My take on St. Barths, with a bit of San Juan

View of the bay in St. Barts (St. Barths) in the Caribbean

St Barts, or St. Barths, is a magical island where it feels as if you are in the south of France rather than the Caribbean.  St. Barts is not the easiest place to get to, as the airport is so small and the runway so short, only small propeller planes can land. Access is either from the island of St Martin, or from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I started my trip in San Juan, with two nights at the luxurious St Regis Bahia Beach. This is a large and elegant resort in a jungle setting on the beach. Pools are fun with interesting features, cabanas and a casual restaurant. Sports facilities such as golf, tennis, biking on nature trails and kayaking are all available. While I was there the beach was quite windy, and not as conducive to spending time there, or for swimming. The sea was rough.

San Juan has a vibrant culture, with no passport requirements for US citizens since it is part of the U.S. I did not see much of San Juan, other than to drive through on the freeways and take the surface streets to the resort. San Juan is struggling financially, but once within the resorts, you would never know it.

We flew to St Barts on Tradewinds Air, which was excellent. The flight took 50 minutes. (Flying from St Martin is only 10 minutes.) The landing is exciting - the wings seem to almost touch the mountain as the plane drops down to the runway. Pilots must have a special license to be allowed to land at this airport!

We were met and taken to the hotel we stayed in for the first 3 nights, Le Sereno. Just like it’s name, this hotel is serene. Just 35 rooms, all painted white, no art work on the walls. Hardwood floors, graceful canopied beds, the look is calming and relaxing. The main event is looking out from the rooms to the gorgeous turquoise lagoon, which you see across a narrow lawn, bordered by tropical flowers, palm trees, and low hedges. We collapsed onto our lounge chairs and sipped champagne, sinking into the calming sound of the lagoon, together with the sound of the wind in the palms. Best therapy ever.

Le Sereno has a narrow beach which edges the shallow lagoon, which you can actually walk across. The lagoon happens to be the perfect place for windsurfing and kiteboarding, as the wind is just right. When the wind is quiet, the kayaking is excellent, as the lagoon has lots of sargasso growing, which is home to an entire eco system of fish.

I had a spa treatment where the spa room was open to the sea - I could hear the sound of the palms and the water and feel the breeze. Lovely and very relaxing. This hotel is the most private of all the resorts on St Barts. If security is an issue, this is an excellent choice. 

Life on the island of St Barts is very social. Guests typically rent small cars and drive around to the various beaches and other hotels. All beaches are open to the public and the other hotels welcome outside guests to come and dine and enjoy the beach and pool. We drove to several other beaches to swim and went to lunch at other hotels as well.

We loved our day at Eden Rock, which has the best swimming beach. Clear water for swimming and the beach boys will wade out into the sea to serve drinks!

We stopped at Le Toiny, set up on the side of a hill, great views and very private. Other outside guests were enjoying the infinity pool at the restaurant. The hotel guests each have their own pool. From Le Toiny we drove to Grand Saline Beach, where we had to hike in from the parking area. This was a great swimming beach - small waves to play in, beautiful and unspoiled views. Further down was Gouvernor Beach, just lovely as well. 

Driving on St Barts was something we had to get used to. Roads are narrow and the island is small but mountainous. We would drive up a road so steep we couldn’t see over the next hill and suddenly a car would be cresting the hill coming toward us. Scary!

We went to the main town of Gustavia - Swedish names abound here, as there was a short period when France sold the island to Sweden for landing rights. The French bought it back, but never changed the street names in the town. There was never any industry or agriculture on St Barts. It is a dry island with so many steep hills it is mostly hospitable to goats! There were several French families who owned St Barts, never any slavery or poverty, which today translates into one of the safest islands in the Caribbean. People leave their keys in their cars, drop kids off at beaches to play, no worries about crime. The atmosphere is upscale casual.

We moved to our next hotel, Le Guanahani, which is a collection of cottages in Caribbean style, each brightly painted, white gingerbread trim. My cottage was a one bedroom suite with it’s own swimming pool. The hotel is built on a hill, with the cottages stretching from the top of the hill down to the beach. We had to walk down the steep hill each day to the restaurant for breakfast and lunch, which was right at the beach. Le Guanahani sits on a point and has two beaches. One side faces the same lagoon as Le Sereno, the other side faces a very quiet lagoon. There is volcanic rock and reef on the quiet side, but if you enter the water toward the end of the beach and swim along beside the rock, you have excellent snorkeling. The other side has the sargasso, which is environmentally protected, but it is still clear enough to be able to swim and kayak.

The fine dining restaurant is fabulous - the best truffle risotto ever! The Clarins spa has perfected the spa treatments to a high level. Loved this resort.

We went to dinner at Le Ti St Barts, which everyone going to St Barts must experience at least once. The dining is excellent, but the draw is the show. The fashion show starts while guests are dining, followed by a show done by the models. Then, once dinner is cleared away, the tables are emptied, the guests are dressed up in costumes and everyone dances! Guests jump up onto the tables to dance, while the performers dance along with the guests. So much fun - the party goes on until the last guest leaves.

There are several restaurants of note in the town of Gustavia, where you will see others you might have danced with at Le Ti. The party seems to move around the island. Guests can be part of the social scene easily, as you continually run into people you met at one of the beaches, restaurants or hotels. If you want to stay quiet and out of the scene that is absolutely possible, but part of the fun is to join in.

Lunch at Nikki Beach is another experience, with non-stop music, beach beds to lounge on, fun and casual atmosphere, good food. Sip on chilled rose, dine on something wonderful, and when the heat gets you, run down and jump in the beautiful crystal clear water of the lagoon, float around and cool off. Nikki Beach is on one side of the Eden Rock Hotel - their beach is just the other side of the rock. 

Eden Rock is the place to stay if you want to be in the heart of the action on St Barts - with Nikki Beach right there, plus shops and other restaurants within walking distance, it’s the perfect place if you want to be in the scene. 

Further away, on the other side of the airport, is the delectable hotel, Cheval Blanc. Gorgeous place which was formerly named Isle De France, this luxury hotel is an institution on St Barts. It has beautiful and well designed rooms, a fabulous beach, great spa, excellent restaurant. We spent time at the pool after a wonderful lunch, as the afternoon was too windy for the beach. To get to Cheval Blanc you drive down a steep hill, it is set right on the beach at the end of the road. The beach section is most requested, but the garden rooms are large, quiet and more private.

St Barts is a playground for those who can afford it. The currency is euro, prices are fairly high, as is true of most resort areas, but definitely worth it!

At the end of our week in St Barts we flew back to San Juan for one more night – this time at the Ritz Carlton Dorado Beach, a Ritz Carlton Reserve property. This was a gorgeous place, set in the jungle, with a beautiful beach. It was not as windy on this side of the island. The beach is great for swimming, as the hotel has built breakwaters in the ocean, creating large safe areas to swim and paddle board. The swimming pool was one of the most interesting, as it had so many nooks and corners with jets of water to massage feet, back and neck. A platform in the center was just under the water level with many jets of water shooting up. It has a children’s area as well, more shallow and sectioned off, so kids could be safe in their own pool within the pool. Well designed  light and bright rooms, absolutely gorgeous spa, Jose Andres restaurant. The property is large - guests can check out bicycles or be driven in a golf cart if they don’t want to walk. Dorada is known for the golf courses, 3 of which are close by.

From the West Coast to the Caribbean, there are no nonstop flights. Timing can be difficult, red eyes, layovers, etc. However once you arrive, the experience is worth it. The islands each have their own appeal and attributes, culture, language, traditions, food. We get used to just going to Hawaii, which I consider our backyard with a better beach, but if you make the effort and choose the right island to suit your tastes, the Caribbean can be a wonderful destination.

Katie Cadar