Last September, Hurricane Irma was recorded as the strongest ever storm in the open Atlantic. Winds reached 180mph, slamming like a bowling ball along the Caribbean islands. Irma is the second-costliest hurricane on record. The costliest is Hurricane Maria, which pounded the islands just two weeks later. In total, the 17 hurricanes of last season caused hundreds of billions of dollars of damage, and sleepy St Croix, the largest of the US Virgin Islands, took a direct hit.
I’m standing outside St Croix’s historic red fort five months later, which has withstood many an onslaught since it was built in 1760. In 27 degree sunshine and swaying to the rhythms of a steel band, it’s impossible to imagine the force of nature that terrorised this tranquil little town. I had left Britain’s winter behind to sail the waters of these paradise islands aboard Viking Sea, a 10-day cruise from Puerto Rico down the arc of the Antilles to Barbados and back, stopping at the islands of St Thomas, St Kitts, St Lucia, Guadeloupe, Antigua, St Maarten, and here at St Croix.
The British Virgin Islands were so badly destroyed that, for the time being, St Croix is their replacement on our itinerary. And though the seafront palm trees at Frederiksted look like flagpoles (their tops are ripped clean off), the jetty is intact and makes the ideal landing stage for the disaster relief effort, which has only just left.
Although holidaymakers often dread cruise ships disgorging thousands of people at once, Viking ships carry fewer than 1,000 passengers (930 is the maximum) and the port fees and monies paid to local tour companies are a boost for these tourism-dependent economies. “Taking in cruise ships has revitalised this town,” my St Croix guide tells me. For me, I love ships and being at sea and cruising is a way to cover a lot of ground in one trip, to experience how each of these tropical islands differs from the next, arriving each morning to a new view. And Viking displays all the simple elegance and design flair of its Nordic roots, relaxed and easy-going (no formal nights; the captain has lunch on deck with everyone else), with the utmost attention to detail in the décor, excursions, food and drink, service and entertainment.
St Croix turns out to be a delight. The streets in Frederiksted are lined with pastel-painted historic homes and are almost car-free. Here and there were reminders of the hurricane: twisted piles of metal laying in the streets and workmen still patching up roofs.
When many of the island’s mahogany trees came down in the hurricane, the wood was up for grabs for the local craftspeople, who had set up stalls for the cruise ship visitors.
I buy a mahogany bowl, a pair of copper, lava and turquoise earrings, and a bag of loose “sea glass” pebbles from a local artist who dives for discarded glass and uses it in her work. They look like jelly sweets.
These handmade souvenirs make a welcome change from the ubiquitous t-shirts and tax-free emeralds you find everywhere else. The beachcombers among us find treasure on the sands littered with pretty shells and driftwood.
There’s a guided tour at every port included – on Guadeloupe you can tour the idyllic Caribbean filming locations of BBC’s Death in Paradise – but if you want something more adventurous then you can buy supplementary trips, such as hiking, photography, horseriding or sailing by catamaran.
Another group went off to hike one of Guadeloupe’s lush volcanoes with our on-board volcanologist. His lectures on plate tectonics and the formation of the Antilles were filmed each evening so we could watch them at our leisure in our cabins. Not all cruises are geared up for “enrichment” talks, but they are as key to me as the cocktails.
My favourite tour was on Antigua, where our group were guided around the island to visit enterprising locals. We met a woman whose family settled on Antigua in the 17th century and whose father changed his sugar mill production to cattle farming in the ‘30s. We met a man who grows Queen pineapples for the island, and a couple who run a local pottery. I got to know a little more about what it takes to live here, and sensed their pride in contributing to island life.
On board, myself and the other solo passengers (there were only nine of us on board) sipped perfect cocktails, with dining to suit every mood, from buffet-style to a five-course tasting menu, and everything in between. We danced, we quizzed, we spa-ed, and I set up my desk and worked as the world went by.
In St Lucia the nine-piece Pantime Steel Orchestra came aboard to play for us around the pool. They would have raised the roof, if the James Bond-like retractable roof hadn’t been open already.
Although we explored a different island each day, the star of the show was Viking Sea itself. Norwegian-owned Viking has a reputation for river cruising, but has, since 2015, launched four identical ocean vessels, with a fifth launching in June. The plan is to have 16 in the fleet by 2027. The vast majority of our passengers, British and North American, were enjoying comfortable retirement, so the vibe was unhurried, yet all the live music kept it swinging along.
I was impressed by the interior design too. The ship has its own app, which guides you through its mostly Norwegian art collection, and includes woodcuts by Edvard Munch. There was so much great design on board that I was still discovering new things on the last night.
The resilience of the Caribbean islanders has quickly got the region back on its feet. According to caribbeantravelupdate.com, 70 per cent of destinations were unaffected and the worst hit islands, such as the BVI, Anguilla, Barbuda and Dominica are on the road to recovery.
The cruise line's future is looking similarly optimistic, as Viking recently completed its first round-the-world cruise. Now that really would be a bucket-list blast.