U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS
From the colorful embrace of St. John to the bustling port of St. Thomas and the Danish-influenced enclave of St. Croix, this island trio is open for business
TERI GIBNEY OWNS what may be St. John’s most beautiful retreat—a pair of bright white cottages tucked among emerald foliage on their own intimate cove, with nothing but the turquoise Caribbean in one direction and steep hillsides of national parkland at their back.
A third cottage on the property—Gibney’s home— was flattened by Hurricane Irma, so she lives in a oneroom outbuilding, without a stove or refrigerator, her clothing stacked around a small bed. With no time yet to rebuild her own home, Gibney has spent the months since the hurricane’s September 6 assault on the U.S. Virgin Islands ceaselessly clearing the felled trees along her cove, repairing the damage to her rental cottages, tending to guests, and shooing off the island’s famous feral donkeys, who push through her gate to eat the exotic flowers in her garden and to roll in the sand on her beach.
Such is the upside-down, post-Irma world of St. John, the most exclusive of the three major U.S. Virgin Islands. (The cruise ship– and resort-driven St. Thomas and funky, Danish-influenced St. Croix make up the trinity.) Both a pristine playground for the rich and a getaway for the eco-minded, more than half of St. John is a national park of rugged, forested terrain guarding white-sand coves. Before the storm, luxurious villas were nestled along the fringes, while a few upscale resorts hugged the coves. One of the world’s first eco-resorts perched on a hillside. The little ferry port town of Cruz Bay was home to high-end boutiques and restaurants, while Coral Bay up the coast lured sailors with beach bars.
Now, with many of those villas and resorts slowly making their way back to reopening (others have closed forever), the hum on St. John is quieter. To visit now is to feel part of the recovery family of residents, who hug each other in parking lots and swap intel on building supplies. To wander the narrow streets of Cruz Bay is to witness the timeline of the comeback: On one block, The Longboard restaurant is hopping with newly repaired and renovated digs, and is pouring craft cocktails and plating fresh seafood. On another, the rubble and ruins of buildings remain vacant. In Mongoose Junction—Cruz Bay’s romantic cluster of stone-and-mahogany shops and restaurants—sun-kissed tourists are buying jewelry, drinking craft beer, and shopping for sarongs. But when traveling the roads, it’s sadly easy to see shipwrecked sailboats and other debris.
In the intimate confines of St. John, these scars remain part of the landscape. On St. Thomas, major resorts are still not reopened, but a concentrated flurry of rebuilding in the zone that services cruise ships confers a cheery, open-for-business feel. On St. Croix, which sustained the least amount of damage in the USVIs, beloved properties are back, and new hotels have opened. Still, “the devastation is clear when you fly in, particularly to the housing,” says Benjamin Keyes. Keyes is a trauma specialist who lived on St. Thomas as a kid and returned earlier this year with a team of volunteers to St. Croix, St. Thomas, and Puerto Rico to help counsel healthcare professionals and relief workers on post-traumatic stress disorder. “These are people who are still living it, day in and day out,” he says, adding that no matter how quickly rebuilding occurs, it takes at least three years for residents’ emotional recovery—and that’s if the annual march of hurricanes through the Caribbean steers clear and doesn’t retrigger a traumatized region. “I hope things blow by,” he says.
Meanwhile, Teri Gibney keeps her focus on her guests, who she says bring a surge of both financial and emotional support every week. And she works hard to spread that love (and those dollars) to as many merchants, artists, and waitstaffs as she can. On an impromptu shopping excursion to one of her favorite jewelry boutiques, she admires a handmade bracelet. The iconic St. John design features a nautical J-hook holding the band together. It’s a favorite tourist takeaway; country star Kenny Chesney, a homeowner here who has passionately supported private recovery efforts, is known to wear one. “St. John is our home,” Gibney says, tracing the shape of the hook with her thumb. She looks up. “What else can we do?”
Airlines serving St. Thomas include American, Delta,
Jet Blue, Spirit, and United. Carriers serving St. Croix from San Juan and St. Thomas include American, Cape Air, Delta, JetBlue, Seaborne, Spirit (including a new route from Fort Lauderdale), and United.
As of late summer, about 50 percent of accommodations across the USVI had reopened. For a real-time, updated list of what’s open, visit usviupdate.com.
The longest-running familyowned hotel in the Caribbean, the classic Buccaneer hotel—on the island’s east coast with three white-sand beaches—reopened quickly after the storm to house relief workers, and is now fully returned to serving visitors. Rates start at $299; thebuccaneer.com. At the other end of the island in Frederiksted, the brand-new Fred is a sassy, adults-only boutique hotel that occupies a complex of pastel historic buildings in the middle of town and directly on the beach. Rates start at $209; sleepwithfred.com.
For a one-of-a-kind stay in a beachfront cottage (or one set behind it in a botanical garden) with Hawksnest Bay at your feet and the national park at your back, Gibney Beach Villas are a tropical dream come true—and featured on our cover this month. Rates start at $5,000 per cottage per week; gibney beachvillas.com. On a breezy bluff overlooking Cruz Bay, Estate Lindholm is a romantic, tropical-style hotel with a gorgeous pool and easy access to nearby beaches, hiking trails, and the buzz of town. Rates start at $250; estate lindholm.com. The Westin
St. John Resort & Villas on the island’s southwest shore plans to reopen in early 2019.
On St. Thomas, the candycolored Bolongo Beach Resort near Charlotte Amalie on the south shore reopened in June. (Its beloved Iggies Beach Bar, destroyed by the storm, is scheduled to return next year). Rates start $158; bolongobay .com. Look for Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort and Sugar Bay Resort & Spa, both major resorts on the island, to reopen in late 2018 or early 2019.
On St. John, the restaurants, bars, and shops of Cruz Bay hum with locals and visitors alike.
Teri Gibney and her son, Tommy
St. John’s Hawksnest Bay, home to Gibney Beach Villas
Fish, fries, and more at Miss Lucy’s restaurant in Friis Bay, St. John
The view from Gibney Beach Villas
Dancing in the streets of Cruz Bay, at Carnival
The Buccaneer Hotel on St. Croix