“The hills are becoming green again.”
People in the U.S. Virgin Islands repeat that refrain like an incantation these days. It’s true. Like Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean, the USVI—the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix—were thrashed by hurricanes Irma and Maria earlier this year, with ferocious winds that stripped the tropical paradise bare, leaving steep hillsides with trees denuded, as if from a forest fire. But thanks to an especially wet few months, the palm trees are sprouting new green shoots and foliage is returning. The steadfast work of locals and relief workers has made the roads largely passable.
Many of the beaches have been cleared of debris. And the Caribbean sea remains as incandescent blue and shimmering as ever.
It’s not all good news. The big resorts will be closed well into next year, electricity remains spotty or non-existent in some areas, and the scars of the storms remain—stacks of rubble along the roads, homes still roofless or in ruins, sailboats shipwrecked along craggy shorelines, and flora still bare in many places. But the sparkling beauty of the USVI is returning. Though the islands still show devastation from two of the worst storms on record and are still in serious need of assistance, Virgin Islanders are hoping the tourists (who account for a huge segment of the economy and whose spending power will play an important role in the recovery) will return soon.
For the intrepid traveler willing to endure a few discomforts in exchange for greater rewards, this special moment of resilience and recovery offers a travel experience unlike any other. It’s a time of re-growth, renewal and the kind of creativity that can only be borne out of disaster. If your thing is an all-inclusive resort closed off from the real world, then forget it, those are closed anyway, try again next year. But if you travel for something more—something deeper, freer, more real, more fun—then there’s probably never been a better time to visit the USVI. Especially, if you don’t like crowds.
“We really do big, big events,” said Ali Slimming, as she buzzed around her crowded workspace at East End Flower Shop in Saint Thomas.
When the hurricanes hit, Slimming lost the storage space she used in the boatyard next door, where sailboats now lean against one another like fallen dominoes. With the islands a disaster zone, the wedding cancellations came in droves, and she’s been getting by ever since mostly on small, individual orders.
On the day we met, Ali was back in her element, prepping an armada of bright floral arrangements for a wedding — though no one was actually getting hitched. She and a few others in the industry had organized mock nuptials to showcase their ability to throw a dream wedding as gorgeous as ever; but with the resorts that once hosted such events still in shambles, this wedding would be held on a charter boat.
“We’re going to have to get creative if we’re going to survive,” Slimming said.
In addition to smaller hotels and dwellings for rent on VRBO and Airbnb, charter boats—for weddings or adventures of whatever kind—are sure to play a big role in USVI tourism in the coming years.
“It’s the best way to see the Virgin Islands, on one of these boats, hands down,” said Michelle Raymond, of Island Wedding Services, whose entire home was razed to its foundation by Hurricane Irma.
Not only does a boat offer a comfortable place to stay while the big hotels are offline, it empowers the traveler to explore far-flung islands, hidden coves and deserted beaches inaccessible from the safe confines of a resort.
Indeed, deserted beaches are one of the silver linings at this unique moment for the USVI. With so few visitors coming to the islands, postcard landscapes that are often packed with tourists stand desolate. Gentle waves lap quietly in placid coves. Magens Bay on Saint Thomas—the heart-shaped, white-sand inlet that ranks among the top beaches in the world—only recently reopened to visitors and is immaculately empty for much of the day. Then there are the views. On the switchbacks that climb up the island’s sharp-angled hills, the thin foliage allows for stunning—if bittersweet—vistas over the Caribbean, where before the view was blocked by lush plant life.
For all the progress, Virgin Islanders have made much work remains to be done, and travelers interested in a deeper, more local experience might incorporate volunteering into a vacation (“voluntourism,” as it’s called).
“We need outside tourism dollars,” said Jenny Hawkes, executive director of the local non-profit My Brother’s Workshop. “With voluntourism, you still have people coming to enjoy the culture, the views, and the beaches, but at the same time they are helping to remove debris, putting roofs up, helping locals clean up their homes and beaches.”
While organizations like My Brother’s Workshop and sailorshelping.org are ready and waiting to connect visitors with volunteer opportunities, there’s still time for beaches and drinks. The rum distilleries in the USVI are back up and running, and you’re likely to find live reggae at different spots any given night of the week. The bar scene is hopping, albeit with more partying linemen and relief workers at the moment than run-of-the-mill tourists. Some bars, like Tap & Still, hardly skipped a beat after the storms, opening up as soon as possible to serve meals to a community in need.
Traveling in the USVI at this tender moment, one gets the feeling that, the destruction and ongoing human suffering notwithstanding, this is the sort of moment Virgin Islanders are made for. Away from the cruise ships and manicured resorts, the islands are rough and wild places, and the people who grow up there, or choose to make their homes there, are a tough, resourceful lot.
Take USVI musician Dr. Clinton Stapleton. “Tragedy—I mean dramatic—it forces you to stop the monotony,” Stapleton told me, as we stood by while photographers shot images of Ali Slimming’s mock wedding.
Many of Dr. Stapleton’s musical instruments were destroyed in the storms. Without the tools of his trade, the professional musician thought back to his youth in the islands and the instruments he and his friends made back then out of dried leaves and sticks. Today, he’s at work on a new album that he says evokes something both new and yet more elemental, more Caribbean, than most of the music coming out of the islands in recent years.
“I really want to use this time to capture something folks will be interested in,” Stapleton said. “The good thing about it is right now we have time. I don’t have gigs every night. I get ideas.”
Stapleton told me it was this raw character of the islands, with locals working to rebuild their communities and their lives, that makes this such a unique moment for a visit to the USVI.
“It forces people together,” he said. “That’s why it’s so special now, why folks should want to come. To experience the newness.”
As the sun hung low over the water, and Marie Peters, co-founder of the Virgin Islands Relief Fund, stood in the arms of her groom, USVI native and Olympic boxer Julius Jackson at the staged wedding, Stapleton’s words resonated. If you visit the islands now, you can see people rallying together and connecting. It’s something that every traveler longs to be a part of.