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A Week in the Caribbean. Will I Find Any Wine?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 20, 2007 12:44pm ET

Last week I was on vacation in the Caribbean, hence my silent blog. (Sorry, but I need a break while on vacation, unlike my prolific colleague James Suckling).

The Caribbean offers sunny weather, on most days. Gorgeous blue-green water. And, in my experience, limited wine lists with overpriced bottles. That’s been the curse of vacation spots in the Caribbean for a long time—and Nancy and I have avoided vacationing down there because of that.

But now, with two small children in the mix, long flights and connections to get to our favorite spots such as Cabo San Lucas are no longer palatable. Instead, we took the easy three-hour flight down to the Turks & Caicos last week, and as it turns out, we were lucky enough to avoid what seemed like the worst week of winter weather here in New York so far.

In exchange for easy travel, I was planning to forgo wine altogether, having a bottle of Barbancourt rum pre-ordered to our condo-style apartment in The Palms resort. And knowing Caribbean service can be, shall we say, laid-back in style, I was expecting to meander through a week’s worth of ho-hum dining. But I considered it a small price to pay for a tan in February. What I found, however, was that some things met my expectations, while others exceeded them.

Our first night, we ate at Parallel 23, the restaurant in our resort. It was just what I expected food-wise, with standard renditions of grouper, mahi-mahi, lobster, etc. Solid but not inspired. The wine list, though, was a half step up from what I expected, with a decent selection. We settled for a bottle of Laurent-Perrier Brut Rosé, which was almost at the right temperature.

On our second night, we ventured out to Coyaba, which I picked after leafing through the local restaurant guide. It stood out for its menu, which seemed to have a little more flair than most. Nancy and I were pleasantly surprised—the lobster bisque, rich and smoky with a shot of rum and Scotch Bonnet peppers, was delightful, even on a warm evening. And the grilled lobster tails were perfectly done. The wine list was more extensive, and we were able to find a solid premier cru Chablis from La Chablisienne for $60, so no complaints there.

We try not to get stuck in one dinner place when we vacation, so we continued to try new places each night. Tuesday night was Anacoana at the Grace Bay Club. Had this been our first dinner out, we might not have gone out again—it was the typical Caribbean dining experience. Our appetizer showed up about two minutes after we placed our order, but we then spent 45 minutes waiting for our entrées. I had mahi mahi in papillotte and Nancy had the filet of red snapper. Both pieces of fish were solid, but the rice and vegetables that came with them were dull and flavorless. The wine list wasn’t all bad, though—a lineup of wines from Oriel, and some good Pinots were the highlights. We had to tackle a waitress for the check near the end, though, when it seemed like the entire service staff had disappeared. We weren’t the only couple wondering what the overtime rate was for the babysitter...

Wednesday evening took us to Magnolia Wine Bar & Restaurant, a beautiful spot overlooking the marina. Oddly, the menu was light on fish (a rack of lamb or steak just doesn't interest me when I'm in the Caribbean), though the seared tuna in pepper and sesame crust was solid. The wine list showed care, with wine labels and short descriptions, and a Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc hit the spot at a friendly $45. Once again, though, service was off, with the appetizer plopped down before the menus had barely been cleared and the entrées brought in a flash right after the appetizers. We were done in less than 40 minutes and had to kill time back at our resort’s bar, since the sitter was still getting our kids asleep!

On Thursday night, we tried Coco Bistro. It’s a beautiful setting as well, atop a hill in a coconut grove. A well-prepared Caesar salad and some crab-filled wontons got our mouths watering, and so we decided to spring for a bottle of Krug and some lobster. The waitress brought a bottle of Duval-Leroy. When I pointed out to her that it wasn’t the Krug, it caused a few minutes of confusion as she took it back. Turns out the Krug was sold out, so I switched gears to the ‘98 Dom Pérignon instead. It was served at the right temperature and was the perfect match for our lobster tails, which were rich and meaty, with a delightful hint of smoke. The local lobster is different from the creamier Maine lobster we’re used to up here, and it takes to grilling well. The lobster has to be the steal of a deal down there too—the typical lobster entrée carries no price premium over other entrées, and Nancy got two large tails, while I got one large tail and two small ones. It turned out to be out best meal of the trip.

For our last night, we made a return visit to Coyaba, where a Petaluma Clare Valley Riesling worked well with Nancy’s curried lobster and my lobster thermidor (let me know if you see the theme that developed...)

All in all, I was pleased with the dinners we had there—wine lists aren’t as devoid of choice as they were in the past. And with some digging, there are some good values. The quality of fish and the lobster in particular, is high, though typically side dishes can be lackluster. Take the service with a grain of salt, or a fruity cocktail with a paper umbrella in it, and you’ll have a good time. Especially if you’re there when there’s an ice storm back home.

Glenn S Lucash
February 20, 2007 3:02pm ET
As I have advised your worldly eating colleague, Mr Suckling, begin on considering Vytorin for your cholesterol. Although lobster has no fat, it is very high in cholesterol. Take that from someone who used to have the 4 pounder at the original Palm twice a month until I had a blood test and found that my cholesterol was 355. Now my birthday lobster is my yearly treat. Regarding wine in the carribean. I wouldn't exactly call Turks the carribean. They are close to Florida and have access to wine distributors there. Also their import tax for wine is not prohibitive. I was in St Lucia over Xmas, and you would cry if you saw the wine list and prices at any of the "high end" restaurants I dined in. Go deeper south than the Bahamas and you will find hardly a decent bottle or price. If you do come across the rarity, like I did ('96 Cos)keep your fingers crossed that it was cellared well. Most places have NO clue how to cellar wine. Luckily, mine was OK(see amazed!!). I was told by an award winning chef that between the enormous import tax and the limited availability, it is virtually impossible to compile any sort of decent wine list. One must settle on poor white with fish and take a pass on any meal that includes red meat. There are some exceptions like Little Dix Bay but be prepared for sticker shock.
Michael Bittel
Miami, FL —  February 20, 2007 4:56pm ET
when next in the area head for San Juan and consider a super restaurant called Havana Blue! Food is Latin fusion, decor breathtaking. And a suprisingly good wine list, heavily leaning towards CA. we had actually hauled wine with us from miami and was shocked to find older vintages of arieta and Felsina on the list. Won't bother the shelping next time!
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  February 20, 2007 5:14pm ET
Why you poor thing! I'm sorry to hear that the food and wine was so uninspired. It must have been miserable. LOL. Dan J.
K Wilson
San Francisco, CA —  February 21, 2007 1:05am ET
James,Great comments on some of the challenges of dining internationally -- where timing of the courses may not always be ideal for food and wine lovers. In our experience when we lived in Latin America, we always tried to gauge the speed of the service prior to ordering. If the restaurant was less than half full with attentive staff, we would typically order one course at a time, then order the next course when finished the previous one. If the staff perceived that we would probably want to eat quickly being "Americanos", we would let them know immediately that we were not in a hurry and wanted to take our time (no tenemos prisa!).Overall, it took a bit of interactive planning, but it was well worth it. We don't have much experience with the Caribbean, though, so these are only suggestions from South/Latin America..
Joshua Masur
Redwood City, CA —  February 21, 2007 9:44am ET
On both my trips to Costa Rica, I've checked a case of wine as luggage, and found it well worth the effort. When you're traveling with kids, you're allocated more checked bags than you can reasonably bring anyway. We either opened a bottle to go with room service after the kids were asleep, or shared the concept of corkage at the restaurants we visited.
James Molesworth
February 21, 2007 9:58am ET
Josh: You're a brave man. I had a safety seat, stroller, diaper bag, toy bag and several other pieces of luggage with me. The schlep factor was so high, I didn't even bring my golf clubs...!
Rudi Schweitzer
Kitchener, ON, CANADA —  February 21, 2007 3:13pm ET
As Mr.Lucash noted, St. Lucian wine lists are minimal at best. When my wife & I travel there we always pack our own wine as Mr. Masur suggests. Half the joy of drinking fines wines are the surroundings they are consumed in.
Robert Stutch
NYC —  February 21, 2007 3:28pm ET
James - Thanks for the tips. We are going to Provo at the end of March, now we have a current dining guide!

Agreed, most of the Carib is dodgey for wine. Cooked and over-priced makes local beer and rums a fall back. But Glenn is right about Little Dix, one of the better lists but not too over priced considering.
Now that 'liquids' are forbidden carry-on items it really leaves one at the mercy of the destination. Perhaps checking a six-pack is a good idea.
Glenn S Lucash
February 21, 2007 4:54pm ET
Rudi and Robert...since we only use carry-on, no matter where we travel, we are stuck when traveling to the Carribean. Traveling throughout Europe is no problem obviously. We even came across a great Turley at The Square in London. This coming Xmas break, we are traveling to The Riviera Maya and taking James Suckling's advice and try John Gray's Kitchen....and pray!
H L Sutherland Md
miramar beach, fl —  February 22, 2007 2:39pm ET
My wife and I have cruised to Carribean many times. I have looked for a decent wine store on most of the islands and have not found one. If anyone has found a good wine store, please let me know. The best bet that I have to offer is to buy a case in Miami or Fort Lauderdale and carry it on board.
James Molesworth
February 22, 2007 3:11pm ET
H.L.: If you happen to dock in Provo, there's a store called The Wine Cellar (www.winecellar.tc). I didn't get to check it out myself while there though...
Joshua Masur
Redwood City, CA —  February 23, 2007 12:00am ET
James, you're the brave one. My kids are old enough not to need all that gear -- and before the most recent trip, I bought each of them MP3 players to facilitate the process. And I've played a total of 72 holes in my life, so I don't think twice about golf. But these days, it's hard to use up our allocation of 10 checked bags, and the '97 Ch. St. Jean Cinq Cepages, '03 Rosenblum Lyons Reserve, '03 Saxum Broken Stones, and nine other bottles made the trip that much more enjoyable.

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