Last week, I wrote about three American beach destinations that were hit hard by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September: the Florida Keys, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
While the Keys had officially reopened to vacationers, life remains far from normal elsewhere in the region.
And yet, throughout the Caribbean, plenty of undamaged and recovering islands are now open for business; others plan to be ready for the November start of tourism season. Impacted areas are staggering reopenings — resort by resort and town by town — as properties are restored, electricity returns and hotel rooms empty of relief workers.
Travelers who want to help while still guaranteeing a vacation should consider a cruise. Cruise revenue should give a badly needed jump start to local economies — and even for unaffected isles, the return of seasonal ships is a vote of economic confidence for the region.
As it turned out, most of the Caribbean’s 50-plus cruise ports were untouched by fall storms, especially in the western and southern parts of the Sea. These include such popular ports of call as Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, Jamaica and Panama.
Ports are the top restoration priority on storm-walloped islands like St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. Regardless of the situation elsewhere, cruise passengers are promised clean beaches and sidewalks, lively restaurants and all the usual comforts where they disembark.
The first leisure travelers will almost certainly return by ship to Puerto Rico, which remains largely without power five weeks post-Maria. Royal Caribbean expects to include San Juan on its itineraries starting in November, along with St. Thomas (U.S.V.I.) and Saint Maarten.
Florida, which took a hit but was spared the worst-case meteorologists’ scenario, is eagerly getting the word out that its beaches and resorts — from Tampa Bay to the Keys — are ready for vacationers.
Farther south, islands that escaped major hurricane damage are anticipating a busier-than-usual winter season, as travelers scramble for alternate plans.
One such alternative is unscathed St. Kitts and Nevis, a two-isle nation whose profile has risen as the birthplace of chic patriot Alexander Hamilton. The country also has a rich Sephardic merchant heritage, vestiges of which are preserved in an antique Jewish graveyard in Charlestown, the country’s capital city.
Antigua, a favorite of sailors and honeymooners, was also luckily outside the hurricanes’ path. A visit here helps the tiny nation rebuild Barbuda, Antigua’s sister isle, where 90 percent of infrastructure was destroyed.
Close to home, the Bahamas was fortunate in that Irma spared the prime tourist spots, including Nassau. Other convenient destinations from New York (under four hours, nonstop) include the resorts of Jamaica and Grand Cayman, which came out of hurricane season unharmed.
Dual-nation Hispaniola was spared the storms’ worst; it’s business as usual across the Dominican Republic and at popular Haitian cruise ports. And while Francophiles are postponing winter jaunts to St. Martin, it’s the island’s French sisters, Guadeloupe and Martinique, are in good shape (with seasonal nonstop flights from New York).
In Cuba, travel lately has been complicated for a variety of reasons — not least of which were the mysterious ailments that afflicted U.S. embassy personnel, leading to the evacuation of diplomats and a State Department warning against travel to the island. Cuban officials have said tourism infrastructure is rebounding from Irma, which made landfall here and was particularly destructive to central Cuba.
In Cuba and elsewhere, it can be difficult to sift through conflicting reports concerning storm damage and projected recovery timelines. Even as airports and cruise ports are returning to activity, blackouts remain widespread in affected territories, and many hotels have repeatedly postponed their reopenings.
One place that seems to be progressing well is Turks and Caicos, which boasts some of the Caribbean’s most spectacular beaches along with a vibrant Jewish expat community. A number of hotels are open in the resort hub of Grace Bay, and more are expected to reopen by midwinter throughout Providenciales Island, which suffered less than some other spots.
Tiny, luxurious Anguilla was badly struck, but with a comparatively small collection of boutique hotels and rental villas, Anguillans have marshalled resources to restore key properties. At least a half-dozen of its high-end properties plan to accept reservations starting in December and January.
The Caribbean’s southern tier, near the South American coast, is at a remove from the so-called “hurricane belt.” This season’s storms spared isles like Barbados, which offers a beguiling British culture and wild Atlantic surf; St. Lucia, a mountainous hideaway; and the “ABC” archipelago of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao.