Friday, July 27, 2012

Underwater World

Part of the best thing about being on this island is waking up. At home, you normally wouldn't want to drag yourself out of bed at all. But here, you're almost always eager to start another adventure-filled day.

So to energize ourselves before another long one, we got some breakfast at the hotel's marketplace. Today I got a banana and a slice of lemon cake with frosting on top, and I got hubby a peach danish.

The lemon cake was very lemony, soft and spongy, but a little too sweet though. I liked the slightly crunchy frosting on top (rare since I almost never like frosting).

Peach danish

We also picked up some Bob Marley iced coffees. Let me tell you coffee connoisseur out there - these babies are out of this world!! I use two exclamation marks here because 1. it goes down so smoothly like a baby's bottom, and 2. the coffee:milk:sugar ratio is right on, with just enough to cool you down and start you off in the day. Reminds me a lot of the Taiwanese brand coffee with the man with the beard, except creamier and without the dry aftertaste. 

Hubby always wanted to go to Coral World, their local aquarium, so today we made the trek over to the other side of the island to check it out.

The taxi-cab driver who drove us over described the island life, which seems pretty sub-standard compared to life in the mainland US. He said real estate prices are really high, so it's hard to get your own place. And food prices are astronomical, because everything has to be imported. Seems like tourism is the only thing that drives the economy here, which is fine because tourists like the ones in the Marriott resort are usually loaded and would happily dish out $20 as tips for room service.

Oh yes, and the red flowers that are ubiquitous here are called - "flamboyant", a very fitting name.

The driver said that Coral World is meager in size compared to the ones in the mainland, and from first glance, it did appear so. Located in an indiscriminate part of town surrounded by shack-like houses and graffiti walls, you almost can't see it from the outside. There's a narrow road that snakes up to it, and there's a tiny little sign pointing to it. Other than that, it's hard to see it at all.

The tickets there were like circus tickets for a booth or a ride. We got two "coupons", which cost $38. Being a guest at the Marriott saves you $1 per person.

This turn-stool is rather amusing. Contrary to the one-person one-pass turnstool found in most MTA subway locations, this one, as you can obviously see, has enough room for you to turn and slip right past. Shows you how trusting island people are.

It's a dainty little aquarium like the driver said, but I really like its kiddy-sized exhibits. Unlike the uber large football sized aquarium found in Atlanta, this one has enough room for you to wander around, take pictures, and be really upclose with the animals.

First exhibition we went to was to pet the stingrays. They are actually really people-loving creatures, because if you stick your hand into the water, they will come up and "suck" it, thinking that you're feeding them fish (OK, granted, they are domesticated).

Then we went into the aquarium's 22 exhibits to see tropical coral life and fish.

Really wanted to take this baby home and eat it (please don't report me to animal cruelty!).

Luckily, we arrived just in time for the sealion show. The lady is an expert marine biologist whose job is to play/train sealions. They can do some really neat tricks, proving that animals can be taught just as humans, and in many cases, react faster than we do.

I really like how the presentation was synced exactly to the sealion's reactions. Or rather, whenever she said a keyword or motioned in the air, the sealion would cooperate and act along.

It amused all the kids and parents, myself included.

What you looking at?

Seal doing the seal dance!

Yes, this is a hand with a stick in the tank

I thought this was a TV monitor/close-circuit camera to monitor the fish, but turns out it's just an ornament.

Fish need to watch TV too!

Clinging and not letting go =P

Can you spot the sting ray? (I couldn't either at first glance)

The aquarium also has a tropical section, with lots of green-life.

We saw a whole family of turtles wading around.
Grandpa turtle

For an extra fee, you can swim with the sea-turtles for one hour. Not really sure how fun that'll be, since all they do is lounge around.

There was also a parakeet place where you buy some nectar (smells really, really good, so good that I even want to drink it!) and the parakeet will fly right up to your hand and drink from it.

Two even flew up to hubby's hand!

Next stop was the underwater aquarium  where there's an observatory deck that plunges way deep into the waters so you can actually see the coral and fish life in a 360 window pane.

Yes, ladies and gents, fish also do...
Can I have a little privacy here?

Then, it was time for lunch. We ate at the aquarium cafe, which is a shabby-looking Shark Eatery with an open BBQ.

But the food is amazing! We ordered two fish burgers that came with a pickle, a lemonade and a mango smoothie.

You can actually see the cool air drifting off the top of this drink. The mango was strong and smooth and very refreshing. But you have to take a sip at a time or else you'll suffer from brainfreeze.

The fish patty was amazing too. It was crispy on the outside, flaky tender on the inside. I'm usually very picky about my fish burgers, but this one was probably the best I've tasted in a really long time! (Of course the tartar sauce and mayo and ketchup helped too).

While munching happily away, I spotted this on the chef's table - it's a banana-cream drink mix!

Best thing about the meal was not only the nice tropical breeze (it was an indoor/outdoor seating) but also the delish:cost factor. For only $16, we enjoyed a lovely lunch! Hubby and I both wish we could eat this for lunch everyday!

After lunch we just hung out a bit more, touching sea-stars and urchins.


After refueling, we hit the nearby Coki beach, which is right beside the aquarium.

It has a ton of amazing snorkling areas where you can see the tropical fish right under your feet! We swam a bit and then I got some snorkles to see the fish upclose. Apart the pain from occasionally getting salt water up your nose, you can actually "pet the fish" by using these treats:

These are like fish scooby snacks, whereby you just drop them into the water (holding onto one end of course), and 10000000 schools of fish will come rushing forward to munch on it. I was kinda freaked out because I attracted some really large fish that I thought would eat me!

Thankfully, I didn't attract this one...

Baby shark (in the aquarium)

After snorkling, we were kinda tired, so we ordered a pina colada. There's a nearby diner on the beach where these people come around giving you free samples. I would have really loved to try some of their island special, and of course, the fish of the day.

While sipping on it, there was a kid and his mom nearby. He was a bit chubby but quite witty. He had a coconut drink in his hand, and grimacing when he was sipping on it. Turned out that he had thought it was actually milk, but it turned out to be slimy water. But his mom was like, "I don't care honey, I'm taking a picture of you with it anyways, because it's always been your dream to sip coconut on a white sandy beach and swim in the turquoise water."

Cherry at the bottom

It was a lovely afternoon getting acquainted with the wildlife, but I got majorly burnt. I turned like two shades darker, because you can get tanned faster with the UV rays under water (and that's where we spent most of our time). Oh well, it was well worth it.

Later that night, we dined at Havana Blue, which is rated one of the five top restaurants in the Virgin Islands.

True to its name, Havana Blue is a restaurant right beside the beach, so you could hear the crashing waves as you dined. Its clubby decor is supplemented by dim blue lights, airy fixtures and soft waterfalls that reflect the asian-latin fusion of the whole place.

The person who sat us down was not too friendly, demanding whether we had a reservation (which we didn't) and whether we lived at the hotel (which we did). She seemed kind of angry that we didn't make a reservation, as if this were some top hot-spot, even though there were lots of empty tables.

We were seated beside a balcony overlooking one of the hotel's residential buildings. You could hear the crashing waves against the shore, which was actually quite loud because it was a windy day.

Thankfully our waiter was a lot nicer. He memorized the specials of the day and delivered it in the upmost theatrical way. I applauded him for his efforts and he took a bow (honestly, it's really difficult to recite that menu off the top of your head).

It was darkly lit with candles, but it set the atmosphere for relaxation. At least we could still read our menus.

We started off with two Daiquiris - I got the passionfruit, and hubby the strawberry. I really loved how the passionfruit one was true to its taste - sour, slightly sweet and having that distinct fruity essence.

Passionfruit Daiquiri

Hubby's on the other hand was sweeter, which was nice because he likes sweet stuff =)

We decided to do a lot of tapas, since the place is famous for it. We ordered the Latin Trio with wasabi guacamole, black bean hummus and pineapple pico de gallo served on fresh yuca and boniato chips. Then the Langosta Tostadas with - get ready for this - fresh caribbean lobster and shrimp, chile de arbor, lime aoili, truffled arugula, red onion and jalapeƱo, bacon and queso blanco crumbles, house-made cilantro, all topped on corn tostada. And the Calamari Tamari with tempura calamari and cherry peppers, red onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, tamarind-lime and zest emulsion (whatever that means). And  finally the Shiitake Spring Roll with ginger smoked shiitake and exotic mushroom spring roll, crispy shallots, and Caribbean fruit chutney. We didn't end up ordering any Entradas (entrees), or anything that the waiter recommended. But that's okay.

Of course these all came 30 min later as usual, even though the place was bustling with waiters and waitresses. The Latin Trio and the Spring Rolls came first in two rectangular dish plates. I was surprised at how small the portions were. I guess we're looking for delicacy here rather than quantity. The food was arranged very prettily - almost too much so to eat.

Shiitake Spring Roll

The spring roll was light and slightly crunchy - you can't really taste the ginger at all. I really liked the sweet and sour tang of it, especially when dipped in the fruit chutney. The crispy shallots were amazing as well. I had to stop myself from eating all of it.

The chips on the other hand was a bit on the salty side. I think they probably added too much salt to it, even though the chips themselves were pretty fresh.

I really liked the hummus spread - it had an earthy aroma that lingered onto your palates, bringing you to a place with Ali Baba and magical carpets. Just kidding. It's not that magical, but the mildness and naturalness of it is enough for you to just eat it without any chips.

The pineapple pico was alright. It tasted like salsa but sweeter.

The wasabi guacamole fell short though. You can't taste the wasabi at all, and the guacamole was again not that fresh, as was in the Taverns restaurant we visited the day before. I guess they really do have to ship their guacamole from somewhere else.

I actually just ended up dipping my chips in the fruit chutney from the spring rolls, which I found much more refreshing and sweet to the palates.

Yuca chip with pineapple pico de gallo

While waiting for the other dishes, we had cleaned every last morsel of the spring rolls. The waiter gave us a refill of chips, this time with normal tortilla chips (from the store-bought bag), to munch on while waiting.

Yuca Chip

We were about to finish the Latin Trio too when the Tostadas came. I actually wanted to finish up the chips lest not put them to waste, but he waiter took it away. (Probably for our sake too so we don't overdose on cholesterol).

Langosta Tostadas

The tostadas came another half an hour later. During this time, the family that was seated in front of us had ordered and were waiting impatiently for their food. The father kept on glancing over at our table, because we ordered so many tapas that were easier to prepare than the entrees they had ordered.

Our waiter was pretty entertaining - he kept on checking back on us to see if we needed anything.  Turns out he's from Brooklyn, and after losing his job (hopefully not as a waiter), he saved up some cash and moved to St. Thomas. He likes living here but says it takes forever for Fedex to arrive with online shipments (some times they don't even deliver to here).

I found the tostada to be a little overboard. Hubby and I originally thought you picked three kinds of tostada from the menu, like fresh caribbean lobster and strip, bacon and queso blanco crumbles, and house-made cilantro. But they came like a little mountain of stuff. The lobster and shrimp was overpowered by a mayo-like substance, so you can't really taste the freshness of it. The truffled arugla was barely discernible. The red onions bits could be found and seen, but the bacon just made it all the while heavier.

I only ate one, and Hubby, who really liked them (and Mexican food in general) gladly finished it off.

Calamari Tamari

To my surprise, this was actually my fav dish of the night. I'm usually not too fond of squid, because they remind me of sea aliens with tentacles and what not. But this was fried with tempura and drizzled with a tamarind-lime sauce, so it was crunchy, tender and sweet and sour. I really liked it and ate most of the plate!

Remaining calamari

The waiter had to wrestle the last plate out of our hands, because we wanted to finish every last morsel. He must have been horrified by our appetite!

Finally, we ordered some dessert, because we almost felt obligated to try some fusion sweets. Hubby wanted to try to Diablo Choco Fondata with rich dark chocolates cake, molten dulce de leche center and a coco-macademia-dark choco chip ice cream, topped with fresh berries.

Thankfully, I steered him away from it to the Down Island Cheesecake, a guava cheesecake with a 5-spice cinnamon graham crust and cardamom creme. The waiter too assured us that this was a fine selection, and that he, from Brooklyn, even thinks this one can compete with New York's very own.

Down Island Cheesecake

It was rich, creamy, and surprising not that heavy. We savored every morsel of it. Even the crust was full of cheesecake! The cardamom creme was soft and fluffy and complemented the sweetness of the cake with its airy texture. I thought this was the perfect combination of sweet/not sweet, dense/light, earthy/heavenly, almost in a daoist like way. (In fact, the owner of the place is a practicing Taoist who painted a picture of the tao symbol in the waters). 

It was a perfect meal that wasn't too heavy on the stomach and gave you tastes of the island infused with Latin and Asian accents. I'm not sure this would be rated the top 5 in New York, not even top 100, but for the islands, it'll do just fine.

(Btw after we finished ordering our desert the adjacent family's meals finally came. The parents looked quite agitated by they waited for a good 45 min, and then when the food came it was their kids' entrees that came first, so the parents had to wait another 10 min staring that their hungry kids digging into their food before getting theirs. Sigh, the pain of parenthood.)

On our way back to our building, we passed by the Flamboyant Building.

We were both aching from sunburns, so I went to the convenience store to pick up some aloe. On my way back to the room, I found a pink hibiscus flower, which matched my dress perfectly. So I picked it up and stuck it behind my ear, as a souvenir for the wonderful time on the island.

Shark Eatery (at Coral World)
**** (4/5)

Havana Blue
*** (3/5 stars - mostly for the price point:food ratio and the slow service)
Kids-friendly (if they can wait that long)

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