Veteran family travel writers put their favorite island, St. Bartholomew's, to the test. And the wonderful Caribbean retreat does more than pass; it excels!
In our twenty-plus years of travel and writing about travel, St. Barths stands out. We recalled marvelous cuisine, lovely scenery, diverse beaches, beautiful people, overpriced shopping (to ignore) and friendly French inhabitants (really). This French West Indies island was dazzling.
But we visited nearly two decades ago, before we started dragging and sending our kids across the globe. Had the island changed? And would our two world-wise teenagers appreciate the island’s sybaritic way of life?
We decided to find out. And to help us determine if this island truly is family-friendly, we invited another couple with two teens. We put it to the test: Could St. Barths dazzle four teenagers?
It did. And their parents too.
While St. Barths’ has several lovely, mercifully small hotels perched on bluffs or cascading to the surf, our two families envisioned lots of space, privacy and variety – difficult for eight people to find at the island’s high-priced hotels without taking out a second mortgage.
With four adults, two teen girls and two teen boys, we needed a villa, something with private bedrooms and bathrooms. Plus a nice view, a pool and a full kitchen, so we can go or stay on whim … and maybe even have someone cook for us. And we a also wanted a daily cleaning service to pick up after the teens. Finding all of this was remarkably easy with Wimco on St. Barths.
Wimco, founded in 1983 to help islands lease unused villa weeks, is a class act and the most established villa rental company on island, representing more than 250 villas. Wimco’s staff knows the island’s villas intimately, and they refuse to represent villas not up to client and company standards. Need something special, specific, sublime? Wimco works closely with families to identify villas that fit their needs – pool/no pool, cribs, safe for toddlers to roam, no stairs, adjoining bedrooms. Some villas clearly are not appropriate for little tykes (perched on the side of a hill with no railings, for example), while others would be ideal for two or more families. Just ask – they’ll know.
Our efficient Wimco representative met us at the arrivals dock in Gustavia harbor, helped us navigate our auto rental (two cute Suzuki Samurai), tossed our bags in his vehicle and led us over dreadfully skinny roads and up the side of a hill to our home-for-a-week.
Our daughter Maddy (15) and her friend Charlotte (17) shrieked when they crossed the threshold of our open-air Villa Mystic (MKA), set high above St. Jean Beach with views of the setting sun. Our son Jamie and his buddy Will (both 14) were much more circumspect (read: cool) – they simply surveyed their new surroundings, nodded approvingly and flopped into the infinity pool, clothes and all.
Like most villas on St. Barths, Villa Mystic revolved around open-air dining and lounging. The kitchen, stocked with cooking essentials, adjoined separate dining and living areas that could be enclosed in inclement weather (more frequent than anticipated during typically calm June). Three master bedrooms bordered the pool deck, with another tucked away for added seclusion (a fifth bedroom underneath went unused).
The villa set-up provided the personal privacy we needed and community setting that we craved as two families. Those who wanted to sleep late were not disturbed by those up early brewing coffee or heading out for an early morning swim at a nearby beach. In the heat of the afternoon sun, it was delightful to lounge away the day sunbathing, watching music videos on the flat screen TV or listening to music from the satellite channels. Our kids plugged their iPods into the numerous stereo systems and entertained themselves endlessly while splashing in the pool.
On evenings when we were too lazy to leave, we noshed on pate, fresh bread, cheese and sausage and enjoyed a simple French rose while the kids heated chicken cordon bleu or pasta alfredo – the perfect foundation for a spirited Trivia game or simply chilling to music or the ever-present breeze. Villa life is good.
It was difficult to peel ourselves away from idly soaking up the view and wagering over which teensy airplanes would have to pull up from the notoriously undersized runway. But knowing there were lovely beaches to explore and too many restaurants to fit into the week, we braved the steep and twisting streets in our manual transmission Samurai and explored as much of the island as possible.
St. Barths’ Beaches
After visiting more than 20 Caribbean islands, we’re still impressed by the diversity of St. Barths’ beaches, particularly for such a small island – only a third the size of Manhattan. None are more than a 15-minute ride from the island’s central beach, St. Jean, home to chi chi hotels, water sports (non-motorized, thankfully), assorted villas and terrific people watching.
St. Jean Beach was our home-away-from-villa, where we lunched with our feet in the sand, marveled as expert windsurfers skipped across the waves and craned our necks as puddle-jumper planes rose above the beach and glided over head. Well, that’s what the adults were doing.
Our teenage boys were trying their best not to look at the topless women and teenage girls, and our girls either were pounding the waves or checking out the pricey boutiques lining the beach road.
One day of particularly iffy weather, we gathered up a cooler of food and drink and plopped down on our favorite beach, Grande Saline, a secluded arc of broad sand and terrific tidal swells. No restaurants, no shops, no toys, nothing but sand and views – it’s a perfect place for a family picnic and play (even though sunbathing in the buff is not uncommon). We had just popped a nice bottle of bubbly when clouds suddenly shifted, the sun retreated and the wind howled, followed promptly by an abrasive blast of sand and a pelting rainstorm as we scurried back to our soaked Samurais. When we reached our villa, the sun reappeared, the rain stopped … and it was back to another of the island’s 20 plus beaches.
Food (OMG, the food …)
We found shopping at Le Match, the one real supermarket on island, totally irresistible as the store sells fresh baguettes, true croissants, fancy-pants cheeses, pates and sausages, as well as European breakfast cereals (Chokella). Our boys were particularly excited to stumble on a “flavor” of Axe body spray (tropical!) unavailable at our local U.S. stores, as well as the prominently displayed French girly magazines. Adults were more enamored with the large array of French wines for as little at Euro 3, the only product that did not cost two to three times more than stateside. We stocked up chiefly on picnic supplies, coffee and easily prepared kid food, knowing full well that our focus was the island’s dizzying array of restaurants.
Restaurant hopping is St. Barths’ favorite sport, and we threw ourselves into it with gusto. Like nearly everything on island, prepare yourself for Visa blisters. Restaurants are … pricey. The three-euro bottle of wine at Le Match? 30 Euro when dining out. A cheeseburger or Caesar salad to make the kids feel at home? 18 Euro. A Coke? You could buy a 12-pack in New York City. Are the restaurants worth it? Absolutely – you’re in paradise.
The restaurants surpass the island’s beaches in variety: Creole, Thai, sushi, Brazilian, Italian, pizza, seafood and, of course, French. From bake shacks in the sand to tony hotel patios, St. Barths’ restaurants embody the French culture’s focus on serious food. Internet boards are loaded with “favorite” lists and recommendations, and it’s impossible to hit every great place in a week.
Here’s a run down of our favorite restaurants, based on the family/teenager angle and four adults who enjoy variety. (Note: our trip was in June, so we had no problem getting a table – anywhere.)
Le Piment – Perched over a busy road near St. Jean, Le Piment serves truly great burgers, yummy tuna sushi and a solid seafood lasagna. Perhaps it was the music videos that captivated our kids or the open-air vibe or the fancy desserts or the adjoining shops. Our kids loved it, and so did we (twice).
Do Brazil – Overlooking Shell Beach near the harbor, Do Brazil looks and feels like a sprawling, funky tree house. Launched by Brazilian soccer star Yannick Noah, it’s more Asian and French inspired than Brazilian (although their version of the Brazilian Moquecca, served with fresh fish, was yummy). The lunch menu has a lobster club sandwich, Caesar salad and burgers to satisfy less adventuresome tastes. And the free Wi-Fi and complimentary bottle of vanilla rum was a sweet touch.
Snack Zen – The adorable Zen Bar sits beneath Do Brazil literally on Shell Beach, consisting of a small bar, tables in the sand and a simple menu of salads, panini, sandwiches and chicken curry. It’s a great place for a beer and a swim.
Chez Andy/The Hideaway – A welcoming, open-air joint with an expansive menu, good service and a friendly English owner who stops by to see everybody. Andy’s is a great choice when nobody knows what they want – the menu handles pizza, pasta, goat cheese salad and more with ease and decent value (for St. Barths).
La Mandala – Perhaps the loveliest setting in Gustavia, La Mandala is a great choice if everybody likes Thai cuisine or sushi. The menu is fun and inventive, but the sunset over the harbor and open-air Asian dÃ©cor steal the show.
La Saladerie – When we couldn’t get fresh French mussels next door at La Marine (closed off season!), we tried La Saladeria’s broad reasonably priced menu with large, tasty, thin pizzas, right on the harbor.
Nikki Beach – OK, not the most family-friendly and even a bit snooty, but the food was wonderfully fresh and interesting and the sand in the toes and white banquettes on the beach made it all divine. And the sexy, hip vibe appealed to our teens … and us.
Kudeta – An urbane little spot on the harbor, with excellent food – sweet breads, pad thai, grilled chicken Caesar – and funky little chairs shaped as large hands. Clearly some of the best food.
Le Select – One “restaurant” that could be described as affordable is the widely known and centrally located Le Select, smack dab in the middle of Gustavia, where Jimmy Buffett says he basically raised his kids. The outdoor grill and patio and the indoor dive bar serve as the unofficial meeting point pre- and post-everything. At three Euro for a beer or glass of wine and a couple more for a burger and fries, families can rely on Le Select to stay on budget and watch nearly all of St. Barths pass by.
France Meets Caribbean
St. Barths is mercifully free of typical island vacation trappings: high-rise hotels, tour buses, tacky t-shirt shops. While the restless can find plenty of physical activities – snorkeling, deep sea fishing, scuba – the St. Barths experience is built around taking pleasure in intimate hotels, extravagant villas, myriad beaches, remarkable restaurants – and each other.
Granted, our visit was off-season. We heard tales of traffic jams and long lines at restaurants during high season when Hollywood-types and wealthy Europeans descend on the island.
But low level complaints of over-development and rampant growth seem much exaggerated. The island retains its French soul and joie de vivre. Perhaps a bit less funky than two decades ago, St. Barths remains a stronghold of unbridled Gallic pleasure on a small rock at the edge of the Atlantic.
So … family-friendly? Exceedingly so. Will teens get it? Our two sets certainly did. They never asked, “Where’s the mall?” or “Can we get McDonald’s?” They relaxed and reveled in the foreignness of it all. They were captivated by the lovely people, the French vibe in the Caribbean and the chance to chill in an infinity pool under a sky full of strange stars.
Their favorite moment: a late night excursion to a tiny nightclub on Gustavia’s harbor (I napped out front in the Samurai). The gracious bouncers welcomed the teens, and the owner chatted them up (perhaps it helped that Charlotte is a model with pink hair). At midnight the DJ mixed club music and the place started hopping – the kids drank Red Bull and acted very adult.
That evening said it all. No undue restrictions … a French vibe with international clientele … relaxed, friendly residents … That’s the magic of St. Barths.
More so than other Caribbean islands, St. Barths appears to revel in its inaccessibility. Anyone can get there, of course – but not readily without a suitcase full of money.
There are two common approaches: commercial boat launch and airline. Sounds simple, but getting to St. Barths can be confusing – Wimco’s agents can make the arrangements and save you tons of research time.
Although not always the case, our trip from Charleston, SC, required a night on another island before reaching St. Barths (see below).
(Of course, there are private launches and expensive charter/private flights. We researched but couldn’t find a way to save money traveling with eight people.)
Boat: The Rapid Explorer is neither rapid nor an explorer. It is, however, an absolutely suitable transfer from St. Maarten to St. Barths, provided the sea is not roiling the day of your crossing. While stories abound of wretched crossings, ours was merely uncomfortable, accompanied by feeble air conditioning, bouncy waves and a lack of toilet paper and hand towels in the WC.
Although under an hour ride, it is an international voyage – allow a bit of extra time and patience for minor bureaucracy (our return trip was slightly delayed as staff dragged aboard two large boat motors). The boat launches from Philipsburg, so plan on taxiing to/from the airport. The Rapid Explorer is reasonably priced: a bit more than $100 person round trip.
Airlines: Numerous small airlines jump from nearby islands to St. Barths, most from St. Maarten but also from French Caribbean islands and more recently from Puerto Rico (San Juan). The cost bears no resemblance to the distance – a twenty minute hop often is priced as dear as the jaunt from Miami, New York or Los Angeles.
So which airline is the best? No such thing – there are too many variables: connecting flights, cost, convenience. Regardless, there is one constant: landing on the St. Barths airstrip. We’ve landed on shorter airstrips (Canouan Island back in 1989 comes to mind) but none more ostensibly dangerous. Try to relax as you dive rapidly over the island’s main turnabout near the graveyard cross before touching down just short (hopefully) of St. Jean Beach. Once you’ve successfully landed, come back to wish others the same luck.
Westin Dawn Beach (in-transit on St. Maarten)
Many travelers make their way to/from St. Barths through St. Maarten, often requiring an overnight stay. St. Maarten is the antithesis of St. Barths: busy, commercial and touristy. Regardless, it is delightful, friendly and full of decent dining, accommodations and beaches.
On our return trip, we wobbled off the n in Philipsburg and hopped a cab to the Westin Dawn Beach, a decidedly upscale resort with a lovely beachfront setting – and very large rooms that easily accommodate a family of four.
As much as we loved our St. Barths villa, we truly enjoyed the change of pace at this full service resort with Westin’s luxurious, urbane touch. We simply parked ourselves on the cushy lounge chairs surrounding the large infinity pool and chilled, foregoing any thoughts of wandering off to any of the island’s countless restaurants (our favorite activity back on St. Barths).
The Westin is well suited to families with young ones: two kiddie pools, high chairs, complimentary cribs, babysitting services and a Kids Club for ages 4 to 12. Our kids were too old for the Kids Club and too young for the casino, so they satisfied themselves by locating other teens, splashing in the pool and wandering the beach.
We barely dabbled in the resort’s overabundance of activities, completely ignoring the spa, fitness room and dive shop. Lunch at poolside and dinner on the resort’s sprawling terrace was a treat, far superior to the often-dreary continental cuisine at many resorts. And then it was off to the lavish room with flat screen satellite TV, marble bathroom and a great night sleep on Westin’s signature “heavenly” bed.
The following morning we simply tumbled into a taxi and headed for home. We were only passing through on our way back from paradise – all we had needed was a place to lay our heads for one night, but we got a whole lot more. The Westin Dawn Beach performed its designated role perfectly. Next time we’ll stay longer …
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