A travel writer reflects on her affection for the Caribbean and her mixed feelings traveling there during the COVID pandemic.
I call myself a “Carivangelist.” It’s my calling to spread the gospel of the Caribbean, reminding the rest of the world that the islands aren’t interchangeable. Dominica isn’t the Dominican Republic. Aruba, Anguilla, and Antigua are more than the sum total of their beaches. The 30-something islands that travelers visit have distinctive languages, cultures, and cuisines and are constantly evolving. After living in Jamaica for several years, I now work full time sharing the region’s stories through my writing and videos. I truly believe that everyone needs a little Caribbean in their life.
But when the pandemic started, I, like so many others, stopped traveling altogether. I wore a mask, sanitized my hands, and social distanced at home in Miami instead of jumping on a plane three times a month. When the islands began to reopen in June, I was vocal on my social media platforms about my opinion: that it was irresponsible for American travelers to vacation in the Caribbean—to inflict ourselves on the islands, where medical resources were limited. The U.S. was struggling to contain the outbreak; meanwhile, COVID-19 cases and deaths remained relatively low in the Caribbean, thanks to an early lockdown and efficient contact tracing.
Yet, Americans were visiting the few countries that would welcome them. I wondered if, instead of scolding people for doing what they were going to do anyway, I could be of greater service by demonstrating how to travel as safely as possible, with regard not just for personal health but also for the locals in the places we visit. I could show outsiders what it was like in the Caribbean now and offer an honest snapshot of how the island vacation has changed in the COVID era. But to do that, I needed to get back into the field.
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In November I started in Grenada, the “Spice Island” of 110,000 people, which at that time had recorded only 40 COVID cases and no deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Entry requirements are among the strictest in the Caribbean and include proof of a negative PCR test result predeparture and a mandatory four-day hotel quarantine (at your own cost) on arrival. They’re inconveniences, yes, but as we landed, all I felt was joy and relief to be back in the Caribbean. There’s nothing like seeing navy-blue depths and sapphire shallows yield to an island’s sandy scallops and rugged green hills as you make your final approach. (If you’ve ever wondered why Caribbean people clap when the plane lands, this is partly it.)
As we screeched to a stop and began taxiing to the gate, I felt a wave of relief. I’d felt so disconnected from my peripatetic life and its rhythm of takeoffs and landings almost every week; the virus was still raging in the U.S.; and we didn’t yet have a vaccine. Those eight months at home had felt like eight years, and I realized that a part of me had doubted I’d ever return.
At the hotel, my confinement went well. Every morning, sitting on my balcony with a cup of “cocoa tea,” I’d find myself transfixed by the sea. At dawn its glassy surface was striped with a rose gold band of light cast by the sun peeping above the horizon. At lunchtime, it was a field of turquoise punctuated with bobbing sailboats in the distance. By late afternoon, the expanse was transformed into undulating waves of molten silver. And every time I saw it, my eyes stung with tears because I so longed to return—literally—to the Caribbean.
When I could finally leave my room and touch down on the beach at Grand Anse, I felt like a tropical fish, once confined to a tank and now finally released into the ocean. After all these months at home, wading into the water was a baptism, a rebirth of hope and optimism. Waist-deep, I swayed my arms from side to side in the water, lifting my face to the sun. I took deep gulps of salt-scented air. It was only then that I recognized the tension I’d been holding these past few months, weighing me down like an oversized carry-on. It felt good to let it go.
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I felt the same release a few weeks later on an Out Island in the Bahamas, where my sunrise beach run brought equal comfort but also a twinge of sadness. The sand was deserted except for a single walker. My relief at its emptiness was immediately countered by shame. In the Before Times, on previous island assignments, I loved talking to other early risers, welcoming the opportunity to swap breathless hellos and to quiz them about running routes or under-the-radar restaurants. Now, reflexively, I give strangers a wide berth. I do it more for their safety than for mine, but I still mourn the lost opportunity for exchange. This is travel in the time of COVID.
I still feel a responsibility to share the Caribbean, to tell its stories and those of the people who welcome visitors here, year after year. The pandemic makes uncovering them more challenging. But considering that the Caribbean is one of the most tourism-dependent regions in the world and that millions of local livelihoods depend on it, I feel it’s a challenge worth exploring. I know how fortunate I am to be able to travel, and my mission to show others how to do the same, as responsibly as possible, feels worthwhile. Eventually, travel will rebound. It won’t be the same because we aren’t the same. None of us will emerge unscathed from this pandemic pause.
Now that so many countries require negative COVID tests and advance travel authorizations to visit, the spontaneous quickie Caribbean getaway is effectively a thing of the past. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps the typical “drop and flop” vacation will be replaced by a more thoughtfully considered, longer stay. One that’s more immersive, in which travelers will step beyond the sand to discover for themselves the people and places that make each island distinctive. When visitors have off-roaded through the lunar-like landscape of Arikok National Park in Aruba; been awed by sweeping harbor views from Shirley Heights in Antigua; and sampled lobster-sized crayfish on Anguilla for themselves, they won’t need me to explain the difference between the three islands. With any luck, that day will come sooner than I thought.
Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon is a Miami-based travel writer and on-screen host who goes to the beach and beyond to share the culture, lifestyle, and personalities of the Caribbean with the world. She’s also jet-setter-in-chief at JetSetSarah.com where her passions—travel, style, and fitness—meet. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Facebook @JetSetSarah.