Southern Boating

St. Barth

Port de Gustavia attracts vessels of all sizes that dock in this picturesque main harbor.

St. Barth: Worth the trip and the budget

Although my family can hardly be included among the glitterati, enchanting St. Barthelemy—more commonly known as St. Barth—is our favorite landfall. Red-tiled roofs saunter down immaculately kept hillsides and stop just short of a stunning turquoise harbor where megayachts line the flower-bedecked quay. All manner of sailing and power vessels crowd the outer anchorages and inner mooring field for good reason: exquisite cuisine, duty-free French shops, glistening beaches, beautiful people, storybook cottages, picture-postcard scenery, and one of the safest ports in the Lesser Antilles.

Scarcely eight square miles of arid volcanic rock, the tidy, sophisticated, picturesque St. Barth is a bit of an anomaly among the islands. The buttoned-up Capitainerie keeps a sharp eye on comings and goings in the harbor, and the effective but fairly invisible gendarmes watch what happens ashore. Clearing in, despite the challenge of using a French keyboard, is a pleasantly efficient experience. A plethora of stern-to berths house superyachts just a few feet from charming downtown Gustavia, the island’s capital. Large, frequently crowded anchorages sprawl along the south side of the harbor entrance and north of the commercial pier. The most popular is northwest of Fort Oscar, an easy dinghy ride to the town quay. The inner harbor’s bow-stern mooring field is more convenient and comfortable if there is an open spot that matches your LOA. There is also side-to and stern-to dockage seaward of the mega-docks, but keep in mind that winter swells make for rolling nights aboard, which explains its general availability.

Pretty St. Barth is that quintessential island paradise that every cruiser hopes to find but rarely does. The casual, easy-going vibe softens its reputation as a playground for the rich and famous. Wander the streets of Gustavia—poke into winding alleys, climb the steep narrow roadways for birds-eye views of that magnificent harbor, and stroll the shoreline walkway that circumnavigates the main basin. Rise early for freshly baked croissants, baguettes or galettes. Provision the boat or gather a beach picnic in one of the local France-sourced markets or gourmet take-out “traiteurs.” Expect good buys on wine and liquor. For an overview of the island’s French and Dutch history visit the small, charming Municipal Museum on La Pointe next to the Town Hall “Mairie.” A hike up to Fort Gustav at the northern end of the harbor or Fort Karl at the southern end adds depth to the history lesson, along with stunning views. st-barths.com/museum

St. Barthelemy was discovered by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage and named for his older brother Bartolomeo. One hundred fifty years later, two consecutive French colonies struggled for survival, but in 1674 a band of Norman Huguenots arrived and the island was used to provide services to the French pirates who were plundering Spanish galleons. Fastforward another hundred years when France’s Louis XVI negotiated a deal with Sweden’s Gustav III and traded St. Barthelemy for Gothenburg. King Gustav invested heavily in his new possession with three forts—Gustav, Karl and Oscar—guarding the newly designed town with paved streets and Euro-style stone buildings. The new duty-free trading zone brought a rush of prosperity, but by the end of the 19th century, St. Barth had been badly battered by a series of natural disasters. Oscar II could see little benefit to his predecessor’s investment and ceded the island back to France.

By the mid-twentieth century, adventurous travelers and a few uber wealthy Americans led by David Rockefeller had discovered this quiet backwater. As tourism gradually became St. Barth’s financial engine, the citizenry protected the island’s uniqueness by enacting zoning regulations that discouraged high-rises and large resorts. Together with Guadeloupe, St. Barth was once a full-fledged department (province) of France, but on July 15, 2007, the local citizens voted to become an almost-autonomous Overseas Collectivity with a Territorial Council, President and representative in the French Senate.

Nevertheless, it still feels French, and except for the 14 spectacular sand beaches that ring the island, it could be a quiet stretch of the Cote d’Azure—topless sunbathing is standard, nudity less so. Be sure to tote an umbrella, because shade is elusive on almost all St. Barth sand and a chair/umbrella rental can be hard to come by—for that elusive shade, try Flammand, a long, wide stretch of silky soft sand. Shell Beach is a short walk from the Gustavia docks and sports a popular lunch spot, weekend festivals and tiny pink shells. Pebbly Public Beach offers convenience off the northern anchorage near the commercial pier and is littered with Optis and Lasers. The other beaches require a car. For surfing, try Lorient or Anse des Cayes. Corossol’s beach is tiny and rocky, but the allure is a glimpse of a small fishing village, where some of the old Norman and Breton ways continue. Be sure to visit the Inter Oceans Museum (Museum of Shells).

A couple-hundred couture and pret-a-porter shops edge Gustavia’s duty-free harbor—think Hermes, Cartier and Louis Vuitton. For luxury goods, this is the best bargain stop in the Lesser Antilles. In the midst of all this glamour is Le Ship, a well-supplied chandlery that can also direct you to the island’s many yacht services. For the stylishly casual St. Barth look, shop several small malls around the towns St. Jean and Lorient.

More than 80 restaurants offer a wide variety of options—most are costly, but the food, service and wine are superb. Some serve a comparatively reasonable lunch plat du jour and/or a prix fixe dinner special. Check out the local Menu magazines as well as the web. The Wall House, high above the harbor, serves imaginative bistro fare; Eddy’s, in a tropical jungle, features Creole and Asian food; L’Isoletta, offspring of top-rated Italian classic L’Isola, serves superb pizza; and then there’s the yachties’ favorite hangout, Le Select, the self-serve alfresco beer and burger snack bar.

Touring the island is easiest in a rental car—the roads are steep and narrow with switchbacks and hairpin turns but are well maintained and clearly marked. Taxis are readily available, but expect sticker shock and fees that tend to fluctuate.

Active sports abound. Check in with the Saint Barth Yacht Club (stbarthyachtclub.com) to rent an Opti or Laser on Public Beach, or consider wind surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing, kite surfing, deep sea fishing, or the yellow submarine for a close-up of the coral reefs. Scuba divers and snorkelers should head to the islet Pain de Sucre out of Gustavia Harbor, or take your boat to Columbier Beach at the island’s northern tip and drop anchor near the St. Barth’s Marine Park. Once owned by the Rockefellers, this gorgeous beach is hard to get to by land but easy in a dinghy.

Scattered through the calendar are a surprising number of major events—the West Indies Regatta, Christmas market, New Year’s fireworks, Classical and Jazz music festival, Carnivale, Caribbean Film Fest, a Music and Food show, and many art displays throughout the year.

Whether you sail your own cat, charter a monohull or arrive on a 150-foot yacht, St. Barthelemy will draw you in and insist you stay, so plan on a few lay days. Yes, it is the most expensive port in the Lesser Antilles, but with some judicious choices, the St. Barth experience can be yours for a little less than over the top.

By Beth Adams-Smith, Southern Boating September 2014