I am lucky to have spent a lot of time on St Barts. People are always surprised when I describe it as a low-key, soulful destination. Particularly at this time of year when we are inundated with photos of the latest celebrity “it couple” cavorting in their barely-there bathers on one of the twenty-odd pristine beaches of St Barts, giving credence to the over-the-top hype that does such a disservice to this chic, understated island paradise. Not since “put another shrimp on the barbie” has a stereotype been so devastatingly incongruous with the true nature of a place. As I write this, my gag reflex is going spastic at the thought of Lindsay tweeting herself in a bikini on a yacht in Gustavia Harbour, or of Avril and her new boyfriend skulking around St Jean with their tats and cadaver-colored skin looking like they’ve seen the inside of a few too many rave tents.
Unfortunately, these are the images that often steal the thunder of what is possibly the most mellow island in the Caribbean. And herein lies the paradox that is St Barts – a sleepy, laid back little island community with a juiced-up, high-rolling reputation for bravado and excess. To get a sense of the true St Barts, we must first separate the man from the myth; recognize where the identity of the island ends and the image of the clientele begins.
Caveat Emptor: It’s probably important to mention at this point that every traveler has a unique vision of what they are looking for in their vacation experience. As such, the view expressed here will not appeal to everyone. As I have written previously (ad nauseum), I have three constants that I base my travel philosophy around – chic, comfort and affordability – the trifecta of a memorable travel experience – with a little adventure thrown in to keep things interesting. While an American Express black card is certainly a handy travel accessory here, St Barts does not have to be funded by deep pockets to be enjoyed. This I can speak to first hand.
St Barts is known for its beauty – that’s a universal gimme. The landscapes are extraordinary. The beaches are legendary. It’s not for nothin’ that the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds set up small compounds on the island (at opposite ends, funnily enough). And yes, there is an unmistakable air of affluence, but it is not an in-your-face Miami Beach or even St Tropez kind of vibe. Rather, it’s an understated chic with a really warm energy and smooth Bohemian aftertaste. Very French and very approachable. I remember the first time I came to the island I saw a small group of some of the most beautiful people I have ever seen – locals – just naturally stunning, looking effortlessly chic as always, with their tanned skin, flowy cotton peasant shirts and cool vibe, sitting on a wall smoking a joint. Right in the middle of Lorient. I responded strongly to their aesthetic, but on a more primal level, to the freedom and ease with which they clearly lead their lives.
Not surprisingly, St Barts has a well-documented history of attracting a confluence of artists, musicians, writers, eccentrics – people who long to go off-the-grid in an environment that values privacy and artistic expression. This may well be the key to the vibe going on in St Barts. The locals seem to understand their brand very well, and work diligently to maintain that mellow status-quo that acts as a lightening rod for those looking to buy indulgences and throw wads of cash against salvation, if only for a week or two. According to Ron Berthnal of Traveler Writer’s Magazine, the locals have been able to maintain this atmosphere, “by keeping prices high, the airport small, and by not selling building permits to the highest bidder. They are presently fighting a Burger King franchise that wants in, and are raising passenger port charges to keep cruise ships out. Bruno Magras, the current mayor of St Barts, can trace his island ancestors to the 17th century. He vows that the island will never become another Caribbean mass tourism destination. ‘There is always a thin line between development and exploitation,’ Mayor Magras said. ‘We are such a small island, with limited space, so we must be very careful with our resources and tourist levels.’” As you would expect, buying into Heaven doesn’t come cheap, but the result is that when you are on the island, as if in Heaven, you have a sense of looking down upon the rest of the world, poor, downtrodden souls caught up in the mayhem that is real life, seemingly miles, even lifetimes away.
Speaking from personal experience, we felt this vibe instantaneously – no meditation or tuning-in required. The first time we came to St Barts was for my cousin Doug’s wedding – a glorious occasion in and of itself. Stuart flew in the day after we arrived, having traveled all night and coming off a particularly hairy conference. As God is my witness, I watched him disembark from the teeny Air Caribe plane, still wearing his business suit, and literally saw his shoulders drop, and all the tension slide right off of them. On all the trips we have taken and all the stunning destinations we have visited, I have never seen him respond to something so quickly, so instinctively. In the minute that it took him to climb down those plane stairs, his body and attitude were as relaxed as someone on their second week of the most fabulous, relaxing holiday ever. I found this transformation remarkable and have frequently shared that story. For Stuart especially, St Barts retains that magic each and every time we visit. Its like mental medicine for him, and as the selfless, ever-obedient wife, I try to make sure he gets a good dose as often as possible.
In terms of practicalities, the most critical decision concerning St Barts is when to visit. Rule number one – never, NEVER go in high season. I would sooner run stark naked and blindfolded through a cactus field than set one foot on St Barts during the high season months. True to its history of being a refuge, we go to St Barts to escape the maddening din of the crowd and to reconnect with good friends – locals whose jobs are tourism focused. Holidaying in high season would not only make it impossible to achieve the travel experience we’re after, but it would undoubtedly cramp our socializing time with friends who mean too much to us to short shrift the already limited time we are able to spend with them.
Certainly, from a budget standpoint, there is absolutely no value in descending on the island during the months of January through March. Villa and hotel prices high season are at least double the low season rates. We like to go in October or November – low, low season when the island is practically devoid of tourists and the locals are just returning from their annual pilgrimages to France. Weather isn’t really a consideration – there’s not a whole lot of variation – it’s generally somewhere between fabulously warm and fabulously warmer. Rain comes and goes throughout the year, never in any appreciable volume. Hurricanes are generally paid to spin well away from the island, with the odd exception actually touching down on the privileged shores.
So, the only real consideration of traveling off-season is that some restaurants and stores will be closed until early November. Certainly not the vast majority, but it is something to keep in mind. The last time we were there was in October, which was divinely quiet. It was a huge treat for Stuart to have his buddies meet us at the airport and whisk him away to a bar where the Rugby World Cup was playing and he could settle in with the locals to cheer on France and reconnect in a testosterone-bonding way.
In terms of accommodation, look into renting a villa, which honestly can be found to work within most budgets. Again, the key is low season. There are several agencies that specialize in villa rentals. We book with Ici et La and have always had a really good experience using them. We have stayed in Vitet, Marigot and St Jean and still haven’t decided which we love best. Vitet and Marigot are residential and a little more remote. Vitet is situated higher on the mountain, so a little more private with views to take your breath away, as can the steep driveway to get to the house. Marigot is closer to the water, and still feels somewhat removed from the hustle and bustle. Author’s note: Privacy is important to us, as being naked noodle is more or less our modus operandi while on a tropical holiday. Therefore, we seek out houses with either distance or high walls in an effort to spare anyone with a heart condition or small children who may unwittingly catch a glimpse of our lily-white selves.
The last time we visited we tried something different (budget conscious) and stayed at a fabulous little hotel with individual mini-villas called Village St Jean. Situated just up the hill from St Jean’s main drag and beach, it’s an easy walk to be right in the thick of things. St Jean is a centralized town and main hub, with a killer beach, excellent restaurants and truly great shops. There are a couple of apartments that rent for very reasonable prices, as well. Les Terrasses de St Jean, which runs about $1470 for a week in low season and Les Jardins de St Jean, about $1450. Information on both can be found on Ici et La’s website, as well as a multitude of other properties to suit specific tastes and budgets.
I love St Jean. Truly. And I find that I never really need to venture out of St Jean – everything I want is right there, within an easily-navigable square mile. With its sandy sidewalks, great selection of restaurants, hip boutiques, completely drop-dead stunning beach and happy mellow vibe, I can quite easily amuse myself for days. There’s also a distinct advantage to staying in town, particularly in consideration of the roads, which are tricky enough to navigate sober, let alone after a bottle of wine.
In terms of local restaurants, the Hideaway is always popular and reasonably priced. Andy, the tall Englishman owner, will generally greet you by name, as he frantically dashes back and forth among the always-full tables. Right next to Andy’s is another great option – the best take out chicken on the island – cheap and cheerful, just how we like it. Famous Nikki Beach is right across the street, and an ideal place to go for lunch, or for a night cap. The techno music signals a good time, and the crowd, true to form, is hip and impossibly gorgeous.
Just up from Nikki is our personal fave place to spend a day on the beach – the Tom Beach hotel. More accurately, parked on a lounger in front of La Plage – their groovy, right-on-the-beach , totally Boho chic restaurant. Here, you can easily pass the day while making only the slightest suggestions of movement; forward into the clear, turquoise water of Baie de St Jean or backwards to the funky outdoor restaurant strewn with comfortable pillows and enchanting staff for a delicious lunch over a bottle of Rosé. Rent a lounge chair and just plant yourself – people watching never disappoints and as with all beaches on the island, tops are absolutely optional.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that St Barts has a few really good, well-stocked markets. When you arrive, it’s customary to pick up your Jimny and hop across the street to the superstore to provision your villa. Food prices at the stores are pretty typical by island standards. As another St Barts visitor has mentioned, the three cheapest things on the island are booze, cigarettes and gas. Not so bad. We have a fondness for L’Oasis, the little market in Lorient, but regardless, food is plentiful and fresh. Cooking is an excellent way to save some money. And somehow, fuffing around someone ELSE’s fabulous kitchen takes the sting out of the fact that you are actually cooking on your holiday. But you will see – by the second visit to St Barts, you will enjoy cooking because it will be for guests – friends you have made on the island who are happy to see you, regardless of your cooking ability. Admittedly, I am NOT the best cook, but what I lack in talent I more than make up for in presentation and sell-in ability. A little flourish goes a long way.
Having said that, you won’t want to miss sampling some of the restaurants. Just know that meals with wine will not be inexpensive. Some restaurants we like that are pretty moderately priced by St Barts standards: Hideaway in St Jean, La Mandala, Buccaneer and Le Vietnam restaurant, all in Gustavia. Two absolute musts are Do Brazil (tree house chic meets the beach) on Shell Beach and Le Grain de Sel in Saline, where frequently you can catch sight of the local celebrity, a gentle iguana – called Josephine the last time we were there – who likes to mingle with the guests, scare the beejeezus out of them, and receive scraps of food in return. Incidentally, Grain de Sel is an excellent breakfast spot with the best hot relish/sauce I have ever tasted.
In addition, there are a number of takeaway places that offer everything from pizza (Le Bouchon in Lorient) to gorgeous nibblies and sandwiches (Mayas To Go, by the airport). Grab a bite and a bottle of wine, and picnic at any one of the umpteen beaches – knock yourself out. Certainly the best deal in town is at Le Select, the famous bar in Gustavia and inspiration for Jimmy Buffet’s famous song, “Cheeseburger in Paradise”. Here, you can get a beer and a burger for less that $10 while meeting a lot of interesting and colorful characters.
Another key thing to know about St Barts is that you must rent a car. Car rental is not expensive, but it is mandatory if you want to get out and explore. You don’t need a special license, just a strong spine and shock-proof kidneys. Most people rent jeeps as the 4WD can be a major bonus when navigating the many steep roads. (The airport rental lot looks like a Suzuki Jimny dealership). Driving on St Barts is a bit like Mr Toad’s Wild Ride. The roads are bumpy, curvy, unexpected and a little scary. I made the mistake the first trip and rented a manual Jeep – something I was really excited about, as I don’t get the chance to drive a stick at home. Word to the wise, when you are driving up a narrow mountain road with a sheer drop on one side and you have to turn around, you better know how to work a clutch like a pro or you will blow it out as quickly as you can say, “Merde!”
Exploring the island is a must. There are so many different beaches to
experience and different vibes to the island. There is something very strong on the southeast side of the island, just past Toiny – an energy that is palpable. Combined with the stark landscape, it is a place that frequently draws me. From here, following the beach road, you veer into the central part of the island, where farms and homesteads of the locals hearken back to the tradition of the Breton and Norman settlers. Get out of the car and walk around – wine taste and take in the atmosphere. It’s unlike anywhere else on the island.
Definitely also take a trip to the northwestern side of the island, which I find very different and just a bit unsettling. Here, the topography is definitely more stark and arid, and the population much less touristy. Drop into Corossol, a little village where you can really get the flavor of the culture and traditions. Here you can see local women, dressed in traditional starched white bonnets known as quichenottes (a corruption of “kiss-me-not”), selling homemade baskets and hats in the markets. Check out Flamands Beach while you’re at it. Anchored by the award-winning Île de France Hotel, the beach is expansive and the water is glorious. And while you’re at it, make sure to check out Gouverneur Beach, as well. While smaller than Flamands, it is a hidden little gem, and generally not a bit crowded.
Continuing further north, er west, you will eventually wind your way to Colombier, the end of the line. Situated high atop a hill, the view of the sea and surrounding islands is worth the trip alone. There is a great hike down to a beautiful, secluded beach. I like to do the hike in the morning, (since running steep hills in the sweltering heat tends to suck the lungs right out of my throat). Rarely have I come across anyone on the trail or on the beach. (Remember – this is low season). The sense of isolation is intoxicating, if the slightest bit eerie.
From the beach in Colombier, if you look up to the left, you will see what remains of the Rockefeller compound. I believe it is uninhabited, but gazing at it, with its 360-degree view of the surrounding ocean, I can imagine how fabulous the lifestyle must have been all those years ago. Truthfully, it’s a bit creepy to see an empty compound purposefully placed, no doubt, at the end of a promontory, solitary in its isolation with only the odd sailboat moored in the little bay below to add any variation to the landscape.
Finally, speaking personally and enthusiastically, a trip to St Barts is not complete unless you pick up a Tahitian pearl necklace from my absolute, hands-down favorite store on the island, if not the planet. If you like big fat, silvery-blue Tahitian pearls, you must head into Bijoux de la Mer. You will lose your mind. Here, you will likely meet Marie or her mom, Maryvonne, who designs the coolest Boho chic pearl jewelry I have ever seen. Ever. EVER. These are the loveliest people and their products – gorgeous Tahitian pearls, shells and sea glass, are all strung onto leather cords – either individually, as in a lariat, or in multiples, as in a gorgeous cluster of grapes. I do not take off my pearl choker – ever – and wear my grape cluster necklace all the time. The style is so distinct that wherever I go in the world, people comment. Word of warning though – plan ahead as these pieces of pearl art – which they truly are – do not come inexpensively. It might not be a bad idea to drip-feed a couple of drinks first – Le Repaire is right next door – before entering the establishment. In my experience, a Bloody Mary or two is an essential shopping accessory. And once the transaction is complete, I like to head over to Le Select and magnanimously buy my husband a $2 beer while preaching my newly-inspired plan to live within my means. I see this as creating balance in the universe. Stuart goes along with it because he’s that sort of a guy.
Last but not least, do make an effort to get to know the locals. Don’t let the fact that you may not speak French get the better of you. These are not snooty people – they will not scoff if you mispronounce a word. Indeed, getting to know the locals is the best way to tap into the island’s soul and make your return visits even more special. Our first trip, we had the great fortune of meeting Vincent Chevalier and his business partner Jimmy Daltry. They own Premium IV, which provides anything and everything you need when visiting St Barts. They are two of the hardest working guys on the island, and also two of the nicest – genuinely good guys. We hire Premium IV to assist us in transiting from St Maarten to St Barts and back – a service worth its weight in gold, particularly when planes heading back to the states are backed up and people are being bumped at an alarming rate. Premium IV’s influence is far-reaching. Trust me, you will be on that flight. They handled my cousin’s wedding, those now three years ago – and seamlessly pulled off an incredibly ambitious and action-packed five-day event for 40+ people. Seamlessly!!! And always with a smile and a moment to sit down over a beer and shoot the breeze. I strongly recommend their services – the fact that they are also totally charming is a bonus.
So – that’s how we were able to blast past the myth and find the true soul of St Barts. Venturing onto these laid-back, tropical shores is an incredible experience – life-changing, many say. We look forward to returning and reconnecting with all things good in this world.