Insiders View… A First Visit To St Barts

For those visiting this site who are contemplating going to St. Barts (also referred to as St Barth’s, St. Barth or St. Barthelemy), located in the French West Indies, for the first time or for regular St Barth’s visitors who cannot read too much about this little Caribbean island, we have included a somewhat impressionistic and admittedly highly personal description of St Barth’s as we have experienced it.

If you are planning your first trip, we recommend that you also visit the St Barts Forums – not only for the helpful tips and insights you will find, but also to appreciate the kind of passion St Barth’s inspires… which is unique in our experience.

Why this outpouring of affection for and devotion to St Barth’s?
To us, it arises from the happy balance of all of the ingredients necessary for a perfect Caribbean vacation (or life for that matter!) that the island possesses. The people are sophisticated yet very friendly and down-to-earth. The shops and hotels run the gamut from simple to world class, but the cleanliness and quality of service are uniformly excellent.The food, whether consumed in restaurants of all price levels or purchased from numerous shops scattered throughout the island, is the equivalent of and frequently far superior to the very best food available in the best restaurants in the largest cites in the United States.The climate is ideal with daily air temperatures varying only between 82 and 85 degrees throughout the year (evenings are in the 70’s), and water temperatures ranging from 79 to 82 degrees.

The physical appearance of St Barth’s is breathtaking, comprised of a number of volcanic peaks which guaranty fabulous vistas both day and night and ringed by Caribbean waters of an almost unbelievable azure and a dazzling variety of beaches (sand, shell and stone) which are almost all undeveloped.

Of course, the most gorgeous mountains and Caribbean beaches and the best restaurants in the world would mean nothing were it not for the residents of St Barth’s who are unfailingly polite and pleasant to be around. To quote Julia Robert’s description of George Clooney, they are “charm monsters” not only because of their very good looks but also because they embody both the very best of French culture together with the mellow, laid back style of “the Little Latitudes.” Most of the people we have met on St Barth’s have moved to the Caribbean from someplace else and are there not only because of the beauty of the place but also because they want to live by a different set of rules. It is no easy task to provide service and meals at the most exacting standards while at the same time not taking oneself or life too seriously, but the people of St Barth’s manage this feat. If only we Americans could learn how to follow their example.

A personal anecdote may help to explain what makes St Barth’s people so special. On a trip to the island many Decembers ago, my wife had the misfortune of breaking her collarbone in very rough surf at Saline Beach. (Depending upon the time of year, the waves at Saline are normally quite manageable and at times even nonexistent but December is the tail end of the Hurricane season and can produce some sporty conditions on the windward side of the island. Go to Lorient Beach any time of year if you prefer calm waters). We somehow managed the long hike back to our jeep (my back had conveniently chosen this opportunity to go out of whack as well) and returned to our hotel, Francois Plantation, not knowing what to do. We first called the U.S. thinking that we would have to immediately make arrangements to fly home for treatment. Our doctors informed us that there was nothing complicated about dealing with broken collarbones and recommended that we see a doctor on the island. The hotel couldn’t have been more helpful and called ahead to make arrangements in the emergency room of the local hospital. When we arrived, we were taken immediately into a spotless examination room where x-rays confirmed what we both already knew. The doctor carefully set my wife’ collarbone in a harness and sling of some sort and politely asked if we would mind stopping by the local pharmacy before we left the island to pick up a replacement harness as it was his last one. He wrote out a prescription for pain killers and then presented us with our bill which we thought was for $300 (which we would gladly have paid) but turned out to be only for 300 francs. He and his assistant were highly amused that we would ever think that an emergency room visit with x-rays could cost anywhere near $300.

When we returned to our hotel, dinner was waiting in our room. Before we left the island, the hotel gave us an excellent bottle of wine from their cellar to compensate for the fact that we had to miss a sailing trip which was part of the package for the week. Wherever we ate out from that point forward, the waitstaff at various restaurants were extremely solicitous about my wife’s condition giving her the best chair or retrieving pillows to place behind her shoulders to make her feel comfortable. At Le Tamarin (the old Le Tamarin before the fashion shows arrived), one of the waitresses brought a rotating magnet to our table after lunch and spun it all around my wife’s shoulders to make the pain go away.

Thanks to such acts of compassion and hospitality (augmented no doubt by a bottle of wine at lunch and dinner and rhum punch at sunset to say nothing of the superlative French drugs), our vacation was saved, and our love affair with St Barth’s began.

Insiders View St Barts Resorts and Casinos…

You will not find any big resorts, casinos, high-rise hotels, golf courses and mega-cruise ships on St Barts. St. Barts vacations are not filled with flashing-lights, gaming, and wild partying. The island is an intimate and romantic place with very little in the form of distractions. It brings couples together, it does not give them avenues of escape from one another. It pretty much shuts down at 9:00 p.m. leaving visitors with the rest of the evening to spend together.

Do you remember how you felt when you were young and first began to experience the world? All of your senses were very much alive. You responded to music, art, a beautiful sunset or a star-filled night on an immediate and intimate level. And when you fell in love, you did so deeply, completely and with every pore of your being – so much so that you ached. In Refiner’s Fire, Mark Helprin’s first novel, he describes the reaction of a boy who has just encountered the girl he loves at summer camp as follows:

That night in his bunk Marshall felt as if all the mountains and the height of the sky were in him, as if the entire world were a place in which entire alpine regions conspired to make children happy. And that night in Colorado the moon came up so bright that even sheep and horses could not sleep, and stood in the fields staring upward as confused as the first astronomers.

St Barth’s rekindles such feelings and reminds the visitor that these emotions, while perhaps obscured or somewhat buried in the clutter which we accumulate over time, are not lost. We have visited St. Barts in the best of times and in the worst of times. In the former, it brings us closer together, and, in the latter, within a matter of hours, it repairs the shards and jagged edges of our sometimes fractured lives and resets our emotional compass.

Pretty powerful stuff, and thus the passion.

Arriving on St Barth’s
The vast majority of visitors to St. Barts arrive via a 12-minute plane ride from St. Maarten. There are a couple of things you need to know about St. Maarten right from the start. First, although it describes itself as “The Friendly Island,” the airport is anything but. It is also one of the dreariest little airports in the world with a depressing array of shops in what is billed as a duty-free mall and an air conditioning system which is perpetually on the “Clammy” setting. Until a few years ago, there was an open-air bar in the middle of the airport which gave you an opportunity to soak up a little sun while enjoying your first Caribe, but that has unfortunately been enclosed.

Accordingly, you want to spend as little time as possible in the airport. To help you achieve this goal, you should know that you never have to clear immigration or customs upon arrival in St. Maarten even though the vast majority of vacationers disembarking at St. Maarten will take their places in what can be very long lines at the immigration / customs counter.

(See Getting to St Barts for more information about when you can use the In Transit gate).

Instead, after taking a moment to soak up the first rays of brilliant sunshine you will likely have experienced for a number of months (you disembark the airplane on the tarmac at St. Maarten), proceed to the In Transit Gate which will be on your left past Gate 10 as you and the throngs make your way towards the main entrance to the terminal. Present your ticket to St Barth’s to the unfailingly unfriendly person at the ticket counter (hang in there… St Barth’s is only a short flight away!); pass through the metal detectors immediately behind the counters; and locate the gate for the flights to St Barth’s, which is typically Gate 12. Your flight will inevitably be late. Buy a Caribe and try and tune out CNN News which will be blaring from a television set mounted near the ceiling. Look for the really happy people. They will be your fellow passengers on the flight to St Barth’s.

You will fly to St Barth’s on a Hawker de Havilland Twin Otter-one of the safest and most reliable airplanes made. Try to get the seats behind the pilots for a front row view of one of the most unforgettable flights you will ever take.

After flying south for about 10 minutes, St Barth’s comes into view. You pass over Colombier beach which is very secluded and typically has a number of sailboats anchored offshore. You then see the town of Gustavia to your right which, depending upon the time of year your arrive, can have hundreds of luxury yachts moored in its neat little rectangle of a harbor. So far so good. Everything is very picturesque and peaceful. And then the fun begins.

Shortly after Gustavia comes into view, the pilot banks to the left and then puts the plane into a nosedive so sharp that the warning system in the cockpit starts announcing your ever shrinking height above land in rapidly descending increments of 100 feet and blaring the words “Pull up. Pull up.” The landing gear barely skirts the crest of a steep hill which abuts the runway (you will see what I mean by “barely” when you drive along the road on the ridge of the hill at the moment a plane is landing), and, at a height of no more than 50 feet, you will note that the plane is still heading straight down towards the runway and that the runway, like all runways of which you are aware, is made of very hard asphalt. At the very last instant, the pilot pulls out of the dive for a perfect three-point landing, but the excitement does not end there as he then engages all of the plane’s flaps and brakes in what feels like a frantic attempt to stop it before it gets to beach at the end of the incredibly short runway (I do not know its precise length, but it cannot be more than a few hundred yards long) at the end of which, somewhat incongruously, is St. Jean beach- one of the most popular beaches on St Barth’s. On rare occasions- reportedly involving private pilots- planes fail to stop and take a brief plunge. But, not to worry, the water’s warm, and you can wade to shore.

No one prepared us for our first landing on St Barth’s which made the experience all the more vivid. As the plane strained to come to a stop and we provided whatever assistance we could by digging our feet into the floor and sinking our fingernails into the armrests, we noticed a very attractive, very tan, woman, standing on St. Jean beach directly in the path of our plane. As is the custom in St Barth’s, she was topless. She didn’t flinch but instead observed our arrival with an insouciant air. After our plane turned at the end of the runway and taxied to the airport terminal, our pilot asked the passengers how long we thought he had been making this flight. Someone ventured “About two weeks.” The pilot smiled and replied “On the money!”

Old timers bemoan the airport terminal at St Barth’s and wax nostalgic about a time not so very long ago when there was no building at all at the airport and people waited for planes under a tree. The terminal has been modernized since our first visit complete with an air-conditioned waiting room which is perhaps unfortunate, but so what? In the first place, you survived the landing which is cause for celebration in and of itself. Second, the terminal is infinitely smaller than the one on St. Maarten (there is only one “gate”-if it can be called that-and one recently installed baggage carousel) and infinitely cleaner. Lastly, you spend almost no time in the terminal as you can clear customs and immigration and claim your baggage in a matter of minutes.

Say “Bon jour” to the very friendly man at the immigration window. Go ahead! Take the plunge and blurt it out! You know you want to try out your French even if you are a little unnerved at the prospect. You want to experience French West Indian culture from the inside not peek at it from the outside. “Bon jour” and “Merci” are your tickets to admission. It is also a sign of respect to make some attempt to speak the native language.

To the left of the immigration counter, you will see a poster of various silhouettes of dogs deemed by the authorities to be “Chiens Mechants,” or “Mean Dogs” who are not permitted on St Barth’s. (For that matter, there are very few “mechant” people on the island as well). But for the breeds comprising this Rogues Gallery, dogs appear welcome virtually everywhere on St Barth’s- walking in and out of shops, restaurants and even Church during Sunday services.

They tend to be very quiet and well-mannered, and, because they pretty much have the run of the island, appear to belong to no one in particular. Many of the male dogs seem to be descendants of an exceedingly well-endowed dachshund who was not very particular about the pedigree of his various girlfriends. Must be the Vanilla Rhum. The island abounds with cats as well, along with goats, sheep, chickens and roosters and even a couple of very loud parrots who fly in and out of restaurants in Saline.

Insiders View Driving on St Barts

No one prepared us for driving on St Barth’s either. After grabbing your bags, you will proceed to the open air portion of the terminal. The car rental companies are all to your right, past the ticket counters. As daunting as the prospect of driving on narrow roads winding their way up and down volcanic mountains with very few guardrails maybe, you have no choice.

As noted above, there are no all-inclusive resorts on St Barth’s, and you must therefore drive virtually everywhere. Moreover, many of the best restaurants and beaches are accessible only by car. In addition, once you master it, it is truly exhilarating, and the vistas around each (very sharp) turn are spectacular.

There are essentially three choices of vehicle: the classic but soon to be extinct Mini Moke (an open-air dune buggy affair which rides very low to the ground); a more conventional jeep albeit on a much smaller scales than jeeps in the U.S.; and a very colorful and chic newcomer to the roads of St Barth’s – the Smart car which is the result of a joint venture between BMW and Swatch. In addition to being very stylish, the Smart car also comes equipped with automatic transmission which can save you from having to get arthroscopic surgery on your left knee upon returning home from all of that clutch work going up and down the mountains. Despite its obvious appeal, however, we have always taken a pass on Smart cars and rented jeeps or a Vitara instead. We do this for one very simple reason: four-wheel drive, a very comforting feature on the not infrequent occasions when, while navigating a hairpin turn, you need to position yourself so that your outside wheels are on a dirt or gravel shoulder, just inches from a vertical drop of hundreds of feet, in order to make room for an oncoming vehicle. And as noted above, the French on St Barth’s, like daredevil trapeze artists who scorn safety nets, seem to prefer driving without guard rails.

Don’t even think of renting a motorcycle. These are reserved for the impossibly young, tan and good-looking residents of the island. The young men race around, often just inches from your rear bumper as you scratch and crawl your way up a steep hillside (just learn to ignore them and let them pass), with a lit cigarette dangling from their lips; the young women traverse the island in miniskirts and bikini tops looking like they have just ridden out of the pages of Vogue. On more than one occasion we have seen a motorcycle rider with a dog standing with its front paws on the handlebars. You cannot imitate these people as they are superior beings from a superior place. Instead, just observe them and savor the moment.

The first time we arrived on St Barth’s, it was pouring rain (it really doesn’t rain that often although we have found the weather in December to be a little unpredictable), and we naively set out on what for St Barth’s is the very long drive to our hotel in Grand Cul de Sac. The first thing we noticed was that the jeep – ours was a Suzuki Samurai- had almost no acceleration. This became immediately relevant as we attempted to exit the airport parking lot with a steady stream of cars and motorcycles bearing down on us from the hill which makes landing on St Barth’s so thrilling. We quickly realized that neither the cars nor the traffic patterns were for the feint of heart and switched to driving habits that we normally reserve for cities like Boston and New York. The challenge of driving is heightened by the lack of power steering (at least in the jeeps). No need to bring the Bowflex machine from home- in just days you will add inches of rock-hard muscle to your chest and arms. Guaranteed or your money back!

The trip to our hotel took us through the towns of St. Jean and Lorient. St. Jean is a very bustling place with lots of hotels, shops and restaurants. There are no parking lots to speak of, so it is frequently necessary to snake one’s way through a gauntlet of cars parked on both sides of the road. Signage is very small, which adds to the aesthetic appeal of the island to be sure, but inevitably leads the newcomer into making innumerable wrong turns. Not to worry. Remember that the island is very small- no more than 8 square miles – so you can never be that far away from your intended destination. Lorient is less congested but is the start of some very exciting climbs and switchbacks en route to Vitet, Pointe Milou, and the Petit and Grand Cul de Sacs.

In addition to the rain we encountered on our first drive on St Barth’s, there was also road construction on one of the steep hills outside of Lorient. Road construction and repair is a very casual affair on St Barth’s with work on the same relatively short stretch of roadway often spanning, say, a winter visit and a return trip in the spring. Perhaps the road crews are merely perfectionists striving to make each repair just so, but to the outsider there is a marked lack of urgency to their efforts. There is also a lack of organization.

Accordingly, we were essentially left to our own devices in deciding how to navigate a steep uphill climb where the already very narrow road (the widest roads on St Barth’s are no wider than a single lane on a typical American highway and most are significantly narrower with well worn ruts on the shoulders providing the margin necessary for two oncoming cars to pass one another without incident) had been reduced to one lane. We sat at the foot of the hill for several minutes, frozen by our confusion and mounting fear, without receiving any kind of signal from the men working on the road. When it became obvious that no signal would be forthcoming, we made a run for it, gunning our Suzuki up the hill and to the relative safety of the road where it returned to two lanes. Miraculously, we made it to the hotel a few minutes later and vowed never to leave, but of course we quickly broke that vow and were glad we did.

The point about driving in St Barth’s is that is it very different from driving anywhere else and takes getting used to. Truth be told, we were a little wimpy on our first trip and did not go out at night nearly as much as we do now preferring the safe confines (and the excellent food) at our hotel. This was a mistake. Navigating the roads in St Barth’s is an easily acquired skill and well worth the effort. Most of the drivers you encounter are very polite. The roads are particularly quiet at night so there should be no concern about driving to the myriad restaurants scattered throughout the island. You will never achieve speeds in excess of 40-45 kilometers an hour (you do the math- that’s approximately 25 mph) even though it feels much faster than that. The advantage of driving up and down mountains is that there are awe-inspiring vistas at almost every turn. Most importantly, learning to drive in St Barth’s is a little like the first time you swam to the raft at the lake where your family took vacations when you were a kid, or any other kind of initiation rite. Once mastered, there is a sense of exhilaration and belonging.

The “average” day in Paradise
My wife and I have a routine when we arrive in St Barth’s now which consists of getting our Suzuki and driving immediately to the beach at Saline (which is accessible by climbing and descending a very steep hill behind St. Jean). It takes us no more than 15 minutes after landing to be on the beach. We are careful to pack our suits and towels at the top of our suitcases for easy access. We then walk to the left side of Saline (the sun sets to the right of the beach as you face the water producing a shadow which runs from right to left), plunge into the water, and savor about an hour of sunshine before setting off for our villa or hotel, covered with salt and sand, and completely at peace.

Our typical day on St Barth’s follows a fairly predictable pattern. We usually try to start with some exercise to eliminate any guilt about the indulgences which follow. We make two trips to the beach a day – in the middle of the morning and afternoon respectively — and each for no more than an hour or two. We eat out frequently (how else to sample the extensive array of extraordinary restaurants?).

We read a lot. We sleep a lot. If we feel particularly energetic and motivated, we go to Gustavia or St. Jean late in the afternoon for a little shopping or to check out some art galleries. We make frequent trips to local shops to maintain a constant supply of cheese, bread, wine and rhum in our villa or hotel room which we consume each evening at sunset on our deck or terrace. Sometimes we get an in-room massage. Sometimes we will go to a club like Le Ti after dinner for a little music and dancing (be forewarned: the music and dancing at Le Ti are frequently anything but “little”).

Sound dull? Maybe it is, but we are never bored and never want to leave, as the magic of St Barth’s is what it does to you internally which is far more profound and lasting than any kind of external stimulation. We have a running joke on St Barth’s which consists of an imaginary dialogue between our two Golden Retrievers who observe our daily activities with mounting anxiety as we wrestle with such weighty decisions as whether to go to Saline or Gouverneur or hike to Colombier in the afternoon and whether to eat at Andy’s Hideaway, Maya’s or La Langouste in the evening. Truth is that worry and anxiety, like chiens mechants, have no place on St Barth’s and dissipate quickly upon arrival. There are no bad choices in terms of how you spend your day.

It brings to mind a story told by an acquaintance from Georgia about vacationing on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. He returned to the same house each summer and set up a rocking chair on the porch which had sweeping views of the ocean. He explained that he would sit there for a couple of days, doing absolutely nothing but staring at the ocean, until the chair began to rock at which point he knew he was on vacation. Similarly, you will know you are on vacation in St Barth’s when after a couple of days-or even hours!-you succumb to the rhythm of the place and reconnect to long dormant emotions, passions and, most importantly, the person you are with.