Located in the eastern Caribbean, just 1,100 miles southeast of Miami, lies an unlikely paradise. The U.S. Virgin Islands often get lumped in as just another territory, but they are so much more.  Now celebrating its centennial year as part of the United States, the USVI is stepping into its bright Caribbean spotlight and showcasing all the hidden talents and gems waiting to be uncovered.  One of those gems would be Anquanette Gaspard. The 31-year-old native from the island of St. Croix, is on a mission to show the world that the USVI is a force to be reckoned with.  In fact, it is the exploding Crucian food scene that inspired Gaspard to create Virgin Islands Food Tours.  Since launching late last year, the tour has become a must do activity on the island and has helped to highlight the diverse and unique cuisine on the island.

EBONY caught up with Gaspard to talk about all things USVI and find out what she wishes more people knew about the place she calls home.

EBONY: What made you start the food tour? How long have you been in business?

Anquanette Gaspard: While in school on the mainland, I would come back home to visit about 2-3 times a year and would meet visitors to the island who hadn’t experienced much of our local food. Sure, they may have had our local rum and eaten locally sourced food (seafood, fruits, vegetables, etc.) but they hadn’t tried any Crucian dishes that were staples for me growing up. When I would tell them of Crucian foods and restaurants to try and saw they were willing to do so, I realized this was a gap that needed to be filled. From there, Virgin Islands Food Tours was born and launched in November 2016. Our goal is to transform visitors to St. Croix to locals of St. Croix in one afternoon.

EBONY: What have been some of your challenges/successes?

AG: The tour has been a big hit with locals and visitors alike that have had the opportunity to experience it. I’m still in awe when I read reviews online or have guests comment at the end of the tour about how well it was executed and how much they learned. The biggest challenge has been reaching potential clients for the tour. I launched during the high season on the island where hotels and guest houses are at their busiest. As a result, the employees that are in front of guests aren’t able to come out and experience the tour to better suggest it as a possible activity to do while on island. It’ll take time to do so, as with any new business, but we’re growing at a steady rate. We’ve transformed almost 200 visitors to locals since we launched in late November 2016. That’s an incredible thing to have achieved in such a short time!

EBONY: Biggest lesson you’ve learned running your own business?

AG: The work never stops, lol. Because it is your business, you’re always thinking of ways to improve and grow and create new opportunities to be better. Accept the advice and criticism received from others and use it to improve upon your business. Don’t take it as an insult that you’re not doing well. Apply the advice where you see fit and go from there.

EBONY: What makes VI Food Tours unique?

AG: It is owned and operated by a Crucian to ensure the most authentic local experience. I grew up here and carefully created each aspect of the tour. We’re unique because our location is unique as is our food story, if you will. We’re a melting pot of Caribbean cultures and it allows you to “taste” the Caribbean by visiting our island. VI Food Tours allows this story to be told and shared with visitors.

EBONY: What’s your favorite stop on the tour?

AG: I can’t say that I have a favorite stop but I frequent Ital in Paradise most often than the others outside of the tour. The food there is clean, natural, healthy and fresh. I never feel guilty after eating there.

EBONY: You incorporate a lot of great history lessons during the tour. Why do you feel it’s important for people to understand the island’s history in order to understand its food?

AG: When you learn and hear of our history, it allows you to create a connection with the island beyond its beautiful beaches and gorgeous weather. Let’s be honest, you can get that in just about any other Caribbean island or even Key West and there you don’t even have to leave the continental United States. Our history shares the strength of our people and gives you insight into who we are. The added component of food strengthens that connection because food is a universal language. Everyone has to eat to survive, regardless of where you’re from or what language you speak. Our history and food go hand-in-hand and you learn how they are intertwined on the tour.

EBONY: Where do you see VI Food Tours in 5 years? Do you have plans to expand to St. Thomas and St. John?

AG: When I named the business Virgin Islands Food Tours, I was already looking at the future. The plan is to add a variety of food tour products on St. Croix and offer 2-3 tour products on St. Thomas and St. John. That way, we will certainly live up to our name!

A. Gaspard

EBONY: What makes St. Croix’s food so special?

AG: We are an island rooted in sustainability and agriculture. We get to create the best food in the world using our natural, local ingredients. We’ve been doing farm-to-table before it was a thing to do. It’s like the rest of the world is catching on to why this is such a phenomenal way to enjoy food. Also, the people and story behind our foods makes it special! Of course, it tastes incredible but learning how a bread that you’re eating today was connected to the men and women of the days long ago makes it taste even better.

EBONY: How has the food scene on St. Croix changed over the years?

AG: We’ve been focusing more on utilizing our local ingredients to make dishes from beginning to end. We’re also becoming more aware of being responsible in terms of our environment like consuming and catching seafood in the appropriate seasons and harvesting fruit and vegetables at their peak times to have the best flavors. We’ve started experimenting more with fusions of different cuisines with Crucian flavors. It’s a fun, delicious way to experience food I’ve known forever in a new way.

EBONY: What do you wish the rest of the world knew about the USVI?

AG: Oftentimes, people believe that we’re exactly like the United States because we are the U.S. Virgin Islands. But you can come here and have an authentic Caribbean experience without the touristy feel, especially on St. Croix. Drink fresh coconut water from the roadside, capture the sunrise at the easternmost point of the United States and enjoy Sunday Funday with the best of them on our sandy shores, Cruzan Rum cocktail in hand. We’re a hidden gem just waiting to be fully discovered!

EBONY: What’s a great hidden gem that most visitors miss?

AG: Capturing the sunrise and sunset in one day. You can capture the sunrise at Point Udall, the easternmost point of the United States. In the evening, head to Frederiksted and witness the sunset at the pier. It’s a popular travel bucket list item that people try to check off and it’s super easy to do it on St. Croix.

EBONY: Describe the USVI in 3 words?

AG: Culturally Diverse Paradise.

Danielle T. Pointdujour is a Senior Editor for EBONY and JET. You can follow her writing, musings and global adventures on her blog Hotel Whisperer and on Twitter and Instagram.