Is This the Greatest Beach Bar on Earth?
Virtually unchanged since the ‘70s, The Soggy Dollar is a requisite stop for anyone sailing the Virgin Islands
When English bartender Daphne Henderson arrived on Jost Van Dyke — the smallest of the four main islands that make up the British Virgin Islands — in 1970, she found a stretch of pristine white beachfront that she presumably never wanted to leave.
And so she didn’t.
Before long, she was the proprietor of an open-air bar on that same beach, which at that time lacked a road, dock or any other conventional access point. Nonetheless, people found their way to shore, throwing anchors down in the shallows of the cay and then running aground by whatever means necessary: dinghy, pool float, doggy paddle. They’d then saunter up to the bar and proffer waterlogged bills in exchange for Henderson’s famous rum cocktails. This ritual soon earned the bar its name, which it still goes by to this day, more than 50 years and a handful of owners later: The Soggy Dollar.
While much has changed on White Bay Beach since those halcyon days, it’s surprising how much hasn’t. There may be a single bumpy road that now connects the secluded idyll to the nearby town of Great Harbour, but the dock never came. Unattended yachts and sailing charters still splay out in every direction, bobbing haphazardly as their leathered captains stumble around the beach with a frozen cocktail in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other.
The Soggy Dollar is one of a half dozen bars and grills — along with Ivan’s, Gertrude’s, One Love, Coco Loco and Hendo’s Hideout — that adorn the shoreline. It can be hard to tell where one ends and the next begins, given that each sports a similarly austere surf-shack vibe, complete with nearly identical menus of frozen cocktails and battered seafood. Faded beach chairs and loungers belonging to each establishment start the day in neat little rows with clear boundaries between them, but by mid-afternoon beachgoers have dragged them every which way, compounding the effect. (It’s unclear how much of the island’s ramshackle appeal is by design, and how much of it owes to the fact that Jost Van Dyke — and White Bay in particular — was torn asunder by Hurricane Irma in 2017, though we’re inclined to think it is mostly the former.)
In essence, White Bay is a place stuck in time, free from pretense or ostentation, and one gets the feeling that both the locals running these joints and the deep-pocketed vacationers patronizing them would prefer that it remain that way. Some of the boats out in the buoy field may cast longer shadows than others, but up here on the beach, everyone’s an equal — because really, how could you have it any better? The short answer is that you couldn’t, and your captain will likely have to drag you kicking and screaming back to your boat at sundown, to be whisked off to one of the BVIs’ equally picturesque — if not quite as delightfully anachronistic — stretches of coastline.
But there is something you can take with you for the next time you need to click your red slippers and transport yourself back to Jost Van Dyke and its many spoils: the recipe for Daphne Henderson’s famous Painkiller, a tropical cocktail she devised not long after opening The Soggy Dollar, and which has been passed down from one White Bay barkeep to the next ever since. It appears here as told to me by Leon Miller, the establishment’s current head bartender, who assured me that using fresh grated nutmeg is what separates an authentic Painkiller from cheap imitations.
The Soggy Dollar’s Famous Painkiller
- 1 oz orange juice
- 1 oz coconut cream
- 4 oz pineapple juice
- 2 oz dark blended rum, preferably high-proof
- Grated nutmeg
Mix all liquid ingredients in a shaker over ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a cup of a crushed ice. Top with an additional rum float if you so desire and garnish with a generous amount of freshly grated nutmeg.
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