Drinking safely in the Caribbean

It’s official: the cold weather is here to stay for a while. With its onset, many of us will be heading south for a winter vacation. The Caribbean is a prime destination for Canadians wanting to escape the season.

And why not? The islands of the West Indies are abundant with tropical breezes, glorious sun-soaked beaches, pristine seas and exotic flavours. However, not all is rosy in these warm climes, especially when it comes to food and drink. I’m sure you’re all aware of the do’s and don’ts of what to eat while down south, but perhaps not as clear on the rules of what you should or should not drink.

The most common concern among travellers is drinking water. Although most resorts and hotels claim they have water purification/filtration systems attached to all the water coming out of their taps, I wouldn’t take the chance drinking it, brushing your teeth in it or even rinsing anything in it you are going to ingest. It’s fine for bathing and that’s it, but for consumption, bottled water is always your safest and best bet.

While down south, I’m sure you’ll want to try the local spirits, especially the rum that the islands are known for. Straight up right out of the bottle is fine, however, avoid it “on the rocks” (over ice). The cubes could very well be made from local water and not safe. If you’re thinking that the bodacious amount of alcohol in this spirit (or any other) will kill any germs or bacteria present, think again.

Tropical drink concoctions utilizing rum are extremely popular and are virtually everywhere. Just remember that beyond the coloured umbrellas and swizzle sticks, other mixers (sometimes including local water and ice) and fresh fruit (often rinsed in local water) are used. Cream- or milk-based cocktails like the “mudslide” can be problematic too. Keep in mind that the hotter temperatures of these climes causes products to break down a lot quicker so any dairy product that is not well refrigerated can be questionable. Dairy mixers should not spend any time whatsoever outside of a refrigerated environment, other than for immediate use and returned promptly to the cold. If you see your bartender using any of these dairy products behind the bar that look like they has been sitting out, don’t order that drink.

A good rule of thumb is to ask the barkeep exactly what goes into that fancy drink, and where any suspicious ingredient comes from and how it was kept. Sounds overly cautious, I know, but better to be safe than sorry.

Beer is also plentiful on the islands and there are many, many breweries creating wonderful, refreshing and interesting brews for you to sample. In the heat, nothing takes the edge off better than a frosty cold one. In my opinion, this is one of the safest alcoholic beverages to indulge in.

Wine is not produced to any extent whatsoever in the tropics. It’s simply too hot. However, imported samples are present in restaurants and bars everywhere. This is another very safe imbibe that won’t jeopardize your health.

Because the water is boiled, coffee and tea are usually fine. Just keep an eye on the cream or milk used. Bottled juice and soda are also fair bets.

Much of this is common sense. Remember that our bodies are simply not used to certain strains of bacteria present in the tropics and we’re more susceptible to them. Furthermore, the intense heat down there accelerates bacteria growth. I’ll be the first to admit that while away on vacation in the hot, tropical sun, enjoying myself and perhaps indulging a little more than usual in alcohol, it’s easy to forget about these important issues. Take it from me and countless others though, it’s no fun spending any part of your long-awaited vacation sick in the bathroom rather than boogieboarding in the surf. Play safe and thoroughly enjoy your holiday.


Edward Finstein is a wine writer, award-winning author, TV and radio host, educator, judge

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