from the archives: sunny st. barths (part 2)

During the winter months the capital harbor town of Gustavia may play host to a bevy of luxury yachts, but the summer finds mostly locals enjoying a little leisure time.  Walking – the only way to enjoy the charms of town – through the streets of this quaint little town, you’ll experience the island’s Swedish heritage amid all the old architecture.  Start at the Museum, located at La Pointe, on the far side of the port.  It boasts documents tracing the island’s history back to the times of the evil Monbars, whose legendary treasure is still believed to be buried on the island.  Another interesting point of reference are the hurricane maps which trace the numerous Caribbean storms.

There are a number of beautiful buildings in the capital, waiting to be discovered along the tiniest of back roads:  the restored Wall House, the Old Swedish house, the Old Bell Tower (which was part of a church destroyed in a hurricane), and Town Hall (the Governor’s home during the Swedish occupation).  Take a walk to the Anglican Church, its evocative exterior slightly beaten by the tropical weather.  The Catholic Church, built in 1822, lies just down the road; its architecture continuing to inspire many local painters.  Similar to the church in Lorient, its bell tower was erected higher than the rest of the structure to enhance the sound of the chiming bells.  Fort Gustavia, next to the weather station, dates back to the Swedish occupation.  Here you can discover the former defenses of the island:  the nightwatchman’s cabin and the gunpowder works.  For a little bit of local color stop by the Guadeloupean ladies’ market (commonly referred to Dou-dous) on Rue Oscar II.  The produce is brought in fresh:  mangos, figs, tamarinds, as well as a number of exotic roots, and spices.

St. Barths is a duty free port so perfumes, silver, watches and the like all sell at tax-free prices.  Plus during summer, as the solde signs go up in all the windows, there are definitely enough bargains to warrant dragging yourself out of the water or off the beach; particularly for high end goods that cost a fortune back home.  Hermes , Gucci, Cartier, Dolce & Gabbana are just a few of the uber-boutiques lining the harbor of Gustavia.  For something a bit more homespun, there is delicately executed straw work unique to St. Barths – baskets, handbags, broad brimmed hats – braided and woven of lantana palm by the camera shy women of Corossol and nearby Colombier who sell their wares in the street.  The village of St. Jean – considered the tourist center of the island with its five small shopping centers along the main road – has a number of small shops filled with the work of local artisans, from artwork to jewelry to homemade lotions and edibles, as well as the requisite seashells.  There’s even a local outpost of the French food shop Hediard should you need to stock up on tins of pate and escargot.  Wine lovers may find themselves shopping for extra luggage: $30 for a Grand Cru that would easily cost triple that back home.  Try La Cave in Marigot or La Cave du Port Franc in Public where the fine vintages are stored in temperature controlled cellars.  The last minute shopper should hit Match, a supermarket across from the airstrip carrying a fine selection of wine at equally fine prices.  Perhaps the chicest memento of the island (don’t ask why, its like the Black Dog t-shirts on Martha’s Vineyard) is the off-white and olive canvas tote bags stamped Loulou’s Marine from the nautical shop in Gustavia.

Dining  – as you’d expect – is another stellar attraction of St. Barths.  Season after season, young chefs from France’s greatest kitchens choose to forgo the formality of Paris and work on the island.  Combining local ingredients with traditional French, they have made the island a gastronomic showcase.

A leisurely evening meal at La Mandala, overlooking the harbor, combines a zestful mix of local fish and Thai style spice.  Try something you’ve never heard of before like the cool Wahoo Ceviche or pepper-crusted Tataki.  For a real thrill you can reserve a table for eight – floating in its own pool above the harbor.  Bartolomeo at Guanahani is a prime example of the classic Mediterranean-inspired French fare on the island.  Sublime foie gras terrine, thyme roasted saddle of lamb, and plump sea scallops seared to perfection on a bed of porcini risotto are a few options to get your juices going.  Dining outside at Le Repaire with the trade winds blowing makes for an ideal lunching spot on your way in to or out of Gustavia.  With an arm’s length menu of fruity rum drinks you’ll be tempted to spend the afternoon starting off at the ships in the harbor.  Be certain though to try the warm crab salad — mounds of fresh crab atop fresh greens, topped with a tangy mango-citrus vinaigrette.  From the road, the unimposing Ti St. Barth looks like something you’d find on Gilligan’s Island – a flourish of palm fronds and bamboo stalks haphazardly lashed together.  Descend the gentle stone steps, however, and you enter an eclectic mix oriental rugs, twinkling fountains and quite  the photo collage of celebrities who’ve spent the night atop the tables.  Gloriously thick steak is a highlight here as is the grilled marlin.  Wherever you go be sure to finish the meal with the local specialty, rhum vanille, a warm, soothing digestif that trickles down the back of  your throat like syrup.

Last, yet far from least, an ordinary hotel room just won’t do in St. Barths – you need a villa.  Preferably overlooking the spectacular water.  Guanahani, the island’s only full service luxury resort, is all colored cottages, from yellow to purple to bright green, scattered among bougainvillea, hibiscus, and a coconut grove that stretches between the lagoon and the sea.  As active or relaxing as you wish, the resort has all you need:  a pair of gourmet restaurants, fitness center, cars to hire, tennis courts, two pools, Jacuzzi, two beaches and all you could want to experience the emerald waters:  snorkeling gear, windsurfing boards, peddaloes and catamarans.  More to the point, during low season, an indulgent sliver of the island’s best is available with an off-season package where dollars and euro are traded at 1-for-1.

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from the archives: sunny st. barths

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.

Saline Beach image courtesy of Tom Lipscomb

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.

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