Most people travel to St. John to bask in the luxury of five-star resorts, dine in expensive restaurants and get tanked at shiny bars with ocean views. But to those searching for a more authentic experience, the swankiest of the three US Virgin Islands also reveals an exciting glimpse of Caribbean life -- one that sparkles with West Indian flavors and rhythms, and comes at a much cooler price.
Consider breakfast. Instead of wasting $12 or more on an omelet with home fries at a predictable tourist eatery, St. John's local Caribbeans prefer to start the day with Johnny Cakes. A savory deep-fried flour pouch stuffed with any combination of eggs, cheese or ham, this palm-sized specialty sells for $1-$2 at the local take-out kiosks. These tiny stands also serve delicious lunches. Comfees in downtown Cruz Bay, up the hill from First Bank, prepares some of the best pates on the island: elliptical rolls of dough filled with ground beef, chicken, salt-fish or conch, a soft Caribbean shell-fish. At just $2-$4 each, pates -- similar to Jamaican patties -- make a cheap lunch that works well as a beach-side picnic (Tel: 714-5262) .
Arthur Hercules sells plenty of meals from his kiosk called Hercules located strategically across from the Lumberyard Mall in Cruz Bay, St. John's biggest town. (Tel: 776-6352). The tourists are mad about the patés," he says from behind his white wood counter, squeezing raw dough in his hand. "Locals go for the salt-fish and Johnny Cakes." A welcoming St. Kitts native who worked at a luxury resort here for twenty years before starting his own business, Hercules also recommends bull foot soup -- made with cows feet and vegetables -- for breakfast.
Salt fish is ubiquitous on the local menus, and Sosa's Restaurant on Cruz Bay Road cooks it just right, in a piquant tomato sauce for $12. Like most of its entrees, the shredded, chewy fish comes with salad, rice and beans, and sweet fried plantains, providing more than enough to feed a hungry surfer. Sosa's livens up at night and on weekends you'll hear salsa and merengue hits blaring from a juke box, as a young Dominican clientele chats over icy beers (Tel: 693-8881). Just a few steps away, Sogo's Restaurant specializing in West Indian cuisine serves a reasonable curry goat stew with vegetables, plantains and rice for $10 (Tel: 779-4404).
To get away from Cruz Bay, check out the much smaller town of Coral Bay on the other side of the island, where many locals live. Vitran buses leave every two hours from the ferry dock in Cruz Bay and the 45 minute trip costs $1.
Although the commercial area of Coral Bay consists of little more than a recently paved road and a handful of businesses, a casual restaurant on the main drag called Sticky Fingers serves excellent barbecue. Popular with a diverse neighborhood crowd who sit in the gravel front-yard under a baby blue and yellow awning,the eatery serves up barbecue chicken, pork ribs or beef brisket with a scrumptious home-made sauce and two sides for $12.95 or less. (Tel: 715-1110)
Like the nightlife?
But the insiders' scene is not all about food. Although the quiet existence led by most locals leaves a nightlife with little to brag about, a couple of clubs cater to the needs of the young and sleepless.
On Cruz Bay's King Street on Wednesdays and Fridays, Fred's jumps to the beat of live soca music and reggae long into the night, its concrete dance floor and low corrugated roof barely containing the young crowd. The frenetic rhythm of the calypso-like soca can be intimidating at first, but your thighs will thank you for the workout. (Tel: 776-6363).
If it's cheap liquor you are after, look no further than Cap's Place, a seedy sprawling roadside bar across from the post office on North Shore Road. (Tel: 693-8609). Always busy on weekends, Cap's sells rum drinks for $2, and keeps three television shows running for good measure. A dimly lit pool table and loud salsa music complete the picture, but it's worth stopping in just for the experience.
If you're serious about your music, however, trek out to Coral Bay where Sputnik attracts some decent bands. In the eighties and nineties, Sputnik was a key destination for reggae aficionados from around the Caribbean; today it's not quite as high-profile but it serves a dedicated group of St. John music fans. Bands usually play Friday and Saturday nights, but call ahead to confirm. (Tel: 776-6644)
An affordable bed
When you're done partying, eating and drinking at a discount, get ready for some painful news at bedtime. On an island where visitors think nothing of spending $400 on a double room, cheap hotels can be difficult to find. The Inn at Tamarind Court on Centerline Road is one of the cheapest hotels around, with six economy rooms with shared bathrooms that go for $75 from December 1 through May 31. Book several weeks in advance and steer clear of the windowless rooms (Tel: 776-6378.)
But the best way to get affordable accommodations on the island is to opt for the less traditional choices. Maho Bay Campgrounds offers a host of tented bungalows, private canvas-sided "villas", if you will, built on wooden platforms and shaded by lush greenery that are quite comfortable, and go for about $110 per night in high season (the price drops to $75/night from May 1 through Dec. 23). Go to maho.org for full information. If you really want to keep down the cost, check out the Cinnamon Bay campgrounds off Route 20 where you can pitch your own tent for $27 or share a cottage with up to four friends for $110-$140. (Tel: 776-6330.) The cottages are spartan and the communal bathrooms primitive, but you'll be just yards away from one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean.