Food festivals are a great way to plunge into an oceanic destination, especially if you’ve never been there before. The real flavor and feel of a place is on display at the various exhibits and tastings and you get to meet a slew of locals at once, not to mention the rare opportunity to sample most of an island’s restaurants in one spot.

I recently returned from the St. Croix Food & Wine Experience, and I hit the ground running from the time I got off the plane. This was the tenth year for the festival, and organizer Katherine Pugliese says that they add more events and more venues every year.

First off: The Iron Chef vs. Island Chef competition, held at eat@canebay. Three chefs who work on St. Croix were matched up against three celebrity chefs — including former Next Iron Chef contestant Roberto Trevino, Fort Worth chef Tim Love, and Atlanta chef Kevin Rathbun — in a series of contests that kept both chefs and audience laughing. First up: one chef from each team was blindfolded and then asked to identify a particular ingredient in a ramekin via smell, taste, and touch. Both teams guessed the Cruzan rum right off the bat, while Rathbun stumbled on the Old Bay seasoning, smoked paprika, and rum. At one point, Rathbun merely said, “It smells brown.”

Next up, a version of “Jeopardy” in which the chefs were asked to use kitchen terms like “in the weeds” and 86 in a sentence. Since this wasn’t the Food Network, the chefs’ answers were liberally sprinkled with some pretty colorful language.

Finally, the Challenge, in which each team had 30 minutes to create a ceviche dish from an array of fresh ingredients. The highlight was when one chef from each team had to swim out to a boat docked just across the street to pick up a 30-pound headless mahi, and then deliver it to his fellow chefs. Rathbun decided that a shortcut was in order, and instead of running up the stairs to meet his crew, decided to toss the fish up to his waiting team members. After landing in the bushes a few times, the fish finally made it up.

When the final scores were tallied up, the Island chefs beat the Iron Chefs by a hair, but everyone was laughing so much — and enjoying the ceviche — that it didn’t matter.

The next night was A Taste of St Croix, a sprawling festival at the Divi Carina Bay Resort. Music ranging from disco to live reggae and steel drums provided the background beat for more than 50 food booths and 20 wineries.

Friday night brought the Cork & Fork dinners, a series of celebrity-chef-helmed sit-down dinners at four different historic houses on the island. I attended the one at the Estate Cane Garden, financier Richard Jenrette’s mansion, where the dinner was Texas-tinged as prepared by Tim Love, and accompanied by a roster of all-Italian wines. The food, wine, and company were all stellar, but the real bonus was that the winemaker Francesca Tinazzi described each wine as it was poured.

Better start planning for next year; the 1500 tickets for 2010’s Taste of St. Croix sold out in 30 minutes, though you can buy tickets as part of several hotel packages.