By Chris Chagaris
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Clear blue waters, scenic magnificence, and sandy beaches come together with signature “Vincy” hospitality and local culinary delights to form an island flavor all its own.
I had visited the Caribbean several times, including once on a cruise. Though each getaway was thoroughly enjoyable, there was one island that always intrigued me yet I hadn’t set foot on it – St. Vincent.
I had heard about the island and viewed its scenic splendor in pictures; lush greenery, ringed by mountains and waterfalls, surrounded by blue water so transparent that “crystal clear” couldn’t possibly do it justice. Part of the movie Pirates of the Caribbean had been filmed there. Often referred to as a “hidden gem” of the Caribbean, tourists visited the island of course, yet not in droves so as to overrun it. St. Vincent boasted culinary fare all its own ranging from its native breadfruit, an array of fresh fish, and dishes done with a “Vincy” (the island’s nickname) flair to its very own rum and beer. I was even drawn to its full name, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the latter of which is the island chain accompanying it that had such a unique and charming sound when rolling off the tongue.
I had to visit, and when I did my eagerness to discover the island was well-rewarded. Once the thirty minute flight from Barbados just east of St. Vincent touched down at the small E.T. Joshua Airport, I was anxious to finally see and sense what this island in the southern Caribbean had to offer.
My base for the week’s journey would be Young Island resort. Young Island is a lush, 13-acre island dotted with cottages that sits 200 yards off St. Vincent’s southern tip, a mere minutes ferry ride away from the mainland. Legend has it that long ago, the native Carib people gave the island to the British governor, Sir William Young, in exchange for his stallion. St. Vincent gained independence from Great Britain in 1979, though the Crown’s influence still lingers in various forms, such as driving on the left side of the road and images of Queen Elizabeth on the coin currency.
Upon our arrival at Young Island I was greeted with a glass of traditional rum punch. Various varieties of rum are produced on the island at its very own distillery. I can honestly say that one sip of the concoction did indeed pack a punch! Dining on Young Island gave me my first taste of Vincentian cuisine. Breakfast brought house made, thick and creamy fruited yogurt. Each morning, my mouth watered as I weighed whether to begin my day with mango, guava, or plum berry. They were all delectable but mango usually won. The locally caught kingfish with lemon vanilla sauce was one of the many dinner offerings that melded diverse flavors which were a pleasure to the palate.
I knew there would be more food to sample and enjoy during the trip, so I set out to discover a different type of St. Vincent flavor by exploring one of its notable sites, the Botanic Gardens. Tucked away amid the island’s hills and mountains, the gardens date from 1765 and are one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. They sit on 20 well-manicured, sloping acres and are also the setting for special events and weddings. Gordon Shallow, the gardens’ gracious curator, sat down for an insightful chat. “The strongest attractions here are the gardens themselves, as everything here is part and parcel of them,” he said. Many of the plants grown there, he explained, were medicinal or edible. Tour guide Emanuel Johnson had an encyclopedic knowledge of every plant, tree, and flower we came across. Highlights included seeing flora native to St. Vincent, such as the grugru tree, the orange ixora plant, and a descendant of the original breadfruit tree brought to Saint Vincent from the South Pacific by Captain Bligh in the 1700’s. I soon would experience breadfruit, an island staple, for myself in a variety of Vincy dishes.
The next stop, upon advice from our amiable and knowledgeable taxi driver Ricky as we wound around the island’s narrow streets, was the restaurant at the Cobblestone Hotel. The hotel is a delightful 200+ year old inn situated in the heart of the busy capital of Kingstown. Comfortably seated amidst the restaurant’s airy atmosphere punctuated by ceiling fans overhead I read the menu, wondering what the might be the best option for an authentic island lunch. With perfect timing the exceptionally affable chef Eldrick approached, kindly suggesting the lunch special: pork with jerk seasoning, accompanied by boiled breadfruit, crushed pumpkin, and steamed vegetables which included carrots and christophenes – a green member of the gourd family resembling a sliced cucumber which I hadn’t tried before. Eldrick explained that although jerk was invented in Jamaica, Vincentians put their own spin on it in the form of a milder taste. The meal’s flavors melded together beautifully; the pork having a subtle spicy kick and the breadfruit, which I understood to be bland by itself, hit my taste buds with a pleasant flavor similar to that of potato salad as it was mixed with corn and whole cream. The pumpkin and vegetables complimented each other effortlessly.
What would a meal on St. Vincent be if not accompanied by something cold and refreshing to drink? My initiation to the locally brewed Hairoun beer was a success, a light lager that was surprisingly thirst quenching. Hairoun was the original Amerindian name for St. Vincent meaning “land of the blessed”, and my first wouldn’t be my only taste of the beer during my trip. The conclusion of the meal at the Cobblestone brought a warm goodbye from Eldrick and a brief meeting with Ann Joshua, the hotel’s lovely owner. A return visit to the restaurant would be a must on the next trip to St. Vincent.
There are 32 Grenadine islands in all, some uninhabited. A relaxing day cruise to Mustique and Bequia, two of the Grenadine islands, provided an interlude from the culinary aspects of the visit. An hour’s catamaran sail from St. Vincent fueled by a cup of rum punch unveiled endless sunshine despite the morning rain and pristine blue waters which led us first to Mustique. The island of Mustique is privately-run and known for its celebrity dwellers; among them Mick Jagger, Tommy Hilfiger, and at one time Britain’s late Princess Margaret. Despite its famed recognition, the island has maintained a quaint and intimate atmosphere surrounded by prime beachfront. We spent some time touring the island via taxi viewing grand estates, enjoying the blue-green waters of Macaroni Beach, suitably named as its shape resembles that of the pasta. The scenic drive continued into town and passed mainstays such as the adorably named Sweetie Pie Bakery and the world renowned Basil’s Bar.
After a short sail we arrived on Bequia, the largest of the Grenadine islands which was to be a shorter visit than Mustique. Just as I was stepping off the catamaran onto the white sand of Princess Margaret Beach, I lost my footing in the thick sand and shallow water; with little time to prevent the inevitable, my camera hit the surf. Thankfully, my pictures weren’t lost but regrettably I can’t say the same of my camera’s function. Though unfortunate, the mishap didn’t keep me from enjoying the magnificent beach and the small yet bustling crowd of visitors dotting the sand as they basked in the vibrant sun and cobalt water.
The trip would be winding down in a few days and I wanted to taste more Vincy fare. As I relaxed pool and beachside on Young Island, I had already decided to rely on the expert advice of my Vincentian contacts Celia and Marlon. Calm Waters restaurant was culinary destination not to be missed. Located on St. Vincent’s southeast coast at Ratho Mill, the eatery is situated atop a hotel affording a breathtaking view of the water and the array of boats adorning the marina below.
As its name might imply the color scheme of the restaurant decor is blue, with canvases on the walls depicting island scenes. Upon opening the menu I knew I was in for a tough decision. To start would it be the callaloo gumbo soup starting the Caribbean leafy vegetable itself, the conch fritters, or the Calm Waters classic salad? I decided on the latter; a tasty blend of lettuce, sundried tomatoes, walnuts, blue cheese, and strawberry dressing. I wasn’t initially leaning toward a fresh catch for my main course, until our server Amel came to rescue me from my indecision. He suggested the catch of the day, tuna with sautéed potatoes, tropical fruit salsa, and mixed vegetables which included breadfruit. Naturally, nothing less than a glass of Hairoun would accompany the meal.
I savored every bite of my entrée. Seasoned to perfection, the generous portion of tuna was so tender it melted in my mouth. Fruit salsa provided just the right amount of tang, the potatoes and mixed vegetables rounded out the dish beautifully. As I was finishing my meal and perusing the dessert menu, Calm Waters’ owner, Shirlene Morgan, came over with a warm welcome. Bubbly, personable and exuding Vincy hospitality, Shirlene opened the restaurant in December 2014 with her husband, James. “I think Calm Waters’ main appeal is its service and ambience,” she said. She noted that the menu changes every month, with the exception of the conch fritters. “Customers can also request dishes, and everything is fresh caught,” she emphasized. The restaurant also hosts special meals during occasions such as Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day.
For dessert I went with Calm Waters’ own, aptly named Caribbean coconut cake. With the perfect combination of coconut and vanilla flavor, the cake was the delightfully light and flaky, yet with a divinely creamy texture. Move over Hairoun beer and boiled breadfruit; I will always have a place for you both, but this was a sweet note. Calm Waters’ coconut cake was a new favorite way to punctuate the end of a delectable meal.
St. Vincent’s genuinely hospitable people, awe-inspiring sights and natural beauty, in concert with its fresh and distinctive culinary fare, each play an integral role in conveying the essence of an authentic Caribbean gem.