The first ever Union Island Conch Festival is set to be hosted by the Union Island Tourist Board on Saturday 29th February and Sunday 1st March 2020.
Union Island Tourist Board Chairman Stanton Gomes told ANN recently that “the festival is a celebration of the conch industry on Union Island which has played a vital role in the economy of the island and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Today, more than ever, persons on Union Island are earning a good living from conch and local restaurants have made it part of the island’s cuisine.”
Over that end of month weekend a combination of culinary competitions, educational exhibitions and cultural showcases would be on offer. From 2 p.m. on Saturday 29th February at the Fisheries Complex, situated “right at the waterfront” adorning Clifton, the Board would host “a variety of conch dishes on sale from several vendors.” This venue would allow the Board to also host conch and dumpling eating, swimming, conch shell blowing, conch chopping and if all goes as planned, kayaking competitions – for patrons to be engaged in. Up for grabs would be, quite rightly, handmade conch shell trophies.
On Sunday 1st March the action heads to Sparrow’s Beach for the Festival’s Conch on the Beach party styled event. Both events would also feature Union Island’s home-grown Big Drum Group and steel pannist Mark Simmons with other acts to be announced soon.
Union Islanders, particularly and Vincentians generally, have made creative use of empty conch shells over the years. Some people blow into them to alert whole neighbourhoods when meat and fish are available for sale. Others have made it popular at local cricket and other sport games as a means for cheering their favourite teams or jeering at the other side. Janti Ramage, an internationally renowned Union Islander, built an entire island out of the discarded shells from which the conch was harvested.
Tripadvisor has awarded Happy Island, as Ramgae’s “little rum bar” is known, a 4.5 rating of the 273 reviews on its travellers’ review website. Happy Island is also rated “number 2 of [the] 7 things there are to do in Clifton” on the website.
“The Union Island Conch Festival would see restaurants and cooks serving up a variety of sumptuous conch dishes in every imaginable form; such as conch water, stew, salads, fritters, curry, peleau, grilled, chowder and pasta to name several,” Chairman Gomes told ANN. Other seafood such as lobster and fish would also be on sale at the Festival.
Chefs on the Island would compete in several conch dish categories for cash prizes and conch shell trophies. The top 3 conchs chefs must offer their best conch salads and conch chowder. They must also bring their best showmanship and top game to win what could easily become the most competitive category. The speciality conch, as the category is called, is set to test the chef’s ability to prepare “innovative conch dishes,” Gomes explained.
And the chance to teach everyone who is interested a little about the Island’s conch industry would not be missed. As Gomes said, “there would also be educational booths to bring awareness on the conch and the conch industry and its sustainability. Persons would be educated on topics such as the legal size for harvesting conch and the role it plays in our ecosystem.”
Overnighters are encouraged to book rooms early as space is likely to evaporate as Festival promotions continue. Room or any other information could be had via email to [email protected] or a quick call to the Union Island Tourism Info Center at 458 8350.
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“The event will create an economic stimulus for the Island as we continue to expand the list of activities on the island for both residents and tourists. It will be an ideal way for visitors to get a sense of our history, our culture and diverse tourism offering,” Gomes, the Union Island Tourist Board Chair said.
He was explaining further another aim the Board was hoping to achieve while justifying their decision to create a new festival on island. “The Union Island Tourist Board saw fit to introduce this event primarily for persons to appreciate the conch industry and the role it plays in tourism through our local cuisine and events. Hopefully we would be able to encourage restaurants and cooks to expand their conch related menus in creative ways… The Conch Festival is part of the larger plan by the Tourist Board to promote Union Island more than ever as a destination where you can choose to come for unique events or simply relax on the white sand beaches and engage in several activities for the weekend.”
The Board’s vision is to groom this new festival into “an international culinary attraction for St. Vincent and the Grenadines” so that Union Island, through the Conch Festival, might “contribute to culinary tourism which is a major focal point for community based tourism.” Their guiding principle is to steadily increase both “international and domestic tourists” on Union Island.
Even so the event dates were precisely chosen to position the Conch Festival as “a build up towards Union Island’s Easterval week of events which runs from April 5th to 13th.” To which Chairman Gomes, on behalf of his Board, extended a cordial invitation to come “experience a unique culture, Island Maroon with big drum dancing, traditional food and more.”