I’m sitting at a picnic table nestled in the white beaches of Sandy Island, a popular day-trip destination for sunbathers seeking a casual barbecue and Caribbean cocktails just two kilometres off the coast of Anguilla. With my stomach rumbling, I peruse a crisp piece of cardstock, toes digging into the warm sand. It says, “Interim Lunch Menu 2018”. The menu proposes five options, among them, Crazy for Crayfish and Rasta Plate (for vegetarians). “Decisions, decisions,” I sigh. 

Road to Recovery

Tourism dollars are integral to the growth of Caribbean regions. Here are a few more islands in the area that are open for business.

St. Barths

Covering just 8 square miles, this French island suffered significant damage from the 2017 hurricanes. About half of its resorts reopened by the year’s end while luxury resorts like the Christopher Hotel and Le Toiny reopened in October 2018.

St. Kitts & Nevis

While in the path of the storms, these islands sustained minimal damage.

Turks & Caicos

Irma and Maria caused significant damage to the country, especially on the islands of South Caicos, Grand Turk and Salt Cay, but Turks & Caicos has since fully recovered from the storms and is back in operation.

Quickly, I whittle the five options down to three: Will it be grilled lobster “Sandy Island Style”, crayfish or “Rack ‘Em Up Ribs”? Our patient waiter listens to my internal-turned-external debate between the crayfish and ribs. “We can make you a plate of half and half,” he offers. I am overjoyed, and raise my rum punch in a toast to this good fortune, only to realize my ice cubes have melted into the sweet elixir. But that’s okay because I’m on island time.

Sandy Island time, Anguilla, to be more specific. Swallowed by water during back-to-back hurricanes, Irma and Maria, in September 2017, the temporary disappearance of Sandy Island was one of many casualties from the Category 5 hurricanes. Anguilla is just 35 square miles. Irma damaged 90 per cent of the electrical infrastructure and washed away entire properties with powerful winds and waves 20 feet high. Little was left for the next hurricane, Maria, to devour. 

Now, seven months later, I’m sipping away at my picnic table on Sandy Island, which is so small I can wave to my beachcombing friends on the other side, or better yet, call them from my giant conch shell-phone. (I will never stop holding a shell to my ear and making that joke.) The island reopened to visitors just a week before my visit in April. Dotted with newly planted palm trees only a foot or so high and surrounded by the most unbelievable, sparkling, #nofilter-needed turquoise water, the reopening of this island seemed to be the exclamation point at the end of a declaration locals kept repeating: Anguilla is open for business.

The temporary disappearance of Sandy Island was just one of many Caribbean casualties from the 2017 hurricanes

For many tropical islands that rely heavily on the tourist dollars of sun, beach and fun, the hurricanes were a massive setback for the winter travel season in 2017 and early 2018. Now, a full year after Irma and Maria, many scars remain but residents in all parts of the Caribbean are welcoming back travellers with the eagerness of a family you skipped out on last Christmas.

One misconception is that the hurricanes impacted all parts of the Caribbean, but the truth is that many were unaffected or sustained minimal damage. “If you look at the width and height of the Caribbean Sea, it’s huge,” says Nancy Drolet, business development representative at the Caribbean Tourism Organization. “Geographically, it’s an enormous area so something could happen in one corner and it doesn’t affect the rest. The Caribbean Sea, from Cancun to, say, Martinique, is roughly the same distance as from Calgary to Toronto.” The islands that did sustain the most damage (Anguilla, Dominica, Barbuda, St. Martin/St. Maarten, Puerto Rico, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, the Cayo Coco area of Cuba and St. Barts) are working feverishly to rebuild and improve upon what they had before.

Travellers are back enjoying sun and sand at properties like Oil Nut Bay in the British Virgin Islands

To get to Anguilla, I fly into the Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Martin and take a 35-minute chartered speedboat to get to our final destination. A hub for many travellers connecting to other islands, the airport was heavily damaged during the hurricanes and a temporary tented facility has been operating in its place. The number of flights and thus visitors were drastically reduced in the months that followed the hurricanes. Though progress has been slow, major airlines have been adding regular flights back to their schedules as the island rebuilds. The number of flights in and out of St. Martin is now close to 70 per cent of what existed before Irma, making it easier to visit and explore the islands around it.

Things don’t always go back to the way they were, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The island of Dominica has discovered a new type of traveller in the past twelve months. Hurricane Irma passed through Dominica like a whisper compared to the destruction followed by Maria. Four months after the hurricane, 90 per cent of the island was still without power but the process to repair the damage picked up speed at the beginning of 2018.

Part of the progress is due to tourists who aren’t afraid to roll up the sleeves of their tanned arms, put on a pair of work boots and lend some muscle. Known as the Nature Island – perfect for travellers who love hiking, diving or being active – Dominica has experienced a noticeable spike in volunteering. It’s one of the fastest-growing travel trends today. “Voluntourism is unique in its approach of not only giving tourists a fun vacation but also allowing them to make an impact in the lives of others,” says Jerry Grymek, VP of Client Services for LMA Communications Inc. which represents Dominica in Canada.

Dominica even offers travel packages geared towards tourists who want to combine a sunny vacation with a good deed, authentic experience and a side of getting to know the locals – all in one memorable trip. Feel like volunteering for just a day or two? There’s a package to clear and restore part of the Waitukubuli National Trail where tourists can choose the number of days they want to work while learning about the flora and fauna from forestry staff. A trip offered by the recently rebuilt Fort Young Hotel takes travellers on an almost 13-kilometre hike clearing debris along the way. The reward at the end? A pat on the back and a refreshing dip in clear water and views of the Giraudel Botanic Gardens.

Things don’t always go back to the way they were, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing

Certified divers can also explore the waters and marine life surrounding Dominica while helping to clear popular dive sites for future visitors. No-frills voluntourism packages in the village of Mero get you working with locals who need help repairing their homes or farms. Volunteers stay in the village and enjoy traditional meals as part of their trip.

Off the famously luxurious British Virgin Islands (BVI) – home to the likes of Richard Branson and the Aga Kahn – you’d see very little impact from Irma and Maria if you were to explore it while scuba diving. But the scene changes dramatically once you resurface. BVI, which is composed of over 60 islands, sustained heavy damage from both hurricanes. Anegada was one of the first of the islands of the BVI to welcome back visitors when they benefited from the boating business of nearby islands that weren’t as quick to rebuild.

Anegada Beach Club was one of the many luxury properties in the British Virgin Islands to reopen soon after the storm

Often overlooked for shorter itineraries because it’s further from the other islands, Anegada has become a new favourite for many BVI regulars. Keith Dawson, marketing manager at the British Virgin Islands Tourist Board, recalls an excursion to conch shell mounds where you find a tremendous mountain of conch “rivalling the highest point in Anegada.” The variety of marine life here also attracts visitors: turtles and flamingos in the wild are easily viewed from Flamingo Lookout Tower or off the coast of the island’s east end.

Rebuilding to their five-star standard is taking time, but many of BVI’s luxury properties, including Sunset House on Long Bay in Tortola and Oil Nut Bay, have already reopened and travellers are returning to sip their favourite rum cocktails at the popular beachfront Soggy Dollar Bar. A year later, the view from the water’s surface is starting to look as untouched as the view below.

Back on Anguilla, the 100-plus photos of its postcard-perfect Meads Bay on my iPhone remind me of how in awe I am of Anguilla’s coastline. Eating local crayfish (again), alongside friends cooling off with a cold rum punch (again), inside the Straw Hat Restaurant at the popular Frangipani Beach Resort, we see no evidence of the destruction just a few months earlier.

The pools that had to be emptied after being filled with sand during the storms are now perfectly clear and just crisp enough to cool me down after a strenuous day of sitting on the beach while taking photos of the water. The first luxury hotel to reopen on the island after the hurricanes, the Frangipani was rebuilt in portions with more durable materials (concrete instead of wood for example), something that has been repeated all over the Caribbean as operators aim to rebuild better and stronger.

Evidence of Irma and Maria remain on many Caribbean islands, but you may not notice because lush new trees have been planted, hotels and restaurants have reopened, and a tiny, beachy island that just resurfaced is grilling up plates of crayfish and ribs for visitors celebrating its return.