Late summer of 2017 is a time that many Caribbean island inhabitants likely won’t soon forget. In the span of two weeks, two Category 4 hurricanes swept through the region, leaving a path of destruction and turning postcard-perfect beach locales into scenes resembling war-torn battlefields.
Hurricane Irma, one of the Atlantic’s strongest hurricanes on record, pummeled St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Sept. 6, causing widespread devastation. On the U.S. mainland, Irma made landfall on Sept. 10, battering parts of Florida, including Miami and the Florida Keys, which has been considered the state’s hardest-hit region. The storm destroyed portions of U.S. Highway 1, aka Overseas Highway, which connects the mainland to the 125-mile chain of five islands, knocked down power lines, severed drinking-water supplies and cut off cellphone and internet service. Irma also destroyed hundreds of homes, trailers and RVs, and knocked awnings off businesses.
Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. Virgin Islands again a week later, then caused staggering damage in Dominica, making landfall Sept. 18, before moving on two days later to Puerto Rico, where it left the U.S. territory in shambles — devastation so extensive that it took months for portions of the fragile power grid to be up and running. Forecasters suggest it may take decades for the island to fully recover. The storm also caused damage elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Thankfully, within weeks of the record-breaking hurricanes, many of these meccas for sun-worshipping tourists were on the road to recovery, and the restoration continues.
Take the Florida Keys, where nearly 80 percent of all hotel units are now open.
“Lodging properties and other tourism facilities in the Keys have made an amazing rebound since last fall,” says Jim DeKeyrel, Florida Keys and Key West director of sales for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.
In Puerto Rico, many hotels and other lodging sites were destroyed, at least partly. Currently, 121 hotels and 4,000 restaurants are open.
“San Juan is back, and there is a lot of optimism in the air,” says Kevin Rodriguez, a realtor from Guaynabo, who notes a recent uptick in his short-term vacation rentals. With many Caribbean destinations offering uncharacteristically low prices, there’s never been a better time to head to the beach. Here’s our guide to destinations in Florida and the Caribbean that have rebounded:
“Walking down Duval Street, you couldn’t really tell that there had been a Category 5 hurricane,” says frequent Keys vacationer, Karen Hutzler, who last visited in April. “I also went in October right after the hurricane, volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse, and Keys like Cudjoe looked horrendous. Luckily, Key West was spared that kind of damage.”
While some parts of the lower Keys are still rebuilding, many attractions are now open to visitors. The Theater of the Sea in Islamorada — one of the world’s oldest marine mammal facilities — is open with a restored beach and gift shops (although its shark area is undergoing repairs). Outdoor enthusiasts can visit the National Key Deer Refuge and Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge. Key West National Wildlife Refuge on Big Pine Key is set to open in the fall.
The luxurious Playa Largo Resort on Key Largo makes for a beautiful home base for exploring the Keys.
On Islamorada, Cheeca Lodge & Spa underwent a $20 million renovation, complete with a rebuilt wooden fishing pier.
BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
A favorite destination for divers, many British Virgin Islands operators such as Sunchaser Scuba and Sail Caribbean Divers resumed tour offerings in February. (Silver lining: The recent hurricanes exposed new structures at some of BVI’s most popular wrecks, like The Beata in Wreck Alley.)
Travel expert and journalist Kathleen Squires says airfares were low in the months after the hurricane: “My husband is from San Juan, and we have spent a lot of time there post-hurricane. Just a walk along Loiza Street demonstrates the incredible art scene that continues, as well as new boutique shopping options.”
The Dreamcatcher — an antique-filled, vegetarian bed-and-breakfast with a bohemian vibe — reopened in the San Juan area of Ocean Park just weeks after Hurricane Maria. Family-friendly Courtyard by Marriott Isla Verde Beach Resort near San Juan’s airport fared well during the storm, and has a new rooftop event space, Las Brisas. The midcentury modern La Concha Resort in Condado is renowned for its seashell-shaped restaurant, Perla.
TURKS AND CAICOS
Though many buildings suffered water damage in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria, structural damage was limited on Providenciales, particularly in tourist-focused Grace Bay, leaving the British territory a top choice for Caribbean travel in 2018. Located on 12 lush acres, The Palms in Turks and Caicos closed for a short period post-hurricane for minor repairs, but has since resumed serving guests at its luxe 72-suite resort and 25,000-square-foot spa. The Shore Club is another choice on Providenciales, with 106 ocean-view suites and 850 feet of beachfront.
ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA
While Antigua escaped the hurricane season with minimal damage, its sister island, Barbuda, is rebuilding much of its infrastructure following near devastation during Hurricane Irma. The monstrous storm hit Barbuda, causing an initial $600 million worth of damage and destroyed 95 percent of Barbuda’s infrastructure.
Early estimates indicated 44 percent of the island’s structures had to be demolished and rebuilt. But determined residents are returning, and the upscale boutique Barbuda Belle hotel (barbudabelle.com) is scheduled to welcome guests in November.
The island is home to a magnificent frigate bird sanctuary and boasts pink sand beaches.
U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS
After back-to-back hurricanes, St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John continue recovery efforts, but Spirit, Delta and JetBlue have announced expanded service to St. Thomas. A message on the USVI tourism site emphasizes that the U.S. territory islands are open for business:
“Our recovery from last year’s storms has been very strong. Power has been restored. Beaches and attractions have reopened … and the USVI spirit is as warm and inviting as ever. Airlines and cruise lines have returned to our shores, and many hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and condominiums are availableto overnight visitors even as our rebuilding work continues.”
Perched above scenic Pacquereau Bay, the Marriott’s Frenchman’s Cove, located in St. Thomas, began welcoming visitors in February.
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