Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters
Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Rebuilding an Island Paradise
When Hurricane Irma and Maria devastated St. Thomas in 2017, it left behind catastrophic damage and an uncertain future. Many wondered if this Caribbean island paradise would ever fully recover. But over the past five years, St. Thomas has shown incredible resilience and rebuilt itself into an even better destination than before.
The extensive damage from the back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes was heartbreaking for locals to witness. Historical buildings in downtown Charlotte Amalie were severely damaged, leaving gaping holes. Beaches and coastlines were altered, with sand and debris strewn everywhere. Resorts and hotels saw collapsed walls, shattered windows, and flooded interiors. Trees were stripped bare and roads were left impassable. It was a depressing sight for an island known for its idyllic beauty.
Yet the people of St. Thomas wasted no time rebuilding. They cleared roads, fixed power lines, and started the long process of reconstruction. Locals came together in a remarkable display of community spirit to clean up and salvage what they could. New construction codes were implemented to make buildings sturdier. Bit by bit, the island came back to life.
Today, St. Thomas has re-emerged as an island paradise reborn. The beaches are pristine once again, with palm trees swaying gently in the breeze. Downtown Charlotte Amalie looks better than ever, with historical pastel buildings repaired and new businesses opened. Resorts have been beautifully renovated, boasting updated rooms and amenities.
While hints of the hurricanes still exist, like the occasional patchwork roof, St. Thomas overall exudes vitality. New ferry services make it easy to visit outlying islands and cays. A re-energized culinary scene highlights fresh seafood and local flavors. The cruise ship industry has returned bigger than before. Nature trails wind through lush hillsides down to secluded coves. St. Thomas has reclaimed its rightful place as the 'Rock Star of the Caribbean.'
What else is in this post?
- Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Rebuilding an Island Paradise
- Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Supporting Local Businesses and Communities
- Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Preparing for Future Storms
- Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Upgrading Hotels and Resorts
- Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Expanding the Cruise Ship Industry
- Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Promoting Sustainable Tourism
- Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Rediscovering Natural Beauty and Charm
- Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Celebrating Rich History and Culture
Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Supporting Local Businesses and Communities
One of the most uplifting parts of St. Thomas' revival has been the way locals supported each other through the rebuilding process. The strong sense of community on the island was evident in residents' determination to get their neighbors back on their feet. As a prime tourism destination, St. Thomas relies heavily on small businesses and entrepreneurs. From charter sailing companies to beachside bars to art galleries, local businesses are the lifeblood of the island's economy.
After the hurricanes, around 80% of businesses suffered damage or loss of inventory and revenue. But even amid their own struggles, many business owners provided food, water and supplies to help fellow islanders. Restaurateurs cooked free hot meals for anyone in need. The members of the St. Thomas community looked out for one another, knowing they would only recover together.
That same spirit lives on today through initiatives to support local businesses. "We Still Rock" is a campaign created by a resident to showcase which lodging and tour operators were open for business after rebuilding. The Department of Tourism launched the "Open for Business" series to highlight reopened small businesses and share their comeback stories.
Locals also make an effort to buy local goods and use local services. From produce markets like Bella Market to breweries like Barefoot Buddha, residents embrace homegrown businesses. Popular restaurants like Gladys' Cafe, Sunset Grille, and Pie Whole use ingredients from St. Thomas farms. Tour companies like Dugout Adventures and Virgin Island Eco-Tours hire expert local guides. Boutiques sell the work of local artists, artisans and designers.
Travelers also play a part in the island's revival when they spend money at small businesses. St. Thomas still faces economic uncertainty, so tourism dollars are vital. Vacationers who shop at mom-and-pop stores, dine at locally owned eateries and book tours run by island residents make a meaningful impact. The friendly locals never fail to make visitors feel welcome.
Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Preparing for Future Storms
While the resilience of the St. Thomas community has been remarkable, disaster preparedness remains a high priority to protect against future storms. The physical and emotional toll of rebuilding after not just one but two devastating hurricanes was immense. Islanders are determined not to be caught off guard again when the next hurricane season arrives.
Extensive planning has gone into making the island's infrastructure, homes and businesses better able to withstand major storms. Building codes now require reinforcements like hurricane clips, stronger roofs, impact-resistant windows and flood-resistant materials. Homes and resorts have installed backup generators, providing power even if the main electric grid fails. Rainwater cisterns supply water if shortage occurs. Shelters have been reinforced to provide sturdy refuge.
Early warning systems have been improved with new Doppler radar capabilities, real-time tracking apps and community sirens. Effective communication plans utilize social media, radio broadcasts and text alerts to keep islanders informed and prepared. Supplies like food, water and fuel are stockpiled for rapid deployment. Contracts are in place for debris clearing services to begin work immediately after a storm passes.
While none of this can guarantee 100% protection, these measures aim to avoid the scale of damage seen after Irma and Maria. Education campaigns empower locals on what to do before, during and after a hurricane hits. They advise creating a family emergency plan, stocking up on essentials and learning evacuation routes. Mental health resources help residents cope with storm anxiety.
Tourists also need to keep hurricane season in mind when visiting St. Thomas. The island offers few shelters suitable for visitors, so travelers should have evacuation plans ready if a storm approaches. Savvy vacationers opt for travel insurance providing coverage and assistance in the event of trip interruptions. Caribbean hurricane season runs from June through November, with the peak from late August through October.
Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Upgrading Hotels and Resorts
One silver lining that emerged from the hurricane destruction was the opportunity for St. Thomas' hotels and resorts to rebuild even better than before. Many properties used the storms as a catalyst for major renovations and expansions. Travelers visiting today can enjoy upgraded amenities and accommodations.
The Frenchman's Reef Marriott Resort is a prime example of transformation after the storms. This luxury property on historic Morningstar Beach saw severe damage that forced it to close for two years. But its $230 million revamp resulted in fresh, contemporary architecture and a gorgeously redesigned interior. Rooms boast island-inspired color schemes and stylish furniture, while 10 new penthouse suites feature rooftop pools and sweeping ocean views. New restaurants like the lively Rock House Grill and the upscale Antilles Restaurant satisfy diverse tastes. The grand entrance's soaring hibiscus archway welcomes guests to paradise.
The Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas also took advantage of the opportunity to elevate guest experiences. All guest rooms and suites were refashioned with an elegant, coastal chic aesthetic. New paintings by Caribbean artists adorn the walls. The spa was redesigned for ultimate relaxation, while the fitness center boasts state-of-the-art equipment and panoramic sea views. Families love the new Ritz Kids programming, including a dedicated pool and outdoor activities. A favorite among returning guests is the new Grotto Pool, an infinity-edge sanctuary with an Instagram-worthy outlook over Great Bay.
Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Expanding the Cruise Ship Industry
The return of cruise ships to Charlotte Amalie Harbor marked an important milestone in St. Thomas' revival as a premier Caribbean destination. Prior to the hurricanes, the island welcomed over 1.4 million cruise passengers annually. The cruise industry brought valuable tourism revenue that supported local businesses and supplied many jobs. When ships were unable to dock after the storms, it dealt a huge economic blow. That's why the unveiling of the new Havensight Cruise Port signaled brighter days ahead.
Operated by Ports America, the reinvented cruise facility features colorful buildings reflecting old-town island architecture. Passenger capacity was expanded to accommodate today's larger ships, with two new extra-long berths. Amenities were added like luxury shopping, dining options and free Wi-Fi. The port now provides an enhanced embarkation experience for cruisers.
But the benefits extend far beyond the port gates. Each cruise passenger that arrives on St. Thomas joins hundreds of others in exploring the island's beaches, shops, historic sites and attractions. Vacationers flood the streets of downtown Charlotte Amalie, patronizing those small businesses critical to the local economy. Popular shore excursions like snorkeling, sailing, sportfishing and island tours create employment opportunities. Cruise schedules align with cultural events and festivals to give visitors a taste of island traditions.
Cruise tourism spreads economic advantages across multiple sectors, from agriculture and manufacturing to construction, transport and entertainment. One ship visit can inject up to $450,000 into the local economy. As Peter Farrelly of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce noted, "We're a tourism-based economy, so if the cruise ships aren't coming, we feel it."
The successful return of cruise traffic resulted from extensive collaboration between government entities, ports, tourism boards and cruise lines. Security discussions ensured St. Thomas was ready to safely welcome back passengers while managing health protocols. Marketing campaigns like "We Still Rock" enticed cruisers to rediscover the island's appeal. Ports invested in enhanced passenger flow, new technologies, and stronger storm protection.
The cruise industry generates tremendous economic value, but also carries environmental impacts. St. Thomas continues working to find the right balance between cruise tourism and sustainability. Cruise lines modified itineraries to include more time docked in port rather than cruising. Shore power capabilities allow ships to plug into onshore electric grids rather than idling engines. Newer vessels have improved waste management and energy efficiencies. Ports implement recycling initiatives to reduce waste volumes.
Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Promoting Sustainable Tourism
St. Thomas recognizes that rebuilding a stronger tourism economy must go hand-in-hand with protecting the island's natural beauty and resources. While tourism provides jobs and attracts valuable visitor spending, it also has environmental impacts. Promoting eco-friendly and socially conscious tourism has become a priority.
Initiatives aim to preserve St. Thomas' biodiversity, from lush hillsides to pristine beaches to vibrant coral reefs. Hiking trail expansions allow access to experience scenic vistas, while minimizing damage to habitats. Mangroves and wetlands are being restored to strengthen the island's resilience. Coral nurseries repopulate damaged reefs. Beach cleanups keep shorelines pristine.
Hotels and tour operators are embracing sustainability best practices. Eco-resorts like Point Pleasant Resort have installed solar panels, nursed their own coral gardens and banned plastic straws. Charter companies like Adventure Center use reef-safe sunscreen and avoid single-use plastics on board. Many restaurants source ingredients from local organic farmers.
Educational efforts teach locals and visitors alike about respecting ecosystems. Programs spotlight sustainability innovators to inspire others to follow suit. But it's an ongoing challenge to balance tourism growth with conservation, when mass tourism often degrades environments.
Transport poses one quandary, with traffic and emissions increasing. Alternatives like public mini vans, electric vehicles, ride shares, biking and pedestrian paths aim to reduce reliance on gas vehicles and taxis. Another dilemma is curbing pollution from cruise ships. While economic benefits flow ashore, ships burn fossil fuels and generate waste. St. Thomas hopes to someday offer cruise docking entirely powered by clean energy.
Water conservation is also critical, as fresh water is scarce on small Caribbean islands. Rainwater cisterns provide some supply, while desalination plants meet additional needs. But plants use significant energy, and discharged brine harms marine life. Hotels strive to reduce water usage through low-flow showers and toilets, linen reuse programs and indigenous landscaping.
Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Rediscovering Natural Beauty and Charm
The hurricanes stripped St. Thomas' lush landscapes bare, leaving behind a distressing sight for locals who took pride in their island's natural wonders. Verdant hillsides were reduced to tangles of broken trees and eroded soil. Tranquil coves were littered with debris, beaches marred by uprooted palm trees. But as vegetation gradually regrew, residents rediscovered St. Thomas' quintessential natural charm.
Witnessing the rebirth of treasured spots brought solace and reminded islanders of nature's resilience. Hiking trails like the Bordeaux lookout meandered once more through breezy tropical forests. Dramatic bluffs like Compass Point resumed their role as prime vistas to admire teal seascapes below. Mangroves repopulated saltwater lagoons, sheltering marine life. Corals blossomed again in underwater wonderlands, from vibrant sponges to neon fish.
St. Thomas' enviable diversity of microclimates and topography yields scenic treasures around each bend. Arid cactus scrublands in the east give way to St. Peter rainforest's verdant majesty. Lush valleys run down to scalloped bays with translucent waters, from palm-fringed Magens Bay to rustic Hull Bay's surf breaks. The meandering northside resort coast dazzles, where every resort is blessed with a postcard-worthy slice of beach.
Wandering Charlotte Amalie's historic streets reveals faded pastel buildings with an undeniable photogenic charm. Up in the hills, the Skyline Drive rewards intrepid travelers with sweeping views of the capital ringed by azure seas. Out on diminutive Water Island, a quieter pace of life unfolds among beaches, ruins and paddleboarders gliding across glassy bays.
Those seeking to appreciate St. Thomas' natural beauty have endless options to immerse themselves. On expert-led hikes with Virgin Islands Ecotours, wanderers summit cactus-dotted ridges and stumble upon petroglyphs etched centuries ago. Through Conservation VI’s Revel Environmental Series, kayakers paddle mangrove forests and snorkelers explore thriving reef restoration sites. At acclaimed botanical gardens like St. Peter and Skytsborg, meandering pathways thread through orchids, palms and bromeliads anchored in rich volcanic soil.
Rising from the Ashes: How St. Thomas Bounced Back as a Caribbean Paradise After Disasters - Celebrating Rich History and Culture
St. Thomas overflows with a rich cultural heritage shaped by African, Dutch, British, French, Spanish, Portuguese and West Indian influences over four centuries of colonial rule followed by American stewardship. History reverberates through Charlotte Amalie's age-old alleys, where facades whisper tales of pirates plundering treasure fleets and slavers trading human cargo at the bustling harbor. Wandering historic estates like Blackbeard's Castle and Bluebeard's Castle, imposing watchtowers and hidden tunnels hint at the island's turbulent past. Locals proudly preserve traditions like Quelbe music, an Afro-Caribbean genre birthed under oppression. Celebrating this unique legacy helps new generations understand their West Indian identity.
Getting to know St. Thomas' storied past often starts in downtown Charlotte Amalie. Through walking tours like those with Virgin Islands Heritage Tours, the colonial seaport's heritage comes alive. Dilapidated warehouses, grand government buildings and pastel merchants' villas transport travelers back centuries. At Emancipation Garden, once a slave market, emotional memorials honor those who suffered at the hands of oppressors. Inside the 19th century Frederik Lutheran Church, sublime stained glass evokes the diverse ethnicities stitching together a new Virgin Islander culture. At 99 Steps, engraved lines from a 1754 poem laud the town's burgeoning prosperity as a free port.
Nearby lie two estates whose evocative names belie their serene settings. Both Blackbeard's Castle and Bluebeard's Castle appear plucked straight from Pirates of the Caribbean, with imposing stone towers looming over natural rock formations battered by surf. Walking the grounds, it's easy to envision rum-soaked buccaneers plotting conquests centuries ago. Bluebeard's Castle rewards climbers scaling its 80 steps with panoramic Charlotte Amalie views.
Those eager to glimpse plantation life can visit ruins like Estate Catherineberg or active rum distilleries like St. Thomas' Cruzan Rum. But most poignant are sites acknowledging slavery's cruel legacy. At Estate Whim Plantation Museum, the detached kitchen recalls slaves' separation from plantation houses. Local artist Khalid Peters' outdoor sculptures at Nottingham, commissioned for the 2017 centennial of emancipation in the Danish West Indies, reflect on bondage's dehumanizing impacts.
Virgin Islanders proudly celebrate emancipation during Carnival festivals, when euphoric parades feature dizzying, handmade costumes and infectious soca beats. As Quelbe music -- a synthesis of African call-and-response vocals, Caribbean rhythms and colonial-era instruments -- pulses through the streets, it is both a link to the past and a vibrant expression of contemporary culture. During April's V.I. Carnival on St. Thomas, joining revelers dancing behind costumed bands or browsing food stalls offers immersion in traditions.