The 2017 hurricane season devastated many Caribbean islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands were no exception. Two nearly back-to-back category 5 hurricanes — Irma and Maria —followed by weeks of heavy rain left islands without power, homes and businesses without roofs, hundreds or thousands of boats destroyed, and beautiful beaches stripped of sand.
While the damage was substantial, island communities across the Caribbean got to work immediately, spending days, weeks, and months helping one another dig out of the debris, erect necessary shelters, and start rebuilding their lives.
We visited the USVI specifically to bring back word on whether it’s suitable to vacation there again. Truly, that’s the only reason we went — just for our readers. Our Caribbean jaunt had nothing to do with drinking rum punch on beautiful beaches while salty breezes blew through our hair after glorious days spent underwater swimming with the fishes. Nope, we sacrificed our time, liver, and skin just to bring you — our readers — first-hand accounts of how things are going in the USVI. Maybe it was all the rum, but things are looking good.
Should you visit the U.S. Virgin Islands?
On the heels of such impactful storms, some travelers fear putting a strain on recovering communities. Others worry that the lodging, diving, or beaches won’t be up to par, thus wasting their precious vacation time and funds. While St. John still has serious damage, St. Thomas and St. Croix have both recovered quite nicely. In fact, more than anything at this point, they need tourists. Let me repeat that: They want — and need — you to come visit.
Local businesses rely almost entirely on tourism for revenue and since the hurricane season it’s all but vanished. Tourism dollars directly account for one-third of the economy and indirectly for close to three-quarters of it. Not all hotels are open, and of those that are, not all of them are 100 percent operational (think along the lines of no room service). And while not all businesses are open, many of them are. This means you can enjoy the diving, the beaches, the waves, the drinks, the views, the people, the food, and the shopping while knowing that your tourism dollars are benefiting the islands and their recovery directly instead of putting a strain on them.
St. John not quite as ready
St. John, a ferry ride away from St. Thomas, was hit particularly hard by Hurricane Irma, bearing the brunt of the storm’s 185-mile-per-hour winds. The lush USVI National Park lost nearly all tree cover, although beaches and most trails have reopened. Storied island resort Caneel Bay will remain closed at least through the end of the year, using available units to house aid workers. The island’s other large hotel, the Westin St. John Resort Villas, remains closed as well.
Although some bars and restaurants in the main town of Cruz Bay are up and running, tourism has understandably taken a distant back seat to recovery for residents. If you’re heading to St. Thomas, take the ferry over to St. John for the day and spend some money at the restaurants and shops that are open. Visit Trunk Bay Beach with the knowledge that facilities may be limited, but also knowing you’ll likely have the glorious sand to yourself. If you’d like to help St. John recover, a number of charities, including part-time island resident Kenny Chesney’s Love for Love City (Cruz Bay’s nickname) are still accepting donations.
Where to stay?
I can only speak to the two hotels where we stayed, but they were almost fully operational as of late March. At the Buccaneer on St. Croix we were truly amazed at how you wouldn’t have known that two Cat-5 hurricanes recently passed through. Margaritaville on St. Thomas seemed to have suffered a bit more and their restaurant had limited hours, but overall the resort looked amazing and guests wanted for nothing.
Many travelers don’t even consider it — and some don’t even know it’s possible — but another great option is staying on a yacht. In this case it could be your best choice. Yachts can easily move from place to place, offering amazing views of the islands that you wouldn’t get otherwise. They buy all supplies locally and have great relationships with local restaurants, stores, and people. These charter yachts are easily bridging the gap left by hotels and restaurants as yet unopened. If this interests you, check out Virgin Islands Professional Charter Association for more information. We hopped on the Paradigm Shift Yacht for a sunset sail and were immediately sold on the yacht-charter option. The crew was amazing, the food incredible, the alcohol cold, and the views…outstanding.
How about the diving?
This is the question we all want answered, right? The shallower the dive site, the more likely it sustained damage. Since I had not been diving in the USVI previously, I didn’t have a basis of comparison for the underwater damage. But, the local divers — including those with Cane Bay Dive Shop and Red Hook Dive Center — said that some of the shallower reefs did sustain damage, either directly or due to sand coverage. Places like The Wall on St Croix and spots on the south side of St. Thomas, though, are deep enough that they were not affected. Even the Frederiksted Pier on St. Croix looked pretty good to me, with seahorses and octopuses hanging around to say hi.
So, was there damage underwater? Yes. Some reefs are suffering from broken coral and sand coverage. Is it extensive? Not from what I saw or heard from the locals. Some sites were hit harder than others, but the deeper ones fared better. If you’re heading to the USVI to dive, you’ll find plenty of undamaged, gorgeous sites to choose from that are rich in marine life.
How about topside?
There’s plenty to do on both St. Croix and St. Thomas when you’re not underwater. On St. Croix, start with a tour of Fort Christiansvaern, completed in 1749 and now a National Historic Site. The Estate Whim Museum is the only sugar plantation museum in the Caribbean, and the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge is a primary nesting site for leatherback sea turtles. If all this touring has left you thirsty, take a tour of the Cruzan Rum Distillery, which has been operating on the island since the early 1800s.
Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas hugs the hillside and is well-known for steep streets, many of them built in the 1700s. Climb the most picturesque of the town’s many stairways, the 99 steps, if you’re feeling energetic. Take a tour with St. Thomas Food Tours if you’re not, shop in Charlotte Amalie, or explore the Phantasea Tropical Botanical Garden. If you’re planning a day trip to St. John — you can catch the ferry from Red Hook on St. Thomas — take a hike on one of the National Park trails or just laze on gorgeous Trunk Bay Beach.
How can you help with remaining cleanup?
If you can’t get away for a trip to the USVI, locals mentioned a few charities explicitly as being instrumental in the recovery efforts, including All Hands Volunteers, Bloomberg Foundation and the previously mentioned Love for Love City. Feel good about donating some money to help out and when you can, visit for yourself and see how the USVI is bouncing back.