Scanning the gossip columns each winter you’d think St. Barths was just an exclusive celebrity playground in the French West Indies. But what very few people seem to know is that for those of us who lack the resources for a minimum two week, cash, no plastic, please, slumming with the super models and a case of Cristal over the Christmas holidays kind of vacation, the off peak season on this hippest of hedonistic hideaways finds the island as kissed with sun and joie de vivre at a fraction of the price.
So what if the harbor isn’t packed with the yachts of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone and Naomi Campbell and Puff Daddy aren’t dancing atop the tables at Ti St. Barth. At least you’re not waiting an hour for a table behind Jean Claude Van Damme and some slinky blond with implants. During the breezy carefree summer months, as the 6,000 year round residents breathe a collective sigh of relief, you still get the best of what lures the rock stars, royalty and Rothschilds: the ease and tranquility of an incomparably nonchalant way of life.
The 350 year history behind this rocky, eight-square mile crag of an island is as quietly colorful as the abundant bougainvillea that litters its sunny shores. Discovered by Columbus on his return trip to the New World, the island was named for his brother Bartholome. Yet the first man to fall in love with “Ouanalao” (the island’s original name, given by a wild tribe of Caribbean Indians) was its governor, Longvilliers de Poincy, who established the first colony of French settlers here. Ideally located along the West Indian trade routes, the island was a haven for swashbucklers and pirates — including the evil Monbars, model for Captain Hook in Peter Pan. St. Barths slipped from the French collective memory until Louis XVI decided to trade it to Sweden in exchange for a French shipping port on the Swedish coast. Under the rule of King Gustav III, whose name still lingers on in the capital harbor of Gustavia, the island was granted the status of a free port — the original catalyst for the island’s swift development. A hundred years later the Swedes decided to return it to France with one proviso — the rights granted its inhabitants during the years of Swedish rule must be maintained. Put to a referendum the islanders almost unanimously approved (351 in favor, 1 opposed) and St. Bart’s became French once more, jealously preserving its traditions and customs while living at its own pace, timelessly and peacefully. That pace continues today, uninterrupted and without apology, so beware — it’s addictive.
By foot, motor scooter, or in an open-roofed jeep, exploring the island is an adventure of spectacular views, tiny twisting roads and steep hilly climbs that can begin and end in only one place: les plages, the beach. The minute your eyes latch on to the emerald waters, you’ll want to dive in head first – and you’d be a fool not to. Salty and crystal clear, the warm waters lap twenty two unspoiled – and curiously uncrowded – beaches. Saline is perhaps the most beautiful: long and sandy, bathed with clear water from the open sea that can get rough and stormy. While a big car-park borders the old salt pools, a more adventurous approach lies along a rocky footpath through the scrub and cacti. Shell Beach at the south end of Gustavia is covered with sea shells, ideal for anyone who wants to spend a few hours searching for that perfect specimen. Under the lee of the island, the still water is encircled by a number of beautiful rocks.
Literally at the end of the tiny runway, Saint Jean is a vast stretch of golden sand lined with hotels and restaurants. Many an adventurous sunbather, armed with a pitcher of margaritas, has spent the afternoon watching the pilots nail a white knuckle landing inches from the water. Protected from the heavy swells of the sea by a spectacular coral reef, the area is a haven for windsurfing — an infuriating sport that looks infinitely easier from the shores. Down the beach beyond Eden Rock – a unique stone promontory housing a hotel that juts into the water – the still sea is ideal for children. Nestled within a tranquil bay, Columbier is easily reached along two picturesque footpaths which are well worth the walk (starting from the end of nearby Flamands or from Columbier’s heights). The only threat to the Zen-like calm lies in a few locals peacocks and mules that inhabit the area. All along the lagoon, the beach of Grand cul de sac is lined with a number of peaceful restaurants. This is a dream location for both the novice and experienced snorkeler as schools of iridescent fish, spiny sea urchins and vibrantly colored corals thrive along the nooks and crannies of the shallow rock. The sea is quiet here and a walk by the moor is a good opportunity to grab your binoculars and observe the migrating birds. While admiring the magnificent view of the bay, you come towards Gouveneur beach down a sharp slope. The simple shore is highlighted by true turquoise water. Strong waves in this unique setting make for wonderful bodysurfing or simply riding the waves. Of course the best way to see it all is from the sea — enjoying the luxury of dropping anchor wherever you fancy and diving off the side of a speedboat. You can catch one of Pilou’s sexy boats in Gustavia or have him motor up to your resort in style. A half day sail includes one heck of a mean rum punch.