Monday 2 March 2020

St Barth

I slip into the cool turquoise water. As my vision settles I see a large Barracuda, about two metres below the surface, almost stationary, then with a lazy wave of its tail it glides away out of sight.  Below me a small turtle swims breaststroke with its flippers, slowly drifting down towards the white sandy seabed.  We are anchored in the port of Gustavia, the stylish capital of the French island of St Barth, one of our favourite Caribbean islands.

A few days earlier Andrew and Jeannette fly into neighbouring St Maarten in very unsettled weather. The island is half Dutch, half French: we are anchored on the Dutch side in Simpson Bay, only a mile from the airport where we watch the KLM flight from Amsterdam landing, the reverse thrust from its jet engines booming across the bay. Poor Andrew arrives with a streaming cold but gamely joins in the atmosphere of the St Maarten yacht club, where the cocktails are strong and the mood is boisterous after a days racing. The jet lag eventually takes its toll and we return to Hera for an early night on board.  

St Barth is only 15 miles to the southeast so despite the gusty wind and the lumpy sea state we motor sail the short distance across to the beautiful bay of Colombier, where we pick up a mooring buoy.  The area is a natural park where turtles breed and its remoteness makes it only accessible to yachts in the bay, determined hikers, and superyacht crews who motor back and forth from the anchorage in Gustavia in huge ribs, preparing the beach with parasols, sun loungers and monogrammed tablecloths, and occasionally, but not always, ferrying their pampered guests to the beach for a fleeting visit before they pack it all up again. The wind continues to blow with strong gusts shrieking around us but we are only fifty metres from the soft sandy beach so we spend the next few days sheltering from the wind, practising our yoga in the cockpit, cooking on board and monitoring Andrew for signs of Coronavirus.  

Two miles around the point is the port of Gustavia, a short dinghy ride away, through a gap in the reef.   Gustavia is not like the rest of the Caribbean. The customs office is manned by courteous Frenchmen in white uniforms, the harbour is cheek to jowl with large motor yachts, although the really big boats, such as Abramovich’s Eclipse, are too big for the harbour and anchor off in the deeper water. The main street that runs through the small port is lined with boutiques by Cartier, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Hermes and Gucci, alongside stylish independent boutiques; more Rue du Faubourg St Honore in Paris than the usual dusty Caribbean track.   When we were last here in 2013 with Paul and Consuelo, we discovered Bonito, one of our all-time favourite restaurants; I ask around if Bonito is as good as we remember and at the mention of the name, eyes light up and I am reassured enough for us to book a table.

It is Andrew and Jeannette’s last day so we motor Hera around the point to Gustavia so that we can make the short trip to Bonito in the dark by dinghy.  We dress up in our newly acquired finery and head into the port at dusk.  Just outside of the centre of Gustavia and up a steep hill is the entrance, palms beckoning us into the sumptuous surroundings.  Thick white cushions on upholstered benches and rattan chairs, white book cases on white walls with framed photographs of beautiful people, dressed mostly in white, give the room a feeling of exclusivity. One wall is open onto a balcony, looking over the port to the anchorage and the setting sun on the Western horizon.  The food is exquisite, just as we remember; the staff are attentive and charming despite the restaurant being full and our conversation, serious and considered at first, becomes more fluent and frivolous as the evening goes on.

Sadly Jeannette and Andrew leave us just as the weather clears, and we dinghy into the port to find a taxi to take them over the hill to the airport where they are catching a connecting flight to St Maarten.  From Hera we watch their light aircraft taking off from the tiny airport, making the ten-minute flight across the short stretch of water.  Jeannette is heading back to take up her new role as a Non-Executive director of the FCA, a huge accolade, and Andrew has to attend to Mary, the ugly Lama.  We are sad to see them go.

Before leaving for our next port I decide to take advantage of the clear water and the settled conditions to clean the underside of the hull.  Under the surface, wearing my scuba gear it is serene and peaceful and as I scrub away the marine growth and the barnacles, a shoal of silver fish surrounds me, snapping feverishly at the nutrients falling from the hull. A few metres beneath, is a small shark, circling slowly around the boat, warily keeping its distance. It takes me an hour and a full tank of air but by mid morning the hull and props are clean, and we are ready for our next leg south towards St Kitts and Nevis.

We make our final trip into Gustavia to the customs office, to find a festive air in the port. It is carnival day; all the shops, and most of the restaurants, are closed and the residents of St Barth are preparing for the arrival of the procession. We decide to stay and watch so we head to bar l’Oubli in the centre of the port and find two spare seats in the crowded café.  We are sharing a table with Pascal, a retired plastic surgeon from Paris, and his partner Bernard, a retired lawyer. As usual Caroline engages them with her charm and soon she and Pascal are in an animated conversation about the magic formula that makes St Barth so special.   The island is eye-wateringly expensive, although less for us as we live on the boat, but it feels safe and the atmosphere is liberal, relaxed and bohemian. People on the neighbouring table could be film stars or the occupants of a small sailboat; it doesn’t seem to matter. 

Today Gustavia is even more glamorous than usual, since almost the entire population have dressed for carnival, in an amazing display of costumes. Pascal explains that our table in the café is the best vantage point on the whole island to watch the procession, shaded from the sun but only feet from the street where the procession will pass.  As the time nears, the street fills with excitement, the costumes become more outrageous and a happy party mood permeates the port. The first of the floats comes into view; the Nikki Beach restaurant is a cat made of green grass with large purple eyes and ears, reflecting the costumes of the dancers who wear whiskers, tails and not much else as they grind to the thumping bass from the huge speakers.  The cats dismount and dance provocatively to the music, hands in the air, boas and feathers blowing in the hot breeze, the crowd on the street closes in, bouncing to the beat.

Several hours later, we leave the port and head back to Hera, the sound of the procession still echoing around the harbour, and we resolve to return to St Barth. Unlike our previous visits to the Caribbean, this time we have spent longer in the French islands, Martinique, Les Saintes, St Barths, and we have loved it. We have also slowed our pace of travel, allowing us to savour the atmosphere and delve a little deeper into the charms of these islands.

1 comment:

  1. Looks lovley, as you said, what a shame that we (sweden) sold St Barth back in the days.
    Have a fantastic time. Cheers Lars & Anna-Lena