Azure water, white sand, a hungry turtle on St. Barts

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Alan Behr, Tribune News Service
August 23, 2015

Waves jostled the high-speed ferry as it bolted from the harbor at Philipsburg, on Saint Martin, aiming with churning indignation for Saint-Barthelemy. On our three or four prior visits (my wife and I debate the number), we had taken the famously entertaining/unnerving 10-minute flight over. Riding in an airplane about the size of a banquet table, you make the landing approach by skimming a few feet over a hilltop traffic circle, then diving down the hillside to an undulating runway. If all goes according to the flight plan, you come to a halt before tipping into St. Jean Bay.

The catamaran ferry was much cheaper and, so we thought, would be gentler on our 6-year-old, Ryan. As the rugged little island—with the familiar contradiction of brown-green, jagged hills and stately white villas—appeared into view, Ryan got seasick. My wife and I had to help him through it because another passenger, a muscular man the size of two Volkswagens strapped together, had also fallen ill, requiring the full attention of the cabin crew—as his girlfriend slept like a curled-up kitten.

Exclusivity is bred by inaccessibility, and the very difficulty in getting to St. Barts (in French, St-Barth) makes it a destination for the sort of people who want quiet, sophisticated relaxation—the occasional yacht-borne bacchanalia notwithstanding. The bulging, mass-market cruise ships moored in Philipsburg are too large to dock in St. Barts. There are no big hotels, and those on the island offer only 500 or so rooms and suites in total. Add to that about 450 villas for rent and the fact that none of it comes cheap, and you have a luxury travel fantasy—an implausibly refined Caribbean island.

Our hotel, Le Guanahani, sat along Grand Cul de Sac, in one of the many bays that crenellate the eight-square-mile island. Those bays shelter perfect white-sand beaches, snorkelers, kite-surfers and any pleasure craft that its owners think looks shipshape enough to fit in. Our bay-view suite was practically a small villa, complete with lush tropical landscaping, a large pool in back, a parking place in front and a land turtle that paid regular visits and kept trying to bite my big toe.

As with other hotels, ours was staffed by pretty young women from France, in for a couple years to practice their English, get some sun and make the place look even better. They brought Ryan his pizza poolside on our deck and walked barefoot onto beach sand, bringing drinks to guests lounging in chairs rooted before the bay. Server or served, a sense of uniform equality prevailed. The secret of St. Barts is that you do not feel that post-colonial tension of other places in the Caribbean—those formed by the evil of slavery and where the local population still serves (sometimes resentfully) interlopers from afar.

Indeed, although it is often said that St. Barts is like provincial France in the Caribbean, in truth, it is like Paris in the Caribbean. St. Barts is Paris without the traffic and the disdain for spoken English. Those are replaced with palms, azure water, white-sand beaches and a flip-flop culture that somehow looks chic.

Traveling to St. Barts as a family requires preparation. There are no all-inclusive options. It is an á la carte island because the goal is to try the different beaches and many fine restaurants. Because so many repeat visitors know each other, the island is a veritable moveable feast, with friends and acquaintances congregating—or simply bumping into each other—at restaurants, on boats and at hotels in the harbor.

When you have a first-grader, however, you need kid-friendly things to do, which is why we chose Le Guanahani, which, with only 67 rooms and suites, is the largest hotel on the island. Alassai, the manager of the Kid's Club, showed Ryan the facilities and in turn introduced him to the eight other youngsters staying at the hotel during our visit in the comparatively underpopulated summer offseason. Ryan is studying French, the French kids were learning English; they all played bilingual games and, this being France, they had a cooking lesson. The hotel has a spa and functions as a full campus-based resort, but once we were acclimated, it was time to hit the road—and to hit the beach.

Hertz delivered to our hotel one of the small four-wheel-drive vehicles that are staples on the island, and Daddy took the family up and down the narrow, twisting roads, swerving beside crevices, the rear-view mirrors on cars in the opposite lane ever threatening a petulant swipe. Throughout, motorbikes rolled and banked in suicidal waves, passing all, daunted by none. I drove slowly, with the precision of an alcoholic Formula One driver.

On our prior visits, all made before we were parents, the beaches were the very definition of casual. Any woman wearing a bathing suit top betrayed a poor fashion sense; among those who had the physique to pull it off, nudity was widely practiced on two strands, including our favorite, Saline Beach. Back then, my wife and I stopped packing bathing suits for a visit to Saline or its companion clothing-optional retreat, Gouveneur Beach.

That was then—before everyone had a concealable camera that could send pictures around the world in less time than it takes Ryan to say (as is his wont), “I can see your butt.” We arrived at Saline this time to find a francophone picnic in progress at tables under a shady copse lying just before the sand. A couple dozen people in G-rated attire—including small children—splashed and played water sports in the strong current.

Even I don't swim topless anymore. As on every prior visit, a strong wind ripped open the stays of the beach umbrella supplied by the hotel, so to protect from us from the tropical sun, Ryan and I wore rashguards (swim shirts) with an SPF of 50. We drove to the hotel just in time for our turtle-in-residence to appear, scavenging for castaway gourmet food.

Then it was time for Ryan to work on his summer writing project for school, and here is the result:

Daddy's Driving Skills

By Ryan N. Behr

We went to St-Barth. A turtle came and I named him Yertle. He was the coolest. My daddy started the car. I said, “Run, Yertle, run!”

I hasten to report that no turtles were injured in the making of this story.

The family settled into the St. Barts routine. Each morning, we breakfasted at the poolside, open-air Indigo restaurant, and Ryan would jump in with his kickboard before he had finished his pancakes and croissant. Between Kid's Club visits, we would try the beaches, a favorite being Shell Beach, just above the orderly little capital of Gustavia. True to its name, it is a seashell collector's open-air boutique. Sailing yachts drifted into the bay, and the restaurant and diurnal hangout Do Brazil served people on chaise longues parked on the beach just below its shaded terrace.

The master class in St. Barts beachgoing is a visit to Colombier, which requires a 25-minute hike down a treacherous, cactus-lined path, nearly all of it narrow and covered with rough sand and jagged rock. I was nursing a puncture wound after a fall onto a sharp stone when a group from Puerto Rico came up the path; one of their number, Luis, had his arm in a bandage improvised from a shirt and was on his way to the hospital for stitches. A large blue cooler, containing wine and Champagne for a beach party that would not be, lay on the path 30 yards below, and beyond that, the ice dumped from it lay with cold irony on hot sand. By good luck or good fortune, Ryan and my wife made it down and back safely in their flip-flops and, while on the beach, enjoyed some of the island's best snorkeling and marine-life viewing.

At dinner that evening, in L'Isola, one of the most fashionable of the island's depots of gourmet cuisine and model-on-the-arm-of-banker partying, a man from Tyler, Texas, asked how he should get his beautiful wife and teenage daughters to Colombier. My wife and I called out nearly in unison, “Hire a boat, dude!”

We dined twice at Bartolomeo, the gourmet restaurant at Le Guanahani, which offered novelties such as a citrus-accented appetizer formed around a tartar of local fish. One of our favorite meals was at the Sand Bar, the beachfront restaurant run by Jean-Georges Vongerichten at the Eden Rock, which, built like a fortress atop a rocky outcrop in St. Jean Bay, was the first hotel on the island. My entree was penne with ham and black truffles. We had stayed there once, and to continue down memory lane, we had a leisurely, rum-fueled lunch at Le Sereno Restaurant. Next along the beach from our own hotel, Le Sereno was the first place we ever stayed on the island—back when the hotel was only a modest premonition of the deluxe resort, decorated in minimalist chic, that it has now become.

Our favorite dining moment, however, was at Maya's, the open-walled, beachfront restaurant that, like so many others, we return to on each visit. Let Ryan tell you the story:

Maya's Restaurant

By Ryan N. Behr

I went to Maya's in St-Barth. I got sleepy. I fell asleep in the restaurant. The waitress made me a bed of chairs. I felt happy.

When we were done, I carried Ryan out, shaking Chef Maya's hand while cradling his head in the crook of my right elbow.

On our final morning, as dawn broke over the bay and Ryan slept, my wife and I returned to our St. Barts roots by skinny dipping, this time in private in our suite's pool. Neptune, the god of the seas, commanded smooth sailing for our boat heading back to St. Martin. St. Barts receded behind us, melding with the sea that nurtured it. St. Barts had done its good work, adding to the joyful memories of three (or was it four?) visits before.

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