Cover: View of Gustavia Harbor in St Barths
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull
There was a period of time when we only went on beach vacations. Our work lives were crazy at the time, so we escaped to an island every couple of months, even if it were only for a few days. Consequently, we visited quite a few sun-kissed spots around the globe, and have continued to do so, even though our travel destinations are now a bit less one-dimensional.
Throughout our journeys to islands located in varying oceans and seas around the world, one has stood the test of time and travels for the top spot on our favorites list – St. Barths. Over the last two decades, we’ve visited the island countless times, from day trips to week-long excursions. We’ve arrived by plane, ferried over by boat, stayed in hotels, rented villas, and watched the sun set while sipping champagne on a boat – ok, it was a small yacht (stay long enough, and these things sometimes happen).
Saint-Barthélemy, typically shortened to St. Barts or St. Barths, is, of course, the tiny gem in the Caribbean known for its celebrity visitors and conspicuous consumption. Like the Côte d’Azur, Bora Bora or Aspen, there’s a reason certain places are frequented by those with ample funds seeking a quiet retreat with posh accommodations and a bit of pampering. Extraordinary resorts and villas, stunning natural beauty, fabulous dining and libations, and the best in shopping usually top the “needs” list for these destinations – and are easily fulfilled in St. Barths.
But, can those not arriving to Gustavia harbor by yacht, still enjoy the 8 square miles of paradise without selling their house in advance to fund the adventure? Yes – it’s still not cheap, but there are a couple of ways to fit it into most travel budgets. Whether you sample the island on a day trip from St. Martin or visit during lower seasons when the hotel rates aren’t quite as outrageous, St. Barths deserves a place on your “where to visit list.”
When to visit St. Barths
As timing is closely linked to prices, your St. Barths’ dollars (yes, they accept U.S. currency) will go quite a bit further at certain times of the year. Of course, there are a few trade-offs for the lower prices – like the possibility of hurricanes.
Mid-November to March
The highest season (i.e., costliest) to visit St. Barths is mid-November to March. Most websites will say December, but in the last few years, it seems to be creeping back to mid-November or at least around Thanksgiving. The weather is perfect during this time, St. Barths is a gorgeous alternative to the cold, and the prices are off the charts.
If want to go around December holidays, plan on booking months in advance for hotels and restaurants and you better have a high limit on your credit card. That said, carnival is really fun in St. Barths. The harbor fills with yachts and the entire island shuts down for a parade.
Day trips are a good bet for saving costs during winter months. While prices are high on all islands when it’s snowing in the northern hemisphere, they are exorbitant in St. Barths. A day trip from nearby from St. Maarten can save thousands of dollars and accomplish many of the same activities – just with you sleeping on a different island.
April and May
April to May is a good time to visit – the rain is only occasional and hotel rates start to drop.
June to late November
Otherwise known in the Caribbean as hurricane season, prices are cheaper, but rain is more likely and your vacation could be interrupted by a hurricane. That said, historically, more hurricanes hit during August to October.
Days of the week
Most shops are closed in Gustavia on Sunday, so if shopping is on your agenda plan accordingly.
Getting to St. Barths
Typically, the first step in getting to St. Barths is to get to St. Martin / St. Maarten, which is about 15 miles away. Numerous flights arrive daily to at Princess Juliana airport (airport code: SXM) from the United States, Europe, South America and other Caribbean islands. Once in St. Maarten (the airport is on the Dutch side of the island), there are two primary methods of getting to St. Barths.
The first is by plane. Small commuter airlines deliver and return passengers daily via the short 10-minute ride between St. Maarten and St. Barths (Airport code: SBH). A little pricey and a bit precarious, the landing at St. Barths can be an adventure unto itself, as the landing strip is short and requires special training for pilots. A few commuter flights are also available from Antigua, St. Thomas and San Juan as well.
The other option is by water, with the most common being the Great Bay Express ferry that leaves from Philipsburg in St. Maarten. Far more economical, the trip takes about 45 minutes, and you don’t have the added time of security and waiting at the airport.
Luggage is no problem – it’s a common method of transportation for travelers between the islands. There are also a few other private charters and smaller ferries running from St. Martin / St. Maarten. For day trippers, the Great Bay Express has an option that leaves in the morning and returns in the evening, providing the option to explore St. Barths without paying the higher hotel rates found on St. Barths.
Upon arrival, whether by plane or boat, passengers must pass through customs. The airport is located at St. Jean and the ferries arrive in Gustavia. Taxis are available at both locations. Car rental locations are located at the airport, so those arriving by ferry and wanting to rent a car, need to cab over to the airport, which is about 5 or 10 minutes away. However, upon your return, most times the rental car company will transport you back to the ferry dock. For those staying on the island, the hotel will typically meet you at your point of arrival and provide transportation to the hotel.
When we first began going to St. Barths, Mini Mokes were prevalent on the island, followed by a period when Smart Cars were all the rage. Now though, everyone primarily gets around by regular cars and scooters.
Things to do in St. Barths
So, for the “Can I really afford St. Barths?” tally – the Great Bay Express is $80 RT from/to St. Maarten per person, a cab from the ferry port to the airport is about $10, and a one day car rental on St. Barths ran us $58 with tax. For our most recent experience, we did a day trip on a Sunday, so many businesses and shops were closed. Many day trippers don’t opt for the car rental – which I think is a mistake, unless you really can’t afford it. The only beach within easy walking distance from Gustavia is Shell Beach, which gets it name for the thousands of tiny shells that cover it. It’s small and nothing to write home about.
With a car, you can explore and, given it’s a tiny island, you can fit quite a bit into your day. Here are a few things that should be on your itinerary for the day….
Bask in the seclusion of Saline Beach
Saline is a stunningly beautiful, long, undeveloped beach with a laid-back, isolated atmosphere. The beach is deep, with plenty of room to find a spot far enough away from the water to not be bothered by those taking a stroll near the water’s edge.
While there is a parking lot at Saline, there are no facilities, so bring water and snacks. From the parking lot, it’s about a five-minute walk up and over the dunes to the beach. Although nudity is technically illegal in St. Barths, topless sunbathing is popular here and full nudity is common, especially on each end of the beach.
Languish over a luxurious lunch at St. Jean
After a morning of reading and relaxing on the pristine sands of Saline, you’ll wan to head to St. Jean for a bit of nourishment.
There are a variety of restaurants available in St. Jean, both across the street and along the beach. From pizza and casual fare to restaurants where the cuisine is only rivaled by the view, St. Jean has a fairly good selection of dining choices. We like to slip into French mode when on the island and enjoy a long, luxurious lunch – and decided to splurge on the experience. One of our long-time, go-to spots is Eden Rock.
A beautiful hotel, Eden Rock is perched on a rock overlooking the turquoise waters of St. Jean Bay. Constructed in the 1950’s, Eden Rock was the first hotel built on the island. Over the last 20 years, the hotel acquired adjacent properties and transformed into one of the most luxurious and diverse on the island with a variety of lodging types including standard rooms, cottages, suites, beach houses, and villas.
We’ve stayed at Eden Rock and it is a beautiful resort in a fabulous location – but on this trip, we just opted for lunch, which set us back $135 + tip for two drinks and two sandwiches. Yep – a little on the insane side of pricing for a fish sandwich. But, we essentially had a few hours at a resort where standard rooms were going for over $1000 per night during the time we visited.
Another beachside dining and drinking option at St. Jean is the famous Nikki Beach. If you plan to go, make reservations ahead of time and anticipate a price tag similar to Eden Rock. If the party scene is your thing, you’ll love it.
Take a walk along St. Jean
All beaches on St. Barths are public and free, so a walk along St. Jean won’t cost you a dime.
Located next to the airport on the Baie de St. Jean, the white sand beach curves around the bay and is home to an array of water activities. Snorkel in the calm waters near the shoreline or head further out for wind-surfing or surfing.
Head over to Gouverneur
After all the activity at St. Jean, it’s good to finish the afternoon with some quiet time on Gouverneur Beach.
More remote, Gouverneur is a beautiful, serene beach with amazing views. Like Saline, Gouverneur can be reached by a paved road, has a parking lot, but does not have any facilities, so bring water, an umbrella and anything you wish to eat. Also like Saline, beach goers may opt for that full tan, going au natural.
The drive to and from Gouverneur also yields some of the most spectacular views from the island, with a photo opportunity around each turn.
Throw back a cold one at Le Select
After dropping off our car at the airport, they brought us back to Gustavia and we decided to take a stroll around town.
The story has it that Jimmy Buffet, a frequent patron of Le Select back in the 1970’s, cut a deal with the establishment’s owner, Marius Stakelborough. In exchange for rights to use the “Cheeseburger in Paradise” line from Buffet’s famous song, Buffet would have his tab covered at the establishment for life. Over the years, Buffet has returned to the corner where thousands have downed a beer and burger, for an impromptu concert or an anniversary party at the bar on the quay, which has been in operation over 60 years. A great spot for people watching and enjoying a cool drink under the shade trees, Le Select is open Monday – Saturday.
Shopping in Gustavia
A duty-free port, Gustavia is home to over 200 boutiques that line three streets in the quant village. While the names of luxury retailers range from Louis Vuitton and Bulgari to Cartier, Hermès and Chopard, many small shops offering beachwear, accessories, and t-shirts can be found as well. The shops are typically closed from noon to three but open again in the late afternoon until 7pm. Most high-end retailers are also closed on Sunday, but a few of the stores offering casual wear and t-shirt open in the late Sunday afternoon hours.
Grab a drink and watch the sun set over the harbor
There are quite a few fabulous places to watch the sun set while on St. Barths, but we are always a fan of grabbing a cocktail and watching the boats return to the harbor as the sky fills with amazing hues of orange and purple.
For those leaving the island, the ferry returns at dusk to whisk you back to St. Maarten. For those staying on, the island changes after sunset. The day trippers leave, the stores close and a quiet settles over the island as visitors enjoy casually elegant dinners, before retiring to their hotel or villa or opting for a little nightlife at one of the late night cocktail bars.
How much did that day in St. Barths cost?
Let’s tally up our one day in St. Barths. Even with our splurge lunch, we spent just over $400 for the two of us. If we had opted for a not-on-the beach pizza for lunch, we could have easily cut it to $300. On the other hand, as it was high-season, if we had stayed on the island even one night, it would have run well over $1000. So, for us, an enjoyable day on one of our favorite islands for a couple of hundred bucks a piece was well worth it.
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