How to Get Out of Aruba’s All-Inclusive Mode and Truly Experience the Island

Cuisine Noir. August 2019.

Aruba is a Dutch-Caribbean island known for its beautiful white sand beaches, tropical sea breezes and dry temperate climate. With a strip of all-inclusive resorts and vacation rentals, it is a popular destination among honeymooners and summer vacationers. The “One Happy Island” is also emerging as a cultural getaway.

Downtown Aruba and the capital city of Oranjestad, mainly cater to cruise ship passengers. While docked, they spend a few hours walking around the bright pink and yellow buildings filled with designer stores and friendly bars. Time your visit to early morning or late afternoon to avoid the rush.

Downtown Oranjestad in Aruba
Pictured: Downtown Oranjestad | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Manchebo Resort and Spa, one of the smaller boutique and eco-friendly resorts, is located only 2.5 miles from the main street. Here you will find modern Dutch-inspired décor across spacious bedrooms with unobstructed views of the Caribbean Sea from your private balcony. Manchebo has one of the best beaches on the island.  With only 72 guest rooms, you will always have enough space to lie under a beach umbrella, sit by the pool or grab a seat at the bar. Free yoga and Pilates classes, as well as a Balinese spa overlooking Eagle Beach, attract locals as well as guests to the resort.

The on-site restaurant, Ike’s Bistro,  offers Caribbean as well as vegan menus paired with top-shelf mixed drinks using local ingredients, such as mangoes, lychee and cashews. The rooms come with picnic coolers so you can fill them with snacks and drinks before heading out on an adventure around the island.

Shop for aloe-made products at the Aruba Aloe and crafts handmade by artists at Cosecha Aruban Craft Design & Heritage for original souvenirs to take back home.

Cosecha Aruban Craft Design and Heritage
Pictured: Cosecha Aruban Craft Design and Heritage | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
Island Adventure

The best way to explore Aruba is by driving around its 20-some miles. Most of the roads are well maintained, but it is recommended to use a four-wheel SUV in certain areas, including the famous Natural Bridge, Natural Pools and Arihok National Park.

From Oranjestad, head north to the Carolina lighthouse for a 360-degree view of the island and get your bearings. Nearby, Boca Catalina and Hadicuran beaches are good pit stops to swim or snorkel.

As you make your way to Paradera, take a hike at the giant tonalite Ayo and Casibari Rock Formations. The Alto Vista Chapel on the horizon is said to be the first church to be established in Aruba around 1750.

Casibari Rock Formations in Aruba
Pictured: Casibari Rock Formations | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

To learn about how stray donkeys are rescued and kept off the streets, visit the Aruba Donkey Sanctuary. Home to 150 donkeys, this volunteer-run nonprofit allows visitors to feed the affectionate donkeys or observe them from a covered porch.

Head to the restaurant Zeerover in the town of Savaneta for a late lunch.  The local catch that is sold and cooked by the pound by the fisherman who caught it that day. This casual oceanfront kitchen is a favorite hangout to eat, drink, shoot pool and meet friends.

Local Charm of San Nicolas

San Nicolas is the second largest city on the island, around a 30-minute drive from Oranjestad. What was once a bustling town fueled by ample employment by a Venezuelan-owned refinery is now sparse with a few residents and old shops. The main street of the city recently got a facelift thanks to global artists who participated in the Aruba Art Fair, creating colorful murals inspired by the island’s culture. Each year more stunning murals replace decapitated buildings with artwork that brightens up San Nicolas, aka ‘Sunrise City,” because the sun rises on the eastern side of the island.

How to Get Out of Aruba’s All-Inclusive Mode and Truly Experience the Island

A few locally-run restaurants are in the area, including Charlie’s Bar which has an eclectic display of memorabilia that the owners have been collecting for more than 80 years. Nearby, Baby Beach is a shallow, family-friendly beach, where you can find Arubans with family and friends, especially on the weekends.

To see kite surfers in action, head to Boca Grandi and for body surfing and bodyboarding, watch the waves at Nanki. Hardly any tourists make it out to these parts of the island, so you will mostly find locals relaxing at the peaceful Roger’s Beach.

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

St. Croix Is the Caribbean Island Where Celebrities Go…and You Can Too!

CheapOAir Miles Away. July 2019.

The island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a quick escape for those looking for beach, sun, and anonymity. At first glance, the former volcanic island may look like a quiet town with neglected neighborhoods and abandoned buildings (mainly due to frequent hurricanes and closing of the Hovensa oil refinery). But as you drive past the flatlands into the two main cities of Christiansted and Frederiksted, the scenery changes to colorful Danish-style buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, art galleries, and fine boutiques selling handmade jewelry and duty-free products.

Continue reading on CheapOAir Miles Away.

From The Bahamas to Toronto: Raquel Fox Talks Plans for a New Year and Cookbook

For Cuisine Noir. January 2019.

Bahamian celebrity chef, restaurateur, caterer, and teacher Raquel Fox just added author to her list of accomplishments with the completion of her first cookbook, “Dining in Paradise. ”  The collection of over 150 authentic island recipes is due out this March.

Fox’s earliest memory of being in the kitchen is when she was a 6-year-old sous chef to her grandmother, peeling root vegetables and husking corn. “Watching my grandmother’s love for food, bringing people together over celebratory meals and making them happy was magical for me to watch,” she says. As a child, she would witness fishmongers bring fresh seafood to her house on bicycles and her grandfather, a farmer, start with a seed to bring ingredients to her grandmother in the kitchen and then to her dining table. She realized the power of cooking early on and knew that’s what she wanted to incorporate in her life.

In the Bahamas, Fox attended an international school which exposed her to different cuisines. She had friends from all over the world whom she visited between high school and college. During these travels, she discovered the similarities between different cultures and started looking at her island closely.

Incorporating Cultural Influences into Bahamian Cuisine
Bahamian chef and cookbook author Raquel Fox

With Africa, Latin America, France, Spain, the Caribbean and England influencing The Bahamas diverse history, you’ll can find seafood conch salad with a lot of chili and lime, Johnnycake or Bahamian cornbread, fried whole fish and chicken, as well as a British style steamed puddings called guava duff (the national dish) on the same table. Seafood is a staple and Bahamian cooking incorporates lots of spices, rum and tropical fruits.

Fox and her husband opened a wine lounge in the Bahamas in 2009, which they eventually closed to move their family to Toronto, Canada, where they currently reside. She also hosted her own television show, “Island Hopping,” to educate people about Bahamian food.

After being in the culinary industry for 14 years, Fox went back to school to get a culinary degree from George Brown College in Toronto. “I tried to be modest at the time, but I wasn’t a beginner to cooking. Still, I learned a lot of techniques, culinary terms used at work, and even the proper way to hold a knife,” she adds. After graduation, Fox opened a catering business and started teaching at George Brown and various cooking schools. “What I enjoy most being a culinary instructor is that you meet wonderful people who are enthusiastic about learning and passionate about food. I tell stories of my childhood as I teach them how to cook, which is very entertaining,” Fox says about her favorite job thus far.

New Cookbook Celebrates Familly

In her cookbook, Fox shares many of her family’s recipes as well as stories from her childhood growing up. She pays homage to her grandma and her mother-in-law for teaching her how to entertain and bring families together over food. Readers can recreate her colorful platters around family, like people in The Bahamas do every Sunday. “Families from other islands would come over for a party in our backyard, older men made rhythmic sounds with a saw, scrub board and goatskin drum games, women danced and kids played hopscotch and hide-and-seek,” she writes in “Dining in Paradise.”  “The cookbook is my way of sharing my heritage, love and passion for Bahamian cuisine.”

Juggling so many hats can be challenging, but Fox’s passion for food and constant need to innovate energizes her. She advises doing something that brings you closer to your goal every day, even if it is a small step in the direction. “Get rid of the resolutions, be realistic and continue to grow in knowledge,” she suggests for the new year.

As for Fox, she hopes to spend more quality time with family, land a new television show, and make “Dining in Paradise” a bestseller in 2019.

“Dining in Paradise is available at independent bookstores in the U.S. and at Indigo bookstores across Canada, as well as available for pre-order on Amazon.  You can also visit her website at www.racquelscookbook.comand connect with her on Facebook.

~ Written for For Cuisine Noir in January 2019.

History Lessons at a Slave Village in Martinique

For Cuisine Noir. September 2018

The French Caribbean island of Martinique sits just north of the sovereign island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean Sea. Best known for its laidback European-style fishing villages, black and white sand beaches and the bustling capital of France-de-Fort, Martinique also has a long dark history.

The Dutch, English, Portuguese and French fought over the island before total control was traded to France in 1815.  When sugar prices rose, sugarcane was established as the main crop and slaves were brought over from Africa to work in the fields. In fact, during its peak, 16% of Martinique’s population was African, as the slave population rose to 60,000 by 1736. It was ultimately the French government that abolished slavery in 1848.

Unfortunately, a lot of that history is buried in complicated history books and often doesn’t reflect the everyday struggles of the people today.

Gilbert Larose, a descendant of slaves, took it upon himself to educate people about the history of slavery on the island. Remembering stories passed down by his forefathers, reading historical documents, and traveling to West Africa, he put his research together to recreate the slave village, La Savane des Esclaves (The Savannah of the Slaves).
Photo: Go Eat Give

Larose started building the small open-air village museum in 1999 on a two-hectare of land in the forest near the town of Les Trois-Ilets. He worked from sunrise to sunset cutting trees to clear the land. Piece by piece, he assembled each clay floor, cane leaf roof and medicinal garden to recreate the traditional huts and houses from the 1800s. Fruits, vegetables and herbs were planted around the homes to show how the dwellers used the land for survival. Paintings of their struggles, mahogany wooden sculptures, original photographs, and tools used for torture were later added to the ‘Memories of Our Ancestors” exhibit. Larose calls his place, “The Antan Lontan Village” and sheds light not just on the history, but on the culture and art of the island as well. He meets groups on a large deck with dried palm leaves tiki and a mural of the village scene where he makes fresh juices and hosts cooking demonstrations and food tastings.

Larose’s ancestors were Nèg’ Mawon or slaves who fled the plantations to live freely, relying entirely on the land. As Larose grew more fascinated with his past, a genetic test determined his ancestry to be 25% from Togo, 15% from Congo, 11% from South Africa, 12% from Nigeria, and 13% from the UK. “I’m a mixed man. I am not white or black. When you understand this, you are not racist anymore,” says Larose. Though still a part of France, Martinicans call themselves “crossbreeds” and don’t identify themselves with one race over another, my translator/guide Leslie Ferraty from Beyond the Beach explained to me.

Larose also wants younger generations to learn about Martinique’s history, as told by a slave descendant, so he published a comic book, “Ti Gilbe Présente l’Histoire de la Martinique.” The French/ English book depicts the tales of the Arawaks, the Caribbean Indians, the French colonists, the Bretons, the Africans, and the Indians who came to live in Martinique from its earliest inhabited times through the abolition of slavery. Larose says, “When you go to school, you learn French history. You don’t study the slave history in Martinique. I wanted kids to discover the real culture and history of the island.” The book is written simply and is graphically intense with illustrations by Bordeaux-based Jojo Kourtex. It documents how the Carib men married Arawak women and how people from Brittany and Normandy were brought over as the first slaves, thus reminding readers of how far back mixed races have been around on the island.

As for Larose, he spends most of his waking hours in the village. Each year, he expands the site, adding signs in English and offering cultural programs. “I want Westerners as well as Martinicans to know about our past. This is the most important thing to me.”

For more information or to look at booking a tour, visit https://www.lasavanedesesclaves.fr/.  You can also connect with Larose on Facebook.

Read the original post on Cuisine Noir.

 

St. Croix: Open for Business and Thriving

For Cuisine Noir. July 2018. 

Though much of the Caribbean has seen its fair share of devastation with hurricanes Irma and Maria, the U.S. island of St. Croix has bounced back a lot faster than its neighbors. One of the reasons for the quick recovery, as stated by native Sharon Rosario, is, “We don’t wait around for others to come help us. We get out and help each other out!” While insurance claims take months to settle, most of the highways on the island were cleaned out within days and reconstruction started almost immediately.

The kinfolk spirit of the island is rather infectious. In a matter of days, I was running into familiar faces at cafes and restaurants and introduced as “a cousin” from the mainland.

St. Croix’s local and expat community comes together each year to host the annual St. Croix Food and Wine Experience, a series of culinary events to benefit the 27-year-old St. Croix Foundation for Community Development. However, this year was exceptional as the needs of the community were pressing. Executive director Deanna James told attendees, “Natural disasters can exacerbate existing challenges and socio-economic disparities economies are facing. This hurricane highlighted how incredibly resilient this community is.”

Sommelier Patrick Kralik runs Balter restaurant in downtown Christiansted that was the scene of the opening party that welcomed sponsors and organizers. Kralik highlighted local ingredients in modern creative passed dishes including shrimp po’boy and vegetarian dolma paired with Sonoma wine; speaking to global resiliency in action from California’s coasts to St Croix’s shores.

Photo: Sucheta Rawal

An intimate dinner called the Giving Table Dinner at Catherine’s Hope was held at a private mansion boasting 360-degree views of the island. About three dozen guests enjoyed a five-course dinner prepared by celebrity chefs Julius Jackson, Michael Ferraro, Negust Kaza, and Robyn Almodovar with fine wines and the tunes of live jazz music. All funds raised through the charity dinner and auction went on to benefit the foundation’s recovery efforts on the island for community revitalization, public education and fiscal grantmaking.

The event ended at a warehouse by the airport’s hangar where local chefs and wine wholesalers from all over the world offered nibbles against the backdrop of private and rescue airplanes. Even small businesses such as Da Cake Man, Fusions, Blue Water Terrace and Bayside Kitchen took great pride in doing their share to support the cause, offering tastes of lobster Rangoon, fried chicken and red velvet cupcakes.

Photo: Sucheta Rawal

The closing of the third largest oil refinery in the western hemisphere in 2012 led to a steep downturn in St. Croix’s economy and many locals turned to opening their own businesses. Some include Uptown Eatery in Christiansted, a 15-seater healthy international- inspired café run by Jane and Dave Kendrick. Across the street is BES Craft Cocktail Lounge, a popular watering hole where mixologist Frank Robinson handcrafts each cocktail from scratch, grating ginger and squeezing limes before turning them into works of art. Tucked away in the middle of the forest is food truck-style Nidulari Bakery and Mahogany Road Chocolate, selling artisanal breads, homemade cookies and fresh samosas. Savant is one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the Caribbean serving Asian-Caribbean-inspired dishes in a romantic Italian grotto setting.

Located on expansive land with rolling hills and a private beach, the family-run The Buccaneer Hotel is the largest hotel on the island and has hosted celebrity guests as well as filming of the reality show, “The Bachelor.” They also provided space to the Army, FEMA and relief workers after the hurricanes and helped with the clean-up. As things begin to look up for the island, The Fred is the newest hotel to open in 31 years. This boutique property in the cruise town of Frederiksted offers a trendy setting overlooking some of the best white sand beaches.

Photo: Sucheta Rawal

While the people of St. Croix will surely capture your heart with their friendly smiles and welcoming attitude, there are a few other reasons to visit this U.S. Virgin Island. Picturesque volcanic hills, pristine beaches and colorful historical towns set against lots of sunny days and cool nights make St. Croix the perfect place to vacation any time of the year. Frederiksted or “Freedom City” is also a good place to learn the history of St. Croix, which holds roots in Dutch ownership, sugarcane mills, Alexander Hamilton, American annexation and the emancipation of slaves. Here you can see Mocko Jumbie dancers welcome cruisers wearing colorful garbs and carnival masks and Afro-Cruzan pottery. Snorkel or kayak at the Buck Island Reef National Monument’s warm turquoise waters and get up close to the well-conserved coral and marine life. Shop for handmade silver jewelry at one of the many galleries and don’t forget to bring back locally distilled Cruzan® Rum.

St. Croix is open for business and now more than ever is the best time to go.  For more planning ideas and tips, visit https://www.visitusvi.comand http://www.stcroixtourism.com.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir. July 2018. 

How to Have a Romantic Getaway in Saint Lucia

One Travel Going Places. July 2018.

Fancy walking barefoot on fine white sand holding your partner’s hand, sharing a sensual couples massage listening to tranquil ocean waves, or relishing a slow private sunset dinner on the beach? Head to the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, one of the most popular spots among honeymooners and romantic vacationers. It’s well-preserved natural beauty, luxury resorts, fine-dining options, and relaxing spas are perfect for those looking for solitude and romance.

Here are the best ways to enjoy a romantic getaway to Saint Lucia…

Read the full post on One Travel Going Places.

How to Get an Authentic Cultural Experience in Barbados

For CheapOAir Miles Away. June 2018. 

The eastern Caribbean island of Barbados is known for turquoise blue waters, tropical beaches, lots of sunshine, good food, and friendly people. While most visitors who to come to Barbados spend their time in all-inclusive resorts, the best way to experience the island is by indulging in its Caribbean roots. Here are a few ways you can discover what authentic Bajan culture is all about…

Read the full post on CheapOAir Miles Away.

Hotels That Give Back to Communities

For Cuisine Noir. June 2018.

As you start planning your summer vacation and look for hotel deals online, be an informed traveler and select properties that are sustainable. Many hotels and resorts take pride in investing their profits in the local community by training and employing the native population, building schools, organic farms and other socially responsible projects. Check out these hotels where you can not only have a luxurious stay but feel good about it too!

The Good Hotel, Guatemala

Photo: Sucheta Rawal

The Good Hotel in Antigua, Guatemala strives on a socially responsible business model where 100% of the profits are invested into the local community. The Good Group trains unemployed and single women to work in the hospitality sector and hires them to work at their hotels. They also provide education to low-income families.

Located on a quaint residential street in Old Town Antigua, a UNESCO world heritage site, the colonial home turned into a Scandinavian-style upscale hostel is decorated with locally sourced products. The café, set in a tropical garden, offers fresh, organic, and homemade breakfast and fair-trade coffee. The Good Group also has a hotel in London and is opening soon in Amsterdam, Madrid, New York, and Rio.

eXtreme Hotel, Dominican Republic

Photo: eXtreme Hotel

The eXtreme Hotel Cabarete is extreme both in its adventure offerings, as well as its commitment to social and ecological responsibility. The solar-powered hotel employs locals and minimizes its carbon footprint by hanging laundry, taking advantage of natural cooling and ventilation, using low-wattage light bulbs and low-flow water taps in the bathrooms, and planting 2000 trees on its organic farm. More than 70 percent of the hotel staff is Dominican and they partner with a Dominican-owned kite school and farm-to-table restaurant. Located on Kite Beach in the town of Cabarete, eXtreme is known for kite surfing, SUP boarding, yoga, horseback riding and beautiful beaches.

Hyatt, Jamaica

Photo: Kari Herer

Playa Hotels & Resorts’ all-inclusive resorts in Jamaica — Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall and Hyatt Ziva — run the Granville 404 Project, a local children’s school located near Montego Bay, with 404 kids. Some of the initiatives include turning a dirt field into a soccer field, creating a garden to show the children how to grow their own food, a farm-to-table program, Spanish language studies, and a sick bay.

Hyatt Zilara is an all-inclusive adult resort in historic Rose Hall overlooking turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and the lush peaks of the Blue Mountains.

Hyatt Ziva is a family-friendly all-inclusive resort with swim-up pools, beach access, spa, golf, and 13 restaurants and bars including a Moroccan teamed rooftop lounge. Guests can bring donations, purchase items at the gift shop such as chocolate bars made on the property where the proceeds go to the project or volunteer while vacationing.

Hotel El Ganzo, Mexico

Hotel El Ganzo in Los Cabos is an arts-inspired sustainable boutique hotel featuring its own underground recording studio and artist in-residence-program. Guests can enjoy live musical performances and curated visual art exhibitions with a backdrop of the Sea of Cortez.

The El Ganzo Community Center, which stands across from the hotel, offers a free arts program giving children of the local village an opportunity to engage with the creative arts and the world-class artists who visit El Ganzo. Additionally, El Ganzo is a partner of Kind Traveler, a booking platform where guests get exclusive hotel rates by donating to their choice of top-rated charities. At check-out, guests can donate to the El Ganzo Community Center.

For Cuisine Noir. June 2018.

Conversation with Pro Boxer and Caribbean Chef Julius Jackson

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. June 2018

At age of 30, Julius Jackson is a professional boxer, chef, cookbook author, model, and actor. He is a light-heavyweight Olympic qualifier and plays a boxer on the Telemundo series El Cesar based on the life of Julio Cesar Chavez. Born and raised on the beautiful island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Jackson maintains a delicate balance between his professional life, his passion, family and serving the community.

I met Jackson at the St. Croix Food and Wine Experience’s “The Giving Table,” a community-centric private gourmet dinner prepared by celebrity chefs to raise funds for the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development and rebuilding St. Croix after the destruction from two hurricanes in 2017. Jackson carefully plated about 40 servings of pumpkin fritter with a salmon croquette and micro-blended creole sauce, topped with a thyme and parsley garnish. It was an instant crowd pleaser.

How did you get involved with St. Croix Food and Wine Experience?

The St. Croix Food and Wine Experience works with a lot of nonprofits in the USVI, one of which I am closely involved with. I am the head chef and manager of the charitable café/ bakery called My Brothers Workshop which focuses on mentoring and job placement for at-risk youth. We help kids get diplomas online, provide job skills, counseling and mentoring and give them hope to overcome their situations and become better citizens of the island. I also spend a lot of time volunteering at schools and summer camps to talk about boxing and cooking.

What’s your history with boxing?

My dad, Julian “the Hawk” Jackson, was a 3-time world champion boxer and Boxing Hall of Fame recipient. Boxing was huge for our family, but I did not care much for it. I saw my dad get injured and go for surgeries towards the end of his career, which turned me away from the sport. I liked baseball better.

My brothers, on the other hand, did box and would come home and teased me for being fat and lazy. So, I decided to just go to the gym with my dad to get in shape, but I didn’t want to punch or fight anyone. When my brothers started competing in tournaments and needed a sparring mate, my dad asked me to do it. They would beat me up but I couldn’t hit them back, so decided to box. Soon enough, I realized that I was a natural at it and started liking it. I began my amateur boxing career at the age of 13, competed in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China and won the title of WBC (USNBC) Super Middleweight Champion in 2012. I am currently fighting with a professional record of 20-2 with 17 KOs (knockouts).

How did you get into cooking?

When I was a kid, I hated being hungry. I would stay in the kitchen to help my mom cook mostly because I wanted to be the tester and take the first bite. One day, when I was about 10, I was home and hungry, so I decided to cook myself fried chicken. It turned out nice but I remember putting too much Goya adobo! All my brothers wanted some, so I started cooking for everyone. I watched them enjoying what I prepared and it made me feel good. Then on, I would make pancakes, scrambled eggs and Johnny Cakes on the weekends for everyone.

Until high school, I never perceived a career in culinary arts. My counselor advised me to take home economic courses in 8th grade and after graduation, I went to Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach. I worked with a catering company, hotel, restaurant and did some pop-up dinners while maintaining my pro boxing career.

What’s your cookbook about?

Whenever I get a chance to talk with the women in my family, I am always learning how they cook certain Caribbean dishes. Keeping true to my roots, I wrote my Caribbean fusion cookbook focusing on traditional Caribbean recipes across the different islands, with classic French and Italian twists I learned through my training. Some of the recipes include Caribbean quesadillas with fresh mangoes and focaccia bread with avocados. I am Caribbean by blood but I love mixing with other people and cultures.

I wrote “My Modern Caribbean Kitchen” (releasing July 2018) through the two hurricanes Maria and Irma. It was dark everywhere and I had to look for light and internet. I dedicated the book to the victims, while I was also working through the time feeding people at the bakery.

To learn more about Jackson, visit  http://juliusthechef.com and follow him on Twitter.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine