With these colder temperatures and blustery winds, it’s hard to imagine that just a few weeks ago I was sitting on a white sandy beach looking at turquoise water. Over Christmas break, I traveled to the Caribbean with my whole family! After quite a big fiasco at the Philadelphia airport, that almost resulted in eight of us missing the cruise boat, we finally made it on our ship late in the evening. We departed from beautiful San Juan, Puerto Rico and traveled to five incredible islands: St. Thomas, St. Croix, Antigua (pronounced an-TEE-gah by the locals), St. Lucia, and Grenada (pronounced gra-NAY-dah by the locals).
Our first stop was at St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The USVI were purchased by the U.S. from the Danish in 1917 under the Treaty of the Danish West Indies. We docked at Charlotte Amalie, which is on the south side of the island, and took a 20-minute taxi ride to Magen’s Bay, which is on the north side of the island. We got there relatively early before most of the beach-goers and secured a nice corner of the beach for ourselves. Magen’s Bay is St. Thomas’ most popular beach and the only one that charges an entrance fee ($4 a person). The beach is 1-mile long and is great for floating and swimming. There is some limited snorkeling along the rocky shores, so if you are looking for amazing snorkeling in St. Thomas, you should really check out Coki Beach. While I honestly would prefer a smaller, less-crowded beach, the views from Magen’s Bay were quite incredible!
Our second stop was another USVI, St. Croix. We docked at Frederiksted on the west side of the island and literally walked off the dock right onto this amazing beach. The name of the beach is Fort Frederik Beach because you walk past Fort Frederik to get there. Fort Frederik is a weathered red-colored fort that was constructed in the 1750s by Denmark to defend the island and ward off pirates. Fort Frederik Beach is a great location for snorkeling and a fun beach to explore. The beach stretched for miles, and it wasn’t crowded at all. The water was crystal clear and the beach was very clean. We were able to find a spot under some palm trees to lay our towels.
In the afternoon, after showering, we strolled around the town. Frederiksted definitely has a Caribbean feel with its pastel-colored buildings and cobblestone streets. I loved that there were real shutters on the buildings! I felt like I was in a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean. The town is extremely clean and safe to walk around. There is a boardwalk lined with palm trees and we heard a live band playing tropical music in an outdoor gazebo. The people were very friendly, and I would definitely go back to this island for a longer stay!
For our third stop, we docked at St. John’s, Antigua. Antigua and Barbuda were once controlled by the British, but in 1981, they gained their independence. Although the islands were granted freedom, they are still part of the Commonwealth of Nations and follow order under Britain’s constitutional monarchy. This is why you will still see Queen Elizabeth on their currency.
We docked on the west side of the island and took a 30-minute taxi ride to Long Bay on the east side. This beach looks really stunning in the pictures, and fortunately for us, we got there early and found a nice spot near a cove.
Unfortunately, a large portion of the beach/water was overrun with thick seaweed, so we really lucked out in terms of our location. The water was very shallow, but the current was relatively strong. When we swam on the edge of some of the seaweed patches, there was quite an abundance of sea life. There was also a rocky extension of the beach that was speckled with large aloe plants. Overall, this beach had a fantastic view!
Our fourth stop was in Castries, St. Lucia, an island in the southern Caribbean that was fought over by the British and French for many years. In 1979, St. Lucia became an independent nation that is self-governed. I honestly expected this island to be the most breathtaking because of the mountainous landscape that is characterized by the Pitons or volcanic spires. However, due to the fact that we docked at Castries on the north of the island, we weren’t anywhere near the Pitons. So, we went to the closest beach called Rodney Bay, which is north of Castries on the west side. The beach was largely controlled by vendors and much of the beach was privately owned by Sandals resort. While this beach had the most interesting snorkeling in terms of aquatic diversity, I was really sad to see that it was highly polluted by plastic bottles and cans. It was nice to be able to walk along the beach, but I wish we could have gone in the clearer waters near the resort area. My dad, the brick oven pizza connoisseur, spotted a wood oven on this beach. Of course we had to try the pizza, but it didn’t even come close to my dad’s.
Our fifth and final stop was in St. George’s, Grenada, which is located on the southwestern part of the island. When we got off the boat, we took a 15-minute water taxi ride to Grand Anse beach. Grenada has about 45 beaches, but Grand Anse is the longest and most popular on the island. The beach was very wide and the water was extremely blue. However, there was very little snorkeling that could be found here. I really enjoyed just hanging out under the palm trees and enjoying the view.
My favorite part of Grenada though was not the beach, but the incredible spice market located right at the port of St. George’s. Grenada is also known as the Spice Island because it is responsible for producing 20% of the world’s spice supply. Some of the spices grown on Grenada include nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and allspice. Grenada is the second largest producer of nutmeg (Indonesia is first), and this is why there is a nutmeg depicted on their flag.
We had a fantastic experience in the market that started with me buying a whole cacao pod to eat. When I saw the vibrant yellow cacao pod rolling on the ground near a spice vendor’s stand, I couldn’t believe it. I had always wanted to try the white flesh that surrounds the fresh cacao beans! The owner of the stand told me I could have the cacao pod for nothing, but I offered her some money. She said she would rather I buy some spices and she would give me the cacao. So, I bought a packet of 9 nutmegs for $2.00. The cacao fruit tasted almost like pumpkin but had a tart, fresher taste. We also got to drink coconut water straight from the coconut. Later, Roberto and I happened upon a smoothie stand that boasted a long list of smoothies made with local fruit. We decided to try something that we had never heard of before and chose a sea moss smoothie. The woman showed us the sea moss in a small plastic bag and it looked like a transparent gel with a yellow tinge. The smoothie was prepared with ice, milk, spices, vanilla, and sea moss. The sea moss didn’t have any flavor, but the smoothie tasted like frozen horchata! Yum!
Roberto and I also ventured into a different area of the spice market. After talking to several of the vendors, I learned so much about various spices. Nutmeg is actually a fruit with a hard stone similar to a peach. The stone is what we know as nutmeg. (Click for a picture.) The stone is surrounded by a red web that can be dried. This is called mace. Mace is a wonderful spice that is reminiscent of nutmeg, but has a very delicate flavor that can used for cooking or baking. We also discovered a spice called black cumin. When I first saw it piled in a cloth bag, I thought it was black salt. Black cumin has been around since the time of the Egyptians, and there have been many studies done showing that it is an incredibly powerful spice with many beneficial properties. I bought a little bag because I loved that it had such a mild, soft smell compared to the cumin we usually use.
After seven beautiful days sailing the Caribbean waters, we returned to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Since we had a late flight out of Puerto Rico, we had sufficient time to explore Old San Juan. Puerto Rico is called la Isla del Encanto (the Island of Enchantment), and it is definitely deserving of its name. The buildings are bright and colorful, and the cobblestone streets are so quaint. I was swooning over all of the window balconies, and I felt like every direction I turned, there was a picturesque scene.
As we meandered through the quiet streets, I tried to soak up as much of the tropical sun as possible. I’m not going to lie, thoughts of permanently staying in San Juan passed through my head. I mean, look at this place! It’s beautiful! One can dream, right?!
My Spanish teacher side made me drag my family all the way to El Morro, the largest fort on the island, that was completed in 1587 to guard the entrance to San Juan Bay. We didn’t have enough time to enter the castle (there is a $5 entrance fee per person) so we enjoyed the expansive views of the surrounding landscape.
After we had worked up quite an appetite walking the streets of San Juan, it was time for lunch. Unfortunately, my brother, Dan, and his girlfriend, Michelle, had to return to the airport earlier than the rest of us, so they didn’t get to experience the Puerto Rican cuisine. (Dan, you should probably just skip over this part if you’re reading. The food in Puerto Rico wasn’t good at all. You didn’t miss anything.)
We ate at a place called Barrachina, which is home to the first piña colada! Our very bilingually- talented waiter brought us little samples of their piña coladas. Yum! They were delicious. (By the way, the bilingualism in Puerto Rico is incredible! The continental U.S. could stand to learn a few lessons from PR.) Not only does Barrachina know how to make a good piña colada, but they know a thing or two about Puerto Rican cuisine. Pictured above is the Chicken Caribeño bathed in a pineapple, ginger, and almond sauce. You can also see the Fried Plantain Canoe stuffed with shrimp, chicken, skirt steak, and pork. I don’t think there was a spec of food left on any of our plates! My favorite part of the whole meal was the arroz con habichuelas (rice with beans). I am now on a mission to learn how to make those beans. I totally understand why those reggatoneros like to sing about their arroz con habichuela!
Unfortunately, our beautiful trip had to come to an end, but we sure did enjoy ringing in 2016 in the Caribbean 🙂