Restaurant Review: Virgilio’s

As was the case with Amalia’s Cafe earlier, Virgilio’s is the sort of place that manages to perfectly match a wonderful ambiance with very tasty food. Even if no Italians were involved in this particular restaurant, it does a very good job at presenting a tasty and authentic Italian cuisine that blends some very familiar foods with ones that are less familiar and deserve to be better known. As one might imagine, both of them were tried during the course of dinner. One might consider the ambiance of this particular restaurant to be the sort that would be perfectly aimed at a diner like myself. The restaurant is in a historic building, is filled with beautiful objects d’art, and plays music that is part of my singing and viola repertoire, besides other pieces that I just happen to like singing. If the restaurant were trying to earn my approval it could hardly do so better than it did.

And it is the food that adds a high degree of interest as well. I was thirsty enough to polish off nearly two bottles of water myself (my mother had about a glass in a half and those bottles were emptied), but they were emptied in a good cause at least. The meal began with tasty garlic bread that was pre-buttered, a nice touch. After that my mother and I both had the Stracciatella alla Romana, my mother’s without the cheese and mine with the cheese, with a fantastic spinach and egg drop in chicken broth. After that came the Insalata Verde Italiana, a green salad with a tasty basil dressing. Then came a tasty Pollo Parmigiana with unbreaded chicken breast and veggies and pasta. I also had a tasty New York style cheesecake for dessert. All told, it was a great meal that was well worth the price, and a fantastic environment where reservations are recommended.

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The Night The Lights Went Out In Charlotte Amelie

Yesterday evening, my mother and I found ourselves eating at a local restaurant that appears to cater to the local Dominican community on St. Thomas in the capital of Charlotte Amelie. Our trip to the place was interesting because while the restaurant was on Google Maps and I had even talked to its owner/manager on Facebook, the taxi driver at the harbor who took us there did not even know about it and had not even heard about the place. He kept on trying to call it Oceano’s when I called it Luciano’s, and seemed generally puzzled to come across it. This was perhaps the first sign that something was amiss, but I kept it in mind and did not immediately act on the thought.

During the course of our meal, the lights went out all over town–though it did not affect the street lights, which were still working at intersections even though the lamps and house lights were all out. As tends to happen, the lack of electricity encouraged people to come out and stand near the streets and communicate with their neighbors in the absence of being able to enjoy their electronic devices at home. It struck me quickly that many of these people did not know English very well, and some conversation with them let me know that they were Dominicans who lived in the community around a Dominican-themed restaurant, which makes sense. I chatted with someone around about taxis and they pointed me to a friend of theirs who was able to take my mother and I up to the place.

It turns out that the local Dominicans in town did not know the area outside of their enclave very well. Indeed, though I tried to tell them what highway we were on, the driver and his friends, with whom I had to talk to in Spanglish because their English capacity was pretty limited, I had to end up showing them on Google Maps where we were located for him to realize that we were close to the places that he was more familiar with, and after a bit of a drive and a few stops, we had shown him where Highway 40 began and then had soon arrived at where we were staying. While he had been frustrated in not recognizing where I was pointing him to, he eventually appreciated learning a new part of the town that he had not seen, and making a few bucks while he was at it.

It struck me as somewhat puzzling that there would be such a disconnect between the tourist community and the local Dominican community. To be sure, I did not know going into this trip that there was a bustling community from the Dominican Republic in St. Thomas, but it did not surprise me to see such a thing when I did. I did not know that rolling blackouts would be as common as they are in town, but it did not greatly surprise me given the speed of the generator here in making sure that internet and air conditioning stay up. And it is striking to me that a tourist could find a restaurant and their place on a map, but taxi drivers appear to be in separate worlds, some of them catering to one community and some catering to another community, never seeming to become aware of the other places that exist within their very midst. How strange such things can be.

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The Adventurous Chickens Of St. Croix

My mother and I had planned a rather ambitious set of travels around St. Croix yesterday, but ended up exploring the area of the small town of Christiansted instead, which proved to be interesting enough and also relaxing. It does not take long in St. Croix to realize that there are some very puzzling patterns and the island itself misses a lot of opportunities for the sort of tourism that its historical significance and natural beauties would merit. St. Croix is leaving a lot of money on the table, and it is hard to understand why this is the case, why an island that has so much to offer offers so little of it to tourists.

Even a short deal of time spent in St. Croix can easily point one up to the lassitude of the people when it comes to the tourism business. A short hike of about half a mile or so from the Gallows Bay ferry terminal around the harbor of Christiansted leads one to historic Christiansted, which is made up of a set of brightly yellow colored buildings in a state of some disrepair, most of which were closed off, but one of which, the local fort, had a lot to offer about the role of fortresses in defending islands during the period between the French & Indian War and the Napoleonic Wars that allowed the Virgin Islands to remain Danish during a time of ferocious international hostility in the region that lasted for more than 50 years. Interestingly enough, the fortress served both as a place for defense against external threats like rival colonial powers as well as internal threats like slave insurrections, thus proving their flexible purposes. Similarly, the fort served as a prison for criminals, and there appeared to be disparities between how they were treated here as well, with white criminals holed up in the above ground prison while runaway slaves and the like were consigned to dungeons below.

By and large, the town of Christiansted features a lot of beautiful buildings, especially churches and other historical sites. But one of the striking aspects of the city is that the mixture of gorgeous old buildings as well as fancy new constructions sits side by side with ruinous heaps of buildings that have been allowed to fall into a state of considerable decay. Even the city itself, which appears to be a bit dull to the naked eye, comes alive in vibrant color when one looks at the buildings through polarized shades. There are, of course, the poor quality roads to be found without any trouble as well, and then the island has the issue where there are simply not enough taxis to take people throughout the island. We encountered taxi drivers, for example, that were unwilling to be hired to drive around the island, which is quite a ridiculous attitude to have. The island has tourists willing to pay to see the island, but its people cannot be bothered to take such obvious opportunities for profit.

While the people can be said to lack a spirit of adventure, though, the same cannot be said for the islands many chickens. Wherever one travels one can see a variety of chickens, largely hens with their chicks close by, making beautiful chirping sounds while the occasional rooster crows at all hours of the day, with the hens and chickens scratching about for food, foraging for themselves. The chickens seemed an appropriate metaphor for an island that more or less allows everyone and everything to fend for itself without having a lot of spirit for catering to the interests of those people that come across the island. When an island only gets at most a handful of ferry travelers a day, it might not feel it is worth it to cater to the few tourists it gets. The people and animals who find themselves on the island can shift for themselves as best as they can under the brutal sun. That’s life, I suppose.

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A Tale Of Two Ferries

Yesterday morning, my mother and I were dropped off at the ferry station and the taxi driver seemed unaware of the ferries going to St. Croix and their timing. Going inside, there was an insistence on wearing masks both in the ferry station itself as well as in the inside of the ferry going both to and from St. Croix for a period of around an hour and a half. While on this ferry I was struck by the contrasts between traveling to and from the islands here, as there are both comparisons and contrasts to be made.

The mood was far different in Red Hook on Thursday than it was in Charlotte Amelie yesterday. In Red Hook, the ferry was a busy building and there were ferries going hourly between St. Thomas and St. John, filled with tourists, in contrast to the nearly empty terminal I encountered yesterday and the still more empty one I saw in St. Croix. At least there were some businesses, including a restaurant, in Charlotte Amelie. In St. Croix the only business that goes on at the ferry wharf is a bustling logistics business where trucks are continually coming in and out while the passenger side is locked off until shortly before the ferry comes, with no businesses of any kind to cater to the meager crowd of tourists going between the two islands for the thrice-a-week ferry.

This is not to say that the ferry experience from Red Hook to Cruz Bay was perfect, even if the entrepreneurial mood was present on both sides of the ferry to my own personal enjoyment at least. When sailing between the two spots for a relatively short ferry of only 20 minutes or so, one passes Little St. James, the private personal island of the late suicided Jeffrey Epstein, whom locals were ill-disposed to speak evil of even in death. This is a reminder, of course, of the sort of lawlessness that can occur when wealthy and powerfully connected people own their own islands and become, more or less, a law unto themselves.

And there was a great deal of fun to be had on the ferry going from Charlotte Amelie to Gallows Bay, where the antiquated ferry boat Adventurer galloped over the waves of the rough open seas, pushing up spray higher than the inside roof the ferry where I sat. And the passengers all seemed to be able to enjoy themselves, with some of them even dancing through the aisles together. This was so even though at most two dozen people were making the trip between the two islands, not even remotely full to what could be present. What one senses is a real missed opportunity, in that so few people do travel from island to island, and thus fail to recognize the differences that are present in the experiences that each island has to offer. Indeed, one taxi driver who had lived on St. Thomas for years had never been to St. Croix and considered them to be bandidos who cut down trees to stop cars to rob the people within, a sort of view that would be unlikely to survive close interaction and visitation.

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Restaurant Review: Luciano’s House

Rarely in my dining experience has there been such a dramatic disconnect between the ambiance of a restaurant and its quality in food. Luciano’s House is a relatively new restaurant in Charlotte Amelie, so new that the taxi drivers in town do not know where it is and had to be instructed about its location because so few tourists have gone there. This is not without reason, as my mother and I were the only tourists eating at this place during dinner. The place seemed to be particularly popular with the local Dominican population, and there was some Spanish music as well as a lot of Spanish conversation in the restaurant from the staff as well as customers. By and large the ambiance of the place was a bit unwelcoming, with the music loud enough that talking over it was quite an effort, with wait staff that were dressed like ladies of the night (even though some of them brought their children), as well as loud and cursing customers, and some truly terrible music from a DJ Calvin who ought to have disguised his production credits rather than bragging about them.

Yet it must be admitted that the food and service at this restaurant are quite great. The place offers takeout as well as dine-in, and they have a fantastic chicken soup that is a full-sized meal for a very reasonable price. They also offer savory salad options, as my mother and I both ended up separately with the same salmon salad via different means. The meal was a bit interrupted by some electrical problems (more on that later), but a backup generator provided light and even music, which gradually became better. Overall, this is a restaurant that offers a lot of promise when it comes to tasty food options at reasonable prices, but its ambiance will likely turn off a great many people, unfortunately.

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Restaurant Review: No Bones Cafe

No Bones Cafe is a place that offers lunch and dinner in a small but cozy air conditioned location near the ferry, and while their menu is admittedly somewhat basic it is definitely well done here. There are a lot of beer and a few soda options. A great many sandwich options and also more substantial options even than those could be paired with fries or a salad, offering for some well-balanced choices. I had a simple chicken sandwich myself along with a garden salad with balsamic vinaigrette and a bottle of tasty Virgin Islands root beer along with it, and highly recommend this place if you’re looking for a good restaurant and atmosphere on St. Croix.

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Restaurant Review: Caroline’s

Caroline’s is a small coffeehouse that is part of the Hotel Christian in Christiansted. The hotel itself has a lovely architecture from the colonial Danish period, it would appear, and the restaurant serves breakfast and brunch in a rather simple fashion. My mother had an Earl Gray tea and I had a banana and peanut butter smoothie with a couple of croissants and it was a tasty place to eat, with good wifi and pretty full tables all around. The place is only open the first few hours of the day but it appears to be a welcome place to go if you find yourself in Christiansted looking for a pick me up in the morning.

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Restaurant Review: Amalia Cafe

The Amalia cafe is a small but lovely cafe in a larger group of stores near the harbor of Charlotte Amalia, and its architecture, music, and food all focus on the theme of Spain. This sort of focus allows for an experience that focuses on both tapas as well as tasty salads and entrees while also providing a culturally coherent fine dining experience. I must admit that the location of the cafe was a bit of a surprise, as I expected a more obvious location rather than a sheltered one, but overall this place has a lot to offer even if it is not an easy thing to find. The ambiance of the place makes it a pleasant place to spend time and although the restaurant is rather small, it is certainly one that can fit both large and small parties comfortably as my mother and I were able to see today.

It is one thing to enjoy sitting at a cafe and enjoying its thematic architecture and the Spanish guitar music that plays in the background, but it is another thing still to enjoy the food and service, and this restaurant had a lot to offer. My mother and I had different drinks–we shared a bottle of water and I had iced tea and she had an apple tisane she had not been familiar with out of a wide selection of hot teas offered. The two of us split up the foods we ordered–we started with bread as well as a tasty house salad that included greens, raisins, strawberries, tomatoes, and sauteed mushrooms with salmon and a sweet chocolate vinaigrette. After that we split the Pato Perynes, roasted duck breast with sautéed prunes, brandy and orange zest, accompanied by rice and vegetables and the oven roasted lamb shank, slow roasted in pan juices with sherry, carrots, fresh peas and pearl onions, accompanied by rice. Both dishes were superb, as was the attentive service, all of which made for a wonderful dining experience that is well worth recommending to others.

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Looks Like Trouble In Paradise

Today my mother and I had the chance to go to St. John. This island, one of three sizable islands in the Virgin Islands that belong to the United States, has been made popular because it is a place frequented by people like the Rockafellers in previous generations and by Kenny Chesney and others now. In traveling to the island, I sought to understand its natural beauty as well as something about the spirit and state of the people, especially given that the Virgin Islands are on the UN list of non-self governing territories, the first one of this list that I have yet to visit. And while I saw some things in St. Thomas yesterday that raised my interest, it was what I saw today in St. John that really led me to think that there are some serious issues with the status of the Virgin Islands.

Over the course of a few hours spent in St. John, I had the chance both to observe as well as query some people on the ground about conditions in St. John. And it struck me that there is a stark contrast between certain aspects of the area. For example, there are two main settlements on the island, one of them in Cruz Bay in the west of the island, where the ferry deposits you from St. Thomas, and the other in on the western side of the island at Coral Bay. There are numerous other smaller settlements, to be sure, but these are the main ones. In addition, there are numerous beaches scattered throughout the island, most of them part of the Virgin Islands National Park that takes up some 3/4 of the island of St. John, and most of them beautiful areas of sand and gorgeous water in coves without a great deal of amenities.

Similarly, it was striking that while there were a great many construction projects going on–including a new mansion for Kenny Chesney on the top of a high hill looking down over the northern coast of the island, there were a lot of projects that simply were not going anywhere that had been destroyed by hurricanes. A beautiful area that used to have a hotel on it is now an abandoned ruin that is only accessible by boat or a hiking trail from Cruz Bay, and cannot be built on because of problems with permitting from the Department of the Interior. Similarly, the island’s school and medical clinic had been destroyed by two hurricanes as well and now housed temporary trailers that served as interim solutions.

These proved to be serious matters because of the logistics involved. For schooling, for example, students are only educated on the island up to the seventh grade. After that, students have to travel by ferry (it is at least 30 minutes each way) to St. Thomas to and from every day for those in the eighth grade and high school. Similarly, the medical center cannot handle anything remotely serious, having to send people either by water taxi to St. Thomas, again, or via helicopter airlift to Miami (!). Miami, it should be noted, is close to three hours away by jet plane from St. Thomas, and one wonders the staggering cost of airlifting someone that distance by helicopter to the mainland, or how many people it would take in so doing to pay for a new and more robust medical clinic for the island.

Related to, and perhaps causal to, these problems is the state of politics on the island. When I queried the taxi driver about whether there was municipal government in the Virgin Islands, he seemed surprised that I would even think that would be the case. The islands are having a campaign right now for voting for various non-voting representatives in the House of Representatives as well as various senators, for what it is hard to see, but there are no mayors, no people elected to govern islands or smaller districts, and this is troubling. Moreover, it appears that there is little ability for the people of St. John to have their voice reach the faraway government offices in Washington DC when it comes to making their health and education a priority. If Kenny Chesney has a problem with permitting, it is likely that he would be able to bend the ear of someone, at least. But the people who live on the islands and have to deal with the lack of public infrastructure on the islands are not as fortunate. One wonders what could be done to improve such difficulties.

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Restaurant Review: The Greenhouse Restaurant And Bar

Knowing my mother’s fondness for salads, I found a restaurant that was only slightly spendy and that had some tasty options for both of us to enjoy, so we took the taxi down to a restaurant that was along the harbor, and found out what they had to offer. The Greenhouse Restaurant and Bar is a pleasant and large restaurant with a lot of seats and a friendly, easy-going vibe, with plenty of lights to provide a pleasant ambiance. The service was attentive and friendly and it appeared that there was a variety of locals as well as well as tourists visiting the place. As far as its location is concerned, there is a taxi stand right in front of the restaurant, which provides convenient access for returning home after one’s meal is done.

As far as our first meal there is concerned, my mother had the Jamaican Jerk Chicken salad, which offered a bed of greens along with other vegetables like cherry tomatoes, carrots, added mango for additional tropical flavor, and large amounts of spicy jerk chicken breast, all of which made for a meal-size salad for around $20. I had the coconut chicken which offered a savory chicken breast with a coconut cream sauce and some pineapples, along with a baked potato and side salad with balsamic vinaigrette. The bottle of water was a welcome addition to the meal but the strawberry smoothie was a bit spendy at nearly $10, which is definitely something to pay attention to if one is not eating during happy hour. The place offered a good enough eating experience to be worth eating there again with a relaxed setting for conversation and observation of the clientele and people driving and walking around the neighborhood.

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