(11:15 a.m. EST) -- Marni and Melanie Daboul set out their samples carefully at the Toppers Rhum Distillery tent at the cruise pier in St. Maarten, readying themselves for the first wave of passengers to disembark from Grandeur of the Seas on Sunday.
At the foot of the pier, a steel pan band played. Stilt walkers wearing St. Maarten colors and flags greeted people as they came off the ship. #SXMSTRONG wristbands were pressed into hands. Port officials clustered near the terminal building, all smiles and handshakes.
Royal Caribbean isn't the first cruise line to return to St. Maarten, which received a devastating blow from Hurricane Irma in September. Crystal Esprit has been running yacht cruises from the French side of the island, leaving from Marigot, St. Martin since November. Viking Sea came into the port on December 4, followed a day later by the British line Marella Cruises.
But Grandeur of the Seas is the first mainstream cruise ship, and its return on Sunday carried a decided message of hope for island businesses and workers. "It's incredible for all of us," Melanie Daboul said. "The whole island is excited. You can feel it."
"Seeing these ships come in, it gives us economic hope," said Benjamin Ortega, facility manager for Port of St. Maarten. Ninety percent of the island has its power restored and Philipsburg's water taxis and tour buses are up and running. Carnival Cruise Line has the island back on itineraries beginning in January; after the first of the year, Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class ships will also return.
Ortega, who is also the vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, said that the island is trying to broadcast that they're open for business -- and that cruisers should banish any qualms about visiting. "Having a job to go back to is part of getting back up."
Before September's hurricane closed it down, St. Maarten enjoyed a reputation as one of cruisers' favorite Caribbean islands, and often had as many as six cruise ships at the port in one day. Onboard Grandeur of the Seas, many passengers expressed happiness that the cruise line was coming back, along with some trepidation: What tours would be available? What would the island look like? Are old favorites open yet?
Rainy Sunday At Maho Beach
Unfortunately, Sunday's weather didn't cooperate. Constant rain forced Royal Caribbean to cancel many of the 14 tours it had running, and with the ship carrying an older passenger base, fewer people left the vessel to venture onto the island.
Still, the intrepid made their way to iconic sites, such as the Sunset Beach Bar on Maho Beach. "This is the least crowded this place has ever been," Dan Patterson said, looking around the nearly empty restaurant.
Cruise passengers and others flock to Maho Beach to watch the planes come into Princess Juliana airport; however, a reduced flight schedule means you're more likely to see smaller prop planes than the jumbo jets that have made the bar famous. Aviation freaks were still on the beach with their cell phones, however, and others were hopeful the rain would let up. (Luckily, it did -- just before the afternoon KLM flight touched down).
"We would have gotten off the ship regardless," said Jane Patterson. The couple was at the bar with family members Dave and Barbara Patterson; the foursome, who hail from State College, Pennsylvania, expressed dismay at the still-visible damage to many hotels and homes, but were glad that Royal Caribbean made the stop anyway.
"What little we can do (to help), we'll do."
Scenes From St. Martin
Royal Caribbean discouraged passengers from heading to St. Martin, the French side of the island, and it's true that the level of debris and destruction seems greater there. The popular French bakery Sarafina is boarded up and many of the luxe shops in Marigot have missing roofs and broken signs. Yet some cafes on the main Market Square have opened, fueled by residents; even damaged, the French Creole buildings retain a degree of insouciant charm.
Drive farther up the French coast and you reach Grand Case, arguably one of the Caribbean's best gourmet destinations before the storm. The town's main street is full of now-shuttered French and international restaurants, although some are beginning to open. The seaside grills known as lolos are coming back too; while we were there, we saw a mini-bus discharge cruise ship passengers taking a food tour.
"Some people still don't want to cook," joked Conrad Sisco Richardson, our driver for the day. Richardson runs C.R. Taxi & Transfer Services; he's also the head of the Dutch St. Maarten Taxi Association.
Richardson agreed with port assessments that the Dutch side of the island was coming around much faster than the French side, a testament to St. Maarten's stronger business community. He disagreed, though, with hints that he should keep cruise ship passengers only on one side. "I take people where they want to go," he said. Many people visiting the island now wonder if their favorites are still around, particularly Orient Bay; while Richardson warns them of what they'll find and suggests viable alternatives, people often want to see things for themselves.
Orient Bay, with its vast expanse of sand and accompanying water sport vendors, bars and restaurants, was undoubtedly the island's most famous beach -- and not just for the nudity you'd find at the south end. Storm surges did immense damage on this part of the island, and the former resort area is almost a ghost town. While the beach itself is still gorgeous, the shuttered facilities and downed palm trees mean it will take a lot longer than a few months for Orient Bay to regain its footing.
Building Up Beaches and New Attractions
Yet even if Orient Bay takes longer to recover, St. Maarten is making sure there's plenty of beach to go around, directing cruise passengers and tourists to the areas on the Dutch side that are open.
One beach that's received an influx of investment is Kim Sha. Lolo shacks have been built here to serve local food, water sports and beach loungers are available, and the Buccaneer Beach Bar is the site for a Royal Caribbean excursion. (The bar, incidentally, received special kudos from port officials for being one of the first to open after the storm, grilling up food for locals and emergency personnel.)
Mullet Bay, too, remains one of the island's prettiest beaches (and quiet). Not so silent is Philipsburg's Great Bay Beach, where bars along the boardwalk blasted music to cruise passengers and Front Street shoppers who were literally soca-ing in the streets. Even Sunday's showers couldn't keep people out of the azure blue water.
Beyond beaches, St. Maarten is also justly proud of its new attractions. The Rainforest Adventures' Rockland Estate Eco-Park, which opened in November, boasts the Caribbean's steepest zipline, along with a chairlift, gift shop, museum and bar/restaurant, all located in refurbished historic stone buildings. Bell's Lookout Point on Cole Bay Hill has only a flag on it now, but it's intended to be the site for local food vendors and crafts people.
"It's going to be a pretty tough season for us, but we'll be ok," said Richardson, noting the island suffered a hit from Hurricane Luis in 1995 and was able to come back. "We go with the flow."
--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor