Like an emerald that is somehow incredibly afloat in a sea of turquoise, tiny, beautifully styled Saint Barts has long been my favourite of all the fun, sun fuelled island paradises that make up the Caribbean. But even by the languid, laid back standards of ‘the islands’, St. Barts is a very classy act indeed, and totally unique. Only eight miles long and two wide, the main airstrip is about the size of a postage stamp. Nothing larger than small, twin prop passenger planes can get on the ground here.
The relatively shallow waters around the island also make it a no-no for the bigger cruise ships that today dominate the Caribbean circuit. The closest that most of them can get is Phillipsburg, the main port of Sint Maarten, some twenty five miles away across the briny. Only the smaller luxury ships can get in, and even they have to anchor offshore. This inevitably lessens the numbers pouring ashore by a thousand, or even four. And it makes the whole experience just…. dreamy.
Each of the islands in the Caribbean is as individual as a fingerprint. Most were colonised in the middle ages by the British, French, Spanish, the Dutch, and even the Swedes. And, today, each retains more than a little of the DNA of the occupying powers of old. In the case of St. Barts that was originally Sweden and, despite the fact that the island was amicably ceded to France, many of the original Swedish street names remain to this day.
Today the vibe is unmistakably French; think Saint Tropez, but with bigger yachts in the harbour. Throw in an all year round summer climate, and some incredible French and creole cooking wizardry, and you’ve got a place to chill par excellence. Not cheap, of course, but you would hardly expect it to be.
The beauty of the place is the stuff of legends. Like most of the islands in the eastern Caribbean, St. Barts is draped with long, slow rolling hills dressed in a thousand shades of green. They form it’s backbone, and also frame and embrace the chocolate box pretty little haven that is Gustavia itself.
Beautifully manicured lawns are draped with serried ranks of giant date palms. Stout little wooden jetties point like random exclamation marks out into the sparkling briny. Giant old anchors, left behind from long gone sailing ships are scattered around the waterfront, as if flung there by some petulant deity in a bad mood.
There are small, highly styled designer shops straight from the boulevards of Paris, with eye watering prices to match, and also the best cheeseburgers anywhere in the Caribbean. The whole waterfront is as small, glittering and exquisitely proportioned as a charm bracelet. The pace is more laid back than on some of the more touristy, traffic strewn neighbours, not so far away over the horizon.
Winding lanes in the back streets are swathed in brilliant bursts of jasmine, hibiscus and oleander. The odd motor scooter splutters lethargically into life, threading its way past little groups of schoolkids as they head home for the day. Above, ranks of marshmallow clouds drift silently across a petrol blue sky, looking like giant, ghostly galleons under full sail. The air is alive with the sounds of hummingbirds.
From here, Shell Beach is an idle, delightful fifteen minute saunter. Nobody rushes to go anywhere in St. Barts, period. What’s the hurry, when your every step is surrounded by such beauty and vibrant colour? Even the simple act of walking becomes a stroll that you’ll almost certainly savour for the rest of your life.
Like many of the islands in the Caribbean, slavery left it’s dark stain in these parts. The wall scene here, from nearby Virgin Gorda, is a poignant, timely reminder of just why so many countries colonised these islands in the first place, and how badly some of them behaved. Like many bright and often sunny places, parts of the Caribbean have a distinctly shady past.
Wars and rampant piracy also left their mark on the region. Great, walled cities like San Juan and pirate free-for-alls such as Jamaica’s Port Royal were as much a part of the landscape then as modern, high rise, beachfront hotels are now.
It was a violent, volatile era, fuelled by the mutual greed of those ransacking Central America for it’s gold, and the pirates and privateers intent on relieving the original thieves of the fruits of their gilt edged gluttony. Murder, treachery and gibbeted felons were the order of the day back in those far more turbulent times.
Thankfully, it’s a lot more sedate today. The most aggressive thing you’ll find on most of the islands is a tidal wave of suntanned, often frazzled dollar crusaders, pouring ashore from the big cruise ships, but armed with nothing more lethal than a few credit cards.
At least you will in most islands. But not here on St. Barts.
The island really does somehow exude a kind of kindred, laissez-faire kind of feel that is very close indeed to the south of France, in spirit if not in actual travelling miles. The island is actually a department of France. With Saint Martin, Guadeloupe, Martinique and the Ile Des Saintes, it forms the French West Indies. The official currency is the Euro (though dollars are widely accepted) and, despite their remote stance, the islands are still answerable to Paris. At least, that’s the theory.
St. Barts has never gone the way of it’s bigger, glitzier neighbours in terms of the high rise hotel industry. This is mainly down to the island’s petite size and limited infrastructure. But what might seem as ‘less’ to many truly translates to ‘more’ in terms of a genuine, old style, Caribbean island experience here.
Pretty little pastel shaded houses peep out from among the greenery all along the coastline, with their gently sloping roofs, and porches festooned with sun loungers, looking out over an indolent, sparkling ocean. Cats and dogs snooze uncaring in the mid day heat, under the handy shade of some spindly, sagging palm fronds. The scent of hibiscus and the subtle, seductive lilt of reggae floods the hot, humid air everywhere.
In the bay, tenders from one of the smaller cruise ships bumble back and forth like tiny, exotic water beetles. Each one carries a repository of awe struck human cargo, jaws scraping their shoes, eyes as wide as saucers at the incredible, audio visual assault on their senses that unfolds like a 3-D panorama all around them.
Ashore, they pause for lunch at some sun splashed waterfront restaurant, their podgy, sun burnt fingers clutching uncertainly at deceptively innocuous margaritas and strawberry daiquiris, as a rising tide of shopping bags threatens to overwhelm them. Yacht skippers in sunglasses worth the entire national debt of a small third world country stroll by, studiously ignoring the new arrivals.
But keep on walking up along that route out of town, and you’ll find yourself on one of the most perfect beaches anywhere in the entire Caribbean. The French name is Anse Galet, but most of the locals simply refer to it as Shell Beach.
For my money, this gorgeous little slice of heaven is the most idyllic small beach anywhere in the Caribbean, period. Flanked on three sides by jagged, serried tiers of slate grey rocks, Shell Beach is a blinding white sweep of pristine, powder soft sand that shelves almost reluctantly into the deep, electric blue hue of the ocean just beyond.
Off shore, the odd jet ski or two might tear across the briny like some maddened kind of water beast. Above, para gliders drift across the endless canvas of the sky like random, exotic butterflies.
Smaller, more discreet spots among the rocks are a natural haven for topless bathers. Well, this is France in the Caribbean, after all.
There is a small bar/restaurant called Do Brasil (?) that is set neatly into the rocks above that beach like a small, precious gemstone. It has an upper level bar cum restaurant, open to the breeze, that allows for heart stopping views right out over the whole soft, spun sugar expanse of sand. The view is almost to good to believe; like being awake in a particularly vivid dream.
Ceiling fans hum overhead, and the ice cold Carib beers taste like the very nectar of the gods themselves. You can stay and savour one inside, with a side order of warm Caribbean breeze coming in off the sea. It’s all good, for sure.
But me, I prefer to take mine outside. Just walk to the water’s edge, sag down onto the sand, and let the warm water just kiss your feet before it washes over you. Cold beer plus warm sea equals sheer, platinum chip bliss. I would not lie about something like that.
This is sweet and surreal enough, either on your own, or with friends. But there are other options, too.
Consider a glacially cold bottle of Moet et Chandon, a few glasses on the beach, and how fine the world can seem. And still, there’s that subtle, seductive sound track of the ocean rollers, drumming like fingers on that wondrous, warm swathe of sand. It’s not cheap, but as one of the best experiences of your life, the memory will be, quite literally, priceless.
There are chairs and tables sprinkled on the sand, making this small, beautifully proportioned beach one of the most perfect spots anywhere in the world to perfect the very fine art of platinum chip lounging.
And, even as you slouch over your Moet, the thought drifts through your mind that nothing this good can last forever. Yet that is only partly true. Memories of days like this are the stuff of pure magic. They sear themselves into the soul and the psyche, just as surely as if they had been emblazoned there with a branding iron. Make no bones; this is strong, magical stuff, and it stays with you long, long after you think you’ve left the actual place itself far behind.
If and when you can tear yourself away from all of this-and at some stage, you will have to- then there is still time for another stroll along the gorgeous waterfront of Gustavia itself. Many of the de-luxe cruise ships actually stay at anchor here until around midnight, allowing those passengers that want to dine ashore the option to do exactly that.
But the one thing that I know from personal experience is that St. Barts leaves you with a palpable, almost painful longing to return. Because even in that fabulous, rum and reggae fired playground that people call the Caribbean, St. Barts is truly unique, adrift in it’s own time and space.
I have to warn you. Once the St. Barts bug has bitten, then you will in all probability find that you, too, have become forever smitten. The good news is, its far from being the worst kind of compulsive addiction you could fall prey to. Enjoy!