(First published in the January 17, 2019 issue of City Pages)
Most places, but not all, rebuilt after the hurricanes and are open for tourists
PHOTO COURTESY US VIRGIN ISLANDS TOURISM DEPT.
The famous Trunk Bay, a snorkeling paradise, at St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.
In September 2017, Hurricane Irma slammed popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean: the islands of Barbuda, Anguilla, St. Martin, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, Barbados, and Turks and Caicos, among others. Hurricane Maria followed into the same area two weeks later, causing catastrophic destruction and untold number of deaths in Puerto Rico.
The buildings and infrastructure damage brought the tourism industry to practically a standstill in many parts of the Caribbean in 2017 and early 2018.
Those who travel to destinations like the U.S. Virgin Islands go for the spectacular beaches, gorgeous blue water, incredible vistas, great snorkeling, diving and other water activities. Those destinations hit hard by the 2017 hurricanes are beginning to bounce back and tourism is undergoing a strong recovery.
Local travel agents are again booking folks to that part of the Caribbean, says Tracy Nelson an agent with Travel Leaders in Wausau. “For a while, they were letting the islands rebuild but it seems mostly back to normal,” she says. “We’ve started sending people back.”
For most travelers from the central Wisconsin area, the majority of trips to the Caribbean originate with flights from Minneapolis, Milwaukee or Chicago, though it’s possible to link right out of Central Wisconsin Airport (CWA) in Mosinee on several carriers.
Faye Delosh, owner of Travel Adventures in Wausau, has sent many people to the U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix) over the years, but with the damage, her agency has been booking less to that destination, she says. Delosh has been there herself and says, “it’s beautiful and the water sports are amazing.”
Part of the draw, she says, is that those islands are U.S. territory and a passport isn’t required.
Delosh says if somebody is interested in a trip to that area, to sit down and talk with a travel agent for a better idea of travel options. “Chicago will have better rates and more availability,” she says. “United has a non-stop from O’Hare on Saturdays to St. Thomas.”
But not everything is fully back to normal yet in the Caribbean. Currently around 60-65% of accommodations across the U.S.V.I., for example, are open and accepting guests; other properties continue to repair or rebuild, according to Joyce Dore-Griffin, Acting Commissioner of Tourism for the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism.
Several resorts won’t open until later in 2019 or early 2020. Some, like the Westin St. John Resort Villas, just opened this month. According to usviupdate.com, 100% of the beaches, power, and ports are open.
Phil Klein at Klein Scuba in Wausau has gone down to the U.S. Virgin Islands to dive and visit family who lives on the island of St. Croix. He hasn’t been back since the storms hit but does think the Caribbean collectively as a whole is a beautiful place to vacation. “We dove St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, and other areas. They’ve got some very good diving,” he says.
Follow a local couple’s Caribbean adventure
Bob and Megan Lamovec have been sailing around the Atlantic ocean in their newly purchased catamaran since the end of September and are currently anchored off Prickly Pear Island, part of the British Virgin Islands. “We’ve only just been to a few spots in the British Virgin Islands since we’ve only been here a couple of days…there are no partially submerged wrecks, but many damaged boats onshore waiting for repair or disposal,” says Megan.
The Lamovecs have seen the effects of the hurricane but say the marinas appears to be operating fully. “If you didn’t see the destruction or know about the hurricanes, it’d be hard to believe that these islanders endured and continue to endure so much. They are truly special people,” says Bob. “Come on down, enjoy the relaxing waters and drinks, but don’t forget to saddle up next to a local and hear their stories… You’ll be amazed at how nice and genuine everyone here is… kinda like Wausau.”
The Lamovecs, like a typical Wisconsin couple, usually like to take a warm-weather vacation over the Christmas holidays. “Our second year vacationing in Roatan, Honduras, Bob was considering purchasing a vacation home or villa that we could use and then rent out,” says Megan. That’s when their vacationing turned into something a little more adventurous.
Relaxing beachside, Bob noticed a catamaran anchored off the bay and an epiphany struck. “All of a sudden, taking our vacation home with us, wherever we wanted to go became much more appealing.”
After some business rearrangements, they started looking at boats and getting affairs in order for planning an epic adventure. They pulled the trigger on purchasing a 42-foot Lagoon catamaran in late June. Bob proposed to Megan on the Fourth of July and the two were married by a friend in a small ceremony on Rib Mountain in August. They left late September to pick up their catamaran in France to begin their sailing adventure.
Prior to this, Bob had about 200 miles sailing and Megan had about five miles from three days at a sailing school. To date the duo now has sailed more than 5,000 miles and hit more than 12 countries.
The couple decided to cross the Atlantic with a group called World Cruising Club, which organizes group crossings around the world. “We figured it was the safest way to cross, with many other boats,” says Megan. “We hired four crew to assist us in the crossing. Our goal is to stay in the Caribbean for at least the next few months while friends and family visit.”
You can follow their adventures at SailingBlueInfinity.com, with updates also on Facebook and Instagram @sailingblueinfinity.