My arrival was just as I remembered from previous visits. Sunburned tourists waved as my flight zoomed low over the beach.
I was getting my first look at the dual-nation island of Dutch St. Maarten and French St. Martin since it was slammed by Hurricane Irma 20 months ago. I knew I'd be seeing a lot of change on the island, but I was heartened that the landing pattern was still the same.
I was there to attend the St. Maarten/Martin Annual Regional Tradeshow (Smart) for buyers, suppliers and industry partners who do business in the islands of the northeastern Caribbean. The conference is a collaborative effort of the Dutch and French tourism offices and hotel associations and normally takes place each spring.
But in May 2018 neither destination was yet ready for prime time. The wounds from the 2017 hurricane season were still too fresh.
This year was a different story.
Princess Juliana Airport on the Dutch side, which had its roof ripped off and its innards torn apart by the hurricane's wind and water, is functioning pretty well. Cranes, bulldozers and construction gear still line the periphery, but the welcome I got upon arrival from the immigration officer was genuine, warm and appreciative. "Thanks for coming," he said.
Plane landings at Princess Juliana Aiport come in low over Maho Beach.
Departing passengers are now processed inside the terminal, (early on the venue was a large tent outside). Concessions are open, and although the gate area is cramped and often overcrowded if a flight is delayed, everyone I saw kept their tempers in check and their humor intact.
All airport repairs will be completed by 2021, according to Brian Mingo, CEO. He said that the U.S. preclearance facility, long talked about for St. Maarten, "will be operational by 2022. It is vital for our tourism product."
The venue for Smart was the two-resort Sonesta complex, a five-minute ride from the airport. The all-inclusive Sonesta Maho Beach Resort, Casino & Spa and the Sonesta Ocean Point Resort were completely rebuilt, strengthened and reinforced from their steel skeletons outward.
To see kids whizzing down the water slides, guests dining and wining at several food and beverage outlets and chaise lounges occupied by guests testifies to the comeback of the two largest resorts on the island.
The former Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort, whose site was obliterated by Irma and later purchased by Sunwing Travel Group, will reopen as a Planet Hollywood property in 2020.
May-Ling Chun, director of tourism for St. Maarten, referred to the Sonesta re-openings earlier this year as "just one of many stories of inspiring recovery on this island."
"Twenty months ago, the room we're standing in had been ripped apart by the high winds and rain," Chun said. "For 20 months we have worked together to rebuild, retrain and reunite, and we're gaining momentum day by day."
For the most part, the Dutch side of the island is up and running, with new attractions like the Rainforest Adventures Rockland Estate and Topper's Rhum Distillery. Cruise arrivals jumped 84.4% in Q1 over the same period last year; two new hotels will come on line later this year; and stayover arrivals are up 144% over 2018 year to date.
The French side of the island was a different scene. I saw boarded-up homes and businesses and rusted hulls of yachts along shore lines.
Pinel Island in St. Martin is a popular day trip for visitors.
But I also drove through some vibrant neighborhoods. I dined at an elegant French bistro called L'Atelier at Orient Beach. I had a rum punch at one of the reopened beach bars along that stretch of sand, and I talked with several cruise ship passengers shopping in the colorful Marigot market.
Valerie Damaseau, St. Martin's minister of tourism, youth, sports and district culture, told me that "the recovery is a slow process. There are many French laws, rulings and court decisions that must be followed before the damaged homes can be removed and rebuilding can commence."
Topper’s Rhum Distillery on St. Maarten offers tours and tastings of many different flavored rhums. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers
Still, St. Martin is making headway. The pre-Irma accommodations inventory was 1,096 rooms in hotels and guesthouses. The number does not include condos, villas and Airbnb properties.
"Right now we have 862 rooms available in hotels, timeshares and guesthouses, and 65% of the villa inventory has been renovated," Damaseau said. "More restaurants are reopening each week, including the lolos [open-air food stands selling local street food] in Grand Case."
What I saw was an island destination that has come a long, long way since Sept. 6, 2017.
Stuart Johnson, minister of tourism for St. Maarten, said it well: "We are two nations but one destination. We have shown resilience, and we share the same goal: to rebuild and restrengthen our tourism product. A disaster often brings people together, and so it has here with the public and private sectors sharing information, budgets, updates, policies and training programs."
Photo caption correction: Planes come in over Maho Beach, not Great Bay Beach as the caption previously noted.