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St. Barts Spotlight

Secluded, exclusive, spectacular: St. Barts packs a lot into a tiny island

By Jordan Simon

December 20th, 2005

Ironic that a tiny, rocky Caribbean island ill-suited to agriculture and populated only by poor Norman and Breton fishermen should wind up luring Rockefellers and rock stars, real and reel royalty. But St. Barthélemy, affectionately known as St. Barts (or Barths – both are correct) with its exquisite coves, gingerbread-trimmed Creole cazes, and low stone walls trimming emerald hillsides became the bi-continental set’s playground, separating true chic from chicanery. On this special chunk of rock, located southeast of St. Martin, in the northernmost arc of the Caribbean's Leeward Islands, the beautiful and wealthy play at anonymity, violate personal trainers’ and nutritionists’ advice, and indulge in the occasional vice away from the paparazzi’s popping bulbs. Despite the island’s stratospheric prices, gourmet eateries, and duty-free haute-couture boutiques, few visitors parade in Prada; sarongs and denim cut-offs (and often little else on the beaches and yachts) are more common, although the flipflops are more likely to be branded Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik than Havaiana.

Indeed, St. Barts is a surprisingly laid-back place where one lingers in cafés, the inimitable scent of galettes, Gauloises and hibiscus hanging in the air: a tropical St. Tropez as fresh and enduringly in demand as November’s first case of Beaujolais Nouveau. The island never developed a slave-based economy as its poor rocky soil, arid climate, and mountainous terrain were unsuited to sugar production. It thrived briefly as a colonial shipping and commercial center; the French and Swedes traded it back and forth in the 18th and 19th centuries, the former taking ultimate possession in 1877. Hardy Norman, Breton and Poitevin stock settled the island from the 17th century on, eking out a meager existence by fishing and salt mining. Their descendants (seemingly ten surnames only, such as Magras and Gréaux dominate the phone book) are industrious yet insular, feisty yet friendly. Today, while the island is French by custom, most locals speak excellent English and the US dollar is accepted everywhere.

Approximately four hours as the crow flies from New York (two from Miami), with a puddle jumper or ferry ride from St. Maarten adding at least two hours to the trip, St. Barts is a bit of a hassle to reach, but its relaxed ambiance and French savoir vivre more than reward the journey. Three days here permits hunkering down at a beach resort with forays into the delightful capital, Gustavia. If you have five days, you can easily explore each part of the island, deciding upon your favorite beach. A week permits plentiful activities from horseback riding to sailing, as well as more strenuous hikes (burning off calories!) to less accessible beaches.

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