A POST-HURRICANE PROGRESS REPORT FROM THE U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS

In March 2018, the USVI Department of Tourism invited a member of the Dive Training team to visit the islands as part of a marine-focused press trip. The purpose of the trip was to showcase the progress made and activities available six months after two category five hurricanes hit the islands. There are a lot of bright spots amidst the ongoing recovery efforts. The following is an account of this writer’s time on the islands.

“ST. CROIX, FULL OF PURE VIBES, so nice, so nice.”

These were the lyrics playing over the speakers at Henry E. Rohlsen Airport as I was greeted by a taste of local rum and Miss Sharon from the Department of Tourism. It was already dark, so I would have to wait until the morning to see if this song was telling the truth.

I awoke to the sound of waves crashing outside my room at The Buccaneer, the oldest family-run resort in the Caribbean, and opened the French doors to reveal my first sighting of the islands in the daylight. The song from the airport popped into my head. All I could think was, “this view is so nice.”

Our group met for the first activity of the trip, a snorkeling trip to Buck Island Reef National Monument. John F. Kennedy established Buck Island as a National Monument in 1961. The waters and beaches surrounding the island need no Instagram filter to showcase their beauty, even after abuse from hurricanes.

In the afternoon, the divers ventured into Frederiksted for a dive under the Frederiksted Pier with Cane Bay Dive Shop. This site is a favorite among night divers.

The following morning, we met a group of divers at the Cane Bay boat in Salt River. We journeyed out to Northstar for a wall dive complete with a 3,000-foot (914 m) drop and reef sharks. The scenery both above and below the water was stunning. A surface interval and quick seaplane ride later, we arrived in St. Thomas, where we dined outdoors in Red Hook.

On Friday, we attended the 45th annual St. Thomas International Regatta. We boarded the press boat and got up-close with the racing boats. This year’s regatta was a big deal for the islands — the organizers kept the event on the calendar despite the uncertainty of not knowing what state the island would be in a few months after the hurricanes ripped through. With over 40 participants, the regatta was a success and demonstrated the resilience of U.S. Virgin Islanders. After the regatta, we took a beach-hopping tour of the island. That evening, we were treated to a sunset cruise aboard the Paradigm Shift catamaran.

Saturday we were provided with a two-tank boat dive with Red Hook Dive Center. The afternoon brought time to explore St. John, which was hard-hit by Hurricane Irma. Despite the damage, you’ll find restaurants, bars and shops are open across the island (although many are still under renovation). My waitress, Betsy, at High Tide had moved to St. John from Italy after falling in love with the island while on vacation with her husband. Despite losing nearly everything in the hurricane, she is more in love with the islands than ever. “There is a community here unlike anything I’ve experienced.”

That community depends on tourism and one of the downsides of the rebuilding after a storm is that the hotel rooms that are available are occupied by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) agents, relief and construction workers, insurance people… The dive businesses and many others on the island were up and running and ready to accept guests soon after the storm, but had no places for them to stay. Well, the capacity is back and they want you to know.

The islands still have recovery ahead of them, but have made great strides thanks to the countless hours spent by local organizations, relief workers, assistance from FEMA and fundraisers — both small and large. When you visit, you’ll likely see broken trees and blue tarps on houses, but the infrastructure of the islands is solid. Grocery stores have stocked shelves, water and electricity are restored, roads are open and cell service is reliable. Farm-to-table restaurants and waterfront bars abound. Many attractions are back up and running, including Magens Bay, Mountain Top and Coral World, which sustained damage but is quickly rebuilding and expanding. Festivals are a special piece of life on the islands and a number of them are scheduled throughout the remainder of the year. Most of the beaches are accessible and still Instagram-worthy and it’s amazing how quickly tropical foliage comes back. And you will find dive operators ready to show you the underwater beauty of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and it is beautiful, with boat trips and shore dives for divers of all experience levels.

Hotel rooms are reopening, with about 40 percent of hotels operational at press time. Alternative accommodations can be found on AirBnB and through private yacht charters. To learn more about chartering a yacht in the Virgin Islands, visit vipca.org.

It’s as convenient as ever to get to the USVI, with regularly scheduled flights and the same ease of entry — no passport required for U.S. citizens.

I’m pleased to report the U.S. Virgin Islands are still “so nice” and they’re ready to welcome you back.

RESOURCES

For regular updates on the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as hotel availability, visit:

usviupdate.com

visitusvi.com

bit.ly/USVI-Hotel-Updates.


Have you visited the USVI recently? Share your pictures with Dive Training. Tag us on social media or email them to crew@divetrainingmag.com. We’ll post our favorites in a gallery on our website.


The author would like to thank the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, Sharon Rosario and Heather Gibbs, The Buccaneer, Cane Bay Dive Shop, Red Hook Dive Center, Wyndham Margaritaville St. Thomas, Coral World, St. Croix Yacht Club, St. Thomas Yacht Club, V.I. Professional Charter Association, VINE Yachts and Paradigm Shift.

Story by Tracy Young