Trip Report: June 2003 by Island Visitor

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Senior Insider
Trip Report: June 2003
by Island Visitor

DISCLAIMER AND WARNING: What follows is not so much a Trip Report as a novel. That is, much of this will not represent new material for those who are familiar with SBH. Instead, I am giving my impressions of the island and also shamelessly indulging myself by exercising an atrophied literary urge at the same time. To this end, what follows is the story of a Newby falling in love with SBH for the first time. Please, please, please understand that this novel is EXTREMELY long and probably can’t be read in one sitting. Indeed, it may take several sittings to wade through it all – assuming that anyone even wants to do so. For those of you who want the Cliff Note's version (probably the majority of you), I have put a short summary and list of impressions at the very end of the post and perhaps just skipping to that area (thereby getting an idea of the daunting length of this post) would not be a bad idea for everyone. For the very small minority of you who want a summer read and have both the time and patience to tackle this massive tome, may I suggest the following: Grab a tasty fresh beer (Caribe preferably), scatter a little sand under your bare feet at your computer and get into whatever state of (un)dress you prefer on Saint Barth and let's see if I can take you there…

Chapter One: Getting There

I came to my senses with a start. Not quite asleep, I had drifted into that state of almost consciousness where sounds and experiences are real yet seem far away. I could tell that the plane was beginning to descend as the puffy, white clouds, like small cotton balls, rose to meet us. The cabin of the plane was filled with all the busy activity that occurs when a long trip is starting to come to an end. The attendants were collecting trays from earlier, passengers were making that last trip to the lavatory and the sound of the engines and wind rushing past had changed. We were getting close.

I had not seen the water at all up to this point, having taken off hundreds of miles inland before climbing several miles above the earth's surface. But now I could see the brilliant deep blue Caribbean as it began to peak through the clouds. At first I thought I was imagining the waves. Surely we weren’t that close yet. But in a few moments I realized that I was indeed seeing the surface, with its whitecaps and swells and even the occasional boat and then I knew we were truly beginning to approach St Martin.

The couple seated beside me was friendly and we had talked a good bit along the way. They were going to another island upon landing in St Martin and were very much looking forward to their trip. Experienced Caribbean travelers, they were impressed with my choice of St Barths and were certain I would have a good time. As the three of us peered out the window, we could begin making out the shapes of islands dotting the brilliant blue sea below us. What were their names, I wondered. Straining to remember the maps I had studied, I tried to navigate our course as we continued to descend. I could see that we were breaking through the clouds. Just then the captain burst onto the overhead speaker and notified us that we were beginning our descent into the St Martin area. The local temperature was 85 degrees with a slight breeze and we should be on the ground in about 20 minutes.

Twenty minutes! My heart leapt. We had been delayed in our departure for exactly one hour and then had been in the air for almost four hours. Yet, in twenty minutes I would again get to see the love of my life. My wife and I had never flown separately before but with small children at home we had decided to buy a little extra insurance by taking different flights. Because these flights originated from different cities, she had left home the day before and spent the night with her sister. I was not overly happy about spending the previous night apart but I had to admit that her thought of flying away to an exotic location to meet my lover did have a sexy appeal to it. How romantic. How French! And in a few moments, I would again be seeing my lover. Tres bien!

We were descending rapidly by this time. After a lazy turn to the right, the plane settled back into a level but descending course and I could again spy the ocean from my left window seat. Like a basket-full of diamonds scattered upon a thick, deep blue velvet rug, the break of the waves shimmered in the sunlight and my heart sang. I could see the water easily and began to see islands in great detail. Was that St Barthelemy just out my window? It seemed too flat. And then we banked slightly to the right for a few moments and again leveled out. I could now see another island more toward the front of us. This one was larger. And mountainous. And verdant with its green trees and plants rolling up the hillsides, serving as a backdrop for the many and many-colored villas decorating the landscape. By its size and development, and taking into account that we were heading straight for it, I surmised that this island was St Martin. I then realized, given our approach from the north, that the flat island I was seeing out of my window was Anguilla and that St Barths, like a young teasing lover, was tantalizingly out of view to the south. I would have to wait to see St Barths. I sighed.

We began the slight zig and zag that a pilot does as he pulls the massive airliner into perfect alignment with the glide path. The water had changed from a deep luxurious blue to a mixture of blue and green and aquamarine, like precious gems, radiant in the brilliant Caribbean sun. I could see the sand through the crystal clear water. And I could see reefs and shoals and shallows among the areas of deeper water. I could also see the beaches approaching. And the buildings and the hotels and the people. The seat backs and trays were locked in their fully upright positions and I strained to see out my window. We were on our final approach. Closer and closer the water came. “Is the plane going to land on water” asked one of my now nervous cabin-mates. I assured her that we would approach over water, then beach, then road, then runway as I had seen the pictures of this landing many times. And with that narration, the events unfolded exactly as I described and we came to that last almost weightless moment just before the wheels touch down. With a screech and small bump, the pilot placed the rear wheels on the runway. Soon the front wheels followed and the roar of the engines as we decelerated to a stop. As we taxied toward our parking area, the cabin attendant welcomed us to St Martin. We were in the Caribbean.

We left the modern jetliner and descended a set of old-fashioned stairs to the concrete below in a balmy bright panorama, a veritable feast for the senses. Accustomed to the mobile “arm-gates” of modern airports that first thrust me from one big sterile room into a jet and then suck my out of the jet at the other location, I was quite delighted to actually descend a set of stairs al fresco, bathed in the warm Caribbean day. This was the way important arrivals at new locations used to be done, with all the pomp and anticipation of finally planting one's feet on hallowed grounds. I thought of the Beatles arriving in New York and descending the stairs of their airliner. I thought of Presidents strolling down from Air Force One. I thought of glamorous Hollywood starlettes, gliding down the ramp as they blew kisses to the adoring crowds below. And I soaked in all the sights and sounds, the warm Caribbean sunshine, the balmy breeze, the high pitched whine and roar of jet engines and the happy chatter of passengers eagerly moving toward the buses that would take us to the terminal. There is always something very sensual about arriving at an exotic new destination that invigorates the senses and makes one feel more alive. And my first views of St Martin included all of the sights and sounds one never sees walking through the giant arm-gates of modern airports. And I hoped St Martin would never build these so-called modern “arm-gates” - such sins against this moment for this moment of arrival was too special.

I boarded the bus as it filled with other travelers, excited about finally having made it this far. We had left the United States four hours earlier and were now in a foreign country. And in a few short minutes, I would be going even further, into a world of mysterious and magical pleasures I had only read and dreamed about. The bus began to roll and took us a very small distance to the terminal. Holding onto the quaint charm of a bygone era, this unprepossessing building did not have the technological intimidation we Americans have come to demand in our “time is money” lives. A throwback to a time when time wasn’t money but was instead something to be savored and enjoyed, this building looked like the sort of place that Bogart would give Bacall one last kiss goodbye. Perhaps other star-crossed lovers would have a last moment and a last embrace. This was such a place for that type of thing.

Yet my lover was inside. And she was waiting for me.

Chapter Two: The Plane! The Plane!

Her smile sent shivers through my spine. Having breezed through the Transit gate, I found myself in the holding area for Winair. Upon seeing me, my wife had started across the room, glorious and radiant and beaming on having made it this far and back into my arms. The kiss was short but passion-filled and I knew this week would be everything I had hoped for and more. I then greeted our travel companions, close friends of ours who had taken their kids to her mother's and had flown down on yet another plane. Three cities, three planes, four smiling people awaiting Winair to take us those last few miles to another world.

Offering dozens of flights a day to the small islands of the eastern Caribbean with several stops each day on each island, Winair more resembles a taxi service than an airline. Routes can change in-flight and departure times serve as nothing more than rough guides that one tries to beat. And if one is fortunate enough to beat one's departure time by enough minutes, as I was both going and coming, one often gets put on a flight ahead of the scheduled time and gets bumped forward to start even earlier. This happened to us. Scampering over to the holding area, we had just enough time to sit and say hello before we were shuttled onto the tarmac to walk over to our plane. Having flown many a puddle-hopper in my day, I saw this as fun – a great adventure. My wife gave me a nervous glance as we proceeded to this soon to be airborne taxicab. I led my wife quickly through the door and we made our way to the front seats. When the plane would make its steep descent over La Tormente, we would be there to see it.

In a few moments we were airborne and climbing steeply. We made it to our cruising altitude of 1500 feet in a matter of seconds. From this altitude I could see it all. Islands, sea, boats, everything. The multicolored water of the shallows of St Martin gave way to the deep and mysterious blue of the ocean. What secrets did it hold, I wondered. As I pondered the romance, the intrigue and the fascination of this area, I could see a smaller island beginning to come into view. At last, at long last, I was finally seeing St Barths. My heart skipped a beat. Little did I know, and how could I, that my heart would skip many beats over the next several days. But the anticipation was almost reality. And the moment was about to arrive.

“As we make our final approach, we will encounter turbulence. This is normal” came the reassuring voice of our pilot. My wife gave me another nervous glance but I was too intent on the moment, the destination and our approach to feel anything but anticipation. To the right we could see Gustavia coming into view with its beautiful port and hillside and the industrial port almost directly below us, just as I had pictured it every day for the past year. And we were descending. And the hill in front of us was getting closer and closer. And my wife's grip upon my arm began to strengthen. And then the promised turbulence hit. And we bounced around from side to side. I marveled at the thought that we were coming in at over 100 miles an hour, planning to clear a hill by mere meters before hitting a tiny runway in a valley and here we were bouncing around as though we were in some bumpy ride at the fair. Oh well, I thought, nothing to do now but look out the front of the plane and enjoy the ride – however it ends. With the bouncing and the angle of our approach toward the hill in front, it looked to be a split decision as to whether or not we would clear the hill. Don’t worry, be happy.

But clear the hill we did. And what a view! As we glided down the hillside, seemingly skimming the tops of cars, I motioned to my wife to look out of the front window and see St Jean with me for the first time. And her grip gave way to a gasp of joy and surprise. Seconds later we were on the ground rolling to a stop. Exhilarated at the thought, however unrealistic, that we had cheated Death out of that day's tally, we could now begin to really focus on what we came for.

We stepped out of the plane and onto the warm, solid concrete a few feet from the terminal. Where I had thought that St Martin's terminal was a place that lovers would have that one last embrace before sailing apart forever, St Barth's terminal was just the opposite. Tiny and intimate, it looked every bit the type of place the lovers would rendezvous for that secret tryst they had so long and passionately planned. This was not the type of place where lovers said “goodbye”. No. This was the type of place where they said things such as “Je t’aime” or “Glad to see you at long last” or “Hello my love”. This was not the place where lovers came to go their separate ways, but to be together.

Surrounded by lush green hills dotted with villas and framed on either end by the hill we had just traversed and the beautiful shimmering water of St Jean, the airport itself was the picture of romance. Could the island itself be any more charming? I would soon find out.

Chapter Three: Welcome To St Barths

It was then time to clear customs, this after all being a foreign country. A few paces through the balmy breezy day led us through a small door into a small room, bustling with polite excitement. Behind a window were three uniformed men, smiling and moving about in an official, if uncoordinated manner. One asked for my passport while another quipped something in French that made his compatriots smile and chuckle. My passport was stamped without hesitation and I moved through security, such as it was, almost without stopping. Could this place be so safe and so secure that even security was a breeze?

As we made it to baggage claim, our bags were already beginning to arrive. In just a few moments we were on the deck above the street getting our first look of the area beyond the airport. There was Match. We would go there this week. And there were shops to the left. All in all, it seemed as though they had everything we would need. But where was the car to meet us? Looking over my shoulder, I saw the courtesy phone and I dialed Isle de France who assured me that the car would be there momentarily.

We savored the sights, sounds and smells of this strange and wondrous new place for a few moments before our ride pulled up. A smart looking minivan with the name of the hotel on the side, this would be one of the larger vehicles we would see all week. Out popped Pierro, a bundle of smiles, “bonjours” and energy. Looking like a slightly compressed version of Gerard Depardieu, except more congenially handsome, he greeted us with a friendly manner as though we were long-time friends who had returned home again. All the bags were hoisted into the back and away we sped, literally. Talking a kilometer a minute, and driving what seemed twice that speed, Pierro whizzed us up the hill we had just so narrowly cleared a few moments earlier. At the top, we were buzzed by the next planeload of fortunates coming to join us in this paradise. Without stopping, we turned to the right and continued to climb, St Jean laid out below us. Around the mountain we sped, that nervous grip of my wife's once again clutching my arm, though tighter and more frantic than in the plane-ride. Having survived the landing, she could envision us going off the side of the many hills we zipped around with Pierro driving and talking and motioning all at the same time. For my part, I doubted we would meet such an abrupt end to what I anticipated would be a great week, but, if we were to go in such a quick and tragic fashion, I could certainly not imagine a better place to do so. Nor a more charming host than Pierro to take us there.

Yet Pierro was a pro at this. Not just the driving. But also the talking and touring. And the smiling. Having lived on the island for 24 years, he knew pretty much every nook and cranny. To the right was Anse de Cayes. And then came the intersection that one could take to either Columbier or Flamands. We took the right and began to descend, rapidly with Pierro at the wheel. More lush and tropical than I had imagined, Flamands struck me as a veritable garden as we descended into its tropical spender. Immediately I recognized Le Taiwana, the multicolored sprawling hotel I had seen in pictures. And in front of us, partially hidden among the palms, was Isle de France.

One last turn and we were there, under a canopy of trees and surrounded by fragrant flowers of multiple colors. More of a large colonial type house than a hotel, the main building of Isle de France was the epitome of understated elegance. The front desk was a small room slightly to the right of the stairs on the beautiful porch in which two smiling young French women welcomed us and quickly dispensed with the official business. In moments, were in our room, with Pierro and bags in tow. We would see Pierro many times that week, coming and going, bringing happy arrivals to the hotel and taking wistful but satisfied people back toward the airport again and the reality of the real world. And each time, Pierro was an ebullient whirlwind of smiles and hellos, always quick with easy conversation and assistance. Pierro was, in short, the perfect host. So helpful, so amiable, so French. We loved Pierro.

Our room, a junior beach suite, was nothing short of gorgeous. Like the public areas of this charming building, it had a marble floor throughout, including the bathroom. Decorated in whites with splashes of subtle color for accent, the room was spacious and tastefully appointed with antiques and comfy chairs. A bar and minifridge were there. So was an entertainment center. The bathroom was enormous, with a large whirlpool tub and a shower with no door or curtain – a very nice touch. Two sinks were present with plenty of counter-space. The obligatory bidet stood toward the corner, reminding us that, indeed, we were in France. Two fluffy terry cloth robes were laid out with fresh-cut flowers everywhere. Moulton Brown soaps and other oils and potions were there for the using.

Almost immediately the phone rang. It was our travelling companions, staying in a similar room. “Have you tried out the CD yet?” I confessed that I, having just entered the room, had not made it that far but that I would do so. With that, I flicked on the music system and the CD began to play. First came the soothing sound of ocean waves, then purred a languid, ethereal sort of song that seemed more mood that music. Oh dear. Better turn that thing off if we plan on ever making it out of the room! While discretion does not permit me to elaborate, I can say that we did indeed play that CD on several occasions during the week. I don’t know the name of it, but I want it!

So I then opened the curtains to the front of the room and stepped back in awe. There, arrayed before me was our glass table with two cozy chairs and a small loveseat under the overhead cover. Beyond this were two very nice and padded chaise lounges with our personal umbrella. And beyond this was the attractive pool and deck with chairs all around, just in front of the beach. Carrying on the theme of white and other light hues accented with blue, the entire hotel seemed to have been placed on a canvas with the experienced eye and deft hand of a master artist. As I walked out, I could see the restaurant to the right, part covered, part open, all magic. A small and attractive bar was there and there were plenty of beach towels for the taking. In a few steps we were on the beach.

And what a beach! The sand, slightly coarser than found in the US, did not pack as densely as finer sand usually does and therefore was soft to the point of engulfing our feet to the ankles. Almost difficult to walk in at first, the sand literally massaged our feet with each step and made walking, even if slightly awkward at times, a real treat for the senses. Looking slightly off-white from a distance, the sand upon closer inspection was a mixture of colors including white, tan and even black with rare flecks of pink thrown in. I had read that the spa at Isle de France uses this sand as part of their massage rituals and I delighted in the feel of its soft coarseness as it ran through my fingers. We sat on beautiful beach chairs with umbrellas, upon a hill of sand probably two meters above the crashing waves in front of us. The water was clear and a light green except where the waves churned it sandy with each crash. We could easily see the bottom and even fish from our enviable perch on this tranquil beach. Just then, a woman who had been lazily swimming in the ocean in front of us left the water for the edge of the beach a few meters away. Sitting below the sand hill at the water's edge where the crashing waves ran a short way up the slope, she picked up handfuls of sand and slowly rubbed these across her arms and shoulders and chest and legs. Like some form of aquatic Venus, she gently bathed her body in this most decadent sensation. And feeling this sand slip through my fingers, I could then understand why the spa, and this woman, so used this perfect texture for the skin. I thought to myself that I would like it here.

Chapter Four: All This And Dinner Too?

As part of our package, we had cocktails every evening and a full dinner at Le Case de Isle on the night of arrival. As much as it pained me to leave the beach, the time came to get ready for the evening. In nice khaki shorts and an open collared shirt and sandals I strolled to the bar and ordered two Hibiscus drinks. Part pina colada, part banana, part mango, this was the type of drink that let me know in no uncertain terms that I was definitely in the tropics. My wife and our traveling companions joined me as the shadows began to grow long and the last rays of sunlight beamed with an almost iridescent glow upon the hills and Taiwana to our right. The breeze was cool and soothing and the melodic rhythmic sound of the crashing waves was hypnotic. As the lights began to come up on Flamands we realized just how magical this place truly is.

We were escorted to a table “inside” of Le Case de Isle by a beautiful young hostess, gliding in her light and colorful gown. With no wall at all toward the pool deck, with which the restaurant blends, Le Case de Isle has large, sliding glass windows facing the sea that can be closed when necessary (rarely) but are usually at least partially open allowing the gentle breezes to bathe our bodies. As though the designers had anticipated sensory overload for weary travelers such as us, the restaurant, like the entire hotel, was a study in understated elegance. Crisp, clean and beautifully maintained in every detail, it kept with the ambiance of a gentile respite in the lap of luxury where one need not fuss with formalities. Starched white linens complemented the light décor with flowers and a few pictures adding just the right splash of color. Perfectly balanced, the hotel and its restaurant exude just the right mix of elegance and casual freedom, where life is grand in an easy and carefree way.

The waiters, the hostesses and the bartenders, like everyone with whom we came in contact at Isle de France, were young and had that “fresh-scrubbed” look of youthful enthusiasm. Working only a year or so on St Barths, none of them seemed to have the “burnout” that comes from living and sleeping and working in Paradise year after year. Their smiles were infectious and their enthusiasm seemed genuine. They demurred ever so slightly when I bravely attempted my elementary French and would smilingly answer me back in easy French terms so that I could pretend to be minimally fluent. After a few moments of lighthearted banter in basic conversational French, they would compliment me in English on how well I spoke French so that my party would be impressed. Excellent hosts, these young French people!

We dined in fine fashion that night with sumptuous salads, delicious fish, seafood fritters, fine wine, exquisite desserts and several surprises thrown in by the chef. After dinner came the homemade vanilla rhum, warm and soft as it finished the meal. We would eat and drink like royalty the rest of the week including several of the finest restaurants on the island, each of which we would enjoy and each of which held its own special charms. Even so, we would have no better food that week than the dinner and two lunches we had at Le Case de Isle. Continuing the hotel's motif of understated elegance, the food was attractively presented, deftly and lightly seasoned and cooked to perfection. And the combinations and thought in preparing the meals were impressive. This was perhaps the best example of contemporary French-inspired cuisine we would have and is a can’t miss for any visitor.

After dinner, a quiet and very romantic stroll along the beach put us in that “pinch me to see if I am dreaming” state that only overwhelming magic can produce. This place could not be real, I thought. Except there I was. If this was a dream, please unplug the alarm clock.

After a quick shower, we sank into one of the nicest beds I have ever known. Soft and firm with elegant white sheets and fluffy down pillows, the bed was an opulent centerpiece of a room and hotel dedicated to simple opulence. We turned on the CD and the magic continued.

Chapter Five: If This Is Sunday, This Must Be Saline.

Breakfast was delivered to our front porch promptly as we had ordered the night before. The youthfully handsome waiter set our table in starched white linens and then laid out cereals, croissants, toast, jellies, coffee and fruits. With a gentle breeze beginning to blow and the morning dew still fresh in the air, we sat down to this sumptuous banquet still only half-believing we were actually there. Our only companions were the occasional bird and a buzzing bee or two. With no cars or horns or telephones, we could hear the breeze sway through the sea grapes and the ever-present crashing of the waves upon the shore. Today was Sunday and we were going to Saline.

After a leisurely breakfast, I walked to the edge of the rail above the pool to check the wind. Knowing that we faced northwest, with Saint Martin in full view, and that Saline faced south, the wind conditions would likely be very different on the two beaches. There was a breeze blowing, not too stiff, but it was from east to west. Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Just then, the morning's first plane came over the hill to the right. Already gaining altitude, it had taken off over the bay at Saint Jean and was headed to St Martin. Someone's time in Paradise was over. I shuttered a moment and then struggled to put the thought of leaving in six days out of my mind. My wife slipped her arm around my waist and I came back to the moment.

Our beach bag was ready and our travel companions were also eager to leave. We hopped into the car and headed out. At the end of the driveway to the hotel, we turned left and coaxed and cajoled the car up the steep hill, hoping that Pierro would not be speeding down the other way. Though there were four of us in the vehicle, the car seemed to labor more than I would have expected, particularly with only 3000 kilometers on the odometer. Did French cars drive with less power perhaps? But this vehicle wasn’t French. Oh well, onward and upward, even if at a slow pace. Perhaps for Newbies like us, such a slow pace was safer. It was certainly more enjoyable. Why rush through Paradise?

We rounded the various hills and came to the intersection. To the right was Columbier. To the left were Gustavia, St Jean, Saline, Gouverneur and all the other places we were so eager to see. As we drove up even more hills Anse de Cayes unfolded in our windshield. Having been too stunned to take it all in the afternoon before, we could now actually realize how breathtakingly beautiful the island was. I had read that the island was sparse and not particularly attractive and wondered who could have written such a thing. A blend of man-made and God-made, the island was dotted with small and colorful villas stacked upon hills covered with various exotic plants. Certainly the eastern half of the island had a more rugged coast as we would find out (beautiful in its own right) but the western half was a tropical paradise.

Then came the Gustavia/St Jean intersection and a buzzing plane, seemingly intent upon landing in our car. We headed left and down the hill as though we too were going to land on the runway, just after the plane that had fortuitously avoided our roof. After passing the airport, we got our first view of “the strip” of downtown St Jean where all the action is. Perhaps we were early. Or perhaps we brought memories of busier and noisier American beach bustle with us, but this morning's traffic seemed leisurely and pleasured. No honking horns or speeding or gesticulations to move over. Even those daredevils on motor scooters wanting to pass did so in an inimicably French way, with a cool detached insouciance that neither ignored us nor acknowledged us. As in many things French, they would just DO and not make a fuss over it. I liked these people, I decided.

And then we made it most of the way through St Jean and came to crossroads. Frantically reading the signs, we headed straight on a side road instead of bearing left on the main road. And up the hills we went. First steep, then steeper. And finally we came to the top and could see in the distance the object of our quest. The rumors of this being a small island were true. It would take us no time to get anywhere. At this stage we could just throw away the map and follow the road. It led to only one place, Saline.

Down and down we drove, past hairpin turns, always being overtaken by young French people, men and women, hardly more than boys and girls, who already knew the magic of our objective and wanted to get there first. We came upon the salt flats. Like the Regular I pretended to be, I told everyone how this area had been processed for salt until the seventies when it became no longer economical to do so. And then we reached the parking lot. There were perhaps a dozen cars and of course a few motor bikes. Not too big a crowd, I thought.

At the end of the parking lot was a dirt road, surrounded on either side by tall plants forming almost a canopy as though framing the path for us. I told everyone of The Dune and the view I had seen hundreds of times in pictures and had showed to my wife a dozen times. So we began to walk and pretty soon reached the end of the dirt road. But where was The Dune? All I could see was a rather long and unimproved hill of rocks and packed sand. My wife wondered what had happened. Maybe we had taken an alternate entrance? Oh well, others appeared to have traversed this site and we even met people coming the other way. I guess all roads lead to Saline and so we resolved to take this one, even if it was the wrong one.

Up and up we climbed, expecting to crest the rocks and see the beach. But what we saw instead was breathtaking. For at the top of the hill, we saw IT. Just as I had seen in the pictures. Just as I had shown to my wife those many times. We saw IT. The Dune. More beautiful then even the pictures had made it out to be, I blurted to our party that this was the world famous entrance to Saline. World famous, they chuckled. But it was world famous. Maybe not everyone knows where St Barths is. But those who do, and they come from all over the world, know and treasure this view. My friends agreed. This was indeed world famous, among the privileged few who know about it.

We glided down The Dune, a perfect entryway as though entering some grand place and were soon on Saline. Long, wide, and composed of soft sand, perhaps a bit firmer than at Flamands, but softer than most any other beach I had ever walked, Saline is visually stunning. With stark hills on either end surrounding this long slightly curved wide strip of sand and turquoise water crashing upon the shore, Saline was everything I had pictured. And more.

We glanced both ways to see if there were empty spots to enjoy. The left seemed to have drawn more people, stretching all the way to the rocks and beyond to the other small beach. The right was sparsely populated and we headed there. Already the day was beginning to get warm as we set up our towels. Having assured my companions, who had been to Orient Beach on St Martin before, that this beach was nothing like St Martin, I was pleasantly relieved to see that even here, especially here, the French penchant for casual unobtrusive behavior was in evidence. Each group of people who would arrive quietly and without fuss or fanfare each would stake out a small area of sand for themselves, politely distant from other couples, as though everyone was enjoying their own private beach together. We would find this charming and mannered nonchalance to be a refreshing break from the busy activity and crowds at many American beaches and came to realize that if the French prize anything, it is good manners and a healthy respect for another person's privacy and space. More than mere tolerance, a politically correct but nonetheless ugly word connoting disapproval but a lip-biting turning of one's head, this enlightened French attitude of casual indifference unmistakably told us that we were in the proper place.

The sun continued to shine and before long we were hot. And to our surprise, we were coated with sand, like donuts frosted in a display window. A steady and sometimes gusty breeze kept bathing us in fine grains of sand. Not enough to be uncomfortable, but enough to be unusual. So we headed to the water. The waves were large but mostly swells once the break line was passed which we did without difficulty. At first, the water seemed almost cool but when I completely submersed it became a very comfortable sensation upon my body. And it was more clear than the vanilla rhum I would drink every evening. I could stay here all day, I thought.

My wife joined me and we rose and fell rhythmically with each swell as the waves made their way toward shore. Scanning the beach I realized just how isolated this place was. No buildings or concessions or amusement parks or hawkers or crowds. No running or yelling or noise or commotion. Just couples quietly going about their business of doing nothing but enjoying the sun and the day. No wonder everyone loves this place so much, I thought.

My wife had drifted away a short distance. A good but sometimes uncomfortable swimmer, she had slowly made her way toward more shallow water. I realized too late that she had settled in the break zone where the waves changed from long and gentle swells to roaring crashes upon the sand. As though watching a scene from a surreal movie, I did not immediately comprehend the significance of her first tumbling, then flipping, the bouncing and then splatting upon the sand until she came up sputtering and gasping. Coming to my senses, I got to her in a moment and walked with her to shore. Saline was not, she concluded, a very good place to swim. Only later would we find out that a tropical storm was passing the island at that very moment and on a second trip we would discover the magical stillness of the water and the wonderful swimming of Saline. But for that day and that time, swimming at Saline was done. We packed and headed back, having been there long enough to feel those first tingles of being in the sun a few minutes too long, I completely satisfied with the day.

Chapter Six: Party.

“Exactly how do you know these people whose home we are going to visit” came the inquiry from my friends. I replied that I did not know the people at all. I had never met them. They wondered aloud how we had come to receive such an invitation, having been on the island a scant twenty-four hours. “Over the internet” I replied, nonchalantly taking another frosty cool sip of my dacquiri. The day was beginning to cool as the shadows started to lengthen. Having spent the morning tumbling along Saline before pursuing a more sedate afternoon under a beach umbrella at Flamands, my wife assured our travel companions that attending a party I had been invited to over the internet would be okay, given that the internet is where I first discovered St Barths anyway.

We hopped into the car and headed out. After passing through St Jean we continued toward Lorient. On the left I pointed out Kfai Massai and told everyone we planned on dining there tomorrow. How cute, came the almost simultaneous reply of everyone. I was pleased.

The question then came as to whether or not I actually knew where I was going. I had hoped that no one would put me to such details as, frankly, I did not know where we going. Having communicated with our hosts by email, I had managed to get all the particulars for the party save one, the address. Oh well, for this week, we were French. And I, being part French Hugenot and part Italian, thought to myself that I was in a car with a good friend, two beautiful women and two bottles of wine. How could the evening go badly?

We explored the hills above Lorient before coming to Le Ti. Now here was a familiar place. Realizing that it was too early for people to be dancing on tables yet, perhaps I could get some directions. I strolled in while my now nervous companions waited in the car, as though they may have to take off on some hair-raising high speed chase from banditos intent on doing mischief. Relax mes amis, we are in France. And we have wine. We’re okay.

The restaurant was not yet open and instead I found the staff milling about in the kitchen. I saluted them in French and then tried to ask for directions in English. No one seemed to comprehend. No matter. Here I was in a foreign country trying to find a house without directions and speaking to people who could not understand me. But I was part French. And so I mustered up some elementary French and was able to explain my predicament. Ah yes. They understood. And they knew the house and would show me directions. With a pleasant merci and glad waves all around, we were on the road again.

Yes, that was the turn. Go around that corner. And this area fit the description. The driveway was long and dark. Mustering up my budding Frenchness, I put on my best bonjour and led my group down.

At the bottom of the drive we were greeted by our host who assured us that we had found the right place. The Frenchman inside me smiled. We entered the villa and were struck by the beauty of the place. Well planned and stunning in its tasteful decor, the villa was alive with revelers who had the good sense to know where they were going that night when they set out. So we were late, but not by too much.

Our host and hostess greeted us warmly and introduced us to various other people around the bar. A sumptuous spread was laid out on the table and I would later taste of it many times. But for now there were people to meet and conversations to be had.

We met many interesting people that night and found that we were about the only Newbies at the party. Most either lived on St Barths at least part of the year or had been coming back for short respites year after year. And it was an eclectic group. But it was a group that seemed to share one unmistakable trait, a love for St Barths.

Through the course of the evening, our gracious hosts and their guests, many of whom, like ourselves, had been strangers to the hosts before that night, would tell us all the ins and outs of the island that only locals can ever really know. Why one beach was preferred over another. Or which restaurants really were must do places to dine. And like sponges, we absorbed it all, the ambiance, the beauty, the friendship and the warm hospitality of our most gracious hosts. It was a wonderful way to be introduced to the island, hereafter OUR island, on this our first full day.

As the evening wore on, we had to say our goodbyes and head back across the island. It had been a wonderful way to cap a wonderful day and now we could truly see why the magic of this place and its people, both residents and visitors, so captured men's souls. Unlike visitors to other lands, those who come to St Barths “Get it”. That is, they understand the customs and the courtesies and the culture and they want to be part of it all. So did we.

Chapter Seven: Gouverneur Or Bust, Alas.

The next day we set off toward Gouverneur. Having seen Saline and Flamands, we felt that Gouverneur would have to be next on the list. Down the hill we descended through the industrial port and around the corner until Gustavia lay before us in splendid serenity. This was Monday and a holiday and the shops would not be open today. There were people beginning to amble about in that same unhurried stroll that we would see around the island. There was Le Repair. Oh, and over to the right, that is Le Select. Everyone knew the Cheeseburger In Paradise story because I had told it to them many times. And finally we were there to see it. My wife looked at me and smiled as I sat there beaming, proud to have finally found it.

We turned right and drove past the Anglican church. I knew we needed to go left up the hill, but how? After a couple of unproductive circles, we saw the sign to Carl Gustaf. Yes. Go that way. And so we did. We passed Gustaf and continued to sputter up the road. First one turn and then another.

And then the sputtering stopped.

Maybe the car engine was flooded, we all hoped, trying to figure out why our car, which had never seemed to have much power anyway, now had none. It lay there, dead in the road, like wreckbait waiting for the next Frenchman to come zipping along and take it out. What should we do? In America, we would push it to the side of the road or into that driveway nearby. And even though this was not America, this still seemed a good thought. So we did.

Almost immediately, a man and woman came out of the house, the most hurried people we had seen on the island. A few halting French sentences let us know that he must get to the airport quickly but he assured us that he would call Europcar for us.

This was a holiday. Everything would be closed. Would Europcar come to our rescue? Should we walk back to Gustavia and call for Pierro? Should we forge ahead into the unknown in hopes of running into Gouverneur? American impatience began to set in. But, being part French, I assured my group that help was indeed on the way. And it was. In a few moments, a fresh scrubbed young man, hardly more than a garcon, hopped out of a Europcar van and tried to start our car. Nope. No luck. So we piled into his van and trecked back across the island, beyond the Gustavia/St Jean intersection and back toward Flamands to the parking area for Europcar. A few apologies and au revoirs later, we were back on the road, this time in the same make of vehicle we had just abandoned. But this time, with power. Gouverneur, here we come.

So off we went. We crested a hill and saw Sante Fe where we took a right turn. And then down, down and more down until we can to a sharp turn to the left. And then we saw it. For those fortunate few who have seen this view, no words are necessary, or even adequate. For those who have yet to experience this vista, their lives are not yet complete. Stunningly gorgeous in its burst of colors, Gouverneur from above is beyond description. We continued down and to a small new parking lot. Out of the car and across a small strip of sand, we were on Gouverneur in moments.

Being a bit wary of swimming after our Saline experience, we slowly walked the beach until we saw the rocks just below the surface at the break-line begin to trickle out. About mid-beach we found an area where the dunes continued with the sand and the surf and the ocean beyond seemingly free from hidden obstacles. We settled here.

Smaller and more narrow than Saline, Gouverneur was also more colorful. Framed by bookend verdant hills, this crescent of sand was backed by a small dune overgrown with sea grapes. The water was sapphire blue and clear and like Flamands crashed below us as we sat about two meters above the spray. Propped against the dune to our back, we had natural beach chairs from which to enjoy this unreal scene. We decided then and there that Gouveneur was our favorite beach, though as the week progressed both Saline and Flamands would pull back to an even race. But for now, this was perfect. And the swimming was exhilarating. Requiring a bit of timing, athleticism and luck to clear the crashing waves, the swimming itself was like floating in a giant tub with swells just beyond the beach. Crystal clear and refreshing, the water was soothing to our now much-soothed and pampered bodies.

Gouveneur was more than just a beach to me. Had we not chosen St Barths for our vacation, we could have toured the continent. We could have seen Paris and Notre Dame, or the marvels of Rome or the magnificent cathedrals of St Petersburg, each offering man-made edifices to honor God. Yet here, in this simple and remote beach, we saw an edifice that God had made to honor man. How wonderful was such Grace, I mused.

After a while the time came to return back to our hotel. With a longing last glance, I looked over my shoulder at Gouveneur as we headed toward the path. We would be back. We would definitely be back.

Chapter Eight: Dining With Friends And Fine Wine

We would eat sumptuously that week. One night we made the drive to Lorient, now familiar to us having made the same drive a few nights before. We parked at Kfai Massai on the first night of their reopening under new management. As we entered, we were enchanted with the décor of the place. Part indoor, part outdoor, heavily influenced with African art, this seemed the type of place that privileged explorers would find in some exotic sub-Saharan location, if such places existed. We were seated near the bar, half inside and half outside. The night was beautiful and warm and our table was perfect. Already the place was alive with activity, easily the most crowded restaurant we saw all week as the locals were running back to an old favorite that had finally reopened after an absence. The service was pure French, casually efficient with no hurry involved. We had reserved the table and they expected us to be there for the evening. Had we tried to dash out in the obligatory 45 minutes usually apportioned to the Grand American Dinner it would have been an insult. Did we not enjoy their hospitality? So we ordered more wine and ignored our watches.

Dining, REAL dining, is more than just serving up hot dishes promptly to order. America, being a young and lusty country still very much in its adolescence, is more concerned with one's labors than actually enjoying the fruits of these labors. But not France. And not Frenchmen. They know that when one goes out for the evening, one goes out for the entire evening. And so it was at Kfai Massai. Wine and salads and delectable seafood and desserts would come our way before the evening would end. And each course was better than the one before. When at long last the time came to call it an evening, even by acceptable French standards, we asked for l’addition and were pleasantly surprised at the reasonableness of the fee. Even in Euros, it did not seem a high amount. Great food, great ambiance, great wine, great friends, this was a night to remember. And we do.

On another night, we chose Fellini's at the Manapany cottages for our meal. Looking for some Italian food, we drove down the hill into Anse de Cayes and were charmed by the casual beauty of this place. Appearing perhaps a bit more dated than some other places, it maintained an old fashioned beauty and grace that spoke of many a season of fun and merriment. The restaurant was empty that night and we dined all but alone. The menu was very limited in its offerings but the food was attractively presented and well prepared. In an island of standout restaurants, this one did not stand out though it was quite good and would be easily a favorite back home. On this island, it struck me as a quiet and beautiful place where one goes for less exotic fare attractively done for a reasonable price.

A true favorite however was sunset at La Mandala. Arriving as the last rays of light shimmered across Gustavia at our feet, we were seated at the prize table in the center of the large open view. A couple of meters away was a small pool that meandered through the restaurant further enhancing its already considerable appeal. The waiter was friendly and efficient. Taking ownership in his restaurant, he told us not what the chef could offer us that night or what the chef could prepare, but what he himself could offer us. This was his restaurant. And we were his guests.

We started with the Chef Special sampler for two. At 38 Euros, this platter was enough to serve as a meal and my wife has assured me that when I take her back, and I have promised to take her back, that will indeed be her entire meal. Featuring sesame-seared tuna and other forms of sushi, this platter was an explosion of exotic yet balanced sensations upon the palate. This was easily a favorite place and one that we will return to many, many times in the future. At sunset.

For our last night in Paradise, we pulled out all the stops. Donning our formal clothes (a pair of khaki slacks, open collared shirt and closed -toe deck shoes) we drove the length of the island to Le Gaiac. One look at the grounds and the reception area told us that we were someplace special. Where Isle de France maintained a casual elegance and beach type feel, Le Toiny (home of Le Gaiac) took no efforts to hide its tropical grandeur. Refined, polished and gleaming in every corner, Le Gaiac and what we saw of Le Toiny placed themselves in a category slightly different from anywhere else on the island. Still very much in love with our intimate corner of Flamands beach to which we plan to return, we could see the magic of this luxurious oasis and understand why those wanting elegant solitude sought out this place. It was and is indeed truly special.

Dinner that night was served by the most efficient and doting staff we met on the island. The maitre d’hotel himself checked on us often to make sure that everything was up to standards. The wait staff were knowlegable, prompt and discrete. Everything was done in “just so” fashion to satisfy even the most demanding of tastes. Almost taken aback by the impressively ambitious menu offering a bewildering array of choices, we decided to let the chef decide and chose the chef's sampler, a nine course extravaganza that takes one on a gustatory journey beyond boundaries one normally sets. Presented with one or two dishes that I normally do not care for, I followed the rule that has served me so well when dining in such a place. And that is simply this: Try everything. Because if it can be well done anywhere, it will be well done here. That way, if I don’t like it here, then I can safely say that I don’t like it. But what I find is that when I have unusual food unusually well prepared, I usually like it. This was such a night. I loved it all.

The dinner with two bottles of wine would take a bite out of our wallets but we did not care. We were in Paradise one last night and we had to savor every moment. And so we did. That evening when we arrived back at the hotel with bellies full of fine food and wine, we put on the CD and celebrated our last night.

Chapter Nine: Leaving.

The morning came too quickly. Like every other morning since we had arrived, this one broke with brilliant golden sunlight dancing upon the hills around us. Yet this morning was sad. This Paradise, this beautiful and wondrous Paradise that had welcomed us and then hypnotized us and then captured us was now about to let us go. How could this be?
A plane flew into view from past the hill to the right of our hotel. I sighed as I realized the airport was open and that we could leave, that we must leave.

With heavy hearts and few words we packed and readied ourselves. Not having known exactly how special this place was before our arrival, we also had not realized how hard it would be to leave when the time came. But that time had come. And it was harder to leave than we imagined.

A few quick signatures at the office and the business was taken care of. They hoped that we would come back soon and we assured them that we would – and we will. And then Pierro loaded us aboard the sad van that would carry us away from this all. Popping in a tape playing “Lay Down Sally” by Clapton, he sped us up and around the hills, too fast this time as we were leaving our blessed haven, and arrived at the airport right as the song ended. Could not the song, and the week, last a little longer?

We checked in with Winair and things were running on time. Soon we were boarding the Twin Otter that would cruelly fly us away from here. As we walked across the concrete I looked back at the terminal that I had first seen a week before. Something was wrong, I thought. This was not the sort of place that lovers left. This was the sort of place that they came to. No goodbye kisses here, only bonjours and hellos. Yet we were leaving.

The plane zipped down the runway and we were airborne. I saw magnificent St Jean stretch out to the right with Anse de Cayes and Flamands beckoning to the left. We were leaving. But were we? Had we really said goodbye at that quaint and intimate terminal a few moments before? Did we really have everything and were we truly ready to depart?

With one look back I decided that the answer was definitely “no”. I had my wife, the love of my life, beside me. I had all the things I had brought in my bags. I had the purchases we had made and my passports and my tickets and my money. But I had left something behind. I had left something very important and precious to me. I had left a piece of my soul on St Barths.

As the plane closed in on St Martin I realized that no one ever truly leaves St Barths because once one has been there one is never truly the same afterwards. A little piece of us always stays behind like a beacon showing us the way and always pulling us back.
And that beacon pulls us to come and revisit the part of our soul that will forever belong to that magical place.

And I shall answer this beacon. Soon. And often.

Au revoir St Barths. For now.


What follows is the Cliff's Notes version of our experiences. I shall give our impression in much abbreviated form in hopes that our thoughts may help others.

Favorite Beach:

Early in the week I would have said Gouveneur hands down. By the end of the week we realized that we loved several beaches, each of which has its own charm. Here is our breakdown:

Saline: Beautiful, wide, walkable and easy swimming (our one day notwithstanding). Probably the most user friendly beach on the island. We love it and will go back many times.

Gouveneur: More stunningly attractive than Saline, it is not quite as good for swimming but the view and the sand are magnificent. Also, seems to draw a small following of devotees who appreciate its charms. Will return.

Flamands: Wide, beautiful and almost no one on the beach. At the hotel there were nice chairs, umbrellas and drink service. Need I say more?

St Jean: Fun and upbeat, always something going on, and lots of places to eat and drink. Harder sand than the other three listed above but still a nice place to set up for the day.

Columbier: The hike was actually more impressive than the beach. It is worth a look but I need not go back.


Le Case de Isle: One of our absolute favorites. Lightly done food attractively presented by a cheerful wait staff in drop dead gorgeous surroundings. This is a must do restaurant for lunch or dinner.

Le Gaiac: Stunning restaurant and food. The entire grounds oozes opulence almost to the point of decadence. This restaurant could stand toe to toe with even the finest places in Europe and the states. If the wallet is feeling a bit fat, lighten it up here. You wont be sorry.

Fellini's: Attractive environment with a limited menu serving relatively basic fare. Enjoyable but not a mandatory stop.

Filao: Had lunch here and thoroughly enjoyed it. The waiter kidded around with us in that dead-pan face of a mischievous Frenchman all the while bringing us very good food. We liked the waiter, the food and the place. Yum.

La Mandala: At sunset. Nothing more needs be said.

Kfai Massai: Funky, electric and with great food. Plus the drive to Lorient sort of puts you out of the mainstream and lets you know you have gone somewhere different.

Le Piment: In St Jean. We only had lunch but it was very good and also reasonably priced. Will do this one again.

That is all for now. Hopefully I shall have more to write after our trip in November. How many days now until we leave?
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