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St. Barts Overview
The island of St. Barts, known for its chic French ambience and cuisine and white-sand beaches, long has reigned as a favorite getaway spot among celebrity jetsetters.
That's quite a lofty status for a stony, volcanic, eight-square-mile island that claims no fresh water and little workable land. Named for Christopher Columbus' brother, Bartolomeo, St. Barthelemy is located near the northern end of the Lesser Antilles group in the West Indies, 15 miles east of St. Martin.
Many St. Bartians are descendants of 17th-century settlers from Brittany and Normandy. In the 18th century, France leased the island to Sweden in exchange for trading rights to the Baltic. Almost a century later, locals voted to restore rule to the French. Today, St. Barts, with its population of about 9,000, is a dependency of the French overseas department of Guadeloupe.
The island's beautiful beaches lend themselves to water sports, from windsurfing, scuba-diving and snorkeling to jet-skiing, sailing and deep-sea fishing. Whales pass by during migration periods, and dolphins are frequently spotted -- and might even frolic near the ship's bow.
The island also claims fame as a place where conspicuous consumption is on display in the form of mega-yachts, elegant designer boutiques, fancy resorts and fine dining. Considered among the best places to nosh in the Caribbean, lunch or dinner at one of the island's top restaurants can be a major splurge.
Taking in the island's topless beaches, vibrant nightlife and waterfront bistros -- not to mention hearing French spoken -- it's easy to imagine you've been transported to the south of France (Antibes or St. Tropez). St. Barts even features its own Riviera-like festival calendar, including winter music and film festivals and a spring food festival.
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Other Southern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Antigua • Aruba • Banana Coast (Trujillo) • Barbados • Bequia • Bonaire • Cartagena (Colombia) • Curacao • Dominica • Grenada • Guadeloupe • Martinique • Nevis • Port of Spain (Trinidad) • San Juan • St. Barts • St. Lucia • St. Vincent
Enjoy a Kronenbourg beer at Le Select, the popular bar/cafe immortalized by Jimmy Buffett. Or you can switch to T punch, which is white rum, cane sugar and lime -- popular throughout the French Caribbean. It's usually served straight up.
Bring home duty-free designer sunglasses or French skincare products. Many shops close for lunch from around noon to 3 p.m. but stay open until at least 7 p.m.
French is the official language. English is widely spoken.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The euro is the official currency of St. Barts. For currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. ATM's are located in Gustavia at the Banque Francaise Commercial (BFC) on rue du General-de-Gaulle and the Banque Nationale de Paris on rue du Bord-de-Mer.
Where You're Docked
Most cruise ships anchor outside sheltered Gustavia Harbour and tender passengers to Port de Pleasance in the heart of Gustavia, the island's charming capital city.
Gustavia is a pedestrian-friendly town. An Internet cafe, ATM, cafes, restaurants, elegant shops with imported French goods and a food market are located a short stroll away from the pier. The popular Shell Beach (officially called Grand Galet) sits south of Gustavia by the commercial pier, and it's just a short walk. Spend time admiring the huge yachts on the oceanfront walkway.
On Foot: You can walk to attractions in Gustavia.
By Taxi: Taxis are available at the pier in Gustavia. Most cab drivers don't work at night, so if you need a ride back to the port, it's best to make arrangements in advance. There is a fixed price for fares, which are in euros.
By Car: St. Barts is steep and hilly with narrow roads, switchbacks and hairpin turns. You'll see stop signs but no traffic lights. At intersections, the car to the right has the right of way. Small rental cars that fit the narrow, two-lane roads are available from Budget Budget, Europcar, Island Car and Top Loc.
Watch Out For
With limited fresh water on the island, don't expect a free glass at restaurants. You'll have to pay for bottled water.
Explore Gustavia, where well-preserved colonial buildings set the stage for elegant ambience. City Hall and the Clock Tower represent prime examples of Swedish colonial architecture. Many of the French warehouses along La Pointe on the far side of the harbor have been converted into boutiques and cafes. Also near La Pointe, the Musee Municipal features old photographs and a watercolor collection by local artists. For a hike with views, head uphill (about 20 minutes) to the ruins of Fort Gustav.
A leisurely lunch or dinner at a restaurant along one of St. Barts white-sand beaches is a great way to pass the time. Accompanied by a bottle of fine French wine, a meal becomes an event. Choose from authentic French, Creole, Caribbean and Eastern cuisine. (See "Lunching," below, for restaurant suggestions.)
Duty-free shopping particularly for French goods, is another prime activity in Gustavia. Find that perfect perfume, look for designer knockoffs, or buy the real thing at shops like Lacoste, Cartier and Hermes. The slightly less expensive village of St. Jean features trendy boutiques for art, clothing and home accessories.
Pick up the three B's -- baguette, bris and Beaujoulais -- and you're ready for a picnic lunch on the beach. On the south coast, the pretty beaches Anse du Governeur and Anse de Grande Saline are easy to reach from Gustavia.
Been There, Done That
The charming fishing village of Corossol, north of Gustavia, is known for intricate straw baskets and the quichenotte, a traditional starched white bonnet. Stop by the Inter Oceans Museum to see the amazing sea shell collection.
The waters off Lorient, Flamands and Corossol teem with tuna, mahi-mahi, wahoo and barracuda, making for excellent deep-sea fishing. Blue and white marlin are generally released after being caught. Excursions are available through operators that include Yannis Marine (590-29-89-12) and Ocean Must (590-27-62-25).
Best for a Half-Day Visit: Popular Baie de St. Jean buzzes with activity, from St. Tropez-like cafes to windsurfers and sailboats.
Best for Surfing: Catch the waves at beaches like Anse de Lorient and Anse des Cayes in the north. The rocky shoreline along Anse Toiny, in the east, is considered an expert surfing area.
Best for Active Types: Windsurf boards, kayaks and sailboats can be rented at calm Baie de St. Jean and Anse du Grand Cul de Sac to the east.
Best for Naturalists: Fringed by steep hills and coves, Anse du Grand Saline, to the south, offers the classic Caribbean beach experience -- beautiful sands and crystal-clear water. Clothing is optional. Wander up a rocky path through dunes to reach the gorgeous soft-sand beach.
Best for Seclusion: At the far western tip of the island, Anse du Grand Colombier features a long expanse of soft sand and leeward calm. This secluded, hard-to-reach hideaway is accessible either by a hiking trail or boat.
French chefs show off their talents at trendy venues, but you can also find restaurants serving traditional Creole cuisine, including deep-fried codfish fritters and stuffed crab. Fishermen determine the menus at some spots based on their catch -- tuna, gilthead bream, wahoo, conch, sea snails or lobsters. French bakeries serve up fresh croissants and pastries, and grocery stores are stocked with good French bread and cheese.
With its waterfront terrace, Maya's, at Anse de Public, northwest of Gustavia, is the perfect spot for Creole specialties (590-27-75-73). La Gloriette, on the water at Anse du Grand Cul de Sac (590-27-75-66), is another quiet, simple restaurant with authentic Guadeloupean food.
At Eden Rock at St. Jean's Bay, The Sand Bar serves grilled fish, sauteed shrimp and Dover sole. In addition to the crashing waves and great food, celebrity-watching is part of the lure at this resort (590-29-79-99).
In Gustavia, Do Brazil, tucked up against a rocky precipice overlooking Shell Beach, is a great spot for lunch, offering a menu of salads, ceviche, fresh grilled fish and barbecue dishes (590-29-06-40). Jimmy Buffet immortalized the "Cheeseburger in Paradise" at Le Select (590-27-86-87), a popular Gustavia watering hole with an open-air patio that's been a fixture for more than 60 years.
Pick up cheeses, pate, wine and other gourmet items for a picnic at shops in St. Jean, Gustavia or Lorient. For wine, head to La Cave du Port Franc in Gustavia. Maya's To Go in St. Jean features everything from meatloaf sandwiches and moussaka to sushi available for takeout.
Staying in Touch
Several cafes in Gustavia offer Wi-Fi (including Brasserie Le Repaire , 2 rue Joseph Blanc) for free if you order something. If you don't have your own laptop or other device, Le Centre Alize in Gustavia is conveniently located on the second floor across from Carat. Visitors pay by the minute -- about $20 for two hours.
Best for First-Timers: An island tour provides a mini-bus tour of the St. Barts. Highlights include striking St. Jean's Bay with its fancy hotels; the clothing-optional saltwater pond area of Salines; and the crashing waves of the Bay of Grand Fond. Plus, you'll also get a peek at the homes of the rich and famous.
Best for Water Enthusiasts: Take a tour aboard a catamaran to sail along the island's leeward coast, stopping at St. Barts Marine Park by Colombier Bay to snorkel or scuba-dive. Tours typically last two hours.
Best for Thrill-Seekers: Circumnavigate the island on a boat tour onboard a rapid insubmersible boat (R.I.B.). After a high-speed ride past island highlights, you'll slow down for a swim at the bay at Rockefeller Beach. Tour time is 1.5 hours.
For More Information
On the Web: St. Barts Online or Territorial Tourism Committee.
Cruise Critic Message Boards: St. Barts
IndependentTraveler.com: Caribbean Travel Guide
--Updated by Fran Golden, Cruise Critic contributor