By J.S. Fletcher and Kathy M. Newbern © 2011
Part 1 in Series
It’s great when the travel opportunities run almost back-to-back, as was the case with our most recent pair of trips. First, we spent six glorious days on our first-ever visit to the very French Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy. Soon after came our first-ever voyage aboard the very French cruise ship Le Boreal operated by Compagnie du Ponant.
(Read our first impressions of the ship and about life at sea, and please check back here for reports on some of our 11 ports-of-call in our Boston-to-Montreal trek down the St. Lawrence River.)
But back to Saint Barthélemy: Christopher Columbus arrived here in 1493, and named the island after his brother, Bartoloméo. Locals call it St. Barth, for short, and it’s sometimes spelled as St. Bart (St. Bart’s) as well.
No matter how you spell it, it equals splendid beaches, great cuisine and plenty of luxury.
We sampled all three at three distinctly different properties:
1) Carl Gustav Hotel perched on a cliff with a gorgeous view of the harbor below in Gustavia, named for King Gustav III of Sweden, the island’s main town and capital;
2) Hotel Christopher laid out on hillside terraces alongside a rocky shoreline with stunning pool and rooms and suites sporting very hip décor; and
3) The Relais & Châteaux property Le Toiny, on the eastern side of the island, the most remote and exclusive of the three with superior suites and the island’s most celebrated “gastronomique” restaurant, Le Gaiac.
Settled by the French, the island was sold to Sweden in 1784. The Swedes sold it back to France in 1878. Along with French territory St. Martin, St. Barthélemy was formerly governed by the larger Guadeloupe, but since 2007 the two have been overseas “collectivités” of France. The island has a president and 19-member council elected by the people.
After David Rockefeller bought a property here in 1957, the little island of eight square miles quickly grew into an upscale tourist destination.
Today, distinctly French in feel, it remains a casual, chic hideaway with lots of private villas, many owned by wealthy families and celebs, plus a variety of small hotels welcoming French and international visitors – about 200,000 a year.
We had a great tour with guide and taxi driver Claude Questel, who also runs a couple of small furnished apartments on the island, one within walking distance of popular Flamands Beach.
He tells us about Russian tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov’s New Year’s Eve blast that featured a performance by the Black-Eyed Peas. Claude himself was assigned to drive actress Salma Hayak to the party and around the island during her stay.
Russian ballet star Rudolph Nureyuv had a rustic — some say eccentric — wooden home built oceanfront here. Maison Nouveau is now a guest villa for rent and remains as he left it. A plaque at the front gate proclaims, “I count only the hours that are serene.”
There are only about 8,400 year-round residents, but that number has doubled the past two decades.
St. Barth is a yachting destination with plenty to do on water and land such as boat tours, sunset cruises, surfing, scuba diving and sun bathing, hiking, plus wining- and-dining in a wide variety of restaurants, shopping in Gustavia’s trendy boutiques, and year-round cultural events.
Our stay on the island was sandwiched between two exhilarating experiences: Landing by small plane (all that’s allowed here) and the arrival of what-was-then Tropical Storm Irene (watch our video).
For the first, just search YouTube for St. Barth Landing for a variety of videos. (Ours here only includes flying over Gustavia Harbor as Kathy’s eyes were closed for landing.) The pilot has to pass over a peak and quickly dip to the paved runway just over 2,100 feet long that ends at ocean’s edge.
Claude and several others on the island assured us that pilots here have special certification for this landing that’s “quite safe” even though the History Channel listed it #5 on their “Most Extreme Airports” Top 10 for high altitudes, difficult approaches or short runways.
Claude introduced us to some of St. Barth’s main beaches, each postcard material: Grand Fond, Flamands, Gouverneur, Lorient, Saline (named for the nearby salt flats) and Shell Beach, our favorite, which you’ll read more about in our Hotel Carl Gustav coverage.
Warm Caribbean temperatures vary just slightly from 86° in the summer, (July/August highs of 90°) to just 80° in the winter. Summer ocean temperatures can reach as high as 84°.
We could only view one particular beach from a distance —Colombier is only accessible by boat or on foot by hiking. From our vantage point, we saw several sailboats serenely moored in its sandy cove.
St. Jean Beach is busy because it’s near the airport and several hotels like the upscale Eden Rock (one of seven five-star ones on the island).
Though we loved our stay at Le Toiny, we did not venture to its Toiny Beach because of the tropical storm. It was fun, however, to watch from our villa as the surfers took full advantage of the storm waves.
We loved the viewpoint on the far northwest of the island with Colombier Beach to our left and beautiful Flamands to our right (that photo is in the accompanying slideshow). Highest point on the island is 286 meters. The full list of beaches is here.
Views are enhanced all around the island (again, see the slideshow) as there’s a rule that no building can exceed two stories.
Churches we spotted along the way included Gustavia’s Saint-Bartholomew Anglican Church built in 1885 with stones brought from St Eustatius and circled by a low rock wall. There were several other picturesque churches in Gustavia, Lorient and Colombier, as well.
Claude drove us through Corossol at sea level, the village where he grew up and members of his family still reside. It hosts the St. Louis Festival each August 25. All the men in this community have Louis as their first or second name.
On the hillside site of historic Fort Gustav above Gustavia Harbor, we stopped briefly at the squat white lighthouse with a red top-hat bearing the word “Gustavia.” It flashes each 12 seconds white, green or red depending on the direction. Its original lantern is now on display at the city museum here.
Claude was an excellent driver and his taxi is for hire; however, our recommendation, as was others on the island, is to rent a car if you are staying more than a few days, especially if you want to get out and sample several beaches and some of the dining opportunities.
That said, experienced St. Barth’s travelers attest that no visit here is complete without exploring the culinary scene. We’ll cover a few examples in upcoming pieces.
Next Up: Carl Gustav Hotel – the hotel experience plus dining and the Carita Spa.
If You’re Going: St. Barthélemy lies about 150 miles east of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the French West Indies. Flights by small plane, like St. Barth Commuter and Winair, arrive from St. Martin, Anguilla or San Juan. It’s also accessible by 45- to 90-minute ferry from St. Martin.
For more, visit www.saintbarth-tourisme.com.
If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy:
• Other stories by Newbern and Fletcher
• Other Stories by JS Fletcher,
• Stories by Kathy M. Newbern, Luxury Travel Examiner
International Travel Examiners J.S. Fletcher and spouse, Kathy M. Newbern, report on luxury destinations, spas and cruising around the globe. They are award-winning members of the Society of American Travel Writers and created YourSpaReport.com and YourNovel.com, their personalized romance novel business.