The water is a shade of blue many oceans aspire to be. As you stand on board a 95-foot sailing yacht heeling beneath your bare feet, a warm, 15-knot breeze flirts with your cheeks. Rounding a mark and heading downwind in the water off St. Barths, the foredeck crew raises the spinnaker. You take a seat on the deck near the cockpit, your feet dangling overboard to catch the stray wave, and a confident, crisp snapping sound signals the spinnaker is filled with air. You turn your head to look. The bulging white sail is adorned with the image of a wizard, a reminder that you're on charter aboard Sorcerer II.
Most crewed yacht charters involve spending at least a week on board. You have control over the itinerary and the cuisine, but at the end of the day, your bed is on the boat. While that may sound like heaven, your spouse may prefer more spacious and more stable accommodations. If this describes your situation, chartering the 95-foot Frers-designed Sorcerer II and her landside counterpart, a villa perched atop the island of St. Barths, may provide the ultimate compromise.
I spent a week sampling this best-of-both worlds alternative, and I can attest that it is an option that suited me well then-and one I would explore again in the future.
Sorcerer II's captain, Charlie Howard, calls St. Barths home for part of the year. When he says that and smiles, causing the tan skin around his eyes to crinkle as he adjusts a baseball hat hiding sun-bleached blond hair, you get the feeling he means it. Not just because the yacht spends winters in Gustavia, a place whose boats, water and people appear to have been plucked from a painting, but because he truly loves the island. "There's something here for everyone, no matter what you like to do, Howard said. It didn't take me long to find out he was right.
St. Barths is full of contrasting tastes, yet most of them are snugly anchored in the upper echelons of society. After all, we are talking about an 8-square-mile island that a few years ago bragged about consuming more foie gras per square foot than anywhere else in the world. As such, one might expect the cuisine to be overwhelmingly French, but that isn't the case.
In an environment where it's hard to find a bad meal, La Mandala is a standout. Getting there from the harbor requires a trek up the windy, steep Rue de la Sous-Préfecture. An effete waiter will lead you to your table, likely perched atop the floor with wide slats that reveals a fishpond spanning most of the restaurant. La Mandala's Thai-inspired cuisine appealed to everyone in my diverse party, but the view, which overlooks all of Gustavia, made the establishment's signature dishes, such as spring rolls made from pineapple, rice and swordfish, taste even better.
Tastes vary not just in food, but in atmosphere. If you value that, chartering in St. Barths won't disappoint. When the family is ready for something more laid-back after a day of cruising aboard Sorcerer II, her crew will be quick to recommend Le Select. It's safe to say Le Select is one of the most well-known places to eat on the island, but unlike many Caribbean hangouts with a reputation, Le Select really is worth the stop. Just a stone's throw from the harbor in Gustavia (and the alleged inspiration for the Jimmy Buffet song "Cheeseburger in Paradise), Le Select serves up various grillables and plenty of perfectly chilled beer in an outdoor setting suited for championship people watching.
Though many of the best crewed-charter experiences revolve around cuisine and eating, people choose such vacations for the on-the-water experience. Spending the first day circumnavigating the island, as I did, is a great way to stake out stopovers to visit later in more depth. Grand Fond was quickly visible and made our shortlist.
Grand Fond has no beach. Grassy fields give way to a steep cliff that descends abruptly into the ocean. If you hike along the dry rocky path down to the ocean, you'll find tidal pools of warm, crystal-clear water. The serenity is deceptive, though. The sight of the breakers rolling in from the other side of the pools is blocked by rocky outcroppings. The waves come crashing through the crevasses with such force that spray stings your eyes. If you don't brace yourself and listen for the telltale roar, you'll quickly understand why the French nicknamed these pools "the washing machine.
Calm beaches are plentiful on St. Barths, and if sailing to one and dropping anchor, or traveling by car along the rolling roads doesn't fit your mood, you can ask Howard to take you to one on The Gecko, Sorcerer II's tender. The Gecko, a 32-foot Regulator with twin 225 hp Yamaha four-stroke engines, offers a swift ride. A prime stop is the beach at St. Jean, a half-mile crescent of sand that's one of the island's most popular. The breeze is always blowing there, making it ideal for windsurfing (The Gecko carries all the gear necessary for this activity). Its location is also great for watching planes maneuver toward the island's notorious airport.
Having the flexibility to use Sorcerer II as little or as much as you want means that there is plenty of time to explore the towns on St. Barths. The island's French provincial origins are most evident in Corossol, a small fishing village that boasts the Inter Oceans Museum. There you'll find more than 9,000 seashells from around the world, along with oddly intriguing sand samples.
While quaint island-oriented shops and stops are available, St. Barths offers many opportunities for the see-and-be-seen set to see and be seen. Those so inclined may gravitate toward exclusive designer shops such as Hermés, Gucci and Cartier. These shops, as well as other resort-town standbys like Blanc Bleu, line the waterfront streets of Gustavia.
There's a time and place for not being seen, though, and that's where the villa comes in. It's the second highest on the island, and its creative architecture, which follows the natural landscape, allows near-180-degree views.
There are several common areas where your entire party (the villa sleeps six comfortably in three separate bungalows) will be completely comfortable. The horizon pool, covered outdoor dining area, well-appointed eat-in kitchen and exceptionally decorated media room equipped with couches, a television, and stereo, will encourage the whole group to sip wine and enjoy the surroundings.
If you prefer being downright invisible, note that the villa's architect carved private paths from each bungalow to the pool, creating the sensation that you're the only one on the property. Each bungalow has its own bathroom with a shower facing the ocean and doors that open the shower completely to the outside. Designed so your fellow houseguests will never stroll past your private space, your only worry while enjoying this outdoor, pampered experience is the stray sailor with very, very good binoculars.
When traveling with a large family or group of friends, it's difficult to please everyone, even in the most idyllic settings. When your day boat is Sorcerer II and you're calling her owner's villa home against the backdrop of St. Barths, however, it's hard not to feel like you've been put under a spell.