One of the perks of the all-inclusive experience is the access to a delightful and exotic sources of food.  One might envision finely dressed couples, she wearing pearls, he, hair gel, choosing from a buffet fit for kings and high rollers.  Ah, the fresh, local fruits and finely prepared dishes.  How can one choose between the lobster and steak?  Who needs to?  Have both.

But it won’t be just one buffet.  No, that would be too limiting.  Several cozy restaurants are yours for the picking.  Feel like Thai tonight?  Not a problem.  Jamaican?  No problem.  Yes access to a wide variety of delicious food at any time of day or night is no doubt what draws people to the resort lifestyle.  We’ve seen the commercials.  We’ve heard the tales brought back by red-faced travelers who seemingly spent ten days in a sunny restaurant, not a Caribbean island.

Our experience at a smaller resort, and as a reminder, ours was the smallest of three under the same corporate banner on the island, was a little more, well, limiting.  At points we wished we were at a campground with a little general store to buy bread and cheese.  The resort has no little store to buy bread and cheese.

There were choices, for sure, but to figure out what they were, one had to study the daily posting of hours and rules.  Some places were open on certain days of the week; others just for a particular meal.  Nothing was open very late in the evening.  In our package we had access to restaurants at the other resorts as well.  This required reading the time schedules and reservation policies for those as well as the schedule for the resort shuttle.  Planning meals required a pencil, a lot of head rubbing, and much patience.  It was like traveling across China by bus.

Still, we enjoyed.  Looking over the schedules in the daily paper gave us something to do while we woke up, and lounged while drinking mimosas or screwdrivers from our room bar.  Here is a short run-down of our culinary experience.

For our first dinner, we go to one of the three open restaurants.  It is on a pier over the water and specializes in seafood.  We hope they pull up fresh fish through a hole in the floor.  The decor is similar to an old restaurant on the ground floor of a Holiday Inn.  We are seated rather promptly, look over the menu which consists of three items, choose something that sounds exotic, and are served. We eat fish with plantains, which tastes like fish with plantains.  No complaints there.

As we contemplate dessert–we are on vacation–we see some ice cream dishes pass that make up our mind for us.  “I don’t know what’s on the dessert menu, but I don’t care.  I’m having that,” I say.

We wait.  We try to make eye contact with every passing soul–even those who don’t work there.  The musician who was singing big band hits of the 50s while accompanying himself on a tinny organ, packs up.  People begin to leave.

We don’t see any waiters at all.  As I note to L that we seem to have been forgotten, she reminds me that we are on vacation.  I shouldn’t fret.  Maybe we can get dessert at the bigger buffet restaurant.  I mumble something like “No dessert for you!” and smile a vacation smile at L.

The buffet is having a no buffet evening, so everything must be ordered.  Fine.  We wait.  We are seated.  We get water.  We ask for wine and dessert menus.  We’re here for dessert, we mention.  And that it the end of our quest for dessert.

Everyone passes as if we are invisible.  It is impossible to flag someone down.  I wonder if the people from the last restaurant called this one and told them to keep the prank going.  We sit with our lonely waters. “This is the problem with no tipping,” I say.  “Where is the incentive to wait on us?”

“Maybe it’s shift change,” L says.  Really, these comforting words are rare for her.  She speaks them only because I lodged the first complaint.  Had I hesitated, she would have said the complaint.  I can hear her say something like “Do I have to stand naked and set myself on fire?”  But we’re like that.  One has to keep the other in check.  I can’t imagine the consequences if both of us got irritated at the same moment.  Well, jail, I guess.

We leave our waters and make one last query into dessert at the bar.  “No, you must get food from the restaurants,” we are told.  A quick cocktail is all the dessert we need. Honestly, I’ve never wanted dessert more in my life that this evening when it was impossible to get.

The next morning, after making ourselves presentable, we go to breakfast.  We wait in a short line for the buffet as person after person who works there walks by.  For whatever reason, the rule is that you must wait to be acknowledged and seated before eating your self-serve buffet breakfast.  Maybe it is to give people the pampered resort feel.  Maybe it is a full-employment mandate.  While standing and waiting, other guests come by to fill their coffee cups from the fancy coffee machines conveniently located in the waiting line.

After long enough to worry about the arches of our feet, we decide to seat ourselves.  The immediate disadvantage of our strategy is apparent, as we note that we have no silverware at our selected table.  A quick scan of surrounding tables reveals that such implements are not distributed with the placemats.  They must be delivered by the silverware bringer who is alerted by the guest seater.  I complain that this is yet another example of the disservice of providing service.  To be pampered means to wait in line.

When a waiter walks by and I am able to grab his attention with an overt wave and a cough, a miracle that restores my faith in humanity, he asks why we are sitting there.  “Sorry, we just sat down.  Can we have some silverware, please?”  He scolds us and explains how we must wait in the line in the future.  We must follow the rules.  Everyone here is a minor bureaucrat.

The breakfast is good, though, at least for the first couple days when it is new and interesting.  There are American selections, pots of breakfast fish, fruits I would have to look up in an encyclopedia, and baked beans.  I must wonder about the baked beans.  The star of the show is the simple banana.  These little fresh bananas, too weak and too pure for transport to the United States, are sweet and heavenly.  I stick two in my pocket for dessert later.  They can’t beat me in the quest for dessert.

On the evening of my greatest weakness due to the ZikaVika virus mentioned in some of these blogs, the only strength I can muster is to go to the resort’s version of Benihana–a Japanese steak house over the open grill.  The idea of it gets me out of bed.  I love those places, though I am usually shortchanged on the common foods.  If rice or vegetables are being divided amongst the table, I am certain to get half the amount of my neighbors.  Still, I’m a sucker for food juggling and witticisms.  It was fantastic to watch St. Lucians perform the fancy cutting and joking I had previously thought was not allowed by anyone not of Japanese ancestry.  We sit next to Jimmy and Jenny, outgoing newlyweds from Alabama.

“We got the butler.  Do y’all have a butler?” Jimmy asked.

“No.”

“It’s great.  We wouldn’t do this without one.”  They both wear matching Roll Tide shirts, white shorts, and tennis shoes.  I could picture them at a tailgate, but not with a butler.  He elaborated on the joys of being butlered.  “Whatever you want, you just call the butler.  So, if we want dinner reservations, we call our butler and he makes ‘em.  We want some beer by the pool; he brings it.  Oh, yea, he comes by the pool in the morning when we tell him to with towels and a cooler of beer.  He’s got the chairs all picked out and everything.  If we run out, we just give him a call.”  Jimmy points at the pager he has been issued.  I love pagers.

“I would like a beer at the pool,” L says, thinking about our bad luck with being served–not just at restaurants but by everyone.  There is a conspiracy at foot.  Maybe the waiters are really butlers, I think, and we’re not being ignored; we just haven’t paid for the service.

“Man, I gotta tell you what I want,” Jenny says.  “Some sushi before dinner.”

“Why don’t you call your butler?”  I ask.

He laughs for some reason and raises his hand slightly above the back of the chair it was previously resting on.  A waitress arrives immediately.  I wonder if he is a celebrity or something.  “Hey, honey,” he says.  “Could you go next door and get us some sushi while we wait?”

He excuses himself to the bathroom, which triggers a desire in L to go to the bathroom.  They both go, and the waitress has the sushi back on the table before they return.  I start to look around for hidden cameras.

L and Jimmy come back from the bathroom laughing.  “That was crazy, right?” says Jimmy as he grabs a piece of sushi and slams it back.  “Damn, that’s good.”

L explains that the hand dryers in the bathrooms sound like machine gun fire.  Apparently both had been frightened by them after they washed their hands and had been talking about it on the walk back.  “Hell, I almost hit the deck.  I thought I was being shot at,” said Jimmy.

As their plate of sushi disappeared, a waitress appeared to seat them.  We would wait for the next table, it seemed.

“What time were ya’ll’s reservations,” Jenny asked.

“7:00.”

“Ours were for 7:30.  Huh, that’s crazy.  Anyway, see you around.”

We never did, of course.  Relationships here last as long as dinner or a wait at the bar.

Sushi is stuck in our head, so the next night we eat sushi.  We have no idea what we’re doing so we order the sampler.  Actually the sushi bartender figured out quickly that we didn’t know what we were doing and suggested the sampler.  Win win.

Right after the platter arrives with ten different sushi and sashimi that we forget immediately after they are explained in detail to us by the sushitender, a British couple sits next to us at the bar.  They are very tall–even while sitting.  They are confident, well dressed, effusive.  I imagine them meeting on a pro volleyball tour.  “We just love sushi,” they say in unison.  They are towering twins, speaking as one at points, sometimes completing sentences together, vollying a word or phrase at the other until a complete thought is created, like they are re-enacting an odd summer camp party game.  Or, like they are playing volleyball.

They begin listing all of the great sushi they have had and their favorites at this place or that.  Have you tried such and what?  “We’re just eating the sample platter,” we say.

“Well, the Californian is great here.”

“I think we have it on the plate, but I don’t remember which. . .”

“You know, many people confuse sushi and sashimi,” they sing.  “The difference is. . “ and here we both forget as the words are hitting our ears.  Our brains are lubed to resist any knowledge about Japanese cuisine.

“Sashimi actually comes from the phrase ‘pierced meat,” the tall man says–all by himself.  Then he looks in her eyes and briefly downward before they both laugh.  Loudly.

The sushikeeper asks them what they want, and they explode upon him like they are long lost friends meeting by chance in the middle of a dessert.  The list of food they order seems longer than the menu.

Plates begin to be delivered to them, one after the other.  I swear whole fish are being drug out of the ocean and onto their plates.  Animals are being slaughtered (and pierced) in the back to fill the giant plate slabs stacked in front of them.  They are eating off of oars.  We try to eat faster from our little plate to make room for theirs.

But they need no help.  While laughing and talking and sharing in-jokes with a glance, they slide plate after plate into their mouths.  I have never in my life seen anything like it.  That is saying something.  We come from the midwest where all you can eat always means eat all you can.  These imperially slim British volleyball stars would put any buffet slob in Wisconsin to shame.

“I can eat him under the table,” she says.  It might be true.  Neither shows signs of slowing down as we leave, barely able to finish our ten bites and wondering if we’ll have room for drinks after supper.

The next morning I finally try baked beans for breakfast.  Every day I looked at them, wondered why they existed alongside the fruit and cereals, there warming in a silver trough where one might expect to find sausage. I decide that since I had only seen them on the buffet here in St. Lucia, that they must be some sort of local favorite.  I still do not know.  It didn’t change my life.  My curiosity waned.  And to not look something up in the age of Google is a testament to lack of curiosity.  It will probably be the first and last time I have baked beans for breakfast.  It did taste nice mixed with the fish.

Having exhausted all of the dining opportunities at our resort, we study the restaurant and shuttle schedules and venture off to the land of the rich and famous, The Grande.  It is the biggest of the three resorts, the sort that one sees on commercials, where the sun must look away from the brightness of the guests’ teeth and tans are a birthright.

In our morning newspaper it showed dozens of eating choices, one better than the next.  Our tastes are simple, though.  We craved pizza.  It doesn’t take long for the average American to need a shot of pizza when traveling abroad.  When local cuisine delights the nose and mind but tears up the nether regions, nothing brings to mind comfort and regularity more than a good ol’ American pizza.  One can only consume so much baked beans and fish.  We are on a quest.

Actually, L isn’t completely sold on the pizza idea.  There are so many choices that she wants to eat at seven places simultaneously.  Steaks and jerk chicken and foods so rare they require special documentation to eat.  But are they as good as pizza?

People at The Grande dress like colonists more than tourists.  They have expensive sunglasses and very clean white shorts.  They rent cars.  Their life is spent hiring Sherpas and sitting back in mahogany dens discussing adventures over a cognac and cigar.  Who knows.  These people look the part.  The one person we met with a butler at our resort would be a bumpkin at The Grande.

The average Grande dweller is at least two generations younger than the average at ours and perhaps three tax brackets above.  Who knew that people who want quiet are old and poor?  They are attractive and young–the sorts who have destination weddings and it isn’t a problem for their friends.  They wear skimpier bathing suits.   The sun seems a little brighter here, and the waves are calmer.  The water is at ease and seems to want to show off its bottom at The Grande.  Our water is perpetually churned up and populated by beggers.

We run into our Chicago health care acquaintances–the people who refused to believe I had the ZikaVika–who we learn take the shuttle to this hotel daily.  “Why would you hang out at our place?  It’s for sleeping.”  We promise to find them later in the day–a bar promise we make before hitting a bar.

We get some pizza.  Though we had to stand for a long period of time waiting to be seated (when sitting would be so easy), we are finally satiated.  All we can think is “that pizza was good.”  It is our best meal of the trip and one that prompts us to return to the Grande on our last day.  So, if you go to St. Lucia, I would recommend pizza.