My heart beat a little faster as United Flight 1519 approached the runway at the St. Thomas airport. My beautiful, beloved U.S. Virgin Islands … what would we find there?
This was our first trip to the Caribbean since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the islands in 2017. The USVI was slammed by both of the Category 5 hurricanes within a two-week span.
I had mourned with the rest of the world as the pictures and stories came out — at least five dead in the USVI, hundreds injured, houses vaporized, twisted wreckage everywhere. Nearly every bit of vegetation was destroyed — the verdant hills changed from emerald green to mud brown overnight.
Since then, I have followed the recovery of the U.S. Virgin Islands closely, especially that of a little hotel called Bolongo Bay Beach Resort. I fell in love with Bolongo the first time we stayed there in 2013.
It’s a small, family-owned property on its own beach with a secluded feel, low-rise buildings and a much-loved beach bar restaurant called Iggy’s. Bolongo is the kind of place people return to again and again because it feels like home.
"Irmaria," as the double hurricanes are called on the islands, wiped out Iggy’s and left Bolongo’s beach looking like an excavation site, but didn’t leave property devastated like so much of the rest of the island.
Hotel staff and recovery workers were housed there for a time after the storms. I contributed to the fund that the Doumeng family, the hotel owners, created for its displaced workers. This did not go unnoticed. When we arrived at the front desk on this visit, we were hugged and thanked warmly by Managing Director Richard Doumeng and his wife, Katerina. They welcomed us like returning family members.
Other than the loss of Iggy’s, Bolongo looks very much like its old self now. Iggy’s is now called Iggy’s Oasis and is housed in the main building around the pool area.
According to Richard, plans are coming together to reconstruct it in its original location. The palm trees and flowering plants remain. The ocean is still turquoise and aquamarine. The Painkillers and Bushwackers are still delicious and deadly.
It’s been a long road back for USVI residents though, and it’s not over yet. Many of St. Thomas’ large hotels are still closed. When we talked with Richard, we heard about the frustrations, setbacks, bureaucracy and red tape that he and everyone else have had to endure to get where they are today.
In addition, according to a 2019 NPR report, there has been a “floodgate” of mental health issues among the islands’ residents, many of whom endured weeks without power, running water or a reliable food supply after the storms.
Not everyone who moved away from the islands has come back. Richard told us that his greatest difficulty has not been luring tourists back to the hotel but in securing the staff to work in it. “A lot of people went to stay with their aunty in Baltimore or wherever, and many of them remained there,” he said.
It is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of the Doumeng family and its existing workers that hotel guests feel little difference in a short-staffed Bolongo. The rooms and grounds are just as lovely, and when breakfast is late one morning, Richard himself swoops in, pouring coffee, apologizing for the delay, and giving everyone a free meal.
The island itself does not look much different than the last time I saw it. This is mind-boggling considering what the island looked like after the devastation of the storms. There are still houses without roofs, sunken boats and abandoned structures, but far fewer than I had anticipated.
St. Thomas is not, and never has been, a sanitized Disney paradise. It has amazing charm and beauty at nearly every turn, and it also has trash, poverty and muffler shops. It’s a multidimensional place full of real people living real lives, not always easily. It is scrappy and a little scruffy, which is why we love it and will always come back to it.
On the last day of our vacation, we went for a sail on Bolongo’s beautiful catamaran Heavenly Days. The sea turtles were elusive that day, but we swam with parrotfish, blue tangs, snapper and a resident barracuda that the crew affectionately calls Barry.
After snorkeling, we made our way to Honeymoon Beach on nearby Water Island, where we ate lunch, swam and sunned. Motoring back in a headwind along St. Thomas’ southern shore, the boat came around a rocky cliff and there was plucky little Bolongo.
I couldn’t help but smile when I saw it. I knew I was home.