The Caribbean holds a special place for me, as anyone who has followed my coverage over the years probably knows.
I love the islands, the waters surrounding them, the glorious weather, the gardens and nature centers and funky beach bars, the local ladies at the open-air markets with their vegetables and woven baskets and necklaces of beach glass and dried seeds, the vendors who always try to get me to bite into a vegetable that looks like a small porcupine with quills (I always decline, and they laugh).
But the people of the Caribbean are really the essence of the Caribbean for me. Their genuine warmth and their interest in talking with me, answering my questions and then telling me their own stories of family and life -- often hard -- on the islands are what I love and what I missed the most.
For four months last fall, I was sidelined with a heart issue that required surgery, and I missed the Caribbean. Missed the action, the travel, the reporting, the camaraderie, the emails, the trips and even the deadlines. Images -- school kids in uniforms, families on their way to church services on Sundays, steel-pan musicians performing at open-air restaurants, the view from the deck of a catamaran skimming across the water -- ran through my mind during my convalescence.
Getting clearance from my doctors for air travel once again was a banner day for me. Even better was stepping off the plane a month later into 85-degree weather at Sangster airport in Jamaica.
I was staying at the beachfront Excellence Oyster Bay resort, where the staff greeted me with a cold towel, a fruit punch and a frangipani blossom for my hair. Within minutes of check-in, my toes were in the sand.
A few weeks later, I was warmly welcomed back at the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association's annual Marketplace. I guess my absence in Travel Weekly in print and online had been noticed, and word had filtered out that I was under the weather, so to speak.
I got back in the groove quickly at the Montego Bay Conference Center, where I whipped out my spiral notebook to take notes and quotes at the press briefings and in interviews with buyers and suppliers. In between, I visited a boutique property in Negril, posed with a Moko Jumbi stiltwalker/dancer at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new S Hotel on Montego Bay's Hip Strip and ate a plateful of jerk chicken at Usain Bolt's Tracks & Records restaurant near the hotel.
I knew things were back to normal when my flights were delayed both coming and going, the complimentary Biscoff cookies doled out in American's economy class were still dry and Jamaican security confiscated my tweezers (the fourth I've had taken in the last few years).
But being in the heart of the action again at the Montego Bay Conference Center felt like a homecoming. I'm no homecoming queen, but the warm greetings I received from colleagues and industry folks gladdened my (now-repaired) heart.