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After the Storms in Traveland
December 1, 1995 -- Finding your place in the sun this winter may be a challenge after the rapid-fire series of natural disasters that battered the Caribbean, Mexico, and Florida this summer and fall.

But fear not: there are still many beaches and islands prepared for visitors. You simply must know the facts before choosing a destination.

These encouraging words are not meant to downplay the damage caused by 1995ís six hurricanes, an earthquake in Mexico and a volcanic eruption on the Caribbean island of Montserrat). Many lives were lost, and billions of dollarsí worth of destruction occurred. Yet dozens of islands and resorts were untouched and many of the damaged destinations will have completed repairs before the official start of the winter "high season," on December 15.

CARIBBEAN
Although Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn pounded hotels, resorts, beaches and golf courses throughout the region, at press time experts expected that about 90 percent of the Caribbeanís hotel rooms would be open by the end of November.

Most severely damaged by the hurricanes were the French-Dutch island of St. Martin/St. Maarten, Antigua and Barbuda, and the US Virgin islands of St. Croix and St. Thomas. Be extremely careful in booking a winter holiday on any of these islands. It wonít suffice to ask about guest rooms; inquire also about the condition of beaches, resort grounds and sports facilities. Also ask about possible damage to a hotelís restaurants, lobby and other public spaces.

Other Caribbean islands affected by the storms--Puerto Rico, Barbados, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts--sustained comparatively minor damage. And such popular tourist draws as the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, Aruba, Curacao, most of the French West Indies, and the Cayman Islands were untouched by either storm.

FLORIDA
Hurricane Opal ripped into the Florida Panhandle in October and now ranks as the third-costliest storm in US history. It may be years before such beach communities as Fort Walton Beach and Destin recover. And the beaches themselves may never be the same again. Cautious travelers will bypass the entire coastal area between Pensacola and Panama Beach. The good news: All other Sunshine State tourist communities are open for business as usual.

MEXICO
An earthquake rattled the Pacific Ccoast resort town of Manzanillo and caused a hotel to collapse and at least three separate storms grazed resorts in Los Cabos, Cozumel and Cancun. Consider passing up Manzanillo this year and ask questions before booking a holiday on the island of Cozumel. The other Mexican beach communities and all the inland tourist attractions are operating normally.

HOW TO HELP
      To assist all victims, contribute to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund (P.O. Box 37243, Washington, Dc 20013; 800-435-7669 for credit-card donations).

      Double your Hurricane Opal donations with a matching contribution from the Barnett Banks of Florida (BarnettóRed Cross/Hurricane Opal Fund, P.O. Box 40486, Jacksonville, FL 32203).

      To aid victims of Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn, give to the Caribbean Tourism Organization Relief Fund (20 E. 46th Street, Fourth Floor, New York, NY 10017).

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

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