This Travel Intelligence Report comes in 3 parts…
Arriving in St Barths
Arriving in St. Barths is very exciting. Only small planes are allowed to land on the island and they have to slow their engines, rapidly ascend a mountain peak, then dive-bomb downwards onto a very short landing strip. If they fail to stop in time, they will probably decapitate sun seekers lying on the beach, because the end of the strip is the beach in St Jean.
[this is one of the reasons why I don’t recommend staying in St Jean. Even though this is where a lot of the action is, it’s also where the airport is… which means you’ll be listening to a lot of planes landing throughout the day. Thankfully, the island only allows flights to land during daylight hours.]
Here’s what a beach landing at St. Barths looks like…
Airport at St Barths
The airport is tiny but very efficient – and, thankfully, air conditioned. After clearing immigration (one policeman sitting behind a window), you collect your bags and head outside to where the car rental agencies are. Those of you renting villas, or staying at swank hotels, will be met by your representatives.
Clearing immigration is a doddle. Have you ever noticed that the more third-world a country is, the more paperwork they require? It’s an inverse relationship between sophistication and bureaucracy. When you land in St Barths, there’s nothing to fill out (save a recommendation canvassing for but it’s not required) and there’s hardly ever a queue.
Car Rental in St. Barths
Please rent a car. You’re not going to enjoy the island without one.
There is a Hertz, an Avis, a Europcar, Budget, and a bunch of local vendors. DO NOT RENT from MAURICE. They ripped off a friend of mine terribly when his car suffered minor damage. It became a long and very protracted case and I thought they behaved abominably.
Hertz, Avis and Europcar have the best fleet. But that isn’t saying much. Most of the cars here look like they’ve been in major collisions… dents, scratches and damage everywhere. Your rental condition report of the vehicle will look like a braille diagram. Most likely this is because the roads were planned by a drunken roller coaster designer. Plus, the drivers in St Barths are some of the worst drivers in the world.
Agree to all the insurance you can on your rental agreement. Normally, this is a scam. But in St Barths you’ll need it. It doesn’t matter if you are a careful driver. Other people will use your car as target practice when parking, bumper crunching, smacking off wing-mirrors, knocking over scooters, etc. Mind you, you will probably still end up having to pay 600-1,000 euros in excess even WITH the insurance. This is a nice earner for the rental agencies, as it’s not uncommon to come back with fresh dents, scrapes and broken mirrors (see below)… so, factor that into the cost of your rental.
I rented from Island Car Rental. They were half the price of Avis. There is a reason for this. They have fewer vehicles in their fleet, so you’ll have less choice. And their vehicles are even more smashed and trashed than the competition. But you save money. And, besides, everybody is driving a trashcan… so you’re not going to look silly if you are, too. Okay… there are the occasional flash cars. I did see a Porsche Cayenne on the island once but this is very rare.
Beware when parking near La Plage in St Jean. I had my wing mirror taken off when my car was parked there. The rental agent told me that this was fairly common in that location.
Best Hotels and Luxury Resorts in St. Barths… A Few Highlights
There are lots of great St Barths resources on the Web, so I’m not going to re-create them here. I will only give the highlights in my experience.
I’ve stayed at Eden Roc and Le Toiny. Both are very nice hotels that will charge you a fortune for the privilege. I have not yet stayed at Ille de France, although I’ve been there many times for meals and beach time, and I imagine it to be in the same category. I know someone who did and was very happy there. You might even see the owner – a British priest – tooting around the island in his massive Turkish Gulet.
Ille de France is on Flamands beach – one of the nicest beaches on the island (but the waves are frequently high, making it less appropriate for very small children to swim in). The Hotel has a nice stretch of beach, a beach-side bar and sun loungers, making it a wonderful destination for lunch and beach. It’s very tastefully decorated in a French plantation style.
It also seems to be the place where celebrities love to stay. I sat at a table adjoining Uma Thurman the first time I went. Then, last week it was Courtney Cox. Whether this is a good sign or not, it’s hard to say. At least their PA’s believe it’s the best place on the island.
The restaurant does a great lunch service with a well-conceived menu. The Wok of the Day is great (especially when they offer a seafood mix). Dinner Service is mediocre and the menu very disappointing. Prices are as high as they come (wine is marked up 4x). Service is friendly but somewhat ineffectual – certainly not as attentive as they should be at a hotel of this calibre. This is St Barths chic – for mature and calm sun seekers.
Ask for tables 23 or 24 which are partially inside, partially outside the restaurant. They have lovely views and are sheltered by palm fonds. It will make you feel as if you’re island living all the more.
Eden Roc is right in the middle of St Jean. There’s lots to do in the area and the hotel is very tightly managed. Unfortunately, they’ve been on a bit of an expansion spree, which has compromised the feeling of exclusivity that they once cultivated long ago. Now, you’ll find beach villas, time shares, a real estate office, Sand Bar and all sorts of other people coming and going. Much more hectic than it used to be.
The Beach at St Jean is one of the calmest on the island and great for small children. The Sand Bar restaurant is right on the beach and you can rent some sun loungers to sleep off a heavy lunch by the water’s edge. Expect to spend 30 euros a day for loungers. This is pretty much the deal everywhere with a few exceptions. The menu at the Sand Bar is small but adequate. They recently lost their main chef, so food quality isn’t as impressive as it used to be.
The rooms are very simple but elegant French chic. Shame about the airplanes taking off and landing overhead. But you get used to it after awhile. It doesn’t happen all the time, thankfully, but comes in waves.
Le Toiny is a bit of a fading star in my opinion, yet still in the top five. I first stayed there ten years ago and there’s no doubt that it was a top-notch hotel at that time. The furnishings were fantastic and the food always outstanding. Their restaurant is still one of the few, truly gourmand eateries on the island. But staying there a week, as I did, was hard going. Eating michelin star meals every day and night is too much of a good thing. You start to crave simple dishes and the chef did not oblige. It was his way or the highway. I remember begging him for a burger that wasn’t smothered in foie gras but to no avail. Anticipate gaining 10 pounds or more if you lodge there for a week.
Unfortunately, time has taken its toll. The restaurant is still one of the most expensive and tasty but it’s not as innovative as it used to be. Service is terribly ssssllooooooowwww. The location of the hotel is unfortunate, as its on the windiest sides of the island, perched on a hill. There are no beaches immediately nearby and you will feel a bit isolated from the rest of the island. If you drive in one direction, you will face powerful headwinds and a landscape that looks very tortured. Don’t go that way; go the other way.
The room I stayed in was sheltered from the winds but that made it a mosquito paradise and I was nearly eaten alive. Click here for photos.
I’d recommend going to Le Toiny once in your life for a blow-out dinner. Take someone you care about – preferably in a romantic way – and spend a relaxed evening eating dinner in elegant surroundings.
Other Hotels in St. Barths worth considering…
Guanahani is a very family-friendly place and quite enormous. It has a large swimming pool and tennis courts. The beach gets wonderful breezes and is located inside a sheltered lagoon. Unfortunately, the sheltered bay is full of sea kelp, so it isn’t as pleasant to swim in as, say, St Jean.
Tom Beach Hotel (at La Plage)
La Plage is really one of my favourite beach hangouts on the island, because it’s low-key and bohemian in a way that St Barths was when I first discovered it. It’s located in St Jean, so it’s very central, calm and collected. Sun loungers are 20 euros a day – but an additional 10 euros for an umbrella (bizarre). Food is good. Service so-so but friendly. But – very important – they had the coldest beers on the island.
I don’t know what the hotel’s like but given its good location and happy beach set-up, it’s worth considering.
This is an interesting, boutique hotel for people that like something a little tucked away, ethnic in design and family-run. I stayed in one of their cottages a few years ago and enjoyed the quiet location and close proximity to Flamands with fantastic views (Flamands and Colombier being my two favourite parts of the island for beach and nature). Their main hotel area and restaurant has a lot of dark, teak furniture with French-Caribbean influences. It’s a tad bit on the ‘heavy’ side design-wise but, nevertheless, it feels more authentic and local.
There are a few supermarkets on the island, the best of which are the Supermarche U by the airport and the one in Gustavia Harbour. People argue over which of these two is best but it doesn’t really matter, because if you cook a lot and plan to be on the island for awhile… you’ll be shopping at both. Why? Because they have different delivery schedules and good produce is really hard to come by here. When there is a fresh delivery, the locals descend like locusts and strip the place.
The Supermarche U by the airport has the best booze selection – tons of fine (and not so fine) wines, champagne, beer, etc. They also have Fischer Beer (thank God). Why? Because some idiot has the stranglehold on beer distribution on the island and has decided that people should only drink Heineken, Caribe, Corona, Presidente and Amstel Light… and NOTHING else! Every bar on the beach you go to will only serve a selection of these. I’m sorry but Caribe only tastes good ice cold. Otherwise, it should be used as a cleaning product. Thankfully, the U has a couple of other beer options. Hooray!
Food is going to be really expensive and not in good condition. Grapes covered in penicillin fur, scary fruit and rotting produce are not unusual. There will be the occasional amazing find, so persevere. Not everything is as bad as it sounds – just keep looking. Complain for a little while, then get over it. This is the way things are on the island. When a fresh delivery of green beans come in – get them fast, pay the exorbitant price and be thankful for it. You were one of the lucky ones who got a handful.
La Petite Boulangerie
This Bakery is located on the road between the Roundabout (Gustavia / Airport) and the road to Flamands & Colombier. Get to know it. It will become your best friend.
It’s on a steep hill opposite a school. Don’t go during the morning or afternoon school run. It’s a death trap of irate parents, crazy cyclists and pedestrians all trying to avoid killing one another.
It opens obscenely early (6am?) and most of the best pastries will sell out immediately. But it stays open until roughly midday. They sell savoury food as well – sandwhiches, pasta salads, rotisserie chicken, etc. The food is reasonably priced and the bread and pastries seriously fantastique.
A Moment of Silence
The Cafe Sandwhich shop on the steep incline as you drive from St Jean to Saline – the one that had fabulous wraps – is no longer with us. Let us lament its passing with a moment of silence.
Okay… I’m signing off now. Next week, I’ll cover the restaurants!