No amusement park thrill ride can compare to landing at Saint Barthélemy’s small airport. The approach requires your pilot to clear a mountain and then immediately dive down the far side of it at as steep a pitch as possible, in order to take advantage of every inch of a very short runway. I have seen fellow passengers literally scream in terror and put their head between their knees during this decent, in some kind of instinctual preparation for a crash landing.
Once on the ground, though, St Barthelemy (“St. Barts” in English; “St. Barths” in French, the language spoken on the island) has an easy-going vibe that belies stereotypes of supermodels on yachts (at least during the off-season). Take a healthy dose of joie d’vivre and mix it with equal parts Caribbean beauty, island sensibility, and a French sense of style, and voilà! Saint Barts.
Full disclosure: I adore this island, in a way I do few places on earth. I love the scale: the narrow patched-together roller coaster roads, the tiny brightly colored buildings (no high-rise hotels here), and the small rocky bays. I love the food: attentive French preparation and wild Caribbean flavors. I love the first-world sensibility layered over third-world charm. If it sounds perfect, that is because it is. (If it sounds expensive, you are really starting to pay attention.)
The following is a brief and entirely accurate description of one night we spent in St Barts: We had a babysitter and reservations at Isola, an Italian restaurant with food to rival any I have tasted outside of Italy. The babysitter’s name was Charlotte, a Parisian-turned-islander who showed up at our hotel room in a halter-top and flowing skirt. Disturbingly, our boys, confused by her French accent, kept calling her “Chocolate”. We were picked up in a taxi driven by a gorgeous young French woman in a little black dress and heels. She spent most of the ride on her phone, planning her night out, which was clearly going to be more exciting than ours and happen long after we were in bed. Once inside Isola, we entered Italy, with burrata with prosciutto, bresaola with arugala, prosecco, and absolutely no nod to its French island location.
After dinner, we navigated dilapidated sidewalks, me in high-heeled sandals, to Bagatelle, a blue and white bungalow-style restaurant situated on the edge of the harbor, for a post-dinner drink. I had read that its Sunday brunches were “rosé -fuelled” and “infamous”, and our fancy taxi driver has recommended it for a post-dinner cocktail (which was enough for me). The restaurant was incredibly chic and incredibly empty; it was just us, a couple of bar patrons, an unrelenting stream of music controlled by a very intense DJ, and a wait staff wearing seventh century clothes and large powdered wigs, most of whom seemed tipsy.
“Do you always dress like this?” I asked the bartender. “Non,” he replied. “Once a month. It ees very hot in the weegs.” After one drink, we started to feel like we had stumbled through a looking glass in which Louis XVI’s court goes to Vegas and decided to move on.
We regained our bearings during a walk along the harbor and decided to finish the night Le Select, a St. Barts institution. The polar opposite of Bagatelle, it looks poised to collapse at any moment under the pressure of time, neglect, the sea air and its own weight. It is the oldest bar on the island, and attracts one of the most diverse crowds I have ever seen, from dumpy tourists to salty islanders and French women barely dressed in the latest Parisian fashions. A friendly but ripe-smelling individual who appeared to be a cross between a homeless man and a Rastafarian sidled up to us at the bar, told us his improbable life story, and ended with an anti-Obama rant. Eventually, it became clear that he was mad at Obama because of a tax bill he had recently received from the United States government. The bartender seemed desperate for him to disappear.
“That guy was pretty worked up about taxes,” Mark mused on the taxi ride back to our hotel. “How much money can he possibly make?” But, really, who knows? Maybe the stinky Rastafarian was a millionaire. After all, c’est St. Barths!