I’ve sailed to St. Barthélemey (St. Barts, as most know it), I’ve taken the ferry from St. Martin and I’ve flown in on the little heart-stopping puddle jumper that nearly scrapes a high ridge before it plummets to the short runway.
But I’ve always thought that the best way to arrive at this Leeward Island jewel would have been to sail here as part of the old Route de Rosé. The race, popular in the ’90s, began in St. Tropez where yachts migrating from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean would load up with the obligatory dozen cases of rosé wine (and some discretionary ballast, too) and race across the Atlantic. Of course, not all the wine made it-one could not expect such a cargo to go unopened at sea. And of that which did, half would be consumed at a cork-popper of a post-race party. The rest ended up in the island’s handful of restaurants.
The Route du Rosé fizzled out just as the island began to heat up. Yachts making the annual migration from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean signed on for other races, such as the ARC. Today, island wine shops carry as many as 300 cases of wine, and weekly boats from France and Florida provide the 80-plus restaurants with things like Napa cabbage and foie gras de canard.
St. Tropez itself has decamped here, in a small, charming way: miniature Hermes, Dior and Cartier duty-free shops line one Gustavia street and the Hotel Guanahani opened the island’s first destination spa last spring. But there are a few things here that are better than in St. Tropez, or Monaco, or just about anywhere in the world. Yachts, for one.
“There is no place in the world where you will see so many beautiful yachts in one place,” said Alan Jaouena. It was late afternoon and the Caribbean sun was glinting off the red-tiled roofs of Gustavia as we motored into port. Jaouena is a captain with a fleet of small day-charter boats-small, in St. Barts’ terms, meaning a 55-foot Princess. We had spent the day nosing into the island’s beaches. Placid Shell Beach has a pebble bottom that keeps the silt down and makes the waters that lap up to the cliffs at one end of the beach look like they belong to an infinity pool. At Anse Saline, the French manage to be stylish and stark naked at the same time (it’s all about the accessories: sun hat and flip flops). Rockefeller Beach, a strip of white sand in mountain-rimmed Colombier Bay, is so named because David Rockefeller once owned the sole house on this wild and beautiful end of the island.
At Colombier Bay I snorkeled, spying down through 20 feet of transparent water at two love-struck turtles, a territorial box fish, and flushes of angel fish, then returned to the boat for a lunch of grilled lobster and artichoke salad.
It had been a perfect day and as we came into Gustavia, the U-shaped harbor rimmed with small French Colonial buildings was quiet and peaceful. The Thanksgiving surge was over and the next event on the calendar was the world marble championships. The major headlines covered a fire in a metal compactor and the arrival of a new Dom Pérignon.
Only a few large yachts were stern-to at the newly renovated main quay. “Just wait,” said Jaouena. “In a few weeks, there will be 50 superyachts in here, and the outer harbor will look like a city. St. Barts is where all of the best boats of the Mediterranean, Caribbean and East Coast meet in the winter; there’s nothing like it in the world.”
Last year in the week after Christmas more than 350 yachts filled the harbor, some having camped out for weeks to secure the prime spots on the quay (first come, first served). They ranged from the classic ketch Ticonderoga to the 452-foot motoryacht Sunrise.
And two days after New Year’s Day they left. “That’s when it becomes our island again,” said Sabine Masseglia, as we tied up at dock. Masseglia came to the island 12 years ago with her husband, Philippe, the chef at the Hotel Guanahani who had prepared our lunch. One of the first hotels on the island (along with famed Eden Rock and the Manapany), the Guanahani’s 71 cottages are scattered across a small isthmus bordered by two sandy beaches. Its new Clarins spa, candy-colored gingerbread cottages and sugary beaches make it a sweet spot for catalog and ad shoots-in the coming weeks Victoria’s Secret, Ann Taylor and David Yurman had all booked it.
“Some people come to be seen. But the models, the celebrities and the very rich come here to hide,” Masseglia continued. This is a place where you can’t be judged by the size of your jet (because large jets can’t get in here) or what you drive (the narrow one-lane roads lead to a preponderance of Euro micromobiles), or your home (strict zoning keeps the size of a home to a limited square footage, hence the prevalance of attached “cottages” that retain their cuteness, even at $100,000 a week).
But you can be judged by your yacht and all the biggest come at New Year’s and then again the first weekend in April for the St. Barts’ Bucket. Run by the same folks who put on the Newport Bucket, the race is only open to yachts 78 feet and larger. Last year 25 of the behemoths raced around the island, including two of Jim Clark’s yachts, the 295-foot Athena and 156-foot Hyperion, and Joe Vittoria’s 247-foot Mirabella V.
St. Barts wasn’t always like this. Settled by pirates, and without a freshwater spring, the eight-square-mile island was an outpost that bounced between Swedes, Brits and the French. But no one fought over it with too much zeal, and the French actually sold it to the Swedes-and then bought it back.
“I used to row out when I saw a yacht and tell them about Le Select,” said Marius Stackelborough, 83, the owner of the first bar on the island. “Back then, we’d sail schooners from St. Barts to Guadeloupe, the hold filled with salt, the decks packed with cattle. My job was to keep the cattle from tipping over if there was a big sea ’cause if one went down, it was like dominoes.”
Le Select hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1949 on a little open square with simple café tables and bare wood walls. Except that it is famous. This is where Jimmy Buffet wrote Cheeseburger in Paradise and he still comes back every so often to throw a free concert. Along with various crews off yachts, you might run into Madonna or David Letterman having a quiet drink at a table before heading to Le Yacht Club, the night club across the harbor, or hotspots such as Maya’s or Nikki Beach.
As tempting as it was to linger in Gustavia, it had been a long day. Masseglia and I piled into a cab and headed back to the Guanahani. As we drove into the resort I could see waves breaking into a line of white on the turquoise reefs and kitesailors zipping back and forth on the bay.
For as many times as I’d sailed here on a yacht, I’d never stayed ashore. A Guanahani cottage, with white linen couches and my own little yard (with private Jacuzzi) would be my home for the night, and I had dinner reservations at beachfront Indigo, a magic place under the palms.
As I sat at a table, sipping a French rosé, listening to the waves breaking just 100 yards away, it occurred to me that while the best way to arrive would be by yacht, the best way to leave St. Barts would be…not to.
Best time to go: To watch the parade, get there before Christmas, take your spot at the quay and watch the party. Or come the first weekend in April for the St. Barts Bucket. For a taste of the real, quieter St. Barts, come any other time.
Best spot in the harbor: If you like to party, Med-moor at the quay, recently renovated. For a quieter anchorage, head for the outer harbor. Shell Beach also has a protected anchorage for smaller yachts.
Best beaches and diving: Snorkel at Colombier or Anse Saline. It’s a short walk from Gustavia to Shell Beach with its chi-chi Do Brazil restaurant. Off-season, head for the north side to dive on the walls off Turtle Island. For thrills, lie on Baie St. Jean beach and watch planes take off just 100 feet above you.
Best restaurants: Though Nikki Beach and Maya’s are the trendy spots, K’fe Massei has a wonderful $39 prix fixe three-course menu that can include foie gras and lobster. Off-season, try a cooking class and lunch at Bartolomeo.
Best places for a drink: For a sophisticated martini with a spectacular view of the harbor, try Gustavia’s Carl Gustaf hotel. And a Red Stripe at Le Select (perhaps the only place on the island with $2 beers) is a must.
Where to stay: While there are swankier hilltop hotels like Le Toiny and the legendary Eden Rock, Hotel Guanahani continues to appear at the top of all the travel magazines’ lists. It combines the charm of St. Barts with the most beautiful beachfront location. Rooms start at about 315 euros a night: www.leguanahani.com
Where to charter: For day trips, try Master Ski Pilou on Grand Cul de Sac. For larger crewed yachts, contact a charter broker.