In the months since Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys, cruise passengers have been making their way back to Key West. The port officially opened on September 24 with the arrival of Royal Caribbean's Empress of the Seas followed by Carnival Victory on September 26, while Celebrity Reflection returned on November 4. Since then, Key West has resumed its regular schedule, including calls from Holland America, Disney and Crystal Cruises, among others.
So how is the port faring? On a recent cruise, we spent the day checking out the island, expecting to see more evidence of Hurricane Irma -- collapsed roofs or toppled-over trees --but were surprised that the Old Town wasn't any different than what we remembered. The pastel-hued houses were intact, shop and restaurants open, and even the roosters and chickens were roaming around as if nothing had happened. Fellow passengers we talked to had the same impression, declaring that "It was fine" and that "It didn't look as if a storm had hit" (though there were two obvious remnants of Irma: the hundred or so derelict boats near the port and the loss of author Shel Silverstein's home, which was crushed by a banyan tree).
Previously canceled shore excursions are now fully operational. The Hemingway House reopened after a clean-up of some downed trees (the house and the famous six-toed cats escaped unscathed). Meanwhile, the Butterfly and Nature Conservatory reopened on October 3 after a makeover of the facilities. Other changes: passengers who visited the Shipwreck Museum independently reported getting a discount on admission tickets because of the closure of the lookout tower, which was damaged by the storm.
But despite the return of cruise ships, locals are finding that business is slower than usual for this time of year. When Arthur Bakala, owner of the Funky Chicken Store on Duval Street, reopened his shop, he saw no customers for the first couple of weeks. "People get the wrong idea from the media that Key West was completely destroyed. But actually we were very lucky. It was other parts of the Keys that got the worst of it."
Many think this impression has discouraged visitors. In reality, Key West suffered no infrastructure damage; electricity, running water, and internet and phone services have been restored; debris, for the most part, has been cleared thanks to the efforts of recovery workers, and bolstered by the resilient spirit of residents. However, the Lower Keys and parts of Marathon and Islamorada were severely impacted by Hurricane Irma.
In the meantime, locals have been more than eager to welcome visitors back. "The return to normalcy is people getting back to their jobs," according to Carol Shaughnessy, who represents Key West tourism, and cruise passengers have played a crucial role in this step of the recovery process.
We're happy to report that at this time, all regularly scheduled calls and shore excursions have resumed at Key West.
--By Lisa Cheng, Cruise Critic contributor