When Hurricane Irma hit St. Thomas in mid-September, residents Remo, Romulo, Omar, Rose and Freddie moved to the Marine Gardens at Coral World Ocean Park for safety. When Maria blew in two weeks later, they hunkered down inside the Dolphin Education Center; the previous shelter no longer afforded them protection. The islanders shared the space with several staff members, together braving the battering winds and deluge of rain. Several days after the second storm, the sea lions returned home, slipping back into waters now calm after the fury.
More than two months after nature's smackdown, Coral World has reopened, but with some concessions. Though the sea lions are back and entertaining guests with handshakes, painting demos and dance parties, the sharks are gone. The aquatic attraction released the lemon, black-tip and nurse sharks to the wild after Irma and before Maria. (No power, no pumps, no oxygen for the fish.) Several exhibits, such as the Underwater Observatory Tower, remain closed because of damage — as do some adventures, such as Sea Trek. In addition, guests are no longer permitted to explore the grounds independently.
"Now, we're in a place to do activities rather than self-guided tours," said Trudie Prior, the general manager since 1997. "We think there is a story to be told about the impact the hurricane had on the animals and the marine environment."
Every day, the U.S. Virgin Islands are improving. Slowly, steadily, painstakingly. Before Thanksgiving, the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority had restored 40 percent of the power on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John; the utility company expects the number to rise to 90 percent by Christmas. Crews are clearing tree limbs, power lines and piles of debris from roadways, and patching up holes the size of moon craters. Cruise ships are tying up in St. Thomas and St. Croix, and JetBlue and Delta flights are landing on a daily basis. Captain Morgan's tap is flowing.
"You know you're getting back to normal when they start charging for the big parking lot," said Scott Bradley, founder of My Brother's Workshop, a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk youths , as he passed the car-filled site in downtown St. Thomas. "And two out of three McDonald's are open, and the service is still slow."
As high season nears, the U.S. Virgin Islands are scrambling to clean house before the guests arrive. However, visitors will notice some changes: a new shade of blue (FEMA tarps), a louder lullaby (the hum of generators) and a more charitable atmosphere.
"There is enough here to have a good time," said Bradley, a Mainer living in St. Thomas. "It's not perfect, but that is part of the charm. You become part of the solution."
Case in point: During my mid-November visit to three islands, I collected more garbage than shells and found myself giving more than indulging.
Peering out of the airplane window, I wondered: Did the pilot take a wrong turn at the last cumulus cloud? Below, St. Thomas was jungly green. Red-roofed homes speckled the hills. Strips of white sand gleamed like peroxide smiles.
On the ground, I made small adjustments to my first impressions. Only a few working stoplights. Sandbags piled against the front door of my hotel. Signs taped to storefronts declaring that until they regain WiFi, they only accept cash. A FEMA disaster-relief center steps from the high-end jewelry stores in Charlotte Amalie, the capital.
But there was little evidence of the four feet of water that had submerged the downtown. And the 175 mph winds that had scorched the trees like a match. And the detritus that had littered such famed beaches as Magens Bay.
"Mother Nature has definitely showed us that she can bounce back," said Gina Feddersen, a St. Thomas artist who collaborated on a hurricane-relief bikini featuring her watercolor map designs. "But we need those hotels to open."
Lodging is a worry. The U.S. Virgin Islands Hotel & Tourism Association said that less than a quarter of its 1,723 rooms at 22 properties have reopened since the hurricanes. Even now, most guests are relief workers and business travelers. Two of the largest and most elegant hotels — the Ritz-Carlton and Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort — will miss at least one peak season. The projected return date for both is 2019. For now, Airbnb and VRBO could plug the hole in accommodations. An Airbnb search for the week before Christmas produced more than 75 properties. Options included "Breezy Blue View Hurricane Updated" and "Casa De La Bri-No Damage-Normal Power-Running Water." (For a hotel update, visit the website of the U.S. Virgin Islands Tourism Department.)
The 22-room Mafolie Hotel escaped serious injury, thanks to its solid 1940s construction. However, the hotel did sustain cosmetic wounds, such as peeling paint, and lost the canopy over its restaurant. The property, which is housing members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, plans to reopen by summer or fall, but is welcoming visitors for breakfast and dinner. The menu features local specialties, such as lobster, seafood linguine and callaloo soup, a traditional dish made with leafy greens, as well as a new selection of ingredients arriving in post-hurricane shipments.
"We now get meatballs," said general manager Randy Furciniti, "so we have spaghetti and meatballs."
A diet vacation, this isn't. Most of the restaurants and bars in the main commercial areas are serving. I had breakfast at Gladys' Cafe, lunch at Barefoot Buddha and dinner at the Smoking Rooster. (Chalkboard truism: "We don't run from hurricanes. We drink them!") On a Friday night, a jazz ensemble at Tavern on the Waterfront transported guests to a disaster-free zone. Diners wore sparkly dresses and linen pants while dining on salmon and filet mignon with a round of Bushwackers, the cocktail invented on St. Thomas.
Also open: the stores both fancy and souvenir-y in Charlotte Amalie, at the Shops at Yacht Haven Grande and at Havensight Mall. You will be happy to learn that you can still find conch shell night lights at Jolly Roots and Culture and Gucci bags at, yes, Gucci. At Vendor's Plaza, the outdoor market, a Senegalese man was manning a booth advertising, "Hurricane T-Shirts Sold Here." He carried tank tops inscribed with "Survivor Irma Maria" and a more verbose model listing several hurricane-borne challenges: "long lines, business gone, car gone, curfew, stressed out, no phone service." He said that cruise-ship passengers were snapping them up.
At the World Famous Mountain Top, perched on the island's highest point, I was the only shopper in the hangar-size gift store. Strips of plastic wrap sealed off entire sections of merchandise labeled as hurricane-damaged. A bar appeared like a mirage at the opposite end. A bartender paced behind the counter. A banner at the entrance crowed about selling more than 7 million banana daiquiris, but the number would probably remain flat today.
On my way back from the Mountain Top, I met Patsy Breunlin and her assistant, Cassie, a German shepherd, at Phantasea Tropical Botanical Garden. The pair led me past a stand of potted orchids for sale and along winding paths barely visible among the lush vegetation.
"With all of the rain and the increased sunlight due to the trees being thinned, everything in the garden is pushing out blooms more than normal," said Patsy, whose two-acre garden contains orchids and bromeliads, plus chickens, peacocks, parrots and iguanas.
During our stroll, Patsy checked on her plants with the care of a mother watching her babies sleep. She noted that the red ginger "is happy" and was relieved to see a new bloom on a white orchid. Her mood turned downward at the Norfolk island pine. "This poor guy lost his entire head," she said. We paused by a gazebo lazy with cushions and pillows. Maria had torn off its roof panels. As a temporary fix, Patsy had resuscitated a relic: a FEMA tarp from Marilyn '95.
"Now, it's waterproof again," she said optimistically.
Of the three main islands, St. John received the biggest wallop. But the little isle that could is showing its can-do spirit.
The National Park Service has partially reopened the Virgin Islands National Park, which covers two-thirds of the island. The agency recently greenlighted Trunk Bay, Honeymoon, Hawksnest and Cinnamon Bay beaches, though visitors can only access Honeymoon by foot. Watersports rentals are available at Honeymoon and Trunk Bay. Park Service workers have also cleared 85 percent of the island's hiking trails. But Murray Shoemaker, a department spokesman, warns, "They are not up to park standards. You can walk a short way and then go, 'Nope.' "
The dearth of lodging could challenge plans to spend the night. Caneel Bay Resort, Concordia Eco-Resort and the Westin St. John Resort Villas probably will remain shuttered through 2018, if not longer. You can try Hotel Cruz Bay, Sea Shore Allure, Coconut Coast Villas, Estate Lindholm and Gallows Point Resort, which are accepting reservations, or consider Plan B: a day trip from Red Hook, St. Thomas.
I caught the 20-minute ferry on a Thursday afternoon with Jenny Hawkes, executive director of My Brother's Workshop. Jenny had visited St. John only once since the storm, to deliver care packages. We sat among relief workers who wore their organizations on their shirt pockets: Agriculture Department (USDA), Army, National Park Service. As we neared the shoreline, we saw several sailboats tossed up like beached whales.
In Cruz Bay, the main town, we ventured over to Mongoose Junction, a jungle gym of shops, restaurants and bars. We browsed the unscathed shop windows before settling onto bar stools at the Tap Room. A server ran down the beverages on tap, including homemade ginger beer, root beer, lemonade and an energy drink. Jenny ordered a ginger beer and a shot of rum. On the way out, we scanned the community bulletin board. A water-quality update from Surfrider Foundation displayed the E. coli levels for 17 beachy areas. More than half earned a low-risk rating.
"It's a marathon, not a sprint," Shoemaker said of recovery efforts. "Six months from now, we will be in a lot better shape. But people can still get their St. John fix."
Wendy Solomon peered over the stone wall at Sand Castle on the Beach Resort and noticed that something was amiss.
"The sand has gone somewhere else," the founder of GoToStCroix.com said of the high ratio of rocks to sand on the beach.
Chris Richardson, the hotel's co-owner, consoled her. "The beach will take up to a month to return," he said.
Patience is key.
Downtown Frederiksted, for instance, had to wait until mid-November for power, more than a month after Christiansted, the larger and louder of the two commercial districts. However, St. Croix Ultimate Bluewater Adventures, which has locations in both towns, didn't require electricity to open a week after Maria. It had two working boats and a parade of sea creatures. What more did it need?
"The marine life is still here," said John Gillette, a dive captain. "On the North Shore, we saw turtles, nurse sharks, spotted eagle rays and tropical fish."
On the West End, he said, the storms churned up treasures such as handblown rum bottles and bits of broken china, which the locals call "chaney" and embed in jewelry. The hurricanes also Swiffered the undersea world.
"The storm cleaned things, like the algae on the coral," said Michelle Pugh, who owns Dive Experience in Christiansted. "The colors are stronger."
Onshore, the rainbow palette of Christiansted's brick Danish architecture also beamed bright. Fort Christiansvaern, at the Christiansted National Historic Site, retained its mustard-yellowness. The pastel hues of the shops and restaurants on Strand, King and Company streets still evoked a box of assorted macarons. The moko jumbie figures, cultural icons that ward off evil and are sold in such shops as the Blue Mutt, still were gleefully garish.
In the two 'steds, it is easier to say what is closed than open. A park ranger said that about 10 percent of the fort's exhibits were off-limits, and FEMA had taken over the Danish West India and Guinea Company Warehouse and slave quarters, also part of the historical site. The Steeple Building was not accepting visitors, but that was nothing new: The island's first Danish Lutheran church has been undergoing renovations since last year.
Maria's havoc was more apparent outside the towns. On the drive to Point Udall, a power-line worker and his orange cones blocked my passage. A kind hairdresser in a Subaru led me to the easternmost point in the United States (counting territories) via a southern route; I passed the heavily damaged Divi Carina Bay All-Inclusive Beach Resort & Casino on the return. Road closures also stymied my quest to find Estate Whim Museum, an 18th-century sugar plantation and mill (open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday). One morning, I set out for the Salt River Bay National Park and Ecological Preserve (the visitors center is closed, but several eco-tours depart daily) and was going strong until Google Maps led me down a rutted road with a locked gate and then bailed on me.
I had better success with the Captain Morgan Visitor Center, which is holding tours and tastings, and Cruzan Rum Distillery, which hopes to reopen its visitors center in early January. To not waste the trip, I asked Jason Fangmann, a Cruzan tour guide biding his time as a security guard, to walk me through a more sober version of the experience. During the half-hour excursion, he said he covers the history of rum and the liquor-making process, which includes fermentation, barrel-aging and a lot of quality-control sips. Afterward, he leads the guests back to the visitors center to claim their prize for paying attention, the two cocktails and four shots included in the $8 admission fee.
"A lot of this stuff is old-school from the 1700s," he said. "It survived Hugo, it survived this, and the rum is still strong."
As the islanders say: V.I. Strong.
On my final morning in Christiansted, I had breakfast with fellow guests, employees from Ranger Americans, a security company, at the Caravelle Hotel and then headed to the Courtyard for yoga. I joined Ann, a resident planning to relocate to Puget Sound (to avoid the sun, not the hurricanes); Amy, who handed me her Coldwell Banker St. Croix Realty card; and Duke, the yogi cat who performed stretches on all of our mats.
Kristen Kelbe taught the class, her first since the storms. Before our first pose, she told us that we were going to focus on positions that opened up our hearts.
"We have had enough of the past," she said. "We want to receive the future."
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Emerald Beach Resort
8070 Lindbergh Bay, St. Thomas
All 90 rooms at the hotel on Lindbergh Bay have oceanfront views and private patios or balconies. The property has been housing relief workers but is accepting reservations from tourists as well. Rates start at $305 a night.
44A Queen Cross St., Christiansted, St Croix
The 42-room property has a casino and a prime location on the waterfront, near shops, restaurants and watersports outfitters. Rates from $140, with breakfast.
Hotel Cruz Bay Boutique Hotel
Cruz Bay Town, St. John
The eco-hotel in Cruz Bay offers 10 rooms and one apartment suite within walking distance of the ferry and Mongoose Junction, the island's main retail center. The property houses two restaurants specializing in Italian and Caribbean cuisine. Rates from $190.
The Smoking Rooster
Havensight Dock, St. Thomas
The barbecue joint by the cruise ship terminal offers a good value and a lively social scene. The sampler platter with two smoked meats, biscuit, pickled vegetables and two sides costs $18. Vegetarians can opt for a tofu and rémoulade sandwich ($9), loaded baked potato ($10) or mac and cheese ($8) with add-on toppings including smoked corn and jalapeño.
2220 Queen Cross St., Christiansted, St. Croix
The new dining spot feels like a Jonathan Adler showroom, with tropical colors and animal-shaped flower vases. The menu is equally light and bright, with salads, pastas, sandwiches and flatbreads. Main dishes from $12.
The Tap Room
Moongoose Junction, St. John
Chase your microbrew or homemade ginger beer with a pizza, Caribbean jerk chicken sandwich or fish tacos. Or combine the two with beer-infused cheese dip. From $9.
Coral World Ocean Park
6450 Coki Point, St. Thomas
For now, the park is open only on days when it offers tours to cruise-ship passengers. However, overnight guests and independent travelers can sign up for activities and guided tours on those days. Attractions include sea lion and turtle encounters, the stingray lagoon, the coral reef exhibit and the lorikeet-lined nature trail. General admission costs $20; special activities range from $51 to $127 and include admission.
Phantasea Tropical Botanical Garden
5 Lerkenlund Estate, St Thomas
Stroll through the two-acre garden dense with orchids, bromeliads, palms, succulents and wildlife, including iguanas, roosters, peacocks and Cassie the German shepherd. Admission $10.
Christiansted National Historic Site
1 Company St., Christiansted, St. Croix
For $3, explore several rooms plus the cannons at Fort Christianvaern, built by the Danes in 1749. The site has several other buildings, such as the Scale House (1856), the Customs House (1841) and the Danish West India and Guinea Company Warehouse, that can be viewed from the outside.