It has not been long ago that when we left for an island cruise, our waterline was deeply submerged from the weight of all the food items in our lockers. A day or two before departure we would spend hundreds of dollars at the supermarket, buying some items in case lots. We knew from experience what we were going to find in island stores—not much. A few dusty cans. Maybe some freezer-burned meat of dubious pedigree. Coconuts. Bananas.
In preparation for our predeparture provisioning, we spent hours working out likely consumption patterns. Our typical strategy was to prepare a monthly three-meal-a day menu, develop a supply list from the menu, then multiply that by the number of months we would be gone. Of course, that committed us to ham salad sandwiches once a week six months in the future, by which time ham salad had long since lost any appeal we had imagined back in the menu phase. But with few provisions available locally, the alternatives were even less palatable. Such was the price of paradise.
Things have changed, at least in the western Atlantic and Caribbean cruising grounds. In the Bahamas, for example, you will find fully stocked supermarkets in the major towns. It is true that prices are somewhat higher than the states, but a cruise is all about creating memories, and who can argue that in a wild, beautiful northern Exuma anchorage, an evening spent feasting with friends on roasted rack of lamb—I am not making this up—will be more memorable than an evening distinguished by yet another can of stew.
Even small places, if cruising boats congregate there, tend to have well stocked markets with a surprisingly broad selection of products. Cruising south through the Exumas we bought excellent Romaine lettuce—a treat unimaginable a few years ago—at Highborne Cay, at Sampson Cay, and at Georgetown. While anchored in Elizabeth Harbor (Georgetown, Exuma), we dined—the appropriate word here—on Crispy Duck, on Osso Buco, and on spice-rubbed steaks. Exuma Market, once stocked mostly with broken dreams, now imports foods from around the world. The selection of cheeses was particularly impressive when we were there last year to experience the Family Island Regatta.
South from Georgetown, Salt Pond, Long Island has a couple of well-stocked markets. When we were in Rum Cay, the Last Chance market there harkened back to island stores of old, but soon enough you are in the Turks & Caicos. Great diving (and challenging navigation) abounds in the spectacular waters surrounding the these islands, but the top shoreside attraction surely must be the IGA supermarket in Provo. Even the local population is awe-struck by the size of this store and the variety of products it sells. Take your camera.
Most thorny-path cruisers now enter the Dominican Republic at Luperon. Here you will find a limited number of imported items, but some wonderful local products. Presidente beer tops the list for a lot of cruisers. The Grande—about twice the size of a normal beer—costs about $1 U.S. DR coffee is excellent and cheap. An ever-changing variety of local produce is available for pennies. And once you have eaten fresh free-range chicken, you will wonder exactly what is the packaged stuff sold in US supermarkets. Prices are low in the DR, so to restock depleted food lockers a publico or a shared chauffeured van will get you to the supermarkets of Puerto Plata or Santiago.
There was a time when “real” cruisers washed out zipper food-storage bags because they were so useful and unavailable outside the U.S. Now you will find zipper bags almost everywhere. The same goes for paper products. Rare is the community that does not have daily fresh bread. UHT milk has made milk available in even the tiniest village. Because fresh eggs do not require refrigeration, they are also available almost everywhere, and as with fresh chicken, you may find unrefrigerated eggs to be more flavorful than you are used to.
In Puerto Rico, you are back in the United States. American style supermarkets abound. There you will find WalMart, Sam's Club, and Home Depot. Need I say more?
In the U.S. Virgin Islands you will find both regular supermarkets and gourmet markets catering to the well-heeled yachties, tourists, and seasonal residents. In the British Virgins, the markets turn distinctly European, with a smaller selection. Tea-lovers should stock up here, but you probably won't need to buy many groceries in the BVIs. The huge charter fleet has spawned excellent restaurants at every harbor and almost every anchorage. This is a good place to join the party and eat out.
Crossing the Anegada Passage, you enter your first French island at St. Martin. My advice is to enter the French islands with empty food lockers and a fat wallet. The French consider eating well to be almost a religion, and you will find astonishing treats for the palate in French markets. These need not be expensive. Canned cassoulets, for example, are hearty, tasty, and cheap. In the French islands you can buy good wine for $2, excellent wine for $5. Pâtés provide a refreshing alternative to lunch meats. On any French island you can try a different cheese every day of your stay. And soon enough you are certain to find yourself at a sidewalk café with a flaky pastry and a dark coffee, reassessing your priorities.
Throughout the Lesser Antilles, the supermarkets vary from one island to the next. If you cannot find what you need, you will have a brand new opportunity at the next island. Because cruising books (not annual guides) tend to remain in print for a long time, most are out of date when it comes to provisioning for a cruise to the islands. You no longer need to provision as though for a voyage or a siege. Worldwide communications generates worldwide demand, and entrepreneurs everywhere are working to supply that demand, For the cruiser, that makes preparation easier and the experience richer.
My advice for island cruising is to put aboard a month's supply of foods, plus a substantial stash of things you really like, and plan on doing the rest of your provisioning along the way. Shopping gives you a tangible objective when you are ashore, it provides interaction opportunities with the locals, it helps the local economy, and it exponentially expands your menu.
So save room in your lockers and in your log for epicurean discoveries.
The same strategy can be applied to clothing. If you wear T-shirts—the top of choice among cruisers in the tropics—don't buy them before you leave. The need to add to your wardrobe is the perfect excuse to accumulate a collection of souvenir shirts along the way. Clothes can be quite cheap on some islands. We have bought T-shirts for as little as $2, sun dresses for $5, a great silk shirt for $1.50, and excellent sandals for $10.