St. Barth: France in the Caribbean

September 18, 2013 by

Beach & Water Adventures, Caribbean, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

The island of St. Barth is like a miniature French Riviera that has split from its mother country and sailed off into the Caribbean. With its sumptuous duty-free boutiques, world-class hotels, and yacht-lined harbor, it’s no wonder that the island has become the playground to the rich and famous. But ordinary travelers can enjoy St. Barth, too, and for those North American-based Francophiles and romantics who dream of a quick getaway to Paris, there is a taste of France much closer to home.

Gustavia

Gustavia

Gustavia. Photo credit: Torrey Wiley via Flickr.

If you arrive to St. Barth by sea and disembark in the port town, its name, Gustavia, won’t exactly strike you as French. It isn’t. Ever since Christopher Columbus discovered St. Barth, the island has had many occupants, including the Swedes who named the port town for their king at the time, Gustav III, and left their architectural mark by constructing homes with first floors made of stone and second stories made of wood. To honor all of the island’s cultural influences, St. Barth’s coat of arms has two Caribbean pelicans flanking three French fleur-de-lys, three Swedish crowns, and a Maltese cross, all of which are positioned above the Native American moniker for the island, Ouanalao.

Today, however, the 9,000 people who call St. Barth home are mostly French expatriates and descendants of the original French settlers. Ever since 1947, they’ve held French passports, obeyed French laws, and paid French taxes.

Despite its name and architecture, Gustavia feels like a miniature, less crowded Champs Elysee. In the center of town all of the French designer outlets like Cartier, Hermes, and Louis Vuitton are but a few feet from one another. And between the boutiques, at the bar Le Carre, residents and travelers gather to sip wines before engaging in the spirit of the French gastronomic meal, which is the first food habit ever to be recognized by UNESCO. Most of the locals told me that this fraternity over food was the one thing that made St. Barth feel most like France.

The best of St. Barth, however, is outside of Gustavia. And since the island is only 8-square miles, travelers can experience all of the highlights at the slow pace that St. Barth deserves.

Beaches on St. Barth

St Jean

St Jean. Photo credit: John M via Flickr.

While most people don’t connect proximity to the airport with a peaceful day at the beach, on St. Barth the opposite is true. The busiest beach on the island is the one closest to where the planes land and take off. (Luckily, the island’s short runway only caters to small airplanes, so it’s not like Jumbo Jets are screaming overhead.) St. Jean beach is a mile-long strip of white sand, where topless sunbathers lounge in front of beautiful resorts and couples stroll past mostly ignored model shoots. In the water, surfers and kitesurfers tackle waves on the outside reef. (Though the best waves on the island are on the eastern side at Toiny.) Visitors can also rent kayaks, catamarans, and windsurfboards.

One of the best places to eat at St. Jean is La Plage. During the day, they serve up juicy sliders and artful beet salads, while nights are Caribbean cabarets. The most entertaining is La Plage’s “I Love Fridays” beach party, which features a fire juggler and elegant pole dancing. (This completely PG-rated performance showcases a dancer so talented she could join up with Cirque de Soleil.) Like many of the French chefs on the island, La Plage’s does an incredible job pairing Caribbean flavors with French recipes. Try the foie gras with mango chutney or any of their fish tartars.

St Barts Shell Beach

Shell Beach. Photo credit: John M via Flickr.

While not every beach on the island has that French vibe, there are still a few worth checking out because of the Caribbean atmosphere. Closer to Gustavia is Shell Beach. There, locals jump from cliffs into the turquoise waters that surround the island or imbibe at the most laid back bar in St. Barth: Do Brazil. This purple and white outdoor cantina is canopied by palms and overlooks the sea. But for the best views, head to the cliffs above Colombier Bay. From there, you can take in most of the island. The hills across St. Barth seem to pitch like ocean waves, and the towering palms, modest Manchineel trees, night-blooming cacti and decorative blooms of wild trumpets and frangipanis give beauty to this volcanic land. If you’re feeling adventurous, take the thirty-minute hike to the remote and beautiful cove below. It’s the only way to get to Colombier Bay without a boat. Hikers are rewarded with an incredible beach and some of the best snorkeling on St. Barth. It’s also the most affordable way to stay on the island as you can pitch a tent and enjoy the magic for much less.

If you prefer French gastronomy with your views, head over to the other side of the island, where Hotel Le Toiny’s restaurant, Le Gaiac, serves up an excellent Sunday brunch. The winding roads across the island will take you past turquoise seas, towering palms, and austere cemeteries that are lined with white, above-ground tombstones and decorated with garlands of flowers. But the real reward is the views and spread at Le Gaiac. The restaurant overlooks Toiny’s surf and chefs serve up a medley of island bites, Parisian pastries, and other French Caribbean dishes.

Before booking that ticket across the Atlantic, keep in mind that there’s a sliver of France down in the Caribbean.

Visit St. Barts from St. Martin with a ferry transfer

– Noah Lederman



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