It is known as the winter playground of the rich and famous. Words like chic, luxury, celebrities, expensive are all associated with it. Of course I’m talking about the ever elegant St. Barth, an 8.1 square mile island in the French Caribbean.
I visited St. Barth recently for a weekend and was curious to see what it would be like in the summer months, also known as the dreaded low season. If you’re planning to do some celebrity gawking and taking selfies with luxury yachts in the background, then this is not the right time for you to go. The rich and famous all flock to places like Monaco and Cannes in the summer, leaving this little French paradise almost deserted and mostly tranquil. But this is when you see the real St Barth.
In my previous trips I’ve only gotten as far as Gustavia with its elegant shops and restaurants and St Jean home of the infamous Nikki Beach. This time however, with the help of new local friends I discovered so much more beauty, hidden in the outer parts of the well visited areas.
Only those that call St Barth home, some day trippers and budget travelers like myself can be found in St. Barth in the summer months. It’s the perfect time to really explore the island and we did exactly that with our guide mister Patrick, a French national that has been calling St. Barth home for the past 47 years.
How to vacation in Saint Barth as a mere Mortal:
The right time to visit
First of all visit in the off season or summer months when the rich has moved on to the Mediterranean, taking with them the celebrity obsessed, the wannabe’s, the paparazzi and the mainlanders coming to the island solely to make money in the lucrative season. Best time would be any time during the months of June, July and August. September is when most restaurants, some hotels and other businesses close their doors for the month in preparation for the high season. September is also the peak of the hurricane season.
Rent a Car
Scooters seem to be the preferred mode of transportation on most French islands and St. Barth is no exception. I myself almost rented one for the weekend but I was advised by a St. Barth local to rent a car instead and was I glad I listened. The roads on the island are rather narrow and like the Bon Jovi album in the 80’s suggests; Slippery When Wet. I was referred to Welcome Car Rental, a company owned by French nationals Olivier and Xavier who have been living on the island for over 20 years. Olivier met me at the ferry terminal in Gustavia and walked me to my…….wait for it……..red convertible Mini Cooper! Ecstatic does not even begin to describe my feeling upon seeing this red metal gorgeousness. It was going to be a super fun weekend indeed.
What I like about Welcome Car Rental besides the fact that their cars are surprisingly affordable is that they are available 24/7 unlike the internationally known car rentals found on the island and they don’t charge for the extras like child seats or second driver fee. I sat with Olivier for coffee and I think I made a new friend. What an incredibly pleasant man. He and his business partner used to be drivers for well known hotels in the past and know the island like no other.
Rent a Villa
Sounds expensive, I know but take it from me there are affordable homes for rent on the island. Look at what we stayed at for example; a two bedroom villa that was just the right size, with a small kitchen, spacious living room, a bedroom with en-suite bathroom and a separate second bedroom also with en-suite bathroom, complete with pool and large backyard that goes for about $2000 a week. Do the math. That is about $300 a night. Now divide that by the 4 persons the villa holds.
My friends at 100% Villas really hooked me up well with Villa Blue Rock located not too far from St Jean in an area called Camaruche. Who says you can’t experience luxury on a budget?
I arrived before the rest of my party and walked straight through the door that was left open for me. 100% Villas made sure the house was cleaned before my arrival and the key was left inside.
Our bed was super comfortable and if it wasn’t for my extreme desire to see as much as possible of this French isle I would have stayed in.
The area of Camaruche is quiet yet central. At least two of St. Barth’s 14 beaches are within walking distance from the villa although I would not advise you to walk since there are hardly any sidewalks. Besides, the villa features a swimming pool perfect for cooling off in the summer heat.
I would walk out onto the pool deck in the mornings listening to the cheerful chirping of the birds in the trees. The house is surrounded by nature and the sun coming up on the horizon is a magnificent thing to behold in the mornings. I felt relaxed and at peace at villa Blue Rock. My only regret is that I only stayed there for a weekend. But St. Barth is close enough to St. Maarten and my guess is that it won’t be long before we find our way back to our little piece of paradise called Blue Rock.
Eat like the locals
The villa was close to quite a few supermarkets and mini markets. In the mornings we would drive to the closest store or bakery to get freshly baked French baguettes still warm to the touch. Croissants and fresh fruit would complete our French breakfast which we would savor on the pool deck.
For lunch on Saturday Mr. Patrick took us to a cute little creole restaurant called Chez Rolande in the Flamands area. My coconut with ginger chicken was finger licking good, just like my husband’s curry coconut chicken, so tender that it was falling off the bones. As dessert we had a French creole favorite; Banana Flambé, ripe bananas sautéed in butter and rum served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Other recommended restaurants include Le Select, made famous by Jimmy Buffet whose hit song “Cheeseburger in Paradise” was apparently written about it. Because of this it is almost impossible to get a decent seat for lunch when the whole of Gustavia is flooded by day trippers. I suggest you go around 6pm when the last ferry has left and the more local crowd visits the restaurant, mainly for the two B’s: Burgers and Beer.
Located in the heart of Gustavia, Le Select is one of the oldest restaurants on the island and is to this day still owned by the same man who is well into his nineties by now. Back in the day it used to double as the local library, which really was more of a book exchange.
La Gloriette is a cute and super laid back place on the water offering tasty pizzas and burgers. It is located in Grand Cul de Sac.
Tom’s Juice Bar in Gustavia is a well hidden gem offering delicious smoothies and natural juices as well as healthy snacks.
In a small commercial center called Le Marche de L’Oasis you will find Boulangerie Choisy, the bakery of choice for Sunday breakfast it seems since there was quite a line outside the door of patrons impatiently waiting to place their orders of café au lait, pain perdu, baguette and croissants. Especially the croissants were out of this world.
Carpe Diem also located in Gustavia was a nice, quiet restaurant with a nice menu and friendly service.
This next restaurant does not exactly fall in the “budget” category but it was a definite must. Le Tamarin was highly recommended to us by Mr. Patrick and it was better then what we anticipated. “Breathtaking” is the word that comes to mind. It’s like Tarzan invited you over for dinner. The restaurant is set in a man-made forrest with one large Tamarind tree standing tall in the middle of the courtyard, much like the tree of life in the Lion King. Pictures don’t do this place justice. Go see it for yourself. We dined on Sea Bass with mashed potato and sipped on a gin-watermelon-lime-cucumber concoction that left me wanting more.
St. Barth is hardly only about partying and shopping. It has an amazing history worth knowing about. Besides a trip to the Musee Municipal here are some other must see places to add to your list while sightseeing.
La Saline is a beautiful salt pan that reminds you of the olden days when the island was still used for its salt production. The adjacent Saline beach was definitely worth the short hike in the hot sun.
Gouverneur Beach where Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich built his impossibly large estate on the beach, but this little tidbit fades in comparison to the beauty of the beach itself. Thankfully all beaches on St. Barth are public and all the billions in the world could not buy Mr. A the beach itself.
I’m leaving the best for last: The look out point on the top of Colombier is a MUST. It is by far one of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen in my life. From here you can see the property bought by the Rockefellers back in the infancy of St. Barth’s luxury tourism. There are little “islands” or rock formations scattered all around the island. It is said that St. Barth used to be a volcano thousands of years ago and that a part of it fell into the ocean, creating all these rock formations that were given funny names like “The turtle” , “the Whale” and “The man in front of the oven” depending on their shapes.
Surprising facts about St. Barth
Having only visited St. Barth on day trips in the past and one very short but hectic two days for an event a while back, I never got to see much of the island until now and was pleasantly surprised by its beauty, how hilly it actually is and the friendliness of the people. The St. Barth locals are really super nice. From the staff at the 5 star resorts, to the clerks in the expensive shops, the waiters in the chic restaurants and the cashiers in the supermarkets, we had nothing but smiles and nice conversations. Even when they could clearly see that we were “only browsing”. Such a difference with the arrogance one is treated with in the height of season. But I honestly think that this “nose up in the air” attitude comes from those mainlanders as I call them, who are only there to profit from the luxury tourism in the winter months.
Another interesting fact: Land Turtles! They are everywhere. Just roaming about and slowly making their way along side the roads.
I for one cannot wait to return. In the meantime I will have to comfort myself with the fact that it is close to my home island of St. Maarten. So close that I get to listen to Radio St. Barth everyday. If I close my eyes I can almost feel like I’m back on “mon petit paradis Française” or my little French paradise.