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The Civilized Explorer

Saint Barthélemy Keeps Your Heart Pumping

Your first aerobic exercise happens before you even land St. Barth. You get on a STOL aircraft in Puerto Rico or Sint Maarten. STOL means short take-off and landing; maximum of 18 passengers plus pilot and co-pilot. You fly to St. Barth, and its port town of Gustavia comes into view. The pilot aims for a steep hill where the road notches through. You look up on your left (yes, up!) and see a lighthouse on the hill above your plane. It looks like you're going to land on the road whether the cars get out of the way or not.

You crest the hill and dive steeply down it, straight over the road. They don't close the door between the passengers and cockpit, and you see the runway through the windscreen of the aircraft. You are aiming down at about 30 degrees. Just before the nosewheel touches down, the pilots haul back on the controls and cut power. You touch down and immediately the brakes go on and the thrust of the propellers is reversed with full power. The airplanes almost always stop before the runway ends literally on the beach and the pleasant waters of Baie de St. Jean. I did see a picture in the local paper of a plane that didn't stop in time. It got about fifty yards out into the water. (To be fair, it was a private plane, not a commercial STOL).

The plane turns around at the end of the runway to taxi back to the terminal. Since St. Barth is French, you will likely see topless sunbathers waving at you from the beach. For me, this begins my second aerobic exercise.

We rented a condo high up on a hill overlooking Baie de St. Jean and the airport on one side of the island and Anse de Grande Saline, which has a naturist beach, on the other side. After unloading our rented Mini Moke and getting settled in, we set out for, where else, Anse de Grande Saline. The beach there is quite long and has rocky cliffs on both ends. Rocks have fallen in on both sides, and the snorkeling is interesting, if not exciting, with lots of little fish. Since the beach is naturist, we snorkeled naturally. If you have never enjoyed this pleasurable experience, get to St. Barth right away and try it. Both Grande Saline and Anse du Gouverneur are clothing optional and never crowded. At Gouverneur, we had some heavy waves and an undertow that were fun to play in.

While we didn't windsurf, most beach-front hotels on the island offer rentals, especially at Baie de St. Jean, Lorient, and Grand Cul de Sac. These beaches are ideal for windsurfers because each has a reef a few hundred yards offshore where the waves break, leaving smooth sailing for those who want it and surf for those more adventurous. Which of the three locations is best depends on which way the wind is blowing. For bodysurfers, the best places are Anse de Toiny and Petite Anse. These places are on opposite sides of the island, so you get wave action regardless of weather direction.

[A hiker on the goat path from Anse du Colombier.] Anse du Colombier has a lovely beach which can be reached either by boat or by a 20 minute walk along a goat path. (I have heard that the entire road system on the island is paved-over goat paths. While I don't believe it, the roads are that willy-nilly.) The path is on a steep hillside which sometimes offers a precipitous drop into crashing waves and rocks below. The path is not overly difficult, but we were glad we wore good walking shoes. The snorkeling at Colombier is better than Grand Saline; in addition to the small fish, we saw an eel and a Caribbean lobster (they have no claws). Because the beach is blissfully free from civilization, we brought our own water and food in resealable plastic containers. Once we just left the food in paper wrappers. After coming back from snorkeling, we found ants eating the food and a lizard eating the ants. The real worldwide web existed long before man.

We thought the best hike on the island was from Anse de Grand Fond to Morne Rouge, where we found ourselves on the cliff next to Anse de Grande Saline. Again, the walk was not strenuous, but we were sometimes on a steep slope with crashing waves and rock below. At places, the path had caved in to the ocean below, and we had to make a new path through the cactus. This walk is best begun two to three hours before sunset when the views of Grand Fond and Pointe de Toiny are at their best. It took us just under an hour one way, but we dawdled looking at the scenery and taking pictures. The path ended at a long point sticking out into the Caribbean Ocean. We walked out onto the point and marveled at how the water had carved the rocks. Even though we were perhaps 50 feet above the ocean, the salt spray from the waves misted our faces. It is impressive to find this wildness on the most civilized of the islands in the French West Indies.

[Reflections of the water on a swimmer.]

Although we'd hiked, bodysurfed, swam, sailed, and snorkeled all over the island, we had exhausted neither the sporting possibilities nor ourselves. As our departing flight took off over the beach and Baie de St. Jean, we felt wonderfully rested and happy. I looked out the window and waved goodbye to the topless beaches. I wasn't ready to return to the world I live in.

But we must --

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