“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.