(1:42 p.m. EST) -- If we learned anything about the Caribbean from our MSC Divina cruise last week, it's that most of the islands affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria are ready for cruise ships -- and further along in recovery than we could have imagined.
Among our ports of call was one of the biggest question marks, St. Thomas, which reopened to cruise ships just two weeks ago. On a mini-tour of the island, we were surprised to see popular areas such as Magen's Bay and Kongen's Corner not only back in business, but also reminiscent of what they looked like before the hurricanes thanks to significant efforts by the cruise industry, local tourism divisions and governments to get the island ready for cruise ships.
(On a separate trip, not part of this cruise, we got a first look at St. Maarten -- due to reopen in a couple weeks. Here's how the island is getting ready for the return of cruise ships.)
Most other ports are open or on the brink of reopening. Even San Juan, Puerto Rico, is accepting a limited number of cruise ships (it is expected to fully open November 30). MSC Cruises USA's chairman, Rick Sasso, just returned from a visit to Old San Juan and told us the port is up and running, and shops, restaurants and hotels are open.
"The reality is much more compelling than the perception," Rick Sasso, chairman of MSC Cruises USA, told Cruise Critic on our MSC Divina sailing. "The reality is 99.9 percent of the Caribbean is open as well or better than it was before the hurricanes … because there's been this rejuvenation and restart."
(Read live reports from Cruise Critic members sailing the Caribbean, to get a feel for what the recently reopened ports look like now.)
MSC Cruises was one of a handful of lines to support these recovery efforts; the line shipped a handful of supplies as well as empty containers for shelter and safety use to Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, the British Virgin Islands and Dominica in the wake of the hurricanes. It also donated a 4,000-square-foot, pre-fabricated building that now serves as a school in Virgin Gorda.
Tourism is the Caribbean's largest and most crucial economy, and it's been the driving force behind the islands' strides in rebuilding tourist hot spots. On the outskirts of these areas, it's another story. A lot of work still needs to be done; many residents continue to live without power and are trying to rebuild their own towns. Despite the struggles at home, the return of cruise ships is a positive sign -- and everyone we've met is happy to be back in business.
For those taking (or thinking about booking) a Caribbean cruise in the next few months, bear in mind: While many beaches, shops, restaurants, bars, and other landmark attractions are open, you'll likely see some damage outside these areas and recovery efforts still underway.
If you're considering a Caribbean cruise, now is also a chance to visit new islands. A number of cruise ships are sailing modified itineraries that include smaller ports mostly visited by luxury cruise lines -- such as St. Croix (opening soon), Antigua and St. Kitts. Our MSC Divina itinerary, for example, was the first of a handful of new itineraries that include both St. Thomas and Antigua. The itineraries will be available on select MSC Divina and MSC Seaside itineraries, through March 2018.
--By Gina Kramer, Editor