ST. CROIX, U.S. Virgin Islands - Hot and sweaty after a long humid day visiting the northwesterly portion of St. Croix and the overflowing Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm, we rumbled past luxuriant foliage, little huts, verdant fields, and the occasional mongoose carcass in the road. Jane, our guide, abruptly pulled her dun-colored SUV into an unpaved parking lot, joining a few old pickups and ancient, beat-up Datsuns. The adjacent shack's corrugated-metal roof, open walls, and dirt floor brought to mind not paradise, but an honest-to-goodness jungle dive bar. Called the Montpellier Domino Club, located in the west end of St. Croix, the place looked like an outtake from Romancing the Stone. Seemed like fun.
The few slightly seedy customers inside gave us glancing shrugs as Jane quickly bought a six-pack of nonalcoholic beer in cans. Before we had time to sit down, she turned and said, "Follow me," and handed each of us a can. I wondered, "What's going on, and why can't I have a real beer?" Without another word, Jane marched us past the parking lot, up a couple of cracked stairs toward a pen of some sort. I smelled a musky aroma and heard muted grunting. Inside the pen was a massive pig, dark chocolate brown with hints of black and gray, greedily eyeing us. It was enormous, like an old VW bus. The pig immediately hopped up on its hind legs and leaned its grotesque head over the railing. Jane calmly sauntered over and gave the pig a beer can. The pig's huge tusks stuck out menacingly, but really, like Homer Simpson, he was only interested in one thing - beer. He expertly chomped the can in a few bites, and knew to tilt his head back to drink in the suds without spilling. Soon, he dropped the can on the floor, joining many other "dead soldiers." Jane cajoled me to approach the pig and hand over my beer. He downed it in a few seconds. The bar now serves only non-alcoholic beer to the pigs, having learned from disastrous experience that a drunken 800-pound porker can be quite a problem. The pig went through the six-pack like a seasoned college student.
The "beer-drinking-pig" experience presented a curious juxtaposition, since I was primarily on the island for the St. Croix Food & Wine Experience - billed as the largest and most extensive food and wine festival in the Caribbean. The 2012 festival runs April 17 to 22, bringing together top-name food purveyors, restaurateurs, chefs, and winemakers plus visitors and Virgin Islands residents. The "Taste of St. Croix" portion is the big finale event, where all the participating celebrity chefs and vintners cook, pour, compare, and mingle with attendees. It's a huge party for all concerned.
This year's award-winning chefs include: Govind Armstrong, Graham Elliot, Howie Kleinberg, Orlando Santos, Ana Sortun, Roberto Trevino, and Sue Zemanick. Sortun said, "I'm excited to see how chefs and farmers in St. Croix make the most of their local and seasonal produce."
Funds from spirited wine auctions, chef's dinners, wine seminars, and the huge "Taste of St. Croix" go to the programs at the St. Croix Foundation, a local nonprofit helping island youth. Programs include literacy courses, funding a computer lab, basic school reconstruction, and hospitality initiatives. "Many diehard philanthropic individuals make the Food & Wine Experience happen. Their hard work and vision put us on the map," said Doug Armstrong, a local restaurateur.
Indeed, many of the islands' rich and powerful donate plenty, but hundreds of the hoi polloi come out too, mixing and mingling at this fun, multiethnic gathering. Scott Ramsey, a successful investment banker who relocated to St. Croix from Virginia, said, "This is the undiscovered gem of the Virgin Islands. It's so secluded - if you want a magical place in the Caribbean, this is it."
St. Croix's colorful history really took off with the arrival of Columbus, who "discovered" St. Croix on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. Arawak and Carib natives were inhabitants of this island long before the Spanish. Subsequent waves of Spanish conquistadors enslaved the natives, who were eventually wiped out; by the end of the 16th century, St. Croix was considered abandoned. After the Spanish came the Dutch, and then the English. About 1650 the Knights of Malta took control of the island. Then the French arrived, before the Danes took control in 1773. They allowed much immigration, and sugar plantations flourished. Denmark sold the Virgin Islands to the United States in 1917 for $25 million because the U.S. wanted a naval base in the Caribbean during World War I.
Arriving on the island today, visitors will find friendly locals, a balmy Caribbean climate, an azure sea, and very few tourists. The island does have many pretty shorelines plus world-class snorkeling and a subtropical moist forest, but St. Croix also has genuine working towns including Christiansted, its largest city. You can't miss the last working rum distillery on the island or the largest Citgo oil refinery in the Caribbean. The inhabitants are a curious mix of America plus the Caribbean, joined with descendants from Africa and many European nations.
This languid island has taken a back seat to St. Thomas and St. John, the other two in the chain. "St. Croix was always the orphan of the U.S. Virgin Islands," said Johanna Miley, a local originally from New Jersey. Never highly developed or strictly tourism-oriented, for years St. Croix was shunned by developers and cruise lines. There are no large hotel chains or in fact any tall buildings on St. Croix. This may have been a blessing since the island is still surprisingly rural, down- home, and low-key.
Nate Olive, program director of the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute, said, "The thing that really strikes me about St. Croix is that it lives by its own definitions. It's the fact you can't sum up anything here in a word that makes it attractively approachable but never fully attainable." As for food and drink, besides the exciting St. Croix Food & Wine Experience, visitors will discover restaurants featuring fine cuisine all year long, the Cruzan rum distillery, and the excellent Santa Cruz brewery. And some very thirsty pigs.
The St. Croix Food & Wine Experience is April 17 to 22.
Tickets available before March include an Epicurean Patron Package for $5,000 per couple or a Foodie Patron Package, which starts at $2,500 and includes two tickets to four events.