Hurricanes Irma and Maria ripped through the Caribbean last year with devastating effects. Many islands experienced damage with most still in varying stages of rebuild.
Among vacationers in the mainland US and around the world there’s still a lot of confusion about which islands are okay to visit and which aren’t yet ready for tourists. My dad is from the US Virgin Islands, and we recently made a trip down there to visit family.
While the entire territory is not yet back to pre-storm levels the Virgin Islands: St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John are open for business and ready for tourists. Here are my best bets to enjoy an island vacation.
By air you can get to the USVI with JetBlue, American, Delta, and Spirit. I flew with JetBlue from Fort Lauderdale to St. Thomas with a layover in Puerto Rico. The airport in San Juan is functional as well.
The rest of my family flew on Spirit with nonstop service from Fort Lauderdale to St. Thomas. Spirit will also have nonstop flights from Fort Lauderdale to St. Croix starting in May.
Flights are running regularly between St. Croix and St. Thomas. You can take a traditional plane between the two airports, but my preferred mode is the seaplane.
Taking a seaplane is such a cool experience. In both St. Croix and St. Thomas the Seaborne seaplane base is on the waterfront in town. It’s so much fun taking off from the water, flying for 20 minutes, and landing in the harbor on the other side.
Fair warning: if you’re a nervous flyer you should know that this is a small plane (15 seats) with propellers. You will be asked your weight at check-in, and all of your bags (checked bags, carry-ons, backpacks) will be put in the cargo hold. I only kept my phone, headphones, and a magazine with me in the cabin.
Since the hurricanes the seaplane flights don’t run as frequently as they once did, but there are still seven daily flights each way.
The way to get to St. John is by ferry from St. Thomas. Right now the ferry runs every hour on the hour. The ride takes about 20 minutes, and the scenery is beautiful.
Depending on the wind and the waves the ride can be choppy. If it feels like it’s tilting from side to side that’s normal.
Cruise ships have also put the Virgin Islands back in their port rotations. Carnival, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Silversea, Holland America, Disney, Viking, Norwegian, and Celebrity all sail to the USVI.
Where to Stay
I consistently heard that one of the main issues keeping people away from the USVI is a lack of places to stay. While there are hotels that haven’t reopened and most are still undergoing renovations, there are options available for your vacation.
In St. Thomas we stayed at Lindbergh Bay Hotel and Villas. The hotel is operational, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.
The good news is that it’s literally next to the airport, which is exceptionally convenient. Its position on the bay also provides great views from the rooms.
There are, however, a lot of areas that need improvement.
I stayed in two different rooms, which between them seem to cover all of the bases of issues that still need work. The first room was nice enough on its own, but there was no hot water, no wifi, the lock on my door didn’t work, and the window in the bathroom was just covered with cardboard.
My second room did have hot water, but the A/C didn’t work. An oscillating fan was provided instead.
One of the biggest problems was the bug situation. It was apparently such an issue that my room came with a bug zapper. The mosquitoes were largely not swayed by the zapper and instead feasted on me.
Aside from the rooms the entire property still needs a lot of work. Among the areas still damaged are the pool and restaurant. These were supposed to have reopened already, but they are still a long way off.
I certainly can’t fault them for having to deal with hurricane damage, but I can’t say I would recommend staying here.
Since the restaurant at Lindbergh Bay was closed they provided a shuttle to their sister property, Emerald Beach Resort, just down the road.
Pulling up at Emerald Beach was a world of difference. Although they are only a few minutes apart on the same bay, Emerald Beach’s position near a hill that helped block the wind meant its hurricane damage was minimal compared to Lindbergh Bay.
The pool and restaurant are both open. The restaurant opens out to the beach, and the views are fantastic. Do yourself a favor and check it out during sunset. Gorgeous.
All of the rooms except two at Emerald Beach are available to be booked. All face the beach, which is really nice.
In St. Croix we stayed at Caravelle Hotel and Casino. The hotel itself is still undergoing repairs, but I was really pleased with my room.
It was a comfortable, large, modern room with a nice bathroom and spacious shower. And hot water!
And don’t forget the beautiful view of the waterfront.
The hotel’s restaurant, Rum Runners, is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
In St. Thomas head to Lindqvist Beach for the most gorgeous clear watery and powdery sand. Generations ago Lindqvist Beach belonged to the Lindqvist side of my family but is now a public beach controlled by the government.
Whenever I see pictures of islandscapes I’m able to tell if it’s the Virgin Islands by the color of the water, and Lindqvist Beach is a prime example of that.
There is a $5.00 entry fee, and you can also rent beach chairs. There are snorkels available to rent, but honestly the water is so clear that you can just look down and see fish swimming around your feet.
In St. John you can take a tour that will drive you around the whole island with picture stops along the way.
When you arrive in St. John on the ferry you’ll be in Cruz Bay. There will be plenty of people by the dock offering tours. You can ride in what locals call safaris: pick up trucks with coverings and bench seats in the back.
In St. Croix take some time to learn about island history at the Estate Whim Museum. Whim is an old sugar plantation which has become a center of education of island heritage.
Like many places Whim is still recovering from the storms, so there are some areas, like the Great House, that are closed.
Fortunately other exhibits are open. One such exhibit tells the infuriatingly heartbreaking story about the time during Danish rule when two black children, Alberta and Victor, were shipped to Copenhagen and put on display at Tivoli Gardens.
As is true across the African diaspora oral history is such an important part of the rich tradition of the Virgin Islands. Take some time to sit and listen to the stories that helped shape the islands.
Cedele continues the storytelling through music as she uses Cariso songs to share the islands’ history.
In St. Thomas you have to check out Win Mill 2.0 in Frenchtown. Full disclosure: my cousin owns Win Mill 2.0. And it’s great!
I think every sports fan knows the dilemma of being away enjoying vacation but not being able to figure out how to watch your game. Your hotel doesn’t carry the right channel, and the sports bar you found only has one tv.
Problem solved! Win Mill 2.0 has you covered. When you get there tell Rashidi which game you’re looking for, and he’ll get you hooked up. There’s no set closing time, so you can watch your game in its entirety even if its on late.
And that’s not even mentioning the food! I got the buffalo wings and seasoned fries each time and never veered from that selection. I’m sure everything else is good, but I just couldn’t get enough of the tastiest, meatiest wings and delicious fries.
In St. Croix you should check out Kim’s in Christiansted. My family went here for dinner together one night, which was so nice.
Kim’s is owned by my uncle’s neighbor, so you’re getting real VI cooking. I got the creole shrimp and rice, which was so good I’m still craving some right now.
The food takes a while to come out, but it’s worth the wait. It’s not a super fancy place, but it’s just good food.
The Come Back
While the USVI is ready for your visit I don’t want to downplay the impact of the storms. Much was destroyed, and it has been a long process of restoration. It was a rough experience for many people, and some have decided to move away.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing as I listened to my 93-year-old great aunt talk about her experience during the storms. I could only imagine how she felt as a hurricane ripped open the doors of her house and storm winds whipped around her as she sat in her home.
As my cousins talked about the barren landscape after the storms I thought about the leaves that have already come back to trees and those that are still starting to blossom.
I was struck by the earth’s cycle of destruction and renewal. In every part of the world there is some force–hurricanes, wildfires, floods–that seems to clear the way for nature’s fresh start.
What we’re seeing now is the Virgin Islands’ renewal. I’m in awe of the power of nature, the resilience of people, and the fact that the USVI is still nice.
Are you going to the Caribbean this year? Where are you heading?