Eat Your Way Through Paradise on this Understated Caribbean Island
A weekend romp through America's most understated Caribbean getaway reveals a foodie paradise.
It's barely noon on a Friday, and already Rainbow Beach is in full swing. Pinkish vacationers knock back PBRs and Coco Lopez–bolstered cocktails at Rhythms, St. Croix's best beach bar. They're also here for the glassy, warm water—clear blue and opalescent—rivaled only by Buck Island and Sandy Point, the latter of which movie buffs may recognize from its cameo in The Shawshank Redemption as pre-tourism Zihuatanejo.
My buddy Lauryn and I, meanwhile, sip margaritas made from sour oranges grown a mile down the road, a limited offering we only get in on thanks to focused eavesdropping. The beguiling flavor, a cross between tangerine and floral Japanese yuzu, goes perfectly with velvety swaths of local-tuna sashimi—a hastily scrawled chalkboard special we might have skipped had we not spied the chef under a palm tree breaking down the pristine fish. That's St. Croix in a (coco)nut shell: Gustatory wonder alongside white bread. Lazy Mayberry laced with breathtaking bursts of Technicolor intensity.
The largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands has none of the gastronomic panache of ritzy St. Bart's, nor even the tourist-fueled energy of its USVI sibling, St. Thomas. When my husband and I bought a home here in 2011—we split our time between Boston and St. Croix—I resigned myself to eating well in the north and sunning well in the tropics. Since then, I've come full circle. With a modicum of effort, you can sleuth out nirvana amid the mundane: Ask a dozen Crucians for intel on roti—paper-thin Indian flatbread—and you'll get at least as many answers. Here's mine: You can't beat the beauties Trinidad native Michael Balkaran sells from the back of his Dodge Caravan, parked outside a Cost-U-Less supermarket. The classic roti are great, filled with curried stews star-ring chicken, shrimp, or local conch. But the snack-size "doubles" are transcendent: two griddled crêpes sandwiching chickpea puree seasoned with recao (Mexican culantro), garlic, and tamarind—offered mild or fiery. Lauryn and I grab a couple of fieries for the road, then part ways until dinner.
Like most tourist locales, St. Croix has its share of standard-issue resort food: If filet mignon on rosemary mashed potatoes happens to be your cup of tea, you won't go hungry. For more cheffed-up fare, though, you'll want a taxi into Christiansted, with its charming, pastel yellow stone facades and loggia-framed cobblestone walkways, the legacy of centuries of Danish colonial rule. My two favorite spots in town are satisfying on their own, but even better experienced back to back in the span of one night.
I ask Lauryn to meet me at balter, the first eatery on St. Croix to go all-in on locavore contemporary West Indian. Le Cordon Bleu–trained Crucian native Digby Stridiron obsesses over obscure foraged ingredients like black sapote (a chocolate cake–textured fruit) and sea purslane. Lauryn and I split several small plates, including alcapurria, fried green banana fritters cradling delicate crabmeat and herbaceous salsa mojito. But our favorite is pork belly braised in a ceviche-style marinade—the tang of lime juice contributing a soaring high note to a four-part harmony with coconut, wild Indian sage broth, and neon orange annatto oil.
Full(ish) and fading, we muster the three-minute walk to our final stop: Galangal, a French-Asian fusion spot serving stellar wines, especially German and Austrian varietals sourced by owner Arthur Mayer. The steely grand cru Rieslings provide just the requisite second wind to soldier on. Chef Kenneth Biggs has a flair for local fish—we choose pan-seared wahoo with cauliflower-quinoa custard—and makes the best steak frites around. We order the well-marbled strip "Gregory style" (after colorful co-owner Gregory Thomas): slathered with Thai chili jam, which crusts up to an aggressively charred medium-rare.
Saturday begins with a mad dash to ARTfarm on picturesque South Shore Road. Here, Luca Gasperi grows organic produce in verdant fields framed by rolling hills, turquoise ocean, and—on Saturday mornings—a queue of coffee mug–wielding foodies hoping to get first dibs at 10 sharp. Gasperi's tomatoes and salad greens are fantastic. But this line is about the pineapples, the most Jolly Rancher–intense I've eaten. Get there late and you could find yourself 15 deep for what might be a harvest of six pineapples total. I luck out, snagging two prickly orbs the size of mini footballs. In the car, I tear into one with a tiny wine-key knife, sucking down the sweet nectar—not my proudest moment, yet I have no regrets.
Back in Christiansted, I stop for lunch at Harvey's, a shrine to both traditional Crucian food and (retired) NBA star Tim Duncan, who grew up in the same neighborhood as the restaurant's owners and even waited tables here briefly. Taking a seat along a wall festooned with framed sports-page clippings and autographed photos, I tuck into a bowl of chef Sarah Harvey's soul-nourishing goat stew, braised for hours until deep, dark, and fall-off-the-bone unctuous—as a hundred Tim Duncans peer down from on high.
The menu at La Reine Chicken Shack runs the gamut of traditional Crucian fare. But I don't know how anyone makes it past the rotisserie chickens, especially after watching several dozen at a time spinning on long metal spits over hot coals, the ashy plumes of smoke coaxing the skin into a glorious, burnished mahogany. Juicy-moist and assertively salty, they're so good that I've seen even genteel skinless-boneless types gnawing on random bones to get at every last morsel. I pick up two whole chickens, which I'll serve later for dinner with salads made from the rest of my ARTfarm stash.
CLANG! goes the cooler jostling about in the back seat of my mud-splattered Jeep, so I pull over to make sure all six bottles of wine are intact. The two-mile stretch of dirt road into St. Croix's rain forest is always fraught, but recent downpours have made this cratered terrain extra treacherous. Soon the trail opens to a clearing and the farmhouse of Ridge to Reef, one of the island's largest organic farms, which hosts bimonthly "Slow Down" dinners under the stars. For a donation ($60 to $100), you get six courses prepared by local chefs using ingredients grown on-site. It's also BYOB, so I've brought plenty to share.
Lauryn and her husband are there already, parked at one of the communal tables decorated with candles in banana leaf–wrapped jars. The sun and wine go down, and soon our hosts—farm director Nate Olive and his wife, Shelli—are narrating each course as farm staffers serve 60-some guests.
Tonight's dinner, by chef Mike Matthew, begins with braised pork on bok choy with honey-balsamic reduction—"pigs that grazed under fruit trees right over there," adds Shelli, knowing her audience. And there's more: grassy beef atop purple yard beans. Red Thai beef coconut curry with zucchini. Pork-and-beef bolognese over homemade pappardelle. It's a meat-centric menu, less by design than by natural island rhythms of harvest and pasturing. Even the mizuna salad is dotted with smoked pork jowls before getting tossed with mango vinaigrette.
The air surrenders to subhumid. We savor our final course, a lime-mango mousse, amid a chorus of tree frogs loud enough to drown out Shelli's narration. Lauryn reaches into a cooler and pulls out a Riesling. "I almost forgot! Saw Arthur in town—he said to give you this. I tried to pay him, but … " We pop and pour to our absentee friend—no doubt he's introducing one of his Galangal guests to a new and exhilarating Teutonic wine. That's St. Croix: Technicolor intensity laced with breathtaking moments of Mayberry. You just have to know where to look.
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Get to St. Croix
American Airlines and JetBlue offer daily direct flights from Miami, San Juan, and St. Thomas to Henry E. Rohlsen Airport. Much rarer seasonal flights are available on Delta from Atlanta and Charlotte.
On the East End, the pastel pink Buccaneer on St. Croix's picturesque north shore is the island's ritziest resort—with a beautifully maintained beachfront and golf course—located a quick five-minute taxi ride to downtown Christiansted. Rates start at $299; 340/712-2100 or thebuccaneer.com.
On the northwesternmost coast, the Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort & Spa offers secluded luxury, with convenient access to the rain forest and the Cruzan rum distillery. Rates start at $175; 340/778-3800 or marriott.com.