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A Wine Lover's Diary, part 280 (March 2, 2010)

Monday, February 22: Up at 5:30 am to prepare to leave for St. Croix. Yesterday we dropped Pinot the Wonder Dog off at the doggie spa in Terra Cotta. She barked most of the way. So hard to leave her. Car to the airport at 6:30 am for the American Airlines flight to Miami. They charge us $16 per checked bag for the second leg to St. Croix. We arrive in St. Croix 45 minutes late. The temperature is 82°F. A snow storm is threatened for Toronto.

St. Croix licence plate

We have rented a car and there is a woman holding a card reading "Astler." She drives using her van to where our Ford Taurus is parked. It's an American left-hand drive but here they drive on the left. The Divi Carina Resort where we are booked in for a week is about a half hour drive, in the dark, on winding roads on the left hand side. When we arrive the receptionist says that we are booked in March – from the 27th. After half an hour of discussion – things happen slowly in the Islands – they put us up in a room overlooking the sea. The woman from Divi will be here at 9 am tomorrow to "sort it out." We have dinner at the pizza bar, an outdoor bar. We order a jerk chicken and mango pizza, which takes about 45 minutes to arrive, during which time Deborah consumes two rum and grenadine drinks and I have a couple of Red Stripe beers. We go for a walk along the beach and test a couple of hammocks strung between palm trees.

Tuesday, February 23: We awake to brilliant sunshine. It is already hot at 7:30 am. Load up on sunscreen. We breakfast on fruit, granola, yogurt and honey – very sweet – and then try to sort out the reservation mix up. Currently we're roomed in the hotel but should be in a time-share villa across the road. They tell us to come back later, so we drive into Christiansted, the largest town on the island, to do some shopping. The town is really an overgrown fishing village that caters to tourists. We finish off last night's huge pizza sitting by the dock. One of the store owners, a guy from Chicago, recommends we try the barbecue on Protestant Cay.

A Christiansted sugar mill turned into a bar

On our return to the hotel we finally convince them to move us into the villa without the $96 cancellation charge they wanted to impose. The villa is like a small apartment with a galley kitchen, two bathrooms and two TVs. We have met two retired high school teachers from Wasaga Beach, Carlene and Lloyd Stonehouse, and we are all going to try the BBQ on the island this evening – except we get hopelessly lost in the dark and take a grand tour of the island before we finally reach Christainsted, find a parking spot and take the one-minute ferry across to the island.

Tony and the Mocko Jumbies

The BBQ features ribs, chicken and mahi mahi along with a variety of vegetables, pasta, potato salad, corn and rice. A steel band provides the entertainment along with appearances by the Mocko Jumbies – men on stilts that make them 14 feet tall, dressed in colourful costumes with their faces covered. Mocko Jumbies are pretend spirits used to exorcise the real evil spirits, an island tradition that goes back to pre-Christian times. The men dance through the tables collecting money as they go and then put on fire-eating demonstrations. We return to our villa and crack open a bottle of Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, which we demolish in the balcony.

Wine store in Christiansted

Shopping arcade in Christiansted

Wednesday February 24: We breakfast on fresh fruit we had purchased yesterday and then drive towards Christiansted to do some food shopping. The prices are exorbitant but the beer is cheap – $1 a can for Budweiser. Pick up a couple of bottles of white wine – Guenoc Chardonnay 2006 and Torres Vina Sol 2007. They've been standing on the shelves at the grocery store in warm temperature. I hope they're okay. Phone the Cruzan rum distillery to try to make an appointment. I have a meeting with the President and CEO Gary Nelthropp at 11 am tomorrow.

The rain starts to bucket down about 1 pm and becomes torrential for the next three hours. So I cook up the chicken and we invite our new friends Carlene and Lloyd over to our villa for dinner. They arrive with a large jug of piña coladas, which we demolish before dinner with chorizo sausage and rosemary and sea salt focaccia sticks. Weird. With the roast chicken, sugar snap peas, fingerling and sweet potatoes we drink the Guenoc Chardonnay 2006. I should have known that it was probably going to be maderised since it had obviously been standing up on the shelf in the heat for some time – and it was. After dinner we all went over to the casino (where they still smoke!) and played the slots. Lost $20 after an hour and half and left.

Thursday, February 25: After breakfast, Deborah, Carlene, Lloyd and I drive out to see the Cruzan Distillery. We get lost and arrive 15 minutes late. I interview Gary Nelthropp and we are given a tour of the distillery. The blackstrap molasses is delivered in large tankers and flows from the pipe like molten chocolate.

Blackstrap molasses for rum

Gary tells us that sugar cane is no longer harvested on the island. The last time was some 30 years ago. Today they import the molasses from Guadeloupe and El Salvador. We have a taste at the bar of their premium product, a Single Barrel blend of 5- to 12-year-old rums (very smooth, rather like a fine Bourbon).

We ask our guide where to eat lunch in a typical local restaurant and she directs us to Pacito's. I order conch stew with spicy rice, beans and salad. Deborah has kingfish stew. Then we drive in to Frederiksted and go for a swim off the beach next to the pier where the cruise ships dock. An ice cream at Polly's at the Pier (they brew their own beer) and then drive back the length of the island to Divi Resort.

Local flora

On the road back a young deer jumps out on to the road in front of the car and I have to brake furiously to avoid hitting it. On this road we have a good view of the castle that dominates the highest hill overlooking Carina Bay. Apparently it is owned by a Contessa who is seldom in residence. It resembles a cross between a medieval fortress and an Indian temple.

Tonight we have booked for the hotel's BBQ on the beach. The BBQ is very similar to the on we had on Tuesday in terms of food and entertainment. But tonight the Mocko Jumbies are introduced by a veteran practitioner who gives us a lecture on how the tradition started and how it changed from a religious observance to a tourist entertainment. He tells us that children of ten who show aptitude for stilt dancing are taken and trained and graduate to senior level. The performers do amazing things on their stilts. We watch them while drinking a bottle of CK Mondavi Chardonnay 2007. Then over to the casino where we walk away an hour later down $10. A good evening's entertainment.

Friday, February 26: An email from the dog-sitter telling us our "princess" is fine. After breakfast Lloyd and I hire scuba gear. The idea is to drive over to Jack's Beach and Isaac's Beach at the extreme east of the island. I have to leave my jacket and laptop outside the door of our villa because Deborah has the key with her at the computer in the reception area. When I get back three minutes later the jacket and the laptop are not there. They are not inside the villa, moved there by a maid. I'm beginning to panic. We call the desk and report the missing computer and jacket. I have to fill out a form and the duty manager calls the police. Then Deborah comes running in with the jacket and computer. I had left them outside another villa door. The villas all look identical.

Meanwhile Deborah, Carlene and Lloyd are in conversation outdoors in the parking lot with Kevin, the assistant manager, who informs them about all the flora and fauna on the island. They ask about the Contessa who, it turns out, is a 90-year-old Latvian who had the castle built in 1990 with one enormous room. She has another house lower down with six bedrooms. When she is in residence on the island she flies the American flag.

The Contessa's castle

We head towards Jack's Beach and take a wrong turning. In reversing I go over a culvert and the car gets stuck. I have visions of having to call a tow truck. Lloyd and I lift the rear end while Deborah gives it the gas and we get out. Too many dramatic things are happening this morning. We have to ask some construction guys how to find the route to the beach, which is considered one of the best on the island and used for tourism brochures. The workers oblige us by driving in their truck to the end of the road, to the property of a dentist. Here they show us the path down to the beach about a mile below. When we reach Jack's Beach and try to go in the water we find it too rocky so we head for Isaac's Beach, which is another mile through bracken and prickling burrs. We finally make it and swim and snorkel, although we don't see many fish.

Jack's Bay

Back to the hotel for lunch – chicken quesadilla and a Bud for me and a Margarita for Deborah. After a nap, we prepare dinner in our villa for Carlene and Lloyd, whose last night it is: whole-wheat fusilli with tomato sauce augmented with chorizo sausage, shallots and red pepper, served with Saran Costarossa Primitivo di Manduria 2007, which I had brought from home in my luggage. Then down to the outdoor restaurant for dessert (carrot cake) and tea. Tonight it's Karaoke Night. The island singers are terrific. A quick trip to the Casino and lose $4.

Saturday, February 27: A hearty breakfast of fruit, fried eggs and toast, then do the laundry. We have to move from the villa today to the hotel for the remaining two nights. The couple above us (from Connecticut) leave their beers for us – two Red Stripe from Jamaica and two Presidente Pilsners from the Dominican Republic – one of which I'm enjoying as I write. We are watching the news about the horrendous 8.8 earthquake in Chile. It brings me back to my own earthquake experience there in 1985. That 'quake was 8 on the Richter scale.

Angry Nate's in Christiansted

Change rooms at 3 pm and then drive out to Christiansted to be met by a traffic jam. Apparently today is the Dominican Republic's national day and there is a parade to mark the occasion. We work our way around the backstreets to the downtown area and walk around the shops. We stop at Angry Nate's on the Harbour for a drink and watch a fisherman gut a haul of mahi mahi. He throws the discarded bones and flesh into the water and there is an immediate feeding frenzy of four-foot long tarpon. The fisherman carries the long fillets of mahi mahi into the restaurant's kitchen, so we decide to eat there. Mistake. We order the island specialty, callao, "a soup made of greens and herbs seasoned with ham, fish, conch and crab," according to the brochure from the hotel. It tastes like dishwater. We return to the hotel for the evening's entertainment – a reggae night – and dance on the water's edge. In the room we polish off a bottle of Torres Vina Sol 2007 with crackers and peanut butter.

Sandy Beach near Frederiksted

Sunday, February 28: Our last full day on St. Croix. After breakfast we drive out to Sandy Beach at the west end of the island. This beach is only open on weekends and to access it you have to drive 2.5 miles over a rough trail pitted with rocks and potholes.

The road to Sandy Beach

But as the guidebook says, it's worth it, because this is a spectacular vista of sand and turquoise and cobalt blue water stretching in both directions for miles. We then head into Frederiksted for lunch at Polly's at the Pier. Polly, it turns out, is the owner's bulldog, whose photo graces the sign outside and hangs inside on the wall behind the bar. I order a Polly's Pale Ale brewed by a local microbrewery. It has an interesting dry, lychees and hop flavour. To eat, a grilled cheese sandwich with three cheeses, sliced pear, avocado and basil. Deborah orders a chicken wrap and an iced coffee.

Polly's at the Pier

After lunch we head up through the rain forest – again over rocky roads – to visit Creque Dam Farm, a sustainable agricultural endeavour where they hold month-long courses. Then back to the hotel to pack and think about dinner.

For our final meal on the island we decide to go the Terrace Restaurant in The Buccaneer, a beautiful resort on the hill overlooking Christiansted. I order a bottle of Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc 2009 to go with lobster ravioli in a spicy tomato sauce and grilled yellow fin tuna. Deborah has a spinach salad and Chilean sea bass.

The Buccaneer Resort

Monday, March 1: Up at 6:45 am to finish packing. We drive to the airport half an hour away, fill up the rental car and look for the representative from the car rental company. She is nowhere to be found. I borrow a cell phone and call the company. They tell me to leave the car in the parking lot, locked with the keys and parking ticket inside. Going through security they take away a small pot of peanut butter and a Diet Coke. We fly to Miami and then to Toronto. We go from 85°F in St. Croix to 68°F in Miami. Get home at 8:15 pm. The temperature is 2°C. Open a bottle of Dourthe Château Pey La Tour 2008, an inexpensive claret ($13.95) with flavours of blueberry, cherry and redcurrant, finishing dry.




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