If there is a common element to travel writing, it is the obsessive quest to capture the authenticity of the cultures and locations being described. The Spice Necklace, best-selling author Ann Vanderhoof’s chronicle of the two-year sailing adventure around the eastern Caribbean that she and her husband embarked on, is no exception. The book provides a glimpse into the various cultures of the Caribbean, from Grenada to St. Martin, Trinidad to Marie-Galante. Vanderhoof’s sleeping quarters are in her sailboat, the Recette, but her true home is in the island kitchens of old friends and new acquaintances.
Food is the author’s entry point into island life. Every culinary adventure, from tasting backcountry liquor to learning to cook lambi, the muscle of a conch, is an opportunity to study the culture from the inside. And of course, each chapter ends with several recipes.
A masterful storyteller, Vanderhoof invites her readers into the lives of the ordinary people she encounters on her travels. Grenada and Trinidad steal her heart, as do the welcoming friends she makes there. But the book is not entirely about a happy-go-lucky jaunt in a sailboat: a stop near the Haitian-Dominican Republic border on market day illustrates the despair wrought by 2004’s Hurricane Ivan, the scars of which still haunt many local economies.
If anything, the stories in The Spice Necklace are too personal. More attention to local history would have been welcome. For instance, Guadalupe is the couple’s least favourite island, because no one there adopts them into their lives. The couple’s own inability to connect with the island’s “way of life” results in the islanders being cast as unfriendly. And while there are occasional insights into the pair’s status as “yachties,” there is little discussion of what their island friends, some of whom live at subsistence level, think of Vanderhoof’s freedom to come and go on the Recette.
But these criticisms are minor. The Spice Necklace is the kind of book that has you fantasizing about your next getaway.