The Comeback: The Island of St. Barth Six Months After Hurricane Irma
We were a little anxious this year heading back to St. Barth for our annual spring trip after Hurricane Irma rolled over the island in a wave of mass destruction. Ahead of our trip, we heard a few post-Irma stories from island friends and saw heart-wrenching images online that left us fearful. Would this special island be able to recover as quickly as we were hoping?
As we flew into Princess Julianna International Airport (SXM) on St. Martin, there was significant evidence of damage... from roofs partially to totally ripped off along with a patchwork of blue tarps. Buildings half standing lined the beaches we could see, while some still-standing resorts showed little sign of tourism. The airport itself was so severely wrecked that semi-rigid temporary tents are now set up for arrivals and departures. Rumor had it that it was a nightmare to fly into SXM, therefore many St. Bart vacationers were flying through Puerto Rico instead.
Bracing ourselves for SXM mayhem inside the temporary airport, we were pleasantly surprised at how fast we got through the temporary structures compared to the old airport despite their recent upgrades. Granted there were less people traveling than usual and we were flying on a Tuesday, but it was a piece of cake. We received VIP customer service from St. Barth Commuter Airline as someone helpfully lead us to where we needed to go, communicated about our on-time departure and took care of our bags swiftly. After an hour layover at SXM airport and a couple of Caribes later, we were flying over the turquoise blue water heading to our island paradise which we prayed would still resemble paradise.
Ten minutes later the island comes into view. We press our noses to our little puddle-jumper windows attempting to glimpse Irma's damage. Holding our breath, what we saw amazed us after seeing the severe destruction on St. Martin. The island was almost picture perfect. Yes, a little less green than in the past from heavily damaged vegetation, but aside from that we saw very few gawking signs of Irma leaving her mark. I think everyone on the plane was thinking the same as us and you could practically hear a collective sigh of relief.
Once on the ground, we grab our Gumbs rental car and head immediately over to Marché U to grab our arrival essentials, wine, water, bread and cheese- in that order! and head to our little rental apartment. On our way out of the grocery parking lot, it was hard to miss the graveyard of cars, motorbikes, and airplanes adjacent to the parking lot. This was the first real jaw dropping sight of damage we'd seen. It is a bit shocking to see the hundreds of vehicles that lost their battle to 180 MPH winds, downed trees and a powerful water surge. It is now a sanctuary for stray cats that have taken up residence.
On our drive through Colombier, we see some structural damage and a smattering of blue tarps, but mostly what we see are new roofs and homes being repaired. The show stopping yellow trumpet flowers, fuchsia bougainvillea and exotic purple vines decorating the sides of the road made everything feel hopeful. And hope continued as we measured our conversations with local people throughout our month-long stay. The islanders are genuinely positive and proud of their comeback. Admittedly, it was hard for the first few months, but the people on the island worked together to move forward and help one another. Yes, we heard harrowing stories about families seeking refuge during Irma in their cisterns while water filled the collection tanks practically up to their necks. For hours, their huddling groups waited in the water for the hurricane to pass holding animals and children above the water level to keep them from drowning. Many people lost their roof, a car, and/or an outside wall or two of their home. Some people had massive water damage to their home or business and lost it all... everything, but their lives. And there lies the message from everyone we spoke with, "we are alive and have moved forward."
So as the Bowens do, we embraced the subtle post-Irma changes like bustling roads marked with construction trucks and the occasional sound of a nail gun as well as the larger changes such as not being able to enjoy lunches at our favorite beachside hotels--all of the beach hotels were hit the hardest by Irma. We call these “First World Problems” and in the grand scheme of things are not hardships for us, only for those temporarily forced to find jobs elsewhere until the beach resorts reopen later in 2018.
Overall, the island felt anew, reenergized. And we made it our mission to shop and eat more than usual knowing it would help the local economy as well as feed our souls. In doing just that, we found this to be one of our best trips ever as we discovered unfamiliar territory with recently debuted restaurants, galleries, and shops, as well making new friends among the locals. Explore with us below some of our favorite finds and pleasures on this trip.
RESTAURANTS WE LOVED FOR LUNCH: Quartier General (new) for their lunch specials, Le Petit Colombier in Lorient for their sandwiches to go, Fish Corner (new), Pearl Beach (old Tom Beach), La Langouste and Grain de Sel
RESTAURANTS WE LOVED FOR DINNER: Les Bananiers (best pizza!), 25 Quarter for "Taco Tuesday", L'Isoletta, L'Esprit, Ociela (new) and Manapany Hotel (redone and gorgeous!)
OLD & NEW DISCOVERIES: The annual Les Voiles sailboat race (loved all of the parties and concerts including a surprise performance by Jimmy Buffett), meditation Thursdays at the church in Gustavia, yoga at the studio above Venus spa in Gustavia, the jazz festival (enjoyed the food, the parties and music), Bacchus in Lorient for their amazing wine and spirit selection (great prices too), fresh fish to-go from Fish Corner in Gustavia (tucked behind Bar d'Oubli), Friday night music at Le Select, paddle boarding at Colombier, beach combing at Lorient beach, whale watching from Shell Beach (January through March), shopping at Yumé and Pati de St. Barth in St. Jean and 100% Capri and Linen in Gustavia, early morning walks harbor side through Gustavia, and butter croissants from Petit Colombe Bakery
Nous t'aimons St. Bart's... jusqu'à l'année prochaine (until next year)!