By Paul Mermelstein
Long a lush, tropical playground for Rockefellers, Rothschilds and other millionaires, St. Barts (also called St. Barths), part of the French West Indies, remains a favored destination for sophisticated travelers. The formal name is St. Barthelemy, named for Bartheleme, brother of Christopher Columbus's who discovered the hilly, eight-square-mile volcanic island in 1493.
Although native Carib Indians ferociously resisted colonization, settlers from Brittany and Normandy established a stronghold in 1660, and in 1673 St. Barts became part of France. In 1784, Louis XVI swapped with Sweden's King Gustav III the island for rights to use Sweden's Goteberg harbor. Swedish settlers were soon sailing through the harbor of Gustavia, the capital.
But in 1878, after suffering a string of hurricanes, droughts, yellow fever epidemics and a horrendous fire, Sweden returned the island to France for 320,000 francs. Provisions of this sale required St. Barts to remain duty and tax-free. That encouraged residents to stick around, and it certainly didn't impede the burgeoning tourist industry.
Today, St. Barts is a popular port-of-call for small cruise ships; the small harbor cannot accommodate larger vessels. Moreover, there are no direct flight to St. Barts; US visitors must fly to a major island (St. Martin/St. Maarten, Guadeloupe, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico), then catch a small plane for the short hop to the St. Barts airstrip. Other travelers take the ferry from St. Martin.
The official currency is the Euro. The official language is French as well as Creole, and some words retain traces of 17th-century Norman French. Today, locals appreciate any attempt at their language, so bring a phrase book.
To get around, visitors rent autos, bikes or mopeds. Taxis are expensive and hard to arrange; there's a taxi stand at the airport and another in Gustavia.
Gustavia is a walkable city, with its picturesque harbor full of ritzy yachts. Poised far above is Fort Gustave. Nearby, the hamlet of Lorient on Anse de Lorient is dotted with brightly painted houses. Corossol is another village sprinkled with cottages.
St. Barts is a second home to the Braunfeld family of Oakton, Virginia. "We discovered St. Barts 15 years ago on a day trip from St. Martin, and we fell in love with it instantly," says Diane Braunfeld. "It's been our destination vacation ever since." Diane, husband Joel and 10-year-old daughter Janie have stayed at various St. Barts villas over the years, and five years ago they bought a beachfront villa at the Isle de France on Flamands Beach. They visit every year.
"We can't imagine going to any other island, and we've been to a bunch of them," adds Diane. "The people are the friendliest we've met in the Caribbean, beaches are beautiful, service is unsurpassed, and the food is basically European. There's no place like it, so we stopped looking. When you've found paradise, there's no point in looking around the next corner." She adds this kicker: "The flight in is better than any amusement ride! The runway ends right at the beach!"
St. Barts Villas
While St. Barts is renowned for duty-free shopping, gourmet dining and 22 white-sand beaches (all are public and free), St. Barts' main attraction is its plethora of villa rentals. In fact, the island claims more villas than hotels.
On St. Barts, "villa" can mean anything from a modest cottage to a luxurious estate. High end villas throw in a housekeeper, and gourmands may even hire a private French chef! Prices (listed here in US dollars) vary widely, depending on season, location, size, and amenities. Daily rates range from about $250 per night to $5,000 and up for a sprawling, 6 or 7-bedroom beachfront mansion with private staff. Weekly rates go from around $1,400 to $40,000.
Villas of Distinction
Since 1986, these two upscale villa companies have pampered thousands of traveler many of them repeat customers with more than 50 private rentals with two to five bedrooms. Virtually all have pools; some are beachfront while others are perched on hillsides to afford panoramic views. Many villas come with chefs and other staff. The firm also offers travel packages with discount airfares, car rentals and other services.
St. Barts Hotels
Since St. Barts is off limits to large cruise ships, and its air strip cannot accommodate jumbo jets, hotels tend to be small, adding to their charm. Like villa rates, prices vary widely. Most rates include continental breakfast and transfers to and from the airport. A simple guesthouse tucked away in the hills can cost as little as $125 per night in the low season, while a 5-bedroom luxury suite can run $5,000 or more. Some hotels close from late summer to early fall.
Rue des Normands, Gustavia
Poised high on a hill over looking the port of Gustavia, the super-posh Carl Gustav has 14 suites, each with a private plunge pool. A romantic spot for sunset cocktails, the hotel's classic French restaurant has also been touted as "one of the island's most exceptional dining experiences." Presently undergoing renovation, Carl Gustav will reopen December 15, 2008 and is accepting reservations.
Baie de St.-Jean
Jutting out into St. Jean's Bay, Eden Rock began with just six rooms in the 1950's. Its creator was Dutch aviator Remy de Haenen, reportedly the father of St. Barts tourism. Greta Garbo and Howard Hughes were among the first wave of jet setters. Since 1995, David and Jane Matthews have operated the iconic hotel, which now has 32 beautifully, individually refurbished rooms. You just might spot Cameron Diaz nibbling on tapas in the dining room! White sand beaches offer water sports, and the hotel's lively Sand Bar is a fun lunch spot.
Hotel St.-Barth Isle de France
Baie des Flamands
On this lovely beachfront property, guests are greeted with a sweeping view of the sea from the reception area. All 33 spacious guest rooms come with a safe, mini-fridge fully stocked with complimentary beverages, high speed internet service and other amenities. The hotel's al fresco restaurant serves simple, elegant French cuisine, and other on-site activities include tennis, fitness center and a Molton Brown Spa. Available nearby is horseback riding, windsurfing, boating, scuba diving and other sports.
Located on the Grand Cul de Sac Beach, this intimate hotel, designed by Parisian architect Christian Liaigre, has 37 large suites. Perks include designer linens and towels, roomy showers and sinks of solid black granite. Some have "steeping tubs." Le Sereno's Le Restaurant des Pecheur, flies in fresh ingredients from France, while also plucking fish from local waters. There's also a luxury spa and other amenities.
This budget-priced guesthouse has simple, air conditioned rooms with private bath (shower only, no tub), and kitchenette. Even better, rooms open right onto the beach. No credit cards.
St. Barts Restaurants
St. Barts abounds with marvelous restaurants - at least 76 at last count. Options range from homespun tropical eateries where lunch for two with beer costs less than $50 to exquisite French showplaces where dinner with wine can set you back more than $300. As in Europe, most checks include a service charge, but you should add a little extra.
Rue Sadi-Carnot, Gustavia
Located in downtown Gustavia, Au Port is St. Bart's oldest restaurant. Situated above street level, Au Port is festooned with sailboat models and antiques. The kitchen turns out French fare with tropical panache: Caribbean pumpkin soup, scallops in lime sauce, shrimp dumplings with local vegetables, honey-roasted pumpkin, Creole sea bass and goat stew with bananas au gratin, an island specialty.
Operated by New Englander Randy Gurly and his French-chef wife Maya, this cheerful eatery is appointed with big round tables and brightly-colored canvas chairs. Bill-of-fare changes daily, which might include mahi mahi in Creole sauce, shrimp gumbo, pepper-marinated beef.
Rue du Roi Oscar II, Gustavia
This bright yellow Southeast Asian charmer is perched atop a hill in the heart of town, where diners may choose between the air-conditioned interior or the porch. Showcasing typical Vietnamese dishes with Caribbean flair, the menu offers crispy spring rolls, ginger chicken, caramel pork, and a smattering of Chinese and Thai dishes.
Le Ti St-Barth Caribbean Tavern
At this friendly hilltop hot spot, guests savor Thai beef salad (best beef on the island, says Fodor's), lobster ravioli, grilled tuna and passion fruit sorbet. Folks stick around for great music, a fashion show and dancing - sometimes even on the tables!
La Pointe, Gustavia
Chef Frank makes every culinary creation a memorable experience, especially spit-roasted catch-of-the-day which might be grouper or red snapper, stuffed saddle of lamb, and five-spice honey pineapple duck a memorable experience. Ask about the prix fixe dinner menu, and the harbor view is spectacular.
St. Barts Shopping
As aforementioned, St. Barts is a shoppers dream. Just a few suggestions:
Black Swan Boutique
Villa Creole in St. Jean and Le Carre d'Or, Gustavia.
Both locations offer an impressive array of stylish swim wear (in all sizes) as well as sportswear and souvenir tee shirts, sun hats, sandals and other tropical necessities.
La Cave du Port Franc
Rue de la Republique, Gustavia
Besides a fabulous selection of wines (especially French vintages), this attractive shop carries a variety of spirits, including rums from nearby Guadeloupe and Martinique, local flavored rums and even cacha from Brazil.
Le Carr d'Or Gustavia
After stepping through bright shutter-style doors, customers find flowery skirts, colorful jewelry, airy blouses, silk tunics, shawls and chic handbags. Among designers represented are Antik Batik, (with her ethnic-inspired clothing) Paul & Joe, Virginie Monroe and French designing newcomer, Donal. Check out the collection of beautiful djellabas, long, flowing garments.
St. Barts Spas
Tired after all that shopping? Time to relax at a spa. Many are located in upscale hotels like the previously mentioned Hotel St-Barth Isle de France (Baie des Flamands), and Hotel Eden Rock (Baie de St.-Jean). At the Hotel Guanahani (Grand Cul-de-Sac), the 5,000 square-foot Clarins Spa, designed by local St. Barts architect Phillippe Stouvenot, features rich woods and natural stone. Eight treatment rooms, some with ocean views, offer massages and facial and body treatments, including hydrotherapy. Two rooms are for couples; four have outdoor showers and private patios for outdoor massages. A shaded relaxation area around the pond has a huge Indonesian-style daybed with pillows, ideal for lounging.
Depending on availability, customers not staying at these posh hotels may book spa treatments.
Otherwise, visitors may book independent therapists who provide yoga instruction, reflexology, Thai massage, and other services.
For a culture fix, visit the Municipal Museum on the western arm of Gustavia's Harbor next to the town hall. Set in a restored Swedish warehouse, lively displays recount early life in St Barts with model ships and mock ups of old St. Barts ''cases'' traditional houses with thick walls and tin or straw roofs. Other exhibits include tools, cookware and other items of everyday life.