The U.S. Virgin Islands -- encompassing St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John -- have seen hurricanes before. But when two Category-5 hurricanes wallop you within the span of two weeks, you start referring to life "before the hurricanes" and "after."
Before the hurricanes, St. Thomas was one of the most popular Caribbean cruise destinations. Its two cruise terminals -- Havensight and Crown Bay -- can accommodate up to a half-dozen mega-ships at a time. Sugar-fine beaches, endless watersports, harborside dining and duty-free shopping kept visitors well occupied for a day in port.
We're happy to report that the same holds true "after." Driving around the islands, you will notice significant damage; many hotels and resorts have yet to fully re-open. Resilience is a way of life for Virgin Islanders, however, and the storms have sparked locals to rebuild and beyond that, to improve.
"In the Caribbean you have to harden," says Vivek Daswani, owner of Royal Caribbean Jewelers, and a member of the Economic Council for the USVI Hurricane Recovery and Resiliency Task Force. He speaks excitedly about the revitalization coming to the downtown area, and St. Thomas' plans for the future. "We've learned to harden in the right ways."
A lot is -- and has been -- up and running around St. Thomas to keep cruisers busy, but some attractions remain closed.
"We did lose some attractions like the zipline and the Great House, which are going to take a little time to recover," says Adam Reeve, president of Cruise Ship Excursions, Inc. But Reeve immediately begins explaining what's new on the island with enthusiasm, including a project that's been in the works for years.
The Virgin Islands Harbor Hopper will be a water transportation system serving the areas most frequented by cruise ship visitors; the first phase will run from Havensight to downtown and Crown Bay, with an expansion plan to reach places such as Water Island or Yacht Haven. "It's a great way to get downtown and avoid the traffic," says Reeve. The Harbor Hopper is expected to be up and running by the end of the year; pricing details are still being worked out, but with a ticket you could hop on, hop off as much as you want.
Popular, existing tours, like a day sail to Water Island or Buck Island, are finding ways to innovate. "We just came out with a new pirate-themed excursion, because there were some really old ships in the harbor, and this new one is very family-oriented," Reeve says. "The crew dresses up like pirates, you go sailing, have lunch, and then head to Water Island for a treasure hunt."
Another new St. Thomas attraction also revolves around pirates -- and their treasure -- with thoughtfulness, expertise and just the right amount of camp.
Scott Bunn and Sean Loughman opened Pirates Treasure: A Shipwreck Museum in June 2017, just three months before the hurricanes -- Loughman even spent some time living in the museum's theater after the storms. But now it's back to its originally intentioned glory, offering a deeply fascinating look and feel into shipwrecks, antique coins and the men (and women!) who sought them (plus a deadpan Jack Sparrow impersonator).
And if you know pirates, you know the love of rum. Luckily, that might become even more available to the masses soon, according to a scoop from Reeve. "We may be getting a rum distillery at some point, but that is probably about a year out or so." Major rum distillery Cruzan is located on the neighboring island of St. Croix.
Magens Bay is better than ever before. In a rare positive note "after," the hurricanes washed more sand onto the shores, expanding the beach here. Royal Caribbean made a quick commitment to this cruiser favorite, and began cleanup and replenishment soon after the storms, with a rededication ceremony in December 2017. Today, the bar and snack shack have been rebuilt, on a wooden platform. At one end of the beach is the art project commissioned by Royal Caribbean after the storms -- colorful posts of reclaimed wood -- on the other, sand, sea and a grove of replanted trees.
Magens is still the quiet slice of paradise that visitors and residents alike remember; locals comment that from above, the beach has become even more heart-shaped.
Another cruiser favorite, Sapphire Beach, was recently the location of a sunset photoshoot by a photography team from Adobe Lightroom. In other parts of the island, nearly all beaches are open, but might offer limited concessions.
For a more complete list of what beaches and facilities are available right now on the islands, check out Cruise Critic's updated St. Thomas/St. John Beach Guide.
If you enjoyed taking part in a local meal in St. Thomas, a few things have changed -- many for the better.
Unfortunately, a few establishments are gone, including Cuzzins Caribbean Restaurant & Bar in Charlotte Amalie. Popular party spot Iggies, at Bolongo Bay Resort, has shuttered, but the hotel restaurant and bar have rebranded as Iggies and offer gorgeous views of the bay along with a pool that swims up to the bar, and lots of lounge seating.
Despite the few closures, plenty of favorites are back and ready to serve you. In fact, local restaurants like Gladys' Cafe and My Brother's Workshop (MBW) Cafe & Bakery were back immediately following the storms, collectively serving tens of thousands of meals to those in need.
"She [Gladys] was standing along the waterfront holding a sign that read 'Hungry?' just a day or so after the hurricanes" Gerard Sperry, our St. Thomas Food Tours guide, told us, remarking that the storms brought out the best in the community.
Now undergoing a massive renovation, Gladys' Cafe is currently operating out of a lovely venue just across from its current location.
MBW Bakery has a clear community-driven mission as a non-profit charity providing mentoring, counseling, paid job training and placement for at-risk youth. Julius Jackson, a young chef and former U.S. Olympian (boxing), is one of the mentors. On the day we visited, the bake cases were filled with goodies such as the signature coconut rum cake and beverage dispensers were filled with local iced coffee from Virgin Islands Coffee Roasters and lemongrass iced tea; young adults in the program could be seen working in the kitchen off to the right as well as behind the counters.
Some places, like Sib's on the Mountain (a 10-minute ride from the cruise terminal), have weathered many storms since the restaurant's establishment in 1924 -- and remarkably remain as open as ever.
New restaurants have opened in the past 10 months, too, including a lively bar, arcade and bowling alley popular with locals called Chicken'n Bowling. Considering it's within walking distance of the Havensight Cruise Terminal (next to the Shipwreck Museum), we anticipate it might also be popular with cruisers looking for a bite and something to do with kids in the A/C.
Sperry, of St. Thomas Food Tours, not only guided us to grab tastes of Caribbean treats, but provided historical and cultural context for what we were seeing on the island and at this juncture, its recovery. We might have found the tasty bushwacker (the island's signature frozen cocktail) at the Drunken Clam without his help, but we definitely wouldn't have found the perfectly preserved 77-year-old murals in the post office, handpainted by Stevan Dohanos, famous for his covers of the Saturday Evening Post.
"For the most part, St. Thomas has recovered beautifully, compared with a lot of the other destinations [that were affected]," says Reeve. Despite an "erratic" summer, Reeve emphasized that upcoming cruise seasons look busier than ever. "Cruise ships are sort of our tourism's main lifeline at the moment, while hotels are still closed."
--By Brittany Chrusciel, Associate Editor