Waves jostled the high-speed ferry as it bolted from the harbor at Philipsburg, on Saint Martin, aiming with churning indignation for Saint Barthélemy.
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 over a hilltop, then diving down 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 in 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, 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 makes it a destination for the sort of people who want quiet, sophisticated relaxation, the occasional yacht-borne bacchanalia notwithstanding. The bulging 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 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 crenelate the 8-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 young women from France, in for a couple of years to practice their English and get some sun. They brought Ryan his pizza poolside and brought 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 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, but with palms, azure water, white-sand beaches and a flip-flop culture that somehow looks chic.
Landing at a kid-friendly hotel
Traveling to St. Barts as a family requires preparation. There are no all-inclusive options. It is an a la carte island because the goal is to try the different beaches and many fine restaurants.
When you have a first-grader, however, you need kid-friendly things to do, which is why we chose Le Guanahani. Wth only 67 rooms, it is the largest hotel on the island. Alassai, the manager of the Kid’s Club, showed Ryan around and introduced him to the eight other youngsters staying at the hotel during our visit in the relatively underpopulated summer. Ryan is studying French, the French kids were learning English; they played bilingual games and, this being France, they had a cooking lesson. The hotel has a spa and other resort amenities, but once we were acclimated, it was time to hit the beach.
Hertz delivered to our hotel one of the small four-wheel-drive vehicles that are staples on the island, and I took the family up and down the narrow, twisting roads, swerving beside crevices, the rearview 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, Gouverneur 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 of 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, so Ryan and I wore rashguards (swim shirts) with an SPF of 50 to protect us from tropical rays. We drove to the hotel just in time for our turtle-in-residence to appear, scavenging for castaway gourmet food.
Trying out the beaches
The family settled into the St. Barts routine. 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 boutique.
Sailing yachts drifted into the bay, and the restaurant and hangout Do Brazil served people on chaises longues parked on the beach.
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!”
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.