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Eat, Drink and Be Happy

Written by  Melanie Reffes

CaribbeanInfluenced by Arawak, Carib and African cooking traditions and peppered with recipes from around the world, the Caribbean is one of the most coveted regions for gastronomes. From food stalls and beach bars to Michelin-starred restaurants and food festivals galore, dining in the tropics is as much a part of the vacation experience as a refreshing dip in the ocean.

Fruits and vegetables from backyard gardens and organic farms, fresh-off-the-boat seafood and a myriad of spices and herbs are aplenty in every one of the countries that make up the Caribbean, and with chefs from all corners of the world showing off their prowess in the kitchen, gourmet adventures await travelers who come with hearty appetites. Whether it’s a plate of crispy conch fritters at a communal picnic table, snapper barbecued on an oil drum or an elegant dinner under the stars, dining in the Caribbean pleases even the fussiest of foodies.

To Dine For
For fans of island spirits (and who isn’t?) Caribbean Rum & Beer Festival (www.rumandbeerfestival.com) is heading to Grenada from November 22 - 23 with master classes and boozy samplings. “We have some of the world’s finest rum and beers on offer at the festival which represents the Caribbean at its best,” said Dr. Glyn Williams, director. In a nutshell, Grenadians love to eat. From the national dish called oil-down which is a scrumptious stew made with breadfruit, spinach, coconut milk and salted meat, to seafood prepared on open fires, there is no shortage of edible goodies on the Spice Island. In the fishing town of Gouyave, hometown of the 2012 Olympic gold medalist Kirani James, Friday Fish Festival is deliciously inviting as chefs line the streets with their grills and steamers and peckish travelers feast on lobster poached in garlic. A tip for visitors: arrive early, buy small portions in order to sample every dish that catches your fancy and enjoy at a picnic table while the rhythms of Grenada fill the fragrant night air.
www.grenadagrenadines.com

Across the pond in Barbados, the Food, Wine and Rum Festival (www.foodwinerum.com) takes over the island from November 22 - 25 with cooking demonstrations, gourmet dinners prepared by rock star chefs and tours of the Mount Gay rum factory.  Poetry for rum-lovers, Island Inn (www.islandinnbarbados.com) was built in 1804 as a storage facility for rum, and today the 24-room all-inclusive historic hotel is the ideal perch for festival goers.

Crazy for Conch
With the only conch (pronounced conk) farm in the world, it’s no wonder the Turks and Caicos Islands host the annual Conch Festival (www.conchfestival.com) that salutes the seafood delicacy in every way imaginable. Celebrating its tenth anniversary on November 30, the islands’ premier event, held in the Blue Hills neighborhood of Providenciales, serves up conch-coctions from fritters and chowders to ceviche and crepes while conch-philes cheer on conch shell blowers and make bets during the conch knocking competitions. “Our Conch Festival celebrates our national symbol, a staple in our diet and one of our primary economic exports,“ said Ralph Higgs, director of tourism and self-proclaimed conch connoisseur.

As the owner of the Da Conch Shack (www.conchshack.tc), John MacDonald is also a fervent conch convert. With his feet in the sand at the water’s edge he says, “In addition to being tasty, conch has healthful properties that extend to virility, which is why we encourage honeymooners to try conch.” In addition to the aphrodisiac effects, devotees of the iconic hut on the beach also rave about the golden brown fritters that pair wonderfully well with an icy Turk’s Head beer and the awesome views of the passing pelicans. www.turksandcaicostourism.com

Soul Food
You could stay on the island for a full year and never eat dinner in the same place twice. At last count, there are 365 restaurants in St. Maarten, perhaps more per square mile than anywhere else in the Caribbean. On the border between French St. Martin and Dutch St. Maarten, Chef Sonia Cassidy is the star attraction at Infinity restaurant in the Oyster Bay Beach Resort (www.oysterbaybeachresort.com), where her loyal clientele raves about her salmon with asparagus and risotto. “Many of my recipes I learned from my mother, or are my own creations from my experiences working with great chefs over the years,” she said, getting ready for the dinner crowd. “We have all types of cuisine on the island, from our local fast food to sophisticated seven- course wine pairing dinners.”

 The best kept secret on Dutch side, Ital Shack (www.sxmfreedomfighters.com/restaurant) is as un-guidebook as it gets. Lorded over by Ras Bushman, known around town for his mega-watt smile and dreadlocks that reach past his knees, the funky eatery painted in the Rasta colors of red, yellow and green is strictly Ital which means no meat, fish, cheese or eggs. With indoor seating for eighteen and a few seats outside, the ramshackle restaurant on Bush Road is popular for daily specials like pea stew, lentil patties and oatmeal and lime juice (try it - it tastes better than it sounds). For wannabee farmers, ask Bushman for a tour of his garden that is up the hill and behind the restaurant. “We serve only naturally pure food that we grow ourselves,“ he smiles, holding one of his prized watermelons. “That is why so many regulars stop by every day.“

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