The history of the U.S. Virgin Islands is filled with stories of survival, perseverance and pride. And when you visit St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, that history is contained within every step you take. It’s been 100 years since the islands became a U.S. territory, and tourism is a huge part of the USVI.
When I first visited St. Thomas, about six years ago, I mainly stayed within the area of the Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort. But last week I got the chance to spend several days exploring not only the amazing beaches of the USVI but also its cuisine, history, architecture and culture.
1. St. Croix
One of the easiest ways to get around and taste what the USVI has to offer in terms of food and history is to have someone knowledgeable guide you on a tour. Virgin Island Food Tours won’t just get your taste buds watering; it’ll also provide you with the history of St. Croix. The company was founded in 2016 with the clear goal of transforming visitors to St. Croix into locals of St. Croix by way of the island’s distinctive foods, extraordinary history and eclectic culture. During the tour, I was guided through downtown Christiansted, and let’s just say, by the time I was done, my stomach was full and I’d learned more about St. Croix’s history than I could have imagined.
The first stop on our food tour was Singh’s Fast Food Restaurant. Now, don’t let the words “fast food” fool you. This ain’t McDonald’s. Singh’s is a Trinidadian-family-owned restaurant that has been in St. Croix for over 25 years. The restaurant specializes in all Caribbean fare (of course), and its rotis are considered the best in town.
But though the restaurant is known for its rotis, everyone on the food tour got a taste of a smaller version of a double. A double is a hot flatbread sandwich filled with spiced chickpea curry called channa, hot pepper sauce, pickled green mango and a tart tamarind sauce. Needless to say, after having the mini double, I wanted another, but since it was just the first stop, we were warned not to overindulge.
Since it was still morning, the next sensible stop to make was to one of St. Croix’s most popular bakeries. It’s so popular, Gary’s Bakery doesn’t even have a sign on it. People usually just find it by word of mouth—or by following their noses.
At the bakery, we were treated to a small coconut-drop pastry and a cup of bush tea.
At the bakery, not only were the employees friendly to us as tourists, but they also greeted each local customer with a smile and by his or her name. It’s just that type of courtesy and friendliness that people are accustomed to on the island.
Other stops during the food tour included Zenny’s Restaurant, which specializes in Latin cuisine; Ital in Paradise, perfect for those who are vegan; and Savor St. Croix, where you can get boozy rum milkshakes as well as tropical-island flavored ice cream. By the time you’re done with the food tour, you’re pretty much ready for a nap on the beach.
But we had one more stop to make, and it was worth it in the end. Because chicken. The beautiful chickens below are cooked all day at La Reine Chicken Shack, which happens to be a favorite of Martha Stewart’s. From chicken to conch and even sides like fungee, everything is cooked to perfection. Do yourself a favor and explore the photos on Instagram.
2. St. Thomas
After a full day of eating, I definitely wasn’t prepared for a second. But you gotta do what you gotta do. Under the guidance of St. Thomas Food Tours, we went on yet another gastronomic journey through the island. Our first stop was E’s Garden Tea and Things. Being the shopper that I am, I almost forgot we were there for food, because as soon as we walked in, I noticed the clothes. That’s where the “Things” come from in the shop’s name. But once I heard the word “quiche,” a shopping crisis was averted.
Salt-fish quiche was something I’d never heard of, and salt fish was actually something I’d never had. But there’s a first time for everything:
From the flaky crust to the flavorful fish, I was not disappointed. Unlike some of the stores in St. Thomas’ Commandant Gade area, E’s prices weren’t inflated, and lunch would probably run you less than $10. Of course, after eating, you can also browse the clothes, jewelry and pick up a few souvenirs that people might actually enjoy.
What’s a visit to St. Thomas without having a slice of rum cake? Our next stop took us to My Brother’s Workshop Cafe & Bakery. Not only did it serve one of the best-tasting rum cakes I’ve ever had, but the money used to purchase the food goes to a worthwhile cause. My Brother’s Workshop is a nonprofit Virgin Islands charitable corporation that helps at-risk and high-risk young people. The organization offers mentoring services as well as paid job training, education and job placement. Many of the young people being helped work right in the bakery.
Although my first taste of conch came from La Reine Chicken Shack, I got my first taste of a conch fritter from family-owned restaurant Gladys’ Cafe. Even though it was hard to choose a favorite, I’m definitely a fan of anything fried and battered.
Along with the conch fritter, we were served callaloo and fungi. In addition to the Caribbean menu, Gladys has her own line of hot pepper and vinegar sauces that are not for the faint of heart.
On our next stop we headed over to another family-owned restaurant, Cuzzins’ Caribbean Restaurant and Bar. At Cuzzins’ we were able to sample some curried goat, plantain, and rice and beans. Unfortunately, I ate it too fast to even remember to take a photo. I suck at food pics.
What’s a visit to the USVI without getting a little sippy-sip here and there of some rum? Besides, drinking rum is probably a little less fattening than eating rum cake. Once you step off the plane in St. Croix, you’re greeted with a sample of Cruzan Rum, which of course is made in the area. But it’s definitely not the only rum to choose from made in the Virgin Islands. Bones Rum is bottled in St. Thomas, and there’s also a bar where you have the option of pouring as much rum into your drink as you can take. Full disclosure: I’m typically just a vodka-tonic type of person, but I don’t think I’ll ever pass on a Bushwacker again.
3. St. John
St. John happens to be my favorite island of the USVI, and it also happened to be where we spent the least amount of time because of time constraints. But that didn’t stop us from eating. And I finally accomplished my mission of getting some oxtail from De’ Coal Pot. The award-winning restaurant definitely put its own spin on mac and cheese by adding a little “kick” to it. The fall-off-the-bone meat from the oxtail was also well worth the wait.
As with many islands that were colonized by other countries, religion plays a huge role. During our stay in St. Thomas, we went on a tour of various churches throughout the island. And amazingly, my heathen ass did not spontaneously combust as I walked into them. The church tour wasn’t particularly about religion, but mainly about the architecture and opulence that went into the churches that have been standing since the 1800s.
From the Moravian Church to Catholicism, there is an abundant number of religious denominations on the island.
In recent news, the Moravian Church in Denmark, which has had a presence in the Virgin Islands since 1732, issued an official statement (pdf) and apology for slavery in the USVI while the islands were under Danish rule.
I have several prerequisites when I take a trip, and they all revolve around access to a beach, comfortable living quarters and, of course, food. But I also love it when I’m able to learn the history of where I’m visiting and to interact with people who call the area their home.
During my stay, I can honestly say I was blown away by the kindness of everyone who showed us around. From the people at the Buccaneer Resort in St. Croix to our van driver, Mr. Ames, who had to deal with a group of five women incessantly laughing and cracking jokes all day, as well as the family who run the Bolongo Bay Beach Resort, they all made the trip worthwhile.
I touched on some of the history of the USVI in this article about its centennial celebration, which was held the last week of March. But the Virgin Island’s history is well noted and preserved at places like the Estate Whim Museum.
The Estate Whim Museum is the only sugar-plantation museum in the Virgin Islands. And every day, people tour the plantation to visit its slave quarters, Great House, cookhouse, sugar mill and factory complex. But it’s not just any ordinary tour. You’re given a history on how the sugar trade worked and what it was like for slaves who lived on the plantation.
And if you’re lucky, you get to meet these two people:
If I were to touch upon everything of note in the USVI that I got to experience, it would probably take another two articles. But let’s just say, even before my plane took off, I was already trying to figure out when I could visit again.
If you’re thinking of planning a trip, start off by visiting the USVI Department of Tourism website.