On a visit to St. Martin/St. Maarten ahead of our Crystal Esprit cruise, we're traveling 1,015 feet up a forested mountain that's part of the new Rainforest Adventures' Rockland Estate Eco-Park via a ski resort-like chairlift. The park, which is just a few days away from its official debut, aims to lure nature-lovers and seekers of derring-do with four rides, including the Caribbean's steepest zipline.
Our attention, however, has been stolen by what's at the top of the mountain: incredible, nearly 360-degree views of the island, its white-sand beaches framing seas of blue and green, and the muted yet normal humdrum of Caribbean life as cars plod resolutely along winding two-lane roadways. Below us, a monkey swings from tree-to-tree, while the sounds of birds chirping and the distant voices of a church choir fill the air.
This is not what we expected from our visit to the Dutch side of the island, this weekend. It's only been a little more than two months since we first saw the heart-wrenching Hurricane Irma and Maria photos of boats driven into roadways, house after house with walls and ceilings wrenched and twisted, shuttered storefronts and restaurants.
When last week we asked Cruise Critic members what they wanted to know about the post-hurricane status of their favorite places on the island (which incidentally was ranked as one of the top Eastern Caribbean islands in our 2017 Cruisers' Choice awards), there were queries about the shops of Phillipsburg, its boardwalk and Great Bay Beach.
The beach is fine; otherwise, many restaurants and shops -- though not all -- will be shipshape in time for the first cruisers to arrive. There's also good news about the vibrant bar/restaurant scene along the beaches of Simpson Bay (including crowd favorite Karakter, whose bar is in a refurbished school bus, which is already open) and the first of a series of Lolos, the famous roadside and beachside food shacks that feature freshly made local fare. Those will be clustered at Kim Sha Bay nearby, which St. Maarten is marketing as its family-friendly beach.
Maho Beach's Sunset Bar looks pristine though the beach just below, where jets thunderously pass mere feet above as they prepare to land at the airport, still needs dredging.
Unfortunately, there are some favorite places that won't be back for another year or longer, and those include two popular destinations on the island's French side, St. Martin. At Orient Bay, every restaurant was demolished (though, oddly, the storms left one bathroom intact). There are no ships or other activities, no beach vendors. Grand Case, one of the Caribbean's best dining destinations -- whether for its Lolos for local fare or its fabulous French restaurants -- was literally a ghost town save for one up-and-running food shack.
Ultimately, on our day-long tour before we boarded Crystal Esprit, the only cruise ship currently still based here (Marigot, St. Martin) for Caribbean itineraries, was how far the island (particularly Dutch side, St. Maarten, where larger cruise ships dock) has come. The mood is buoyant here, and it's not just about recovery. It's also about reinvention, creating new reasons to lure travelers to the island that actually had nothing whatsoever to do with ravaging storms and everything to do with creating new buzz and new fun for this popular cruise port.
Rockland Estate Eco-Park is definitely the mega-star new addition. Built on the former Emilio estate, which dates back to the 1700s, creators have also refurbished historic stone buildings to serve as a museum, a gift shop and what's pegged to be the island's best new destination bar and restaurant, housed in a refurbished stone barn, called Emilio's. Don't forget the chairlift and ziplines.
Another new attraction planned pre-Hurricane Irma and slated to open in a few weeks is the Bell's Lookout Point on Cole Bay Hill, which will have food trucks and craft vendors. In other cases, classic attractions like the Lolo food shacks that typically were clustered at St. Martin's Grand Case, are moving to vibrant neighborhoods (and also are rebuilding on their home turf; a few looked to be in early stages of construction).
Shore excursion operators, too, have made great strides. St. Maarten's Director of Tourism, Rolando Brison, took us around the island yesterday and tells Cruise Critic that 80 percent of on-land shore excursions that are part of cruise line tour menus will be up and running when ships return next month. Hit a little bit harder are water-based activities. It's not because the beaches, sea and bays aren't beautiful, but because some of the boats used for outings like the Heineken 12 Meter Challenge and catamaran outings are damaged and will need time to repair.
On yesterday's tour we were greeted with smiles everywhere we went. Locals wanted to talk about their hurricane experiences and yet, at the same time, were longing for life to get back to normal. (Remembering that normal is about 600-plus cruise ships each season and more than 1.7 million cruisers.) Because so many hotels and resorts have been significantly damaged, potentially taking a year or longer to reopen, cruise ships might be the best way to visit.
Cruise lines are slated to begin calling on St. Maarten in December, with more due to arrive in January. On a quick stop by the bustling beach of Mullet Bay, where an ad-hoc Lolo was serving sun-worshippers and the grill was firing off succulent barbecued ribs, Brison was quietly talking to locals manning the food stand and bar.
"There's a fear of the islanders that until they see cruise ships, they're afraid that travelers may not come back," Brison said yesterday. "They are always asking me -- when will the ships come back?"
For travelers, there's absolutely no reason to stay away. And it won't be long before the breathtaking island views from atop the Rockland Estate Eco-Park include the cruise ships lined up just beyond Phillipsburg's salt pond at the AC. Wathey Pier. We can't wait.
--By Carolyn Spencer Brown, Chief Content Strategist