The Caribbean is full of unlikely mixtures, but French cuisine doused with Caribbean flavors has to be one of the happiest. The French are serious about food, even on vacation, and, consequently, the tiny island of Saint Barts has at least a dozen fine dining establishments with food to rival any found in New York or Paris. Even better, casual roadside restaurants also tend to be excellent. I have never put a non-delicious bite of food into my mouth on this island. It is all about the French-holiday-meal-plan, which involves lots of food, buckets of wine, and an unbelievable amount of time.
We enthusiastically embraced but never quite conquered the long wet lunches that apparently make up the heart of the French vacation. Each hotel on Saint Barts has a restaurant that either wraps around a pool or sits directly on the beach. The idea is to eat a little, drink a little, jump into the pool or the ocean, and then repeat. But the magic of it all is the meal itself, which is not casual or beachy; these restaurants serve formal three-course menus, amuse-bouches and all. And, once you have a table, it is yours for the afternoon. The kids were happy, because they could run around and swim at will. I was happy, because I was sitting on a beach in the Caribbean eating amazing food. And I strongly suspect Mark was happy as well, since some French women still forgo bathing suits tops here.
A non-hotel lunch option that has to be seen to be believed is Nikki Beach, a place to eat sushi and be seen right on the beach in gorgeous Anse a Colombier (“Anse” means “cove”). The French seem to view sushi as the height of chic, which is hilarious if you are from California. Anyhow, Nikki Beach is all about champagne on ice and dishes like the “sexy salad wrap”. The people-watching is top notch, even in the off-season. It was here that we realized how deeply we were mistaken if we thought we could keep up with the French on vacation. Our waitress was truly baffled by our decision to pay the bill and leave after consuming just one bottle of wine. At one point during our stay on the island, we figured out that we were leaving for dinner at exactly the time French vacationers were returning from lunch. It was then that we sheepishly admitted defeat and resigned ourselves to being the ugly Americans, clamoring for our dinner alone in the restaurant at 7pm.
My favorite meal, however, took place outside time and space. Supplied with baguette sandwiches from a shop near the airport, we drove to Gouverneurs Beach for a picnic lunch, following a road that careens down an ocean-side cliff at such an angle the car seems to be diving into the endless ocean in the cove below. On a few beach towels, we ate our wrapped lunch, and tried to fully appreciate the enchanted moment, both body and soul so fully nourished. (To be completely honest, the sandwiches were so good it made me mad. Why can no one pull this off back home?)
Ultimately, its chic lunches are not what makes this island special. The magic is in the gorgeous and gleeful Caribbean crazy that belies and permeates the attempts at glitz and glamour. It is the turtle pooping under your table, the waiter handing your eight-year-old a live lobster, the vanilla rum.