Should you book a Caribbean vacation after a hurricane? In the case of St. Barths, the answer is a resounding “Oui!” The residents and businesses are ready to welcome tourists, so here’s what you can expect if you travel to St. Barths after Irma plus essential info to consider if you’re booking a vacation on any storm-damaged island.
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If you’re thinking of booking a vacation on a Caribbean island damaged by a hurricane, I encourage you to go. Tourism is the backbone of the Caribbean economy. However, it’s important to expect some disruption. With careful planning and a sunny attitude, you can have a wonderful time.
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To Go or Not to Go to St. Barths after Irma
Hubby is a CPA. So, after tax season, we need to get reacquainted and have, for the past 10 years, headed to St. Barths in the French West Indies for a few days of much needed sun and surf. This year, we debated returning because the island was ravaged by Hurricane Irma.
We had conflicting feelings. Although we love the island and wanted to show our support by returning, we didn’t want to visit because we feared our wonderful paradise was in ruins.
After much debate, we decided to go, and then navigated some new challenges to book our vacation. Our normal logistics involving transportation, accommodations and dining were still in flux because of the storm. Here’s a rundown of what we encountered.
How do you get to St. Barths?
After a hurricane or natural disaster, transportation to and from your vacation destination may be disrupted – for days, months or years. My normal transit to St. Barths is via a non-stop flight to St. Maarten from New York’s JFK airport on jetBlue, followed by a 15-minute flight on a puddle jumper. However, when I was booking my trip, those jetBlue flights hadn’t resumed, post-Irma. So I had to travel through San Juan instead. Hours after I departed the San Juan airport, Puerto Rico experienced an island-wide blackout, 7 months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. I could have been stranded.
When planning a Caribbean vacation after a hurricane, you need to have some patience and flexibility when it comes to getting to and from your destination. Get to the airport earlier than usual in case of the unexpected. Pack snacks because airport concessions may not have re-opened. And, travel insurance, like a policy from Allianz, is a pretty good idea, in case of cancelled flights, power failures or other unanticipated travel disruptions.
How Much Damage to the Island?
I held my breath as we drove from the airport to our villa rental, not knowing what to expect. Hurricane Irma slammed into St. Barths on September 6, 2017, so I anticipated seeing street after street of destroyed homes and shops and was afraid that my beloved beaches had washed away.
Boy, was I wrong.
According to Peg Walsh, President of St. Barth Properties, island residents came together in true solidarity after the storm passed. Her Gustavia offices were flooded by runoff and the windows were blown from the inside out but a neighboring business let her staff use their office. Ten percent of the St. Barth Properties villa inventory was destroyed and 75% damaged. By spring 2018, 60% of the homes were back in rental rotation.
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My hillside villa was as stunning as every other one we’ve rented for the past ten years and the sunset? It takes my breath away every time.
The few hotel properties on St. Barths sustained massive damage but are under construction. Eden Rock, for example, is scheduled to re-open in December 2018.
What’s Open and What’s Closed on St. Barths
My arrival routine is to pick up the rental car, check out the villa and then head to the large Marché U supermarket to pick up provisions for the week. I was happy to find the market open and well-stocked although it was sad to see the destroyed planes and cars tucked into the vacant lots behind the building.
Our supermarket necessities include many bevies: coffee, juice, milk, water, beer; soft French cheeses, chocolate, a rotisserie chicken and snacking sausages, fresh fruit, granola, yogurt and baguettes and croissants. There is nothing quite like French bread – the real thing. This grocery inventory provides us with simple lunches and fresh and lovely breakfasts.
TravelingMom Tip: The water supply infrastructure can be damaged during a hurricane. If you’re going to an island after a storm, find out about the safety of the tap water. If in doubt, even the tiniest doubt, use bottled water for brushing your teeth, drinking and avoid ice cubes.
What’s for Dinner on St. Barths?
So when dinner time rolled around, I was glad to have a handy list of open and closed restaurants supplied by St. Barth Properties. I was deeply disappointed to see that my very favorite restaurant – The Hideaway – was closed. Their specialty is unusual and delicious: French frites and fresh-caught raw fish, cut into chunks, that you grill at your table on a stone plancha. But other standbys, including the world famous Le Select (immortalized by association with Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise”), were open for business.
This was a great opportunity to make lemons out of lemonade, so we tried out some new places, like the gorgeous and delicious Le Tamarin. It’s a beautiful, secret garden-style location with tremendously good food and exquisite service.
How Do You Get Around on St. Barths?
I always rent a small SUV on the island to get around and promptly hand the keys to my husband. Although I love to drive, I do not love the challenge of driving on St. Barths. The streets are narrow with blind turns and crazy people on scooters.
It’s only gotten worse after Hurricane Irma. But in a good way. The island is doing a massive amount of roadwork including moving utilities underground and widening roads. For the foreseeable future, I don’t see it getting better. So drivers need a strong stomach and patience; many of the roads have alternating traffic patterns, meaning you can wait for 6-8 minutes at a time.
For those without the guts, there is taxi service available on the island.
Has the Island Changed After Hurricane Irma?
St. Barths is known as a playground for the rich and famous during the high season which runs from mid-December through mid-April. Villa rates are significantly higher – like the cost of a new Honda Accord for a 10-day, 1-bedroom rental over the Christmas holidays.
According to Peg Walsh, the high rollers didn’t return this season. But, Walsh says, “The guests who did come back, are the ones who care about St. Barths. They love it and wanted to show their support. They all remarked how nice the island was – very laid back.”
During my visit, the island held their an annual yacht race, Les Voiles de Saint Barth. So Gustavia, the harbor capital, was busy. But the beaches were deserted. I felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway but, instead of a volleyball named Wilson for company, I had hubby and bottles of rosé.
Our vacation was different than prior ones, but different in a good way. It’s hard not to feel great when you walk into a store to purchase a beach towel and get hugged by the shopkeeper. She just moved back into her home and was grateful that tourists were starting to return to the island. As we were leaving, she exclaimed, “Americans! We love Americans!”
Je suis St. Barths.