. The itinerary was up to Dusty and Staci.
Sure enough, landing in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands was everything I had expected from the Caribbean. A crowded minivan. Too many T-shirt shops. Too many jewelry stores. Too much traffic. Too many cruise ship passengers…
A state room in a private yacht isn’t unlike an oversized jewelry box. There are more hidden drawers, more dimmer switches and more of everything you’d think a room this size couldn’t accommodate.
After unpacking, we head upstairs to the aft deck and over glasses of Veuve Cliquot, we start to get a feel for the vegetation. In St. Thomas, and everywhere we soon discover, there are few palm trees. Most of the flora is a kind of natural scrub that’s resistant to wind and salt. It’s hilly, and we can see cable cars moving up Flag Hill to Paradise Point, a look-out destination over Charlotte Amalie Harbor where Staci and Dusty had their wedding rehearsal dinner 15 years ago.
Just after eight, we’re in one of the yacht’s two tenders. A tender, I find out, is an easier-to-maneuver smaller boat that we’ll be in and out of too many times to count by the end of four days. We take a quick trip across the starry-skied bay and by 8:30 p.m., we’re at dinner at Craig & Sally’s (CraigandSallys.com) in Frenchtown. It’s a mostly residential area with a few restaurants. Open by Americans originally from New Jersey, the restaurant features a mix of culinary classics (coq au vin), American fare (strip streaks) and freshly procured seafood done with Caribbean flair (mahi mahi with sweet pea rice pilaf). Like so much of this part of the world, Craig & Sally’s feels like a comfortably worn neighborhood joint, with its trellised ceiling, honey colored wooden bar and a pleasant musty smell that comes from being on such a tiny island.
More than 50 islands make up the British Virgin Islands, but less than a third are occupied by the country’s 30,000 citizens. On the 90-minute ride from St. Thomas to Virgin Gorda, our first stop in the BVI, we can see why so many people have declared this one of the most beautiful parts of the world. There are no soaring high rises. The water is food-coloring blue. There’s a stillness about the place. Only about 330,000 tourists visit the BVI in an average year.
We pass the majestic St. John Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands, much of which is now a national park. Laurance Rockefeller bought most of the island and then donated it to become the country’s 29th national park.
But we’re on our way to a entirely different kind of national park known in the BVI as The Baths, on Virgin Gorda’s north shore. It looks as if a giant got tired of playing with a bunch of granite boulders and gently tossed them along the shoreline. The result is a kind of obstacle course, in which the rocks form sheltered pools and visitors crouch and crawl to make their way through the park. While it’s one of the most popular places to visit, it feels entirely new to us, as we make our way through the maze.
That night, we anchor in Norman Island, which some believe was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Dinner is miraculously served on board.
Chef Justin Remo, 34, graduated from college in hotel management, but quickly gravitated toward the kitchen. He’s spent most of the past five and a half years cooking on yachts.
“I didn’t know this industry existed until a few years ago,” says Remo, who on this night puts out an exquisite Asian-inspired family-style meal that gives us a taste of what it’s like to live aboard a chartered yacht.
There’s brined and tea-smoked duck breast on crispy wonton squares. (He smoked the duck onboard). There’s also tempura shrimp and fresh vegetable spring rolls to start. We move on to grilled tenderloin marinated in a mixture of lemon grass and soy. His creamy crab cakes starts with a shrimp mousse. There are soba noodles and an Asian slaw. I’m amazed not just at the meal, but at the planning that goes into conceiving dishes on land, purchasing the ingredients and then putting it all together days later at sea. This may have been the first night that we took notice of the sky. If you were living in South Florida after Hurricane Wilma, you’ll remember the unfortunate days-long power outages. You might also recall the absence of light pollution. Here in The Bight, the night sky is alive with stars.
I like to start most days with a bit of physical exertion. Thirty minutes on the elliptical. But on this day, before I’ve even finished my coffee, I’ve been compelled to jump from the top of the Victoria Del Mar into the water. Forty feet. Wow! The crew tells me about the unfortunate guy who belly flopped from 40 feet. Ouch!
It’s actually just the beginning of our most physical day. We make our way back to Norman Island for some of the best snorkeling in the BVI. At The Caves, you enter two caves with loads of coral and sponges covering the walls. You can see why some call this Treasure Island.
We learn later that those annoying jet skis aren’t allowed in the BVI. It’s what makes it so appealing to snorkelers, divers and sailors. And in our four days, we didn’t see a single cruise ship.
Back in the tender, we head to Cooper Island for lunch. At 1 ½ miles long by ½-mile wide, the eco-friendly Cooper Island Beach Club (CooperIslandBeachClub.com) is the only reason tourists come here. Snorkelers and divers use it as a base camp. Each guest cottage is furnished with recycled teak furniture. Seventy-five percent of the power comes from the solar panels on the roof of the restaurant, where we ate conch fritters served with Marie Rose dipping sauce (a spicy combination of ketchup and mayo) and traditional chicken curry roti, a kind of West Indian meal in a tortilla.
After Cooper Island, we head to Tortola, the largest of the islands and its capital, where we dock at Soper’s Hole. Later that night, we dine at Foxy’s (FoxysBar.com) on the island of Jost Van Dyke, which has been serving barbecue ribs and chicken since 1966. We’d called ahead and arrived to a reserved table where platters of food were served family-style to our group. Foxy’s even brews its own beer. This is a beach bar, after all, where visitors leave shirts, flags and other articles of clothing hanging from the ceiling. We left nothing but smiles.
Jost Van Dyke, population 225, looks more like a movie set than a place to live. From far away, all you see are sailboats and a few houses. It’s also home to one of the most famous bars in the BVI. The Soggy Dollar Bar is where a cocktail known as The Painkiller was invented in the ’70s. It’s a lethal combination of rum, cream of coconut, pineapple juice, orange juice topped with freshly grated nutmeg.
To get to The Soggy Dollar, you have to swim in: Thus you end up with soggy dollars.
I forgo The Painkiller, but it’s here on the beach on Jost Van Dyke that I realize why the BVI is such a magical place. Many of the folks around me no doubt own the yachts we see anchored further out in the bay. But in bathing suits, we’re all the same. Unlike so much of South Florida, there’s no VIP room. No velvet rope.
I can’t remember being so relaxed.
That night, we all climb into a van and head from the West End of Tortola to the East End.
We’re having dinner at Brandywine (284-495-2301), the restaurant that our friends Regis Bourdon and Claudine Pearson have recently purchased. To get to the restaurant, you drive uphill through a walled gate. While it’s dark when we arrive, from the cobblestone garden terrace we get a glimpse Sir Francis Drake Channel. The entire restaurant is open, and the constant breeze makes air conditioning unnecessary.
Chef Bourdon has created a mostly Mediterranean menu on which he’ll use as many local ingredients as possible. The night we dined, there were local green beans and tuna tartare with locally grown avocados. We leave the way we came in. Enchanted.
A few weeks after our return, we were offered free tickets to a Jimmy Buffett show at American Airlines Arena. We remembered the engineer aboard the Victoria Del Mar had quoted Buffett extensively during our time aboard – Buffett made his career from his experiences down in the BVI. We couldn’t make the show.
But we are planning a Caribbean-themed party in April. There’ll be barbecue ribs and chicken, yellow rice and cole slaw. We’ll try to recreate the meal at Foxy’s. I’m also going to try to perfect a roti recipe by them. We will, of course, serve Painkillers; maybe even play a little Jimmy Buffett.
Funny what four days in the Caribbean can do to a guy.