St. Thomas is part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and a place that’s widely known as a Caribbean shopping mecca. But as mentioned. it was also one of the islands that lay in the path of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. So I was curious to see what kind of scene would greet us when we disembarked in Charlotte Amalie, its capital. Since tourism brings in much-needed money, the local government had rushed to get the tourist business back up and running. But how would the island look?
Driving through Charlotte Amalie, it didn’t look too bad. There were a few buildings with damaged roofs, and a fence or two propped up by wooden supports. But on the whole, the city centre looked fairly well intact.
As we got into the outskirts of town, however, the damage began to appear. Here and there were industrial buildings stripped of their walls and roofs, or collapsed on themselves. In the harbour, the rear deck of a sunken fishing boat poked out of the water. Farther inland, there were other signs of destruction to homes and public buildings. The most dramatic scene was a church that stood gutted and almost blown apart after the wind found its way inside.
According to our driver, 30 percent of the island was still without electricity, and many people were living in houses with tarps instead of roofs. But the children were back in school, and one way or another, the islanders were getting on with life.
And despite the piles of refuse along the roads, the island still managed to look idyllic. We stopped at a lookout point with an amazing view of Magens Bay, considered one of the world’s best beaches.
Just as amazing as the view was this sign identifying the bits of land that appeared on the horizon. In fact, these are all named islands, some of them well-known, like Tortola, and some obscure, like Grass Key. More surprisingly, their nationality is a mixed bag. Some are part of the U.S. Virgin islands, while the others belong to the British Virgin Islands. How they sorted that out I’ll never know, but it’s a fascinating thing to see.
The lookout point also boasted a large souvenir shop, but here as well, there were signs of the damage wreaked by Irma and Maria,
Finally, we stopped at a point that gave a marvellous view of Charlotte Amalie and its harbour, with three ships lined up at the dock (the photo below is a panorama; click on it, enlarge and scroll around to see it in detail). And once again, a reminder of the hurricanes: the blue roofs you see are tarps, replacing roofs that were blown away by the storms.
Back to town, and a few minutes spent shopping at the tourist bazaar next to the pier. Many of the islands have these marketplaces, but this one is right inside the pier compound. As I said, St. Thomas is a major shopping centre for those who like to buy duty-free watches, electronics, cosmetics and most other things you can think of. And even with the short stop-over, the outdoor mall was well patronized.
By 1 p.m. we were back on the ship and ready for the long trip back to New York. I had come to see a glimpse of the eastern Caribbean, and it seemed like the mission was accomplished: five islands in five days. Now, two days to sleep in, frequent the bars and restaurants, explore the ship, or just find a quiet spot and read.
What did I think of the eastern Caribbean? Like much of this region, it all seems cut from the same cloth. Most of the islands look much alike, with beaches, palm trees, technicolour buildings and forts left over from the colonial days. But if you look deeper, each has its own story to tell, its own customs and its own accent. And each island is a stark reminder of who has money and who doesn’t, with multi-million-dollar homes and rickety two-room houses a kilometre from each other.
I enjoyed cruising this part of the world, but I don’t know if I’d do it again. Still, if the opportunity presented itself, I might just find myself on a beach under a palm tree, looking out at that deep blue water …