When I arrived in Cruz Bay, St. John, on the 9 a.m. ferry, the party seemed to have started without me. Dockside bars radiated with country music songs referencing flip-flops and beer — courtesy of Kenny Chesney, the island’s favorite adopted son and the man who stepped up to help rebuild it in the wake of last year’s hurricanes Irma and Maria. A yacht captain making his way to the High Tide beach bar had cracked open a bottle of Coors Light as he hauled in his dinghy. Every table at Cruz Bay Landing was buzzing, and at North Shore Deli in the Mongoose Junction mall, visitors on their way to spot sea turtles in Maho Bay were ordering bushwhackers, a chocolatey frozen cocktail, to accompany their Pirate Piggy pork-and-swiss sandwiches.
If there were ever any misconceptions about what this place is all about, St. John clears it up quickly.
Stick around a little longer or talk to locals, though, and a picture beyond beach and booze arises — one of devastation after two Category 5 hurricanes hit the U.S. Virgin Islands in quick succession in September 2017, and now, hope.
At St. John Spice, the first gift shop off the dock, the aroma of chile powder and star anise permeates the air. Six months ago, most of the roof was gone, but no longer. As with much of the island, especially in town, little evidence of the former destruction remains.
Owner Ron Piccinin, wearing a Boston Red Sox jersey, works the cash register alone, since the mass exodus of locals after the storm means good help is hard to find. He said he’s been staying afloat mostly due to mail order, and hoping for business to pick up. “Everybody’s waiting for high season,” he said. “Then we’ll know.”
He added that many of the tourists are repeat visitors who would have returned anyway. “They want to support us,” he said, “whatever we look like.” Few newcomers are coming, although one St. John Spice patron stocking up on handmade wooden spice scoops said she was already planning on returning to the island.
Visitors should not expect empty rooms and hotel properties desperate for business. According to Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism territory-wide, only 50 percent of properties — hotels, villas and Airbnbs — are back up and running as of September, and tourists, locals and relief workers alike are all vying for a limited pool of rooms.
Major hotel properties remaining closed at least until early 2019 include the two flagship properties on St. John, Caneel Bay Resort and the Westin, and on St. Thomas, the Marriott in Frenchman’s Cove.
The dearth of visitors showed as I wound my way up to the white-sand haven of Trunk Bay, long known as the sapphire jewel in the islands’ crown and popular with cruise-ship day-trippers. I had an entire safari bus to myself, and the driver invited me up front to ride in the cab.
At Virgin Islands National Park, which takes up most of the island, all of the land-based trails, such as the one that leads to the historic Annaberg Sugar Mill, have been cleared. The forests appeared lush, though only a year ago, every leaf had been ripped to the ground by the storms. The beach still begs for the towering coconut palms that once shaded it, and I would have scorched if it weren’t for a few umbrellas installed courtesy of an organization called the St. John Shade Project. And naturally, the sparser crowds gave it a more intimate feel. However, as I paddled around Trunk Bay with my rented snorkel, I didn’t see much life along the legendary Underwater Trail, where plaques offer information on the reef and wildlife.
Overall, it was an underwhelming day at the beach. What would Kenny do? I thought.
Happy hour. On St. John, one of the island’s most famous happy hours starts at 3. At Woody’s Seafood Saloon, a tiny hut with both Cajun-spiced mahi bites and branded thong underwear, you can get all the standard umbrella-garnished coconut concoctions, but the $2 Coors Lights get the most attention. While knocking a few back, I chatted with a velvety-voiced country singer (not Chesney — despite living in St. John, he rarely performs on the island) about his recent boat trip to neighboring Tortola.
In the Virgin Islands, everybody has either just come from, or is about to get on a boat. The storms piled up boats like kindling. But thanks to new boats, the yacht industry was one of the bright spots of recovery. Most of the damaged boats have been hauled away, along with other storm debris, leaving beaches and roads cleared.
I spent a night at St. Thomas at Bolongo Bay Beach Resort, an all-inclusive, family-run property on the south side. It reopened to tourists in July — not because storm damage had closed it, but because it had filled its rooms with relief workers and displaced residents, explained Mikael Doumeng, grandson of the original owner. “Even CNN stayed here,” he said.
That night, I dined at Bolongo’s restaurant Iggies Oasis, where grilled snapper and creamy shrimp penne are popular, while watching the sun set over the bay with Federal Emergency Management Agency workers. More than a year after the storms, they continue to rebuild roofs and admit that, given the sunny locale where they got stuck, why complain?
“We’ll be here for another year at least,” one of them said before zooming off to barhop in Red Hook. “There are still a lot of tarps left.”
The Department of Tourism’s current slogan is #USVIStillNice, which is appropriate. After all, between white sand and turquoise water, you can’t help but feel lucky to be here. But locals tend to give the same advice: Go, but prepare. Be ready for construction noises and shuttered businesses, of course, but also for gratitude, and that island hospitality that makes longtime visitors want to cart down needed medical supplies or paint murals on school walls — or just spend a boatload of money.
The next day at sunrise, I waited on the ferry dock at Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, for the first boat out. To my right, a Carnival cruise ship was docked. To my left, guest linesmen from the Water and Power Authority buried electrical lines underground, building resilience for the next storm.
Stillwater native Claire Shefchik is a writer in the British Virgin Islands.