St. John has always meant family, community, and love shared through stories and connections with locals.
“It’s my husband and I’s fiftieth anniversary and I came back to sit on the beach with the palm trees and the palm trees are gone. No shade. Now we have to rent a cabana.”
A middle-aged female tourist from the States said this in front of local St. John workers at Mango Deli this morning. If all St. John tourists are stereotyped based on her attitude, we would seem pretty ignorant and rude concerning recent events. I wish my family spoke up and said to her, “Did you hear about the two hurricanes? People are working really hard to rebuild the island. Palm trees seem like a pretty small thing to worry about right now.”
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands – The place where my sister learned how to swim. The vacation where my hermit crab “Smoothie” won the beach race so I got a free strawberry smoothie. The trip where I pretended to be Jeff Probst while in middle school, staging Survivor in the palm tree pool with my cousins competing to find the hidden immunity idol (a rock I found) somewhere near the outdoor bar.
A lot of us have that one destination our family returns to because it feels like “home,” even if it’s 1,878 miles away – the distance from where I live, Maine, to St. John, U.S.V.I. We have so many pictures, sand art souvenirs, t-shirts with island logos, conch fritter café bumper stickers, and even palm frond place mats. So many good memories.
So when my family heard that Hurricane Irma and Maria destroyed the Virgin Islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John, we were devastated. Even though we’ve always been tourists, St. John has always meant family, community, and love shared through stories and connections with locals. We call out “Ariel!” to the little pug at the jewelry store Freebird. We’ve become best friends with Captain Mike at The Lime Inn who is addicted to margarita jelly beans and has a real hook for an arm (not kidding). And the couple Ron and Ruth at Saint John Spice Company ask us how we are every year and what types of cinnamon and spice rub we need for home cooked meals.
This time visiting I knew it would be different even before I got to St. John. It’s barely been two years since the hurricanes hit in September 2017. That means property restoration is still greatly underway. More so, rebuilding people’s hope.
After flying in two planes to arrive in St. Thomas and a shot of pineapple rum near baggage claim, I hopped in a taxi with my family headed to the ferry dock before sailing to St. John. Our local taxi driver Norman drove us along the “rollercoaster route road” (these drops actually feel like a ride – no seat belts), and I immediately started noticing all the damage during our drive. Many solar panels were ripped out of the ground, tons of palm trees were bent in half, and many local houses had walls, windows, and roofs missing with tarps or “Danger: Do Not Enter” graffiti. Norman said the junior high was destroyed by the hurricanes and that thousands of palm trees had to be replanted; many new palm trees had stakes around their bases to help them grow in windy conditions.
Even though he said the island of St. Thomas had recently experienced 90 days of drought and that it took 4-6 months to restore power (even longer in St. John), he said it all with a smile and that “it could have been worse.”
What everybody in our taxi loved about Norman:
He was thankful.
He was grateful for all the construction workers still putting their lives on the line every day to save three islands and the people who love them. He was grateful for the tourists still coming back despite damage in the area and resorts that don’t look anything like they used to. He was grateful for the islands and their people’s patience, persistence, and willingness to grow stronger after being knocked down.
Once we got to the mainland of St. John, the Westin Resort looked much different. The whole lobby got completely damaged including much of the hotel, beach area, and restaurant by the shore. But stepping off the boat, the whole place seemed ironically calmer in a way. Vulnerable, but strong. The turquoise water almost looked still at times, as if trying to find peace within the waves.
It’s only my first day back here in St. John after three years. So much more destruction to witness. So many more hurricane stories from people I want to sit down with and listen to. And more privileged tourists from the states complaining about what used to be rather than being empathetic and willing to help.
But I always think of the houses here: bright purple, banana yellow, green as limes.
Just like the colorful houses, so vibrant are the people here.
Hopeful. Brilliant. Turquoise blue, in every way.
After all, it’s called “Love City” for a reason.
And we will always be St. John strong.
*Come support the island! Tourism just started back up again in January/February and new hotels are always opening. Stay tuned for more St. John insider helpful hints, best restaurants and beaches, and where to find the best snorkeling for sea turtles…
Amanda spent one week in St. John.