The Caribbean is a go-to destination for travelers from around the world, and for good reason: Whether you’re in need of a glorious beach to relax on and soak up some vitamin D or want to enjoy the simple things in life like fresh, delicious food and drinks, the islands have plenty to offer.
When thinking of island food, most of us picture locally grown fruits and vegetables and fresh fish a few hours out of the ocean. However, the Caribbean islands have faced many obstacles in offering garden-fresh local cuisine to travelers, including a drought-induced shortage of water and the lack of knowledge about the terrain and productive farming in general.
What many don’t know is that much of the food consumed in local restaurants and from grocery stores on the island is actually imported from the United States or other nearby countries due to the numerous difficulties of island agriculture.
But with more travelers than ever requesting local adventures in island cuisine, the Caribbean foodie scene is undergoing a serious makeover. From cooking lessons, bait to plate excursions, farmers markets, greenhouse tours, farm-to-table menus and more, you better take notice. Aruba, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, and Curaçao are a few of the Caribbean islands leading this culinary transformation.
Aruba is known for its endless beaches, turquoise blue waters and rich island culture. And like many islands in the Caribbean, Aruba has a long history with drought and unusable soil.
Santa Rosa, the Department of Agriculture, Husbandry and Fisheries for the Government of Aruba, is leading the way in this foodie revolution by taking a new approach to farming on their eight acres of agricultural land. Santa Rosa is in charge of supporting and educating local farmers on how to be successful at farming with the limited resources that they have to work with, including new practices such as hydroponics: the process of growing plants in nutrient-rich water, sans soil. Santa Rosa also opens their greenhouse for tours and hosts a local farmer’s market.
“Overall, our primary goal is to increase local food production and to achieve a higher rate of food self-sustainability in the near future,” states Nathalie Maduro, director of Santa Rosa.
Miguel Garcia, executive sous chef of the Aruba Marriott, creates an individualized menu for any guest with dietary restrictions—vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free—you name it.
“Accommodating everyone's dietary needs is never easy but always a wonderful challenge. As a chef, I like to ensure that each person is satisfied with their meal no matter what dietary needs or restrictions they may have,” Garcia said.
The Aruba Marriott also offers private cooking classes to guests customized to their culinary preferences, including both local and international cuisines, plus vegetarian and gluten-free meals.
Located in the eastern Caribbean, Barbados is one of the most popular islands for travelers to visit. It has been challenging to grow produce there because of the persistent dry climate, but advances are being made.
“The government is providing farmers with advanced technology and a comprehensive program of incentives to grow the agriculture market here," says Ena Harvey, head of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). "We’re working with the youth right up to the older farmers in introducing organic farming.”
With a new influx of local farmers, the government hopes to rely less on imports in the near future.
Tourists are no longer sitting back and waiting for their dinner to be served; an interactive eating and cooking experience is one of the most requested adventures on the island. Many of the Caribbean islands offer “bait to plate” excursions where you hook your dinner and then enjoy it later that night.
In Barbados, Colony Club’s excursion offers an unbeatable combination of food and exploration. Travelers seeking an intimate, hands-on culinary experience can embark on the complimentary fishing tour, which takes up to four guests out on a private boat with the hotel chef. You’ll spot marine life, learn about reef conservation, and hook the tastiest fish on the island—most likely grouper, ning ning, or snapper—to be grilled upon return to the hotel and served Bajan style with rice, salad, and plenty of pepper sauce.
With more requests from travelers for authentic island cuisine, there are cooking classes, island food brands, and catering options popping up throughout the island. Indulge in classic island dishes with Caribbean Villa Chefs, a personal chef concierge service that will bring local flavor right to your informal beach barbecue or yacht. The chefs can whip up a menu with the local catch of the day and native favorites like breadfruit and christophine, or work with you to create a menu customized to match your taste. The company also offers cooking lessons, where you can learn the basics of island cooking or recreate a dish you had while visiting the Caribbean.
Another Caribbean locale known for its high temperatures and dry terrain, the Cayman Islands are helping to give the food scene a much needed upgrade by introducing greenhouses throughout the island.
“Due to the hot climate, it is difficult to grow greens, so you have to create the right environment for the produce to flourish and grow," farmer Clarence McLaughlin said. "Right now, my farm has a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse, but we are in the process of expanding it to 15,000 square feet.”
Farmers are embracing the government’s help to build greenhouses to protect their crops not only from the dry weather, but also against some of Cayman’s inhabitants, such as iguanas and pesky insects.
The Cayman Islands recently announced its first food revolution ambassador, Maureen Cubbon, who runs the Budding Chef Program that follows renowned chef Jamie Oliver's philosophy of introducing young chefs to the process of growing, making, and enjoying nutritious food.
Cubbon and the head chefs of Camana Bay’s restaurants can be spotted selecting their fresh produce, local eggs, and meat from the weekly Farmers & Artisans Market. Open on Wednesdays, the market gives tourists a chance to experience all that is grown and made on the Cayman Islands, including copious amounts of fresh produce and teas.
Tourists from around the world are drawn to Curaçao for its pristine beaches and vibrant capital, Willemstad, and now the government is encouraging locals to practice agriculture. “The government recently implemented an initiative to provide a free water supply to people who practice agriculture on the island, as Curaçao's water supply is very expensive,” says Filomena Isenia, a cultural expert on the island.
Since Curaçao is a tropical island, and depends a lot on heavy rain, they’ve introduced many techniques to catch rainwater for use on local plantations.
Located in the heart of Willemstad, family-owned vegetable farm Hofi Cas Cora is leading the farm-to-table food revolution, offering a delectable menu filled with all-natural ingredients including sweet potato, yucca, papaya, and plantain.
Hofi Cas Cora continually changes their menu according to what is harvested in their own backyard, always offering the freshest food available. If you’re lucky enough to visit, try one of the most traditional dishes, jambo, a stew made from the okra that grows on the island.