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Through Food and Friendliness, St. Croix is Poised for a Renaissance

If the island’s culinary festival was a soft opening, big things lie ahead for this unheralded gem of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

May 14, 2021
St. Croix has beautiful beaches
St. Croix is hardly the biggest island in the Caribbean, but its charm and creativity make it one of the most underrated places to visit. Shutterstock

“The most important thing to know about St. Croix,” my taxi driver and charismatic local historian, Ames Joseph, warned me, “is that the people are so nice.” I already knew that Ames has twice been named the Best Taxi Driver in St. Croix, and he’s even earned that honor for the entire U.S. Virgin Islands, so there was no chance I’d disregard his valuable advice. Still, it struck me as odd.

Why should I be concerned that the people of St. Croix are so nice?

“Because, if you aren’t nice to them in return,” he added, “they’ll never forget.”

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It was a comforting concept, albeit somewhat foreboding. Not that I’d ever be anything but nice visiting another place—my mom would be livid if it got back to her—but when you haven’t traveled in almost a year, it’s nice to have a reminder just how fortunate we are to be greeted by warm, hospitable souls.

And Ames wasn’t embellishing his fellow Crucians’ charm. From arrival to departure—and literally almost every step of my recent visit—I was greeted with warm smiles and pleasant conversation. Everyone might have been wearing masks on their faces, but there were also countless hearts on sleeves. The energy was warm and pleasant, undoubtedly because St. Croix’s hotels were at full capacity, but it was also genuine.

That goes a long way to a traveler who hasn’t left his house much in the last 12 months.

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Amazing food like saltfish and a vegan pizza
Chef Frank Robinson served flavorful saltfish on a plantain crisp (left), while Blue Water Terrace dazzled with a vegan pizza. Ashley Burns

Another cause for excitement was the return of the A Taste of St. Croix food festival. Canceled in 2020 at the outset of the pandemic, this three-day event’s return, even in a limited capacity, had this little island buzzing. For example, at the Saturday morning farmer’s market, local vendors were way more excited than usual, my hosts assured me, to introduce long lines visitors to their special recipes and secret ingredients (I highly recommend the bush tea with ginger and honey).

This is an island beaming with pride over its burgeoning culinary scene, and that was on full display when the first night’s festivities began.

Crab cakes proved tasty
The Galleon’s crab cakes were topped off were topped off with a ridiculously tasty mango ranch dressing (left); Presentation was a big part of the first night’s appeal. Ashley Burns

Thanks to the Caribbean Food Network, Crucians and longtime visitors from all over the world were able to virtually attend the event, but only 50 guests would be lucky enough to taste the food in person, myself very fortunately included. What stood out, though, wasn’t just the creative recipes and presentation or the high quality of the food, but the way that the chefs and their teams were so happy and enthusiastic to serve one person at a time.

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What is designed to be a tasting therefore became a series of conversations, allowing each chef to interact with guests and explain, sometimes in great detail, what he or she made and why certain ingredients were chosen. Again, that Crucian charm came into play. It was evident these residents were as excited to greet visitors as we were to meet them. Obviously, it didn’t hurt that they were feeding us mouthwatering cuisine, too.

The first chef I met on opening night was Frank Robinson, a local legend with an especially strong talent for craft cocktails. In fact, the gin-based beverage he was pouring was not only insanely delicious, but it introduced me to the island’s cheekier side, as residents have a strong sense of humor that lands somewhere between PG-13 and a hard R.

Mini dessert tacos were as good as advertised
Blue Water Terrace’s mini dessert tacos earned rave reviews from guests and judges alike (left); Ridge to Reef Farm won big for both presentation and culinary creativity. Ashley Burns

His drink was made with the clitoria ternatea flower, so use your imagination as to why many laughs were shared at his booth. Between that and a little downtown Christiansted restaurant named Salty Beetchz—and a hot sauce with a name I shouldn’t share—I further cemented my belief that St. Croix is a place where you can work off the extra calories by laughing a lot.

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The first night was the only leg of the festival that featured a competition, so the participating restaurants were judged and awarded for presentation, and the guests were also asked to vote for the People’s Choice winners. I can’t imagine anyone had an easy decision that night, certainly not myself. I probably spent the most time loitering at the La Reine Chicken Shack table since I can’t mention St. Croix without people telling me, “You must eat at Chicken Shack!” (I did and there will be more on that in another article.)

So, because there were so many different and innovative dishes, I placed my vote for the one that took me furthest from my element and that was Blue Water Terrace. They served a vegan pizza that featured cauliflower crust and a red pepper hummus, topped with a slew of vegetables. In fairness, I shouldn’t be surprised it was so delicious, but I made four return trips to this table to try it again and again (and again and again), so the vote was a no-brainer.

Lobster ravioli and mini lamb chops spoiled guests
At The Buccaneer’s Terrace restaurant, guests were spoiled with lobster ravioli and mini lamb chops. Ashley Burns

Naturally, because I’m a trendsetter, Blue Water Terrace won the People’s Choice Award, and I’ll spend the months between this trip and my next failing to imitate their recipe. These chefs also won second place for their dessert presentation, and I know it’s a fool’s errand to write about how food tasted, so I’ll just say their salted caramel mini tacos made me exceptionally happy that I burned 2,600 calories playing golf at The Buccaneer the next morning.

Ridge to Reef Farm earned the first-place honor for presentation and it was very well-deserved—I also gave this crew rave reviews in person for their amazing Crispy Fungi Cake. Third place was a tie between Sand Castle on the Beach’s appetizer and Rita Chiverton Catering’s soup and stew, and the latter also earned second place in People’s Choice.

The Galleon rounded out the fan voting, and while the chef’s crab cakes with mango ranch dressing had everyone raving, it was just a teaser to the phenomenal menu offered at the actual restaurant. If I never make it back to St. Croix, I might think about the tamarind old-fashioned on my death bed.

Beaches complement the stylish hotels
Being this close to one of The Buccaneer’s secluded beach spots never gets old (left); Brand new and already creating buzz, The Fred is as stylish as they come. Ashley Burns

The next two days of the festival showcased not only the island’s innovative cuisine, but also two of the best and most popular hotels in St. Croix. The Buccaneer hardly needs an introduction, as this legendary property and second night’s dining venue was conceived with hospitality and warmth as the foundation of the guest experience, and that remains the case today with its third-generation ownership.

Brunch was the theme for the third and final day of A Taste of St. Croix, and this was held at the brand-new boutique hotel The Fred, which, like the town of Frederiksted, is named for King Frederik V of Denmark. Some elements of this energetic new spot are unmistakably Dutch, but the overall vibe screams South Beach, and that’s going to make a huge impact on this side of St. Croix, especially considering The Fred is the town’s only beachfront hotel.

A Taste of St. Croix was founded in 2001 by a pair of restaurant owners, Kelly Odom and Katherine Pugliese. Over the years it has grown into one of the Caribbean’s largest culinary festivals—if not the largest—and it also raises money through the St. Croix Foundation. To say it is important to the island is an understatement. It is a source of immense pride and a celebration of the Crucian way of life.

And now that it has returned, it is a strong signal to the rest of the world that St. Croix is open for business, and things here are better than ever.

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