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36 Hours in St. Barts

Category: Lifestyle,Travel

Arriving in St. Barts can feel like a near-death experience: A pilot’s hand tugs an overhead lever and the puddle-jumper noses down sharply, the crest of a hillside dotted with red-roofed villas suddenly visible through the open cockpit door. Moments later, the plane sails just above the tourists perched on the ridge below, and then lands, with a thud, in paradise. The reward for this harrowing flight — usually from Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico or nearby St. Martin — is a craggy-but-lush oasis ringed by white sand and turquoise water.

Too rugged for large-scale agriculture, the longtime French possession was a colonial afterthought, flipped to Sweden in 1784 for trading privileges in the port of Gothenburg. Returned to France nearly a century later, the island is more Marseille than Malmo, with the ruins of Fort Gustaf overlooking the main harbor among the few reminders of the island’s Scandinavian past.

St. Barts recently survived a near-death experience of its own. In 2017, Hurricane Irma roared in with sustained winds just shy of 200 miles per hour, racking up €800 million, or about $900 million, in insured damage — a staggering average of €80,000 per resident. But with help from famous interlopers like Jimmy Buffett as well as its own funds, St. Barts started getting on its feet within months. Now, nearly all of the hotels are back online, with two luxurious stragglers — Eden Rock and Le Guanahani — set to reopen by the end of the year. With renovated restaurants, reconstructed roads and a rotating cast of festivals celebrating everything from movies to music to boats, this island gem has regained its luster.

The Mini Cooper has replaced the venerable Mini Moke beach buggy as the vehicle of choice here, so rent the convertible version at Sixt’s airport counter (about €90 per day with insurance) and take a loop of the island. At just under 10 square miles, that can be accomplished in under an hour. So pick up a straw hat (and, perhaps, crafts that range from beaded bracelets to carved turtles) at the Black Swan boutique in the quartier of St. Jean. Then follow the harrowingly narrow main road to the wild east side, making a pit stop for foie gras frites (€12) at the cliffside hotel Le Toiny, where you can lounge poolside and soak up views that stretch a few dozen miles to St. Kitts and Nevis on a clear day. Watch for speed bumps as you cruise the main road that edges the coast past the rocky beaches of Grand Fond, and over the central hills to the harborside town of Gustavia. For a sense of history and colonial architecture, visit the tiny Wall House Museum, where a recent exhibition explored the island’s Swedish heritage. The building itself is a stony colonial relic; inside its centuries-old confines, artifacts on display range from traditional costumes to sailors’ sextants.

The promenade parallel to Rue de la Republique in Gustavia, which feels more like a collection of oversized dollhouses than an actual city, is perfect for a sunset stroll. St. Barts has no sales tax, which might make a shopping expedition to places like Dolce & Gabbana a viable option. Move along to nearby Shell Beach, a favorite both for champagne-sipping adults and conch-crazed children. Then head to Bonito, which feels like a combination French bistro and Peruvian cevicheria set on an East Hampton veranda. Spend dusk at the bar — perhaps the island’s best perch for yacht-watching — and try the Beauty & The Beast (€24), an old-fashioned that’s wrapped in a dry ice science experiment, and the guacamole-laced crispy tuna ceviche (€31).

Forget the Caribbean caveats: You’ll have a tough time finding a better restaurant than Orega anywhere. There’s delight in every detail, from the fuzzy white wash cloths that spring like caterpillars from a platter when you’re seated to the jaunty curve of the wine glass that contains your yuzu lemongrass palate cleanser. Spring for the omikase menu; the highlight is a decadent toro uzu topped with truffle, caviar and gold leaf. Expect to pay about €150 for dinner. A less extravagant alternative sits across the street — the fishy favorite Eddy’s Ghetto, where for about one-third the price, you can dine on beef or wahoo (ask to sit in the garden).

Many in St. Barts say Jimmy Buffett, who has kept a home on the island for decades, wrote his song “Cheeseburger In Paradise” about the indoor-outdoor saloon Le Select; the singer, a frequent patron, recently told The Times otherwise. Regardless, what claims to be the oldest bar in St. Barts is a favorite of local dominoes players and tourists alike, with offerings from Heineken by the can (€2.50) to Moët by the bottle (€60). The €4.50 burgers are among the best values on the island.

The billionaire steel magnate Roman Abramovich paid a reported tens of millions of pounds for a 70-acre spread overlooking Gouverneur Beach on the island’s south side. His view can be yours for €50 per hour with a guided hike from St. Barth Essentiel’s Hélène Bernier (stbarthessentiel@yahoo.fr). She’s gotten permission to roam the private land with the freedom — and agility — of a mountain goat. Try to keep up with her as you clamber to a ridge with sweeping views of St. Barts and its neighbors; along the way, she may introduce you to peeling red “tourist trees,” a joke on sunburned visitors. Afterward, take a dip on the beach, a blissfully uncrowded arc of white sand.

Don’t let fumes from the main road deter you from dining at Jojo Burger, adjacent to Lorient Beach. Grab the signature sandwich (€17; €22 with Pat LaFrieda beef), and try not to get tired of the repeating reggae cover album soundtrack. For a musical reset, walk across the street to the flower-festooned cemetery that serves as the final resting place of Johnny Hallyday. The “French Elvis” owned a home on St. Barts and died near Paris days after Hurricane Irma.

Drive 10 minutes from bustling Lorient over the spine of St. Barts and you’ll arrive at an untamed treasure: Saline Beach. At the top of the rocky path from the parking lot, you’ll be greeted by a carpet of white sand tumbling down the dunes into the sea. Bookended by rock walls on either side, Saline offers few signs of civilization — perhaps that’s why many tend to enjoy the beach au naturel. Respite from the sun can be found at Grain de Sel, an unpretentious beachside cafe a few minutes away by foot. Snack on fish or goat stew for about €20; your server may surprise you with vanilla or ginger-infused rum.

Once a bohemian oasis where visitors were welcomed by an aggressively friendly parrot named Cooky, Tamarin has been reimagined as a swank cocktails-and-dinner spot. Warm wood and backlit palm trees give the place a vaguely Polynesian feel — drop in for a burrata plate (€29) or a Fleur De Paradis cocktail (€16), and have a quick rally at perhaps the island’s only proper Ping-Pong table. Cooky, a little mellower these days, may serve as umpire.

For an elegant seaside supper, try Maya’s, whose Martiniquan namesake and her American husband launched the restaurant in 1984. Don’t be surprised if either shows up to recite the menu, which changes every night, but always includes dishes with a seafood tilt. A recent meal included a mango and tomato appetizer and delectable dorade for about €50. (The restaurant is only open for dinner, but lunch enthusiasts can snag picnic snacks during the day at Maya’s To Go, possibly the world’s most opulent bodega; across the street from the airport, the shop offers lobster pasta (€100 per kilo) and 2009 Cristal champagne (€270 per bottle).

Part restaurant, part club, part cabaret, Le Ti St. Barth feels like the rum-drenched love child of Cirque du Soleil and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Skip the table service, come early and snatch a free table by the bar. Order a €24 martini that comes with a champagne shot and tastes like cotton candy Pop Rocks. Should you find yourself needing to match the performers’ elaborate costumes, orange-feathered headdresses can be procured at the gift shop.

Start your day the French way, with a café and pain aux chocolat (€1.30) at La Petite Colombe. There are two locations on the island — the one in the west hills is generally less crowded and offers a thin slice of sea views — other pastries include a plump caramel tartlet (€5) and the chocolate éclair (€3.80).

Colombier Beach, a white-sand gem with perfectly clear water, is only accessible by boat (from Gustavia) or by a mountainous footpath. During the steep hike, you’ll find ample shade and, if you’re lucky, families of wild goats frolicking among the cactus. Bring snorkeling equipment and meet the striped fish zipping around the rocks on the east side of the beach. (If you want to swim with sea turtles, try Grand Cul de Sac Beach on the other side of the island).

If you’re still sweaty from the Colombier return trip, stop by Flamands Beach for a quick dip. You can show up in a bathing suit at Chez Rolande, a Creole joint where scrumptious menu items flicker in and out of availability. Don’t be fooled by the laid-back vibe: From conch gratin (€25) to minced beef (€24), you’ll find some of the island’s best food here. This is as good a place as any to try a local favorite: the banana flambée (€8).


Several years ago, local opposition forced hotelier André Balazs to abandon plans for an eco-lodge near Saline Beach. Travelers yearning to stay near the wild strip of sand can still enjoy jungly seclusion at Salines Garden Cottages (Route de Saline; 590-690-419-429; salinesgarden.com; summer from €110, winter from €200). Operated by a retired pro surfer and his wife, the tiny hotel is a series of standalone studios with surfing themes. Wrapped around a communal pool, living room and outdoor breakfast nook, it’s a mercifully flat walk from three restaurants and the beach.

Hotel rooms on St. Barts can run €1,000 per night or more, but reasonable luxury can be found at Le Village (St. Jean; levillagestbarth.com/contact-inquiries; summer from €185, winter from €280). Founded in 1968, the hillside hotel is just a five-minute walk from St. Jean Beach and has attracted guests from the Vanderbilts to Greta Garbo. There is an on-site pool, exercise center, spa and Le Patio, a converted restaurant that now serves as the hotel’s private breakfast porch.

While half of the island’s 800 villas are controlled by the local outfit Wimco Villas, options are also available via Airbnb and VRBO. You can book a two-bedroom for around €500 per night in convenient Gustavia or seaside Flamands. But there’s a wide variety online, from €160 per day for a one-bedroom bungalow in the central hills to €14,500 for a Gouverneur estate with six suites, a fitness room and Hermès toiletries.


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