By: Jordan Simon
Indeed, St. Barts is a surprisingly laid-back place where one lingers in cafés, the inimitable scent of galettes, Gauloises and hibiscus hanging in the air: a tropical St. Tropez as fresh and enduringly in demand as November’s first case of Beaujolais Nouveau. The island never developed a slave-based economy as its poor rocky soil, arid climate, and mountainous terrain were unsuited to sugar production. It thrived briefly as a colonial shipping and commercial center; the French and Swedes traded it back and forth in the 18th and 19th centuries, the former taking ultimate possession in 1877. Hardy Norman, Breton and Poitevin stock settled the island from the 17th century on, eking out a meager existence by fishing and salt mining. Their descendants (seemingly ten surnames only, such as Magras and Gréaux dominate the phone book) are industrious yet insular, feisty yet friendly. Today, while the island is French by custom, most locals speak excellent English and the US dollar is accepted everywhere.
Approximately four hours as the crow flies from New York (two from Miami), with a puddle jumper or ferry ride from St. Maarten adding at least two hours to the trip, St. Barts is a bit of a hassle to reach, but its relaxed ambiance and French savoir vivre more than reward the journey. Three days here permits hunkering down at a beach resort with forays into the delightful capital, Gustavia. If you have five days, you can easily explore each part of the island, deciding upon your favorite beach. A week permits plentiful activities from horseback riding to sailing, as well as more strenuous hikes (burning off calories!) to less accessible beaches.
Roughly shaped like a V or inverted boomerang, St. Barts is incredibly minute – just eight square miles of terrain – but rugged and hilly enough to make it seem larger. The often narrow, vertiginous, and corkscrewing roads could make a Grand Prix racer blanch, but a car is considered a necessity here, especially as exploring the many beaches, boutiques and restaurants is an integral part of the St. Barts experience. The adorable capital, Gustavia, and the one true resort town, St-Jean, are more pedestrian-friendly, with plentiful dining and shopping options within walking distance of top hotels. Sightseeing attractions (old forts, museums, aquariums, distilleries) are few compared to other Caribbean islands: This is an island to savor the good life.
Nonetheless, there are delights aplenty, from Gustavia to wild, windswept coasts. While you can zip from one tip of the island to the other without stopping in 20 minutes (barring the occasional mini traffic jam, when local bakeries advertise fresh baked treats or a colorful funeral procession clogs the main road), you should budget a full day to really grasp the lay of the land (stopping for a leisurely lunch, naturellement). One main road (with several twisting offshoots plunging down to the more remote hamlets and beaches) circumnavigates the island; look for handpainted signs leading to various sights.
On the central western (Caribbean) coast, Gustavia, the picture-postcard harbor capital, is easily explored on foot; tiny Shell Beach, near town, is a favorite sunset spot. Northwest of Gustavia are the tiny traditional hamlets of Corossol and Colombier (arguably the loveliest hotel-lined beach, Anse des Flamands, is near the latter). Continuing on the northeastern shore by the airport, Baie de St-Jean hops with hip, happening hotels, restaurants and shops. A few minutes’ drive east is Lorient, a sweet little village with a serene beach popular with locals and surfer dudes. Continuing east, prestigious Pointe Milou seduces with panoramic vistas and sumptuous villas, but no beach. Another couple of miles accesses Grand Cul-de-Sac, another tourist playground with broad swaths of beach. A ten-minute drive south reaches the rugged coast of Anse de Toiny and the impressive valley of Grand Fond, where the locals live on stone-fenced farms with tile-roofed homes. Before doubling back to Gustavia, stop off at the southwestern beauties of Anse de Grande Saline and Anse du Gouverneur below Morne Lurin, both nudist beaches where the scenery is eye-catching in more ways than one.
Though part of the charm is discovering St. Barts on your own, orientation tours are available. The Office du Tourisme has devised recommended itineraries, lasting 60-90 minutes; the taxi drivers (waiting patient as vultures by the pier and airport when ferries and flights arrive) are familiar with the routes but will also craft independent excursions. Figure about 50€ per person.
Stop by the St. Barthélemy Office du Tourisme (Quai Général-de-Gaulle, Gustavia; 590/590/27-87-27; Mon 8.30am-12.30pm & 2.30-5.30pm, Tues-Fri 8am-noon & 2-5pm, Sat 9am-noon) or check its admirably comprehensive website, www.st-barths.com<, for maps, events, updates; lodging, dining, shopping, sports, and nightlife listings (many with links); splendid beach and flora guides; local news and commentaries; even a live webcam from atop Morne Lurin. The free weekly Journal de Saint-Barth (mostly in French) is useful for current events. Its English-language sister publication, Saint-Barth Weekly, is another excellent (re)source for events and local gossip; you can also download the latest edition in a PDF file from the tourist office site. The free, indispensable Ti Gourmet Saint-Barth is a pocket-size guidebook in English and French providing contact information, mini-reviews, and general prices of restaurants; pick one up almost anywhere. The web-only Insider’s Guide to St. Barts offers the scuttlebutt on the hottest cultural, dining, shopping, and barhopping listings, as well as invaluable readers’ forums and trip reports.
Main Sights and Beaches
St. Barts boasts 22 “official” anses (coves) and plages (beaches), ranging from long surf-pounded strands to cramped crescents shadowed by cliffs to lagoons as smooth and finely hued as Tiffany glass. Topless sunbathing is permitted (some might almost say encouraged), though total nudity is forbidden on all but two more remote undeveloped strands (included here). Be aware that there are no public facilities (changing rooms, toilets, chair rental concessions); you’re at the mercy of restaurants and beach bars (buy a drink or lunch and they’ll usually give you a beach chair). Most hotels also offer folding chaises or chairs for guests to take to other beaches; otherwise just bring a towel.
Bewitching Gustavia enjoys one of the Caribbean’s most idyllic settings, tiptoeing gracefully around a perfect harbor where fishing dinghies bob like toy boats alongside leviathan yachts. It’s easily explored on foot (though the narrow streets are crammed with galleries, duty-free shops, and boutiques, making for irresistible window-shopping). Dozens of restaurants, many housed in 18th-century Swedish or French stone buildings or boasting waterfront decks, beckon along the three main drags, Rue Roi Oscar II, Rue Général de Gaulle, and Quai de la République/Rue du Bord-de-Mer (which hugs the harbor, and is a wonderful vantage point for viewing yachts – especially from the many captivating open-air cafes). On the far “La Pointe” side of the harbor, a beautifully restored Swedish stone building houses the Musée Municipal (aka Wall House Museum) and Musée de St. Barthélemy (590/590/29-71-55; Mon-Thurs 8:30am-12:30pm and 2:30-6pm, Fri 8:30am-12:30pm and 3-6pm, Sat 9-11am; free); inside are various displays ranging from photos to marine life to costumes and artifacts (fishing boats, oil lamps, farming implements), depicting island history from the indigenous Arawak indians through to the colonial tugs-of-war between the Swedes (whose legacy lingers in place names) and the French. On the opposite end of town, panorama and history junkies can also clamber up to 17th-century Fort Gustave, easily recognizable by the red-and-white lighthouse added in 1961. Original fortification remains include a powder magazine, a kitchen and two cannons, but most come for the stellar harbor views: An orientation table identifies the highlights of Gustavia and the neighboring islands of Nevis, St. Kitts, St. Eustatius, Saba and St. Martin. Shell Beach (famed for on-site Maya’s and Do Brazil restos) is a ten-minute walk. Note that most shops close between noon and 2pm so plan lunch accordingly.
Almost directly opposite, on the central northern coast, St-Jean is the closest thing to a resort town: fabulous shops, fine restaurants and beach bars, and watersports concessions. Essentially just two main parallel streets chock-a-block with mini-malls and eateries, it’s nonetheless an ideal spot to hunker down if you want beach access and activity galore at your doorstep without a car. Its Baie de St-Jean offers the prototypical St. Barts beach image: A mini Côte d’Azur lazing in the tropic sun, bursting with beachfront bistros and bronzed bodies. The only thing out of place is the airport runway, which abuts one end of the beach; a popular pastime is watching and photographing the hair-raising plane takeoffs and landings. Otherwise, the beach is divided by Eden Rock promontory; the lunch – very dear yet gastronomically daring – at the Eden Rock Hotel’s Sand Bar is highly recommended. Picnic fare is also available at nearby Maya’s To Go and Kiki é Mo (see Where to Eat, below). There’s fine snorkeling west of the rock; watersports operators include Caribwaterplay (590/590/27-71-22) and Top Location (590/590/29-02-02). Most daytrippers head here.
Further east, at the intersection of the main road and inland route to Vitet and the southern coast, Lorient, site of the first French settlement, is another picture-perfect village, with two absolutely magnificent cemeteries, their slightly raised tombstones crowned by lighted red candles and flowers, and marvelous buildings including a 19th-century Catholic church, convent, bell tower, adorable post office, and reconstructed 17th-century Norman manor. We absolutely adore the almond croissants at the local boulangerie (bakery), on the main road. Anse de Lorient is a wide sugary crescent, fairly deserted save for Sundays when it’s overrun by local families. The western end features fierce waves for French surfer dudes; otherwise the offshore reef tames the breakers. The informal ‘Reefer Surf Club’ sometimes meets here, offering advice to beginners.
From here, it’s just another mile east to Grand Cul de Sac, the island’s other major hotel- and restaurant-lined stretch of sand, with plentiful watersports concessions (it’s the preferred venue for windsurfing), several eateries (we have great hopes for the restaurant at the newly reopened Le Sereno Beach Hotel), calm shallow reef-protected waters, and pelicans and frigate birds – tabletop terrorists dive-bombing for lunch. Water sports operators here include Windwave Power (590/590/27-82-57) and Ouanalao Dive (590/690/63-74-34).
About 1.5 miles northwest of Gustavia (and accessed by a poorly marked, steep, twisting road), tiny Corossol is filled with brightly hued wooden Creole cazes (traditional Caribbean wooden houses), seemingly unchanged in decades. Locals still speak in Norman, Breton or Poitou dialect and older women sit in weathered doorways braiding lovely lantana straw handicrafts – hats to handbags to baskets (you can haggle here, unlike in the shops). Their long-sleeved dresses and shoulder-length 18th-century starched white sunbonnets (called calèches or quichenottes) are other vestiges of the island’s French provincial roots. Shy and retiring, they don’t enjoy people snapping photos indiscriminately. You may catch the occasional glimpse of men returning from the sea, toting their colorful fishing nets. Corossol is also home to one man’s hobby-obsession: the Inter-Oceans Museum (590/590/27-62-97; Tues-Sun 9.30am-12pm and 2-5pm; 5€) which features an incredible collection of more than 9,000 seashells (1,600 species from the Caribbean basin), as well as sand samples from around the globe painstakingly amassed by Ingenú Magras. A tiny taupe ribbon of sand is tucked away behind the main drag.
Directly opposite, on the northeast corner, Anse des Flamands is considered the most beautiful developed beach, a broad strip of silken sand perfect for sunning and long beach walks. Ample shade is provided by lantanier palms whose fronds are dried and used for weaving. The lovely Isle de France hotel’s superlative restaurant pleases gourmet palates, but the less expensive La Langouste (in the Baie des Anges Hotel) is the spot for lobster. Ranch des Flamands/St. Barth Equitation (590/590/62-99-30) conducts two-hour horseback trail rides with jaw-dropping views.
Anse de Grande Saline, way on the other, southern side of the island east of Gustavia, is another WOW factor beach (permitting total nudity, though it’s more a family spot): Secluded, undeveloped (save for two fine restaurants, Le Tamarin and L’Esprit de Saline (see Where to Eat below), often windy (keeping the mosquitoes and sandflies away) with a shallow soft sandy ocean bottom, ideal for swimming. Bring sneakers to hike around the now disused salt ponds and rocky dune trails.
Just west is Anse du Gouverneur, quite possibly the island’s most stunning beach: A perfect untrammeled cove the hue of Champagne and just as apt to make you feel giddy, encircled by steep cliffs, overseeing St. Kitts, Saba, and Statia, and usually occupied by a few perfect, buff, bronzed bods. Indeed, pirate’s booty is supposedly buried somewhere here, but the prize booty is the flesh on display. You’ll also be treated to fabulous sunsets and fine snorkeling off the point.
While visiting the last two beaches (Saline and Gouverneur), you might want to proceed to the island’s wind-lashed, dramatic eastern tip, the Toiny coast, accessed by the Vitet road. The rocky shore (and stone fences filigreeing the steep slopes of Morne Vitet) here resembles the rugged Norman coast, while the Anse le Toiny beach, nicknamed the “washing machine” for its churning surf (even expert swimmers should beware the powerful undertow), is hardly your typical Caribbean sight. Still, the area boasts delightful piscines naturelles (natural tidal pools) on the western Grands Fonds end; formed by rocky outcroppings, they’re quite a hike from the road (ask locals for directions), but worth the trek for the wild windswept vegetation, splendid vistas, and utter tranquility.
Back at the northwest tip, Colombier is another idyllic village brimming with bougainvillea and hibiscus and reached by a vertiginous, steep road. The lookouts and promenades here are swooningly romantic; several little beaches are accessible only by hiking and usually patrolled solely by peacocks and mules. A steep, rocky half-hour hike leads to Anse à Colombier, a remote, mostly shadeless stretch still known as Rockefeller’s Beach, after David Rockefeller owned the surrounding property for several years; the trail is well-marked but you’ll need appropriate footgear and water. You can also arrange to arrive via the water; boaters love the calm anchorage. If you charter a boat, remember that Colombier is part of the Marine Reserve and you’ll have to pay several buoy and docking fees; you can also try hiring a water taxi (590/690/71-21-80). Whichever option you choose, the beach is usually deserted except on Sundays, and there’s always the chance you’ll run into Harrison Ford (who owns a home nearby).
Boating, windsurfing, scuba, and other watersports are available on such major resort beaches as St-Jean and Grand Cul de Sac. Though most of the surrounding waters constitute a Marine Reserve, the diving isn’t quite as fabulous as, say the Caymans, Dominica and Saba. Still it’s amusing to decide which wears the flashier resort wear, the model wannabes or the fish. The most spectacular dives are around Pain de Sucre, an islet off Gustavia harbor, and a small cape, l’Anse Rouge off Colombier Bay, with caves, walls and bejeweled reefs. In addition to outfitters listed above, Marine Services (Gustavia; 590/590/27-70-34) offers 40-foot catamaran sails to uninhabited Ile Fourchue for swimming, snorkeling, lunch and cocktails, as well as deep sea fishing trips. Master Ski Pilou (Gustavia; 590/590/27-91-79) also provides one-stop nautical shopping, with equipment, instruction and personnel for several activities: sailing cataramans, high-performance motor yachts, jet skis, diving, snorkeling, deep sea fishing, et al. Plongée Caraïbes aka Odysée Caraïbe (Quai de la République, Gustavia; 590/590/27-55-94) is a reputable, reasonably priced dive outfitter, with trips starting around 40€. We recommend checking out the www.st-barths.com section on sporting activities for up-to-date selections.
Your monthly mortgage (or maintenance) payment might cover one night in high season. That’s only a slight exaggeration. Still there are exceptions, and at least rates usually include service charges, continental or buffet breakfast, and airport transfers (ask about reduced car rental packages during off-seasons). St. Barts differs from other Caribbean destinations in that being on the beach isn’t necessarily preferable. The best beaches (Saline, Gouverneur) are isolated and lack accommodations; thus, even “beachfront” hotel guests explore other strands (not to mention restaurant, bars, shops, etc). Moreover the truly scintillating views are from the hillsides (most villas – preferred by many – occupy prime perches). Driving around is part of the St. Barts experience. You can get anywhere on the island in 15-20 minutes. That said, most hotels in Gustavia and St-Jean are within walking distance of restaurants, shops, and bars.
Choose from reliable chains, delightful inns, sumptuous villas (ranging from cozy cottages to vast mansions), and stylish boutique properties with spas and gourmet restaurants. High-end options (pre)dominate, though fairly moderate options abound; acceptable budget accommodations are few (and still pricier than their counterparts elsewhere). To help you choose the right overnight address convenient to most attractions, we’ve outlined our central St. Barts favorites in each category.
For ultimate luxury, we recommend St. Barth Isle de France (590/590-27-61-81 or 800/810-4691), an exquisite colonial-style gem on breathtaking Flamands Beach with enormous rooms, superb food and service, and a hedonistic spa. The Relais & Châteaux Eden Rock (590/590/29-79-99 or 877/563-7105), the island’s first real hotel, straddling the eponymous promontory that cleaves St-Jean beach, has been beautifully reinvigorated by Brits David and Jane Matthews. It’s just expanded, absorbing the adjacent former Filao Beach yet retaining its intimate exclusive ambience. Superlative food, stylish décor, marvelous views, beautiful people, eternally chic as a Chanel cocktail dress. There are also several excellent villa companies. St. Barth Properties (508/528-7727 or 800/421-3396) owned by American Peg Walsh, a St. Barts regular since 1986, represents more than 120 properties ranging from $1,400-$40,000/week in season. Its excellent website offers virtual tours of most villas and even details of availability. Sibarth and Wimco (401/847-6290 or 800/932-3222) oversee bookings in roughly 250 properties represented by SiBarth’s Brook Lacour. Expect to pay $2,000-$10,000 for 2- and 3-bedroom villas, $7,000+ for larger. Wimco’s website also lists occasional last-minute specials. Both companies will arrange babysitters, massages, rental cars, chefs and other in-villa services for clients.
For moderate choices, we love the accueil sympa at Baie des Anges (590/590/27-63-61), whose owner, Annie Ange, is indeed an angel. The charming fully outfitted bungalows open right onto gorgeous Flamands Beach, and Annie’s La Langouste serves up some of the best lobster anywhere. Le Village St-Jean (590/590/27-61-39) is another cordial family-run operation, just up the hill from St-Jean beach, with simple chic cottages offering stunning views.
Central budget accommodations are harder to find, but you can’t go wrong with Les Mouettes (590/590/27-77-91), which offers several basic but comfy bungalows with kitchenettes right on Lorient Beach. On Morne Vitet, L’Hostellerie des Trois Forces (590/590/27-61-25) is a breeze-swept mountaintop aerie run by astrologer Hubert Delamotte. Cozy cottages are decorated to appeal to individual signs, the panoramas are stunning, and Hubert and his wife Ginette offer an exceptionally good restaurant as well.
Dining is frightfully expensive on this exclusive island; even though most menus have been simplified over the years to utilize only the freshest available (and often most readily attainable) ingredients, St. Barts still offers epicurean experiences galore. Diners benefit from the gastronomic gallivanting of young French chefs eager to see the world before they settle down back home to pursue Michelin recognition. Most eateries are intimate, offering unique food, setting, and/or ambiance. The elegant hotels (restaurant of the same name in Carl Gustav, Le Gaïac in Le Toiny, Le Taïno in Christopher, Eden Rock’s The Rock and Sand Bar, Le Case de l’Isle in Isle de France, Bartolomeo in the Guanahani) present superlative French cuisine. Others specialize in fresh seafood or Creole cuisine whose exotic seasonings ignite the palate. Look for specialties such as crabe farci (spicy stuffed crab), feroce (avocado with shredded, spicy codfish called chiquetaille), accras (cod fritters), blaff (seafood simmered in seasoned soup), and boudin (spicy blood sausage).
Although not necessary at lunch (generally the bigger meal of day for locals and a cheaper option save for occasional prix fixe menus), we strongly urge calling ahead for dinner reservations (indeed, the hottest tables should be booked before your stay – unless you befriend the hotel GM or tip the concierge very well). Service, as elsewhere in the Caribbean, is not brisk. A 15% gratuity is often assessed on restaurant bills (service compris); additional tips are optional. Villa renters will enjoy shopping at traiteurs (takeout/caterers), patisseries (decadent desserts), boulangeries (heavenly baked goods), and wine shops stocked with the finest French bottles. Here’s just a small taste of centrally located eateries. Bon appétit!
Match (St-Jean, 590/590/27-68-16), across the street from the airport, is arguably the island’s best supermarket, with an enticing selection of well-priced wines, French cheeses, pâtés, cured meats, and fresh. Head to La Rôtisserie (Rue du Roi Oscar II, Gustavia, 590/590/27-63-13; St- Centre Vaval, St-Jean, 590/590/29-75-69) for exotic groceries and picnic fixings (Iranian caviar, Fouchon gourmet goodies). The fresh, fairly priced take-out goodies change daily (get there before noon for the best selection): quiches, terrines, pissalidière (onion tart), poached salmon, roast chicken, delectable pastries, et al. Maya’s To Go (St-Jean, 590/590/29-83-70) is operated by the famous island restaurateurs; you can also savor the fab take-out – delicious brioches, salads (tabouleh, lentil), quiches, lasagna, lobster, foie gras, rack of lamb, and more – on the simple, breezy patio (with WiFi access), watching the planes. Kiki é Mo (St-Jean, 590/590/27-90-65) is an Italian-inspired gourmet deli reminiscent of those American owner American I.B. Charneau loved back home in Short Hills, New Jersey. Named after her sons Keefer and Marlon, it’s a cute mint-and-yellow Creole caze dishing out yummy pizzas, pastas, and panini (you’re in luck if the lobster stew’s available). The espresso’s predictably excellent and the grocery section tantalizes with premium Italian products: prosciutto to porcini to Parmesan. La Cave (Rue de Général de Gaulle, Gustavia, 590/590/27-63-21) is one of several fine spots for wine (more than 300 selections) and gourmet delicacies (foie gras from Périgord), as well as an admirable selection of hand-rolled cigars (including the tempting Cubanos).
On the high-end of the scale, we really loathe choosing between the beachfront restaurants at Eden Rock and Isle de France, so we’ll opt for one of the last bastions of formal French dining on St. Barts, the remote but romantic Le Gaïac (Anse de Toiny, 590/590/27-88-88) in the elegant Le Toiny hotel. The dinner menu showcases the kitchen’s seriousness: wood pigeon baked in clay shell, roast duck in an orange-cardamom sauce, shrimp and truffle risotto with garlic cream, and delectable crêpes suzettes flambéed tableside; the extravagant, all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch is a revered tradition.
Le Lafayette Club (Grand Cul de Sac; 590/590/27-62-51) remains the quintessential St. Barts eatery, open only for lunch. The place actually advertises itself as “where the elite meet to eat…” and surprisingly, they do. While the food is overpriced and merely competent, this beachfront bôite enjoys location, location, location and amuses its clientele with fabulous people-watching and impromptu fashion shows curated by the onsite boutique. The must here is the celebrated – if extravagant – lobster pasta salad.
L’Esprit de Salines (Anse du Grande Saline, 590 590/52-46-10) is the brainchild of Christophe Cretin, Guillaume Hennequin and chef Jean-Charles (J.C.) Guy, all formerly of Maya’s. The open-air caze, splashed in seashell colors, sits beneath a craggy escarpment, protected from the elements by lush gardens just steps from the water. Affable, attentive, attractive waitstaff and sensual music contribute to the sexy atmosphere. The global menu changes daily: you might savor Moroccan pumpkin soup, marinated fresh mussels with Muscat de Frontignan, Thai seared scallops with passionfruit sauce, or a decadent gâteau aux deux chocolats Valrhona. Christophe will finish your meal off with lemongrass rum.
Charming, charismatic Adam Rajner owns the evergreen Le Sapotillier (Rue du Centenaire, Gustavia, 590/590/27-60-28), another spot for classic French fare (seared fois gras’ frog’s legs; duck confit; snail lasagna with spinach and walnuts in Roquefort zabaglione) complemented by Adam’s superlative (if pricey) wine list. This is one of the island’s most romantic boîtes: dine either in the intimate caze with brick and stone walls, exquisite white linen tablecloths, handpainted chairs, and boldly hued art naïf, or, head to the courtyard underneath the spreading branches of a majestic sapodilla tree.
On the (high) moderate side, longtime institution Maya’s (Public Beach; 590/590/27-75-73) epitomizes barefoot chic down to the glorified picnic tables on the water’s edge. Randy and Maya Gurley are consummate hosts (though yes, regulars get preferential treatment and seating, and service can be surly). The Asian-tinged set menu changes daily, but even the usually excellent seafood takes a backseat to the extraordinary sunsets. Wall House (La Pointe, Gustavia, 590/590/27-71-83) is another exemplary eatery, this one with amiable owners, scintillating harbor views, warm and gracious service, rotating art exhibits in the cozy wine bar, and superb grilled items and bistro fare with flair (goat cheese napoleon, sautéed foie gras with rhubarb compote, spit-roasted grouper, pesto gnocchi); the prix fixe lunch and five-course dinner menus are the island’s top value. K’fé Massaï (Centre Oasis, Lorient, 590/590/52-96-17 and 29-76-78) is another sterling value that attracts a sexy crowd; the eclectic food (samon tartare with grapefruit, roasted sea bass with sesame and fennel puree) isn’t as exotic as the ethnotropic décor (African masks and carvings, Haitian artworks, vividly hued stemware) and steamy music selection. There are plentiful niches to lounge, eat, drink, and stargaze (both types). La Marine (Rue Jeanne d’Arc, Gustavia, 590/590/27-68-91) is now run by the talented, fashionable Carole Gruson, who gussied up this standby’s tired décor (the deck right on the harbor is sublime). Seafood reigns supreme, especially Thursday night, when locals in-the-know make a run on mussels (steamed with white wine and garlic) fresh off the boat from Brittany. Le Rivage (Grand Cul de Sac, 590/590/27-82-42) is another popular, affordable beachfront brasserie. We adore the gazpacho, enormous salads (warm chèvre with bacon, classic Niçoise), ultra-fresh grilled seafood, yummy Creole specialties (try the Assiette Antillaise – West Indian Platter – of blood sausage, crab and cod fritters), and practically definitive tarte tatin.
Aside from cute crêperies, pizzerias and burger joints, budget here is a relative term. Still, Eddy’s (Gustavia, 590/590/27-54-17) is definitely one of the great St. Barts values. Despite several incarnations in different buildings, this has remained an island institution, in part thanks to the convivial owner himself, as well as the fun funky surroundings (including basket-weave ceiling, grass mats, wildly colored art, handcarved chairs, garden setting), and surprisingly affordable food (try the smashing barbecued ribs, green papaya salad, chicken curry with coconut sauce, or mango mousse). Bar B. Q. (Rue du Roi Oscar II, Gustavia, 590/590/51-00-05) is the spot for genuine Spanish (and southwestern) tapas such as coriander-garlic shrimp and Serrano ham, not to mention gigantic wooden platters piled high with American-style ribs and other grilled meats. The bar is a popular hangout with terrific mojitos and a large-screen plasma TV broadcasting sporting events. The cherished local haunt, The Hideaway (Vaval Center, St-Jean, 590/590/27-63-62), is nicknamed Chez Andy or Andy’s after the amazingly tall, fun-loving owner Andy Hall. It advertises “warm beer, corked wine and view of the car park,” and the décor is, um minimal . . . but locals (not to mention such celeb fans as Paul Simon and Cameron Diaz) know the food rocks (especially at the price). Try the gorgonzola salad with walnuts and bacon, snapper with coriander and lime, veal Milanese, escargots, and best pizza on island (delish four-cheese and fruits de mer). An already lively experience is topped by a bottomless carafe of free vanilla or orange rum.
For many aficionados, St. Barts’ nightlife consists of a leisurely gourmet dinner capped by a Cubano cum cognac, armagnac or aged rum. Yet there are several delightful spots – casual to cosmopolitan – to savor a sunset cocktail or after-dinner liqueur, often to the accompaniment of slinky cabaret singers or pianists. And of course, we know the coolest hotspots where an occasional famous bod might dance on the table.
The A-list makes a beeline to Nikki Beach (Plage-de-Saint-Jean, 590/590/27-64-64 ), part of the chain of super-hot high-octane party-hearty clubs (other outposts include the original in South Beach, Marbella, and St. Tropez). The St. Barts version is arguably the most hedonistic, exclusive, decadent, and downright outrageous, complete with split-level decks, tiki huts, and four-poster beds to encourage intimacy. Staffers are quite possibly more gorgeous and glam than the model crowd. Nearby, beautiful lacquered, carved tables and billowing gauzy curtains in vivid reds, blues, and yellows provide shade and flair at La Plage (St-Jean, 590/590/27-53-13) in the très chic Tom Beach hotel. The partying here is a tad less frenzied, but every day from 2pm on DJ Max, Franky, and Guillaume Mas spin Euro-pop, disco, funk, and soca for an effortlessly cool crowd.
Sunset at the “Goose” is as close to sacrosanct tradition as St. Barts gets: The terrace restaurant at the hilltop Carl Gustaf (Rue des Normands, Gustavia, 590/590/27-82-83 or 29-79-00) provides superb panoramas of Gustavia’s adorable Creole houses and yachts in harbor; vividly hued specialty cocktails match the sun’s pyrotechnics while jazz/classical stylings on the piano provide the civilized soundtrack. We can’t overlook (pun intended) La Mandala (Rue Thiers, Gustavia, 590/590/27-96-96), which likewise perches on the hillside offering scintillating sunset views; its fun, funky, Zen-like interior (encompassing Buddhas, huge painted earthenware frogs, and hand-shaped ashtrays), happening bar scene, and reasonably priced Thai-French fusion (conch in puff pastry, prawns in ginger sauce, fish tempura with kimchee sauce) create a charged, sexy atmosphere. The same owners (Boubou, with his associate, former French tennis-star Yannick Noah) and chef run the oh-so-trendy, jungle-themed Do Brazil (Shell Beach, Gustavia, 590/590/29-06-66), where the clientele, food, and views are equally seductive (we also love it for a quiet lunch).
Two venerable Gustavia bars, L’Oubli (Rue du Bord-de-Mer, Gustavia, 590/590/27-70-06) and Le Select (Rue du Roi Oscar II, Gustavia, 590-27-86-87) stare at each other the street. The former is a favorite of French visitors (delicious runny croque monsieurs for breakfast or a late-night snack). Americans and yachties usually prefer the latter, a classic shanty founded by Marius Stackelborough over 50 years ago. Its garden eatery is dubbed “Cheeseburger in Paradise” in homage to honorary St. Barthian Jimmy Buffett, who supposedly penned his “theme song” here (don’t believe the claims, since it was actually written in Roatan, but Mr. Parrothead did own a hotel here). Come evening Le Select often rocks with live music (once in a blue moon Jimmy Buffett even performs); the Marius Special (double bacon cheeseburger) is marvelous. A dive in the best sense, Le Repaire (Quai de la République, Gustavia, 590/590/27-72-48) is a popular brasserie (with fine daily fish specials) overlooking the harbor and perpetually bopping to a reggae/soca beat. Pool tables and live music on weekends keep it going later than most St. Barts eateries.
Outside of Gustavia, is Le Ti St-Barth (Pointe Milou, 590/590/27-97-71), a spot so festive that noise ordinance violations mandated earlier closings, although the ambiance (think frat party organized by Paris Hilton) remains anything-goes. Theme nights are huge here, and the festivities are practically pagan-chic, celebrating everything from high tides to full moons. Food is uneven but often great (desserts sport such titillating names like “Nymph’s Thighs”), the live music energetic, the décor sultry (pillow-strewn banquettes, Indian-silk-topped tables, torchlit terrace), the crowd young and provocatively dressed.
New this season, Bar’Tô (Guanahani, Grand Cul de Sac, 590/590/27-66-60 and 27-70-70) may become the latest lounge hotspot. Ex-Swedish model Alex Dumas was snagged from Nikki Beach to oversee the action; her DJ husband Jacques Dumas ensures the music invariably hits the right notes for the attractive 30-something crowd. Light supper and dessert menus are available from the superb Bartolomeo restaurant next door. The elegant décor mixes colors, textures, and lighting to flattering seductive effect: exquisite glass and ceramics to stylish fabrics to local woodcarvings and artworks.
Live Music & Discothéques
Taïno Lounge (Sofitel Christopher, Pointe Milou, 590/590/27-63-63) features a slinky duo, chanteuse Nilce and pianist Philippe Nardone, performing selections “from the Copacabana to Montmartre,” Aznavour to Astrud Gilberto to zouk. Bête à Z’ailes (Gustavia, 590/590/29-74-09) aka BAZ, features live entertainment, tapas, sushi, and inventive cocktails; the action’s right on the deck, so you feel you can eavesdrop on the adjacent yachts. La Case à Nikki (Gustavia, 590/590/27-99-88) is the best address for partying until dawn; the intimate room is always sizzling, especially on “Studio 54” and “Magic Soul” nights. Yacht Club (6 Rue Jeanne d’Arc, Gustavia, 590/590/49-25-33) is run by Carole Gruson of Le Ti fame (above); the old building is filled with billowing white drapes (harbor views are sensational), each night is themed, DJs Franky and Chaya spin funk to retro, drinks are available by the bottle only, and competitive dressing is in (it’s one of the few places where long pants are de rigueur).
Shopping for the latest fashions is as essential a part of a St. Barts holiday as beach-hopping. Duty-free luxury items (jewelry, perfumes, crystal, chic French and Italian haute couture and prêt-a-porter) and charming, local handicrafts (quaint colorful fishing boat or Creole caze models, intricate woven straw goods) will satisfy even the most demanding, discriminating fashion fascists. Gustavia’s boutiques are an eye-popping, mind-boggling display of conspicuous consumption, displayed almost fetishistically in immaculate surroundings recalling the designers along Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré in Paris. The Quai de la République (nicknamed “Rue du Couturier”), right on the harbor, rivals New York’s Madison Avenue or Paris’s Avenue Montaigne for upscale designer retail, including Dior, Louis Vuitton, Tod’s, Bulgari, Cartier, and Hermès; the latest opening is a boutique of Renato Nucci run by his wife Edith (a huge St. Barts fan). Surprisingly, prices are often a tad lower than in the States (even with the Euro exchange rate). Gustavia’s Carré d’Or Plaza houses more top-notch galleries and shops, as do St-Jean’s La Savane Commercial Center and La Villa Créole. You can’t go wrong with our favorite local boutiques.
Black Swan (Le Carré d’Or, Gustavia, 590/590/27-65-16) offers an unparalleled selection of bathing suits in a wide range of styles and sizes, a great selection of St. Barts T-shirts, as well as fanciful toe rings and anklets and other oh-so-chic accessories. Mia Zia (La Villa Créole, St-Jean, 590/590/27-55-48) dazzles with brilliant Caribbean-hued knitwear, striped espadrilles, unique linens, and wonderful Moroccan accessories (including tasseled silk and cotton shawls, and caftans). L’Atelier de Fabienne (Rue de la République, Gustavia, 590/590/27-63-31) sells Fabienne Miot’s own striking jewelry, such as black pearls or semi-precious gems set in irregularly shaped gold nuggets, as well as works by renowned designers such as Kabana and Bellon. Privilège (Gustavia, 590/590/27-67-43; St. Jean, 590/590/27-72-08) is the leading perfume and cosmetics store, the fragrance of everyone’s products from Armani to Zegna wafting into the street. Stéphane et Bernard (585 Rue de la République, Gustavia; 590/590/27-65-69) is owned by the two enterprising eponymous men who exhibit impeccable fashion sense; they occasionally offer a better selection and/or prices than the individual haute couture boutiques. Soigné mannequins are draped with the latest handpicked Sonia Rykiel, Kenzo, Hervé Leger, Gaultier, and Thierry Mugler creations. M’Bolo (Les Hauts du Carré d’Or, Gustavia, 590/590/27-90-54) is scented by local spices for sale, along with flavorful rums; hand-painted T-shirts, bags, and blouses; and pareos (sarongs).
La Ligne St. Barth (Route de Saline, Lorient; 590/590/27-82-63) features Hervé Brin’s line of beauty products and scents extracted from Caribbean flora such as frangipani and passionfruit. The Brin family settled on St. Barts three centuries ago and claims many concoctions have been passed down over generations; all are beautifully packaged in miniature glass flasks and offerings include papaya peeling cream, melon tonic lotion, pineapple cream masks, and avocado oil. The store/lab resembles a Creole chattel house crossed with a ski chalet –- and smells better than many a restaurant. Les Artisans (Rue du Roi Oscar II, Gustavia, 590/590/27-50-40) is one of the many fine galleries, especially for crafts from basketry to ceramics to whimsical jewelry; ask them about visiting individual ateliers of leading local artists such as Robert Danet, Jackson Questel (who creates assemblages from recycled materials), Pompi (AKA Louis Ledée who owns an out-of-the-way gallery near Le Toiny and paints typical Creole scenes in bold, almost Fauvist colors), and Hannah Moser. Made-in-St-Barth (La Villa Créole, St-Jean, 590/590/27-56-57) is a fine source for local artworks including vivid art naïf, local crafts from Latagnie, lovely glazed tiles and plates by J.Y. Froment, as well as locally made essential oils and infused rums.
When To Go
You pay through the (expensively remodeled) nose for privilege staying on the island, especially during la plus haute saison (roughly December 22-January 3). Hotels are booked far in advance and usually require a 10-14-day stay, while villa guests comprise a virtual Who’s Who of celebs and CEOs. Figure on nearly double the regular “high season” rates. Otherwise December 15-April 15 is generally considered peak season. Shoulder season is early November (tail end of hurricane season when the island slowly reopens) through mid-December and mid-late April. Best bang for your buck is early December or mid-April, though a few hotels lower rates January (when the boutiques offer clearance sales on their designer merchandise). Rates plummet during off-season (April 15-November 15), though the island often feels deserted and many establishments close for 2-3 months from August on.
Gastronomic Festival at Hôtel Guanahani’s Bartolomeo restaurant helps inaugurate the season in late November, bringing in acclaimed chefs like Marc Meneau of the three-star-Michelin L’Esperance and, in 2005, Cindy Pawlcyn of Napa’s acclaimed Mustards and Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. The annual two-week St. Barts Music Festival, in mid-January, showcases an international collection of virtuoso performers, ranging from rising stars of the Paris Opera Ballet to legendary jazz bands like the Monty Alexander Trio. Carnival (early-mid February) ushers in several days of costumed partying, culminating with a huge Mardi Gras parade in Gustavia and Mercredi des Cendres (Ash Wednesday) when a procession of revelers garbed in très chic black and white lead then burn Vaval, the spirit of French Caribbean Carnival. Late March/early April sees the popular Saint-Barts Bucket, a three-day mega-yacht regatta held by and for the owners of these leviathan boats (entry is limited primarily to those at least 100 feet long), attracting a field of 25-30 major sailors and cheering throngs. The summer off-season sees the most colorful folkloric festivals: fêtes with fireworks, fishing competitions, live beguine bands, regattas, and Patron Saint feast days at nearly every village.
High season (winter)
December 15-April 15, especially Christmas week and February
Low season (winter)
November 15-December 20; mid- to late-April
Best bang for your buck
First two weeks of December and mid-April, sometimes January depending on the hotel
St. Barts isn’t easily accessible, which is part of its allure. Most US carriers fly into St. Maarten’s Queen Juliana International Airport; St. Barts’ Aéroport de St-Jean is only 10 minutes by air. USAirways and American fly regularly into St. Maarten; Delta and Continental also make non-stop and connecting trips from their eastern US hubs. Winair offers several flights daily from St. Maarten in season while Air Caraïbes links the French West Indies (St. Maarten and Guadeloupe). Lower-priced St. Barth Commuter usually offers one flight a day from St. Maarten. Both Winair and St. Barth Commuter also offer excellent charter service (14-seaters) for large groups or those with money to burn. No matter which airline you choose, arriving in St. Barts remains one of the Caribbean’s greatest thrill rides: You fly directly between two giant hills (one with a large foreboding Swedish cross!); the pilot dives like a seabird almost straight down before pulling up sharply at the last second on touchdown, stopping just shy of the beach. Despite recent improvements and expansions, it still feels like the STOL planes will skid into the sea after the sharp descent. Wheee!
Make sure your St. Maarten flight arrives during the day (the St. Barts Aéroport de St-Jean lacks lights for night landings). If possible, bring only carry-on luggage or ensure your primary airline will check luggage all the way through. This allows you to use the Transit Gate and avoid St. Maarten’s customs and immigration lines. You must confirm your inter-island flight, even during off-season, or risk forfeiting your reservation. Be prepared to fly at a more convenient time for the airlines if a scheduled booking doesn’t meet its fuel quota. Bags sometimes arrive on later flights, so pack a change of clothes, any required medicine, and a bathing suit in your carry-on.
Ferry service to and from St. Maarten is geared more toward day-trippers rather than flight connections. The Office du Tourisme website also lists water taxi providers. The largest ferry, Voyager (590/590/87-10-68; RT 65€, 52 for day-trippers, 2-11 32€, under 2 free; per person), links Marigot (capital of the French side of the island, roughly a 20-minute cab ride from the airport) with Gustavia’s Quai de la République. The bumpy 75-minute crossing leaves twice daily; Wednesday and Sunday departures are from Oyster Pond (a 40-minute trip, but longer taxi ride from Juliana). The fare includes port fees, open bar, and snacks. The newer $5 million U.K.-owned Rapid Explorer (€89 round trip, reservations essential; 590/590/27-60-33; is a technologically advanced, speedier catamaran with three daily (twice Sunday) 40-minute crossings between St. Maarten’s Chesterfield Marina in Pointe Blanche, 15-20 minutes’ taxi ride from Juliana. This is a far more luxurious – and stable – experience; the bright, air-conditioned cabin features plasma screen DVD players and a snack bar.
The best bet for air/land deals is via such discounters as Orbitz.com; Expedia; and Travelocity. The Insider’s Guide to St. Barths and Office du Tourisme offer occasional shopping, dining, and recreational discounts. If you rent a villa or reserve a hotel room through Sibarth, Wimco, or St. Barths Properties, they can often arrange charter flights and package deals including rental car (a necessity wherever you stay).
Getting Around St. Barts
Most hotels and villa companies offer (usually free) transfers to and from the airport and, often, ferry dock. Check the tourist office website for updates (official authorization is still pending) on the St-Barth Shuttle (it was scheduled to debut by Christmas 2005 but has been delayed yet again). Four air-conditioned minibuses will ply two main routes (departing from Gustavia to Flamands or Lorient and Grand Fond) continuously from roughly 8am-11pm. Fare will likely be 10€.
Taxis are unmetered; technically there are flat rates for shorter rides, with the fare increasing by time increments (the tariff is 50% higher 8pm-6am and Sundays and holidays). In reality, cabbies name a fixed, immoveable rate (figure 10-25€). There are taxi stands at the St-Jean airport (590/27-75-81) and in Gustavia (590/27-66-31).
Rental cars are de rigueur, because absolutely NO one, darling, stays at the same beach. And you’ll want to explore the restaurants too. Always inspect brakes and gears before accepting a vehicle. You need a valid driver’s license, and there’s usually a three-day minimum in high season. Book waaaay in advance during peak periods, such as Christmas week and February (when you make hotel or villa reservations ask if they have their own cars for rent). Recognizable names include Avis (590/27-71-43), Budget (590/27-66-30), Europcar (590/27/-75-32), and Hertz (590/27-71-14), though don’t expect island franchises to offer special frequent user rates. Painted signs pointing to a destination are nailed to posts at all crossroads, but get a map. Maximum speed is 50kph. Most island cars are minuscule. The Smart car (made by Mercedes-Benz) and Mini Moke (a glorified golf cart) are unique St. Barts options although they’re being phased out in favor of small 4WD vehicles. The cheapest model, the stick-shift Suzuki Samurai (usually included in hotel and villa off-season packages) lacks power steering and A/C. For more comfortable rides opt for such newer Suzuki lines as Alto, Ignis and Liana.