Waves jostled the high-speed ferry as it bolted from the harbor at Philipsburg, on St. Martin, aiming with churning indignation for St. Barthelemy.
On our three or four prior visits (my wife and I debate the number), we had taken the famously entertaining/unnerving 10-minute flight over. Riding in an airplane about the size of a banquet table, you make the landing approach by skimming a few feet over a hilltop traffic circle, then diving down the hillside to an undulating runway.
If all goes according to the flight plan, you come to a halt before tipping into St. Jean Bay.
The catamaran ferry was much cheaper and, so we thought, would be gentler on our 6-year-old son, Ryan — who was making his first visit. As the rugged little island — with the familiar contradiction of brown-green, jagged hills and stately white villas — appeared into view, Ryan got seasick.
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My wife and I had to help him through it because another passenger, a muscular man the size of two Volkswagens strapped together, had also fallen ill, requiring the full attention of the cabin crew while his girlfriend slept like a curled-up kitten.
Exclusivity is bred by inaccessibility, and the very difficulty in getting to St. Barts (in French, St.-Barth) makes it a destination for the sort of people who want quiet, sophisticated relaxation — the occasional yacht-borne bacchanalia notwithstanding.
The bulging mass-market cruise ships moored in Philipsburg are too large to dock in St. Barts. There are no big hotels, and those on the island offer only 500 or so rooms and suites in total. Add to that about 450 villas for rent and the fact that none of it comes cheap, and you have a luxury travel fantasy — an implausibly refined Caribbean island.
The bulging mass-market cruise ships are too large to dock in St. Barts.
Our hotel, Le Guanahani, sat along Grand Cul de Sac, in one of the many bays that crenellate the eight-square-mile island. Those bays shelter perfect white-sand beaches, snorkelers, kite-surfers and any pleasure craft that its owners think looks shipshape enough to fit in.
Our bay-view suite was practically a small villa, complete with lush tropical landscaping, a large pool in back, a parking place in front and a land turtle that paid regular visits and kept trying to bite my big toe.
As with other hotels, ours was staffed by pretty young women from France, in for a couple years to practice their English, get some sun and make the place look even better. They brought Ryan his pizza poolside on our deck and walked barefoot onto beach sand, bringing drinks to guests lounging in chairs rooted before the bay.
Server or served, a sense of uniform equality prevailed. The secret of St. Barts is that you do not feel that post-colonial tension of other places in the Caribbean — those formed by the evil of slavery and where the local population still serves (sometimes resentfully) interlopers from afar.
Indeed, although it is often said that St. Barts is like provincial France in the Caribbean, in truth, it is like Paris in the Caribbean. St. Barts is Paris without the traffic and the disdain for spoken English but with palms, azure water, white-sand beaches and a flip-flop culture that somehow looks chic.
Traveling to St. Barts as a family requires preparation. There are no all-inclusive options. It is an a la carte island because the goal is to try the different beaches and many fine restaurants.
Because so many repeat visitors know each other, the island is a veritable moveable feast, with friends and acquaintances congregating or simply bumping into each other at restaurants and on boats and hotels in the harbor.
When you have a first-grader, however, you need kid-friendly things to do, which is why we chose Le Guanahani. With only 67 rooms and suites, it is, in fact, the largest hotel on the island.
Traveling to St. Barts as a family requires preparation. There are no all-inclusive options.
Alassai, the manager of the Kid’s Club, showed Ryan the facilities and in turn introduced him to the eight other youngsters staying at the hotel during our visit in the comparatively underpopulated summer offseason.
Ryan is studying French, the French kids were learning English; they all played bilingual games and, this being France, they had a cooking lesson.
The hotel has a spa and functions as a full campus-based resort, but once we were acclimated, it was time to hit the road — and to hit the beach.
Hertz delivered to our hotel one of the small four-wheel-drive vehicles that are staples on the island, and Daddy took the family up and down the narrow, twisting roads, swerving beside crevices, the rear-view mirrors on cars in the opposite lane ever threatening a petulant swipe. Throughout, motorbikes rolled and banked in suicidal waves, passing all — their drivers daunted by none. In contrast, I drove slowly, with the precision of an alcoholic Formula One driver.
On our prior visits, all made before we were parents, the beaches were the very definition of casual. Any woman wearing a bathing suit top betrayed a poor fashion sense; among those who had the physique to pull it off, nudity was widely practiced on two strands, including our favorite, Saline Beach. Back then, my wife and I stopped packing bathing suits for a visit to Saline or its companion clothing-optional retreat, Gouveneur Beach.
That was then — before everyone had a concealable camera that could send pictures around the world in less time than it takes Ryan to say (as is his wont), “I can see your butt.” We arrived at Saline this time to find a francophone picnic in progress at tables under a shady copse lying just before the sand. A couple dozen people in G-rated attire — including small children — splashed and played water sports in the strong current.
True to its name, Shell Beach is a seashell collector’s open-air boutique.
Even I don’t swim topless anymore. As on every prior visit, a strong wind ripped open the stays of the beach umbrella supplied by the hotel, so to protect from us from the tropical sun, Ryan and I wore rashguards (swim shirts) with an SPF of 50.
The family settled into the St. Barts routine. Each morning, we breakfasted poolside at the open-air Indigo restaurant, and Ryan would jump in with his kickboard before he had finished his pancakes and croissant. Between Kid’s Club visits, we would try the beaches, a favorite being Shell Beach, just above the orderly little capital of Gustavia.
True to its name, it is a seashell collector’s open-air boutique. Sailing yachts drifted into the bay, and the restaurant and diurnal hangout Do Brazil served people on chaises longues parked on the beach just below its shaded terrace.
The master class in St. Barts beachgoing is a visit to Colombier, which requires a 25-minute hike down a treacherous, cactus-lined path, nearly all of it narrow and covered with rough sand and jagged rock.
I was nursing a puncture wound after a fall onto a sharp stone when a group from Puerto Rico came up the path; one of their number, Luis, had his arm in a bandage improvised from a shirt and was on his way to the hospital for stitches. A large blue cooler, containing wine and champagne for a beach party that would not be, lay on the path 30 yards below, and beyond that, the ice dumped from it lay with cold irony on hot sand.
By good luck or good fortune, Ryan and my wife made it down and back safely in their flip-flops and, while on the beach, enjoyed some of the island’s best snorkeling and marine-life viewing.
We dined twice at Bartolomeo, the gourmet restaurant at Le Guanahani, which offered novelties such as a citrus-accented appetizer formed around a tartar of local fish. One of our favorite meals was at the Sand Bar, the beachfront restaurant run by Jean-Georges Vongerichten at the Eden Rock, which, built like a fortress atop a rocky outcrop in St. Jean Bay, was the first hotel on the island.
My entree was penne with ham and black truffles. We had stayed there once, and to continue down memory lane, we had a leisurely, rum-fueled lunch at Le Sereno Restaurant. Next along the beach from our own hotel, Le Sereno was the first place we had ever stayed on the island — back when the hotel was only a modest premonition of the deluxe resort, decorated in minimalist chic, that it has now become.
Our favorite dining moment, however, was at Maya’s, the open-walled, beachfront restaurant that, like so many others, we return to on each visit.
Neptune, the god of the seas, commanded smooth sailing for our boat heading back to St. Martin. St. Barts receded behind us, melding with the sea that nurtured it.
St. Barts had done its good work, adding to the joyful memories of three (or was it four?) visits before.
If you go
Getting there: Fly to Princess Juliana International Airport on St. Martin and then take a gasp-inducing puddle jumper or wave-tossed ferry. Votre choix. Information: www.st-barths.com.
Staying there: We stayed this time at Le Guanahani, a deluxe hotel in the traditional French colonial style, with four-poster beds and refrigerator cabinets disguised as campaign chests. The hotel is inside three of the island’s nature reserves and participates in the local campaign for sustainable hospitality. There is a full spa, drinks on the beach, private access to two broad bays and the all-important Kid’s Club. http://leguanahani.com.
In contrast, the neighboring Le Sereno, once a modest hotel at a noble address, has been reimagined by the Parisian designer Christian Liaigre in a muted, earth-toned minimalist style. http://www.lesereno.com.
Neighboring properties, both can be booked through Leading Hotels of the World: www.lhw.com; +1-800-735-2478.
Dining there: Our picks among many, alphabetically:
▪ Bartolomeo. The gourmet restaurant at Le Guanahani.
▪ L’avventura. Best thin-crust pizza on the island, as reported by our 6-year-old and many others. www.lavventurastbarth.com.
▪ L’Isola. Home of minestrone soup served as a puree and justifiably the “in place” in Gustavia. www.lisolastbarth.com.
▪ Maya’s. An island institution for more than 30 years. Maya, from Guadalupe, runs the kitchen, and her husband, Randy, from Massachusetts, runs the open-air dining room. If you have not been there, you have not done St. Barts. www.mayas-stbarth.com.
▪ Sand Bar. The kid-friendly beachfront Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant at the Eden Rock. On the Rocks, the gourmet restaurant, is in the hotel above. www.edenrockhotel.com.
▪ Tamarin. Newly renovated. The restaurant opens onto what is probably the island’s most beautiful garden. The centerpiece: a canopying tamarind tree. There is a play area for children. www.tamarinstbarth.com.
Island attire: How do you make a polo shirt and shorts or a bikini and wrap look chic? Welcome to France. Jackets and ties will be confiscated on arrival. If you show up with insufficient chic (an American faux pas), Stephane and Bernard, the island’s signature boutique, will come to your rescue. www.stephaneandbernard.com. For something more relaxed but truly local, three St Barth French West Indies stores sell their distinctive logo T-shirts, tank tops and other beach-life products.