There’s always a certain level of rush or anticipation you get when traveling to the USVI. It runs through your veins and makes you crazy. For me, I forget things, pack badly, and can’t relax. It drives Castaway Crystal nuts, but I can’t help it, I’m excited to experience one of my favorite places in this world.
This most recent trip was no different, but this time I really didn’t know what to expect when de-boarding the plane in St. Thomas. What would the airport terminal look like? What would I see on the taxi ride to Red Hook? How far has the recovery in Cruz Bay really come and what would the rest of St. John’s charms look like?
That was the purpose of this visit. We wanted to see with our own eyes how far the beaches, businesses, and most importantly, the people have come in the year since Hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through. Here’s what we found.
The most important asset in any community is its people. But I think people in the islands take it to another level. There’s a certain oneness that happens and pulls people together in the hard times. One Love indeed my friends.
We were able to talk to many people during our 5 day stay. Bartenders, homeowners, restaurant owners, charter captains, and our island friends; they all had a story of hardship, resilience, pride and future planning. During all those conversation one theme was consistent. It was that feeling of oneness. No one did it by themselves. There was help from neighbors, businesses serving free food, assistance with rebuilding and support from the outside.
And when I say support from the outside, I mean all of us. And I mean Kenny Chesney. Kenny’s Love for Love City Foundation was a common subject when it came to rebuilding St. John and over in the BVI. I knew the foundation and Kenny were doing great things, but it wasn’t until we talked to the people that we learned just how much he and the foundation have done. We heard stories of new roofs, new docks, and dozens of other things that Love for Love City was responsible for. It was truly amazing to hear and it warmed my pirate blood.
There was the story of Natalie, the bartender at Cool Breeze beach bar in Great Harbour, Jost Van Dyke BVI. The foundation helped rebuild her home and a new dock in Great Harbour so supplies could get in right away. Amazing amazing stuff.
Then there’s the story of businesses going above and beyond to help the people in their communities. The most powerful stories I heard came immediately after the storms hit. People didn’t have power, homes and food. I mean, what is one to do? How do you move forward? How do you survive? With help, that’s how.
I spoke with Leah, the co-owner of Flyaway Charters with her husband Colin. They are based out of Coral Bay on St. John, an area hit really hard and are still working to get their community put back together. Leah told me about how Indigo Grill in Coral Bay stepped up and did some amazing things for the people right after the storms. They didn’t have a roof (still might not), but they opened and served a free meal a day for five weeks, feeding the people that needed it. It was a place in Coral Bay where you could go to grab a bite, a cold beer, and forget about the pain for just a bit. Something that everyone at that time desperately needed and helped them move forward. To the owners of Indigo Grill, Mike and Allison, you guys are the glue that keeps communities together. Big props and respect.
“It meant so much to all of us. You could plan on that meal for one, you could plan to meet someone there the next day for a conversation or to conduct some sort of business, you could leave a note or a message, or maybe you could just go there to be around others because that was the only time you could be around others. It was such an important part of our community during a time when we needed it for so many reasons.” -Leah: Flyaway Charters
Another business that went above and beyond was The Longboard in Cruz Bay. They did the same thing, serving free meals to the community and were out helping clear the streets so people could get around. Amazing oneness.
Stories of support and togetherness were common during our visit, too many to mention them all, and a lot of those stories don’t want to be talked about. They didn’t do good deeds to have them talked about or for pats on the back. They did it because it’s the right thing to do.
Mother nature has both the power to destroy and rebuild. As we drove around St. John, St. Thomas and Jost, we could see signs of both. For the most part, the islands looked great. The water is blue, the mountains are green and visitors are made to feel welcome. Sure, there are still signs of bruising, but the rebuild continues.
Here are some things we noticed that looked great, and some that are still in rebuild mode.
- Cruz Bay looks fantastic. All the hard work by the community, foundations and others have made it hard to see obvious signs that a pair of hurricanes hit.
- The Beach Bar and Joe’s Rum Hut remain closed on the waterfront. But High Tide and Island Cork are open along with some shops.
- The Parks Service removed the Buddah statue in the water off of Hawk’s Nest Beach. We snorkeled in search of it, but when we didn’t find it, a friend told us it was removed. Just FYI!
- The conditions of the beaches at Honeymoon, Hawk’s Nest, Trunk, Maho are great. Plenty of sand and blue blue water. Shade can be an issue though, so if you are heading to the beach, bring an umbrella. Denis Bay Beach was the only beach we visited that was quite different. Huge chunks of coral now cover the first part of the beach. Still beautiful and there are sandy areas at the trail end and the far end of the beach, but mother nature has changed the middle area.
- The facilities at Hawk’s Nest look great and are open. Facilities at Trunk and Cinnamon are still in rebuild mode.
- Coral Bay is still on the mend, but definitely head out and visit. Skinny Legs is open (but closed for low-season at the time of this story). Stop into Indigo Grill and tell them RumShopRyan and Castaway Crystal say hi! We had the pizza and it rocked!
- A lot of boats are out of the water for low-season, not Flyaway Charters. They are based out of Coral Bay and are a great option to hop over to the BVI or spots around St. John and St. Thomas. I did see a few Cruz Bay charter boats leaving for trips as well.
- On Jost, Great Harbour looked pretty good. Foxy’s is open and looks great. Cool Breeze is going strong. Corsairs is rebuilding, but open (closed for low-season).
- On Jost, White Bay looked good as well. Lots of new Palm Trees at Hendo’s Hideout and Soggy Dollar Bar. CocoLoco, Gertrude’s and One Love were all open. Though One Love and Gertrude’s look a lot different now, they are large concrete buildings. I recognize the need for this type of rebuild, but I can’t help but feel some of the charm was lost. Change is change and I don’t blame them for wanting a stronger structure.
- On Little Jost Van Dyke, the B-Line Beach Bar is open, looks great, and is waiting for you.
Of course this is all the tourist trail. There were other stories of builders, villa owners, cabinet makers, and many others that might not get the headlines in a tourist town, but I want to recognize them, and everyone’s amazing progress.
I’ll be diving deeper into the trip with individual stories about where we stayed (Grande Bay), our Jost day, hiking and more specifics about the beaches. I wanted this first post-trip story to be about the resilience of the people. How an island and the people that call it home can be bent, but not broken.
St. John and the surrounding islands remain special. I encourage you to visit and see it all for yourself. Those beautiful beaches are waiting for you. Breathtaking views are waiting for you. The rum is waiting for you. And lots of smiling faces are waiting for you.
As I always say…just go.