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putting their guest houses in order // ST. MAARTEN

The morning after it was hit by Hurricane Luis, Simpson Bay looked like a boaters' battlefield, with luxury vessels shipwrecked all along the waters' edge. One newspaper compared the aftermath to Hiroshima.

Officials imposed a nighttime curfew and closed the airport as recovery work got underway. The government said the island would be closed to tourists until Dec. 15, but work has advanced more quickly than expected, and this bustling half-French, half-Dutch resort island, known for its duty-free shopping, fine dining and wide-ranging water sports, is bustling with repair activities. The curfew was lifted Oct. 2, and officials now plan to reopen the island to tourists Nov. 11.

The first cruise ship was due to arrive last Wednesday, when Celebrity Cruise Lines' 1,350-passenger Zenith reached Philipsburg harbor. Already 80 percent of shops and restaurants are open in Philipsburg, and most shore-excursion operators expect to be back in business by the end of this month.

Damage was most severe on the more heavily developed Dutch side of St. Maarten, although French St. Martin was not unscathed. Officials on both sides of the island hope to have about 60 percent of their 4,000 rooms operable by November.

St. Maarten has been one of the fastest-growing Caribbean destinations in recent years, and the economy depends almost exclusively on the 1-million visitors it receives yearly. Its population has mushroomed with the tourist boom, growing from only 1,484 people in 1950 to about 60,000 today. The island is unrecognizable from just a few years ago, with new hotels, resorts and villas lining the shores.

The growth of St. Maarten may have been in part its undoing. When Hurricane Luis struck, Simpson Bay lagoon, the largest inland body of water in the Caribbean, was tightly packed with yachts and pleasure craft seeking shelter from the storm.

Of an estimated 1,700 vessels, 1,500 received damage _ 750 of them destroyed.

"It was just the most incredible carnage," said Colin Percy, who runs the St. Maarten 12-meter Regatta, a yacht-racing excursion for tourists that is one of the most popular attractions. "This is probably the worst yachting disaster ever in terms of the number of boats lost."

Percy's prize racer, Stars and Stripes, the Dennis Connor yacht that recaptured the Americas Cup for the United States in 1987, was swamped by 8-foot waves during the storm, but Percy was able to refloat it and had it back racing tourists Oct. 12.

Many hotel owners tell a similar story. At the 600-room Maho resort complex, which includes 75 shops and nine restaurants, much of the damage has already been repaired. Marketing manager Bernard Hunt says 400 rooms, the casino, five restaurants and 60 shops are to open Nov. 11.

"We need to open. We have to let the outside world know that we have not been destroyed," Hunt said. "We have to do what it takes. We have nothing else on this island except tourism."

Other hotels were less fortunate. The Port de Plaisance and the Mullet Bay, both five-star beach resorts, say they may not reopen until next year in order to conduct major refurbishments. Other badly hit hotels such as the Oyster Bay and the Dawn Beach, with a reputation for good snorkeling in offshore reefs, hope to reopen partially in November.

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