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Six of us are waiting in the departure lounge at the airport in San Juan for the flight to St. Barth. A small twin- engined propeller- driven plane is a few steps outside, waiting to whisk us away.
A woman comes in from the tarmac and tells us to board. She doesn't check our tickets. We file outside and get on the plane. There are two dozen seats, twelve on each side of a narrow aisle. We spread ourselves out in the emptiness and lay our carry- on luggage on the seats around us. No stewardess is on board to require proper stowage. The pilot announces in a French accent that we will share a few moments of unpleasant heat until we are cleared to taxi to the runway. A groundcrew shuts the door. There is no air conditioning until we are airborne. The sun turns the interior into a sauna. Soon the windows steam over. My sweat no longer evaporates. It beads on my arms like water on a well- waxed car. Finally, we taxi to the runway and after a short wait are off. The air conditioning takes several long minutes to clear the humidity and cool the interior.
Soon we are flying over islands in the sparkling seas below us. The only one I recognize is St. Maarten, which we skirt to our left. I look down on the Juliana Airport and Philipsburg. In less than ten minutes Anse du Colombier appears in the window, the first sighting of our destination. We curve to the right and fly directly at a mountain, straight toward the light tower and Swedish cross. We fly 20 feet over the highway that crests the ridge and dive steeply down the road on the other side. A man standing in a topless Jeep videotapes our descent right at him. He could have touched our wheel if he had reached up his hand. Having flown over our voyeur, the pilot presses forward on the wheel, aiming almost straight down. Pulling up sharply at the last second, we touch down lightly at the beginning of the runway. Full flaps, full brakes, props reversed, we slow very quickly as we approach the two- foot drop where the runway ends and the beach begins. A couple stands on the beach with their dog, watching us. The plane turns 180 degrees on the runway, and the barking dog runs up onto the pavement and chases us back to the sheds that are the airport at St. Barth.
We have arrived.
The runway is too short to land jets on, and no planes can land at night. Reefs surround the island so large cruise ships can't get to its only port. There is limited access to St. Barth for tourists. The island has an area of only about 8 square miles and a residential population of about 3,500. Only Gustavia, the principal port, qualifies for the appellation of town. Other places are villages.
The island has little of the glitz, crass tourists, and nightlife of most Caribbean resorts catering to American tastelessness. All the beaches are casually topless, with no gawking even from the Americans, and two of the beaches are clothing optional (including, by the way, the beach this picture was taken on). Nightlife is limited; there are no casinos. Your major activities are likely to be going to a different beach every day, napping, and eating, although if you're so inclined, there are plenty of activities to keep you busy -- snorkeling, windsurfing, and hiking, for example.
Hotels may seem too pricey, so you should check out the villas, particularly if two or more couples are going together. Since restaurant prices can border on astronomical, renting a villa with a kitchen can be much cheaper than staying at a hotel and eating out every meal. If you wish to rent a villa, you may use your travel agent, or call WIMCO at (800) 932-3222. The in-season rates in 1991 ranged from $770 per week for a studio apartment to $15,500 per week for something a little nicer. While you're in St. Barth, stop by the offices of Sibarth in Gustavia and see what they have for the next season. Sibarth may have more available than WIMCO.
Shopping in St. Barth is duty-free and most of it is in Gustavia, with some excellent shops in St. Jean. In Gustavia, be sure to drop by Manuel Canovas Paris. You may want to pick up some beach wear or perhaps a beach towel for $284. Since the souvenirs of St. Barth are limited to tee shirts and hats made from plaited palm leaves, you should go to Papagayo and look at the Haitian crafts and paintings. If you want watches, crystal, silver, china, and the like, Little Switzerland is the place to shop. If you are more interested in quality than bargains, be sure to go to St. Jean. The quality is excellent and the prices, though high, are reasonable.
If you want to go to a Caribbean island where you're not likely to have more than a few hours rain during your week's stay, where you have plenty of uncrowded beaches safe for swimming and snorkeling, where you will not be bothered by beggars, where you will be in a foreign country but where everyone speaks English and takes dollars, and where the food is wonderful, St. Barth is the paradise for you.
If you go with friends, share a villa, and cook for yourselves, you can even have a reasonably inexpensive vacation. There are plenty of supermarkets for shopping, and you will recognize the products readily -- shopping for food will be no problem. In fact, everything on St. Barth is easy, and the people are friendly. The clerks from the stores remember you and say hello on the street.
It's what you think small towns used to be like. But topless.
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