(7:45 a.m. EST) -- It is perhaps surprising that a visit to St. Barts, known equally for its reputation as the Caribbean’s swanky St. Tropez and for the somewhat haughty attitude its locals have long had about the cruise industry, was downright low-key during our visit yesterday.
Onboard Crystal Cruises’ Esprit, where our two-night call overlapped with other cruise lines such as Regent Seven Seas and SeaDream Yacht Club, shopkeepers in Gustavia, its main town, were warm and welcoming. At Barts Food Lounge there, we were shown a table by a smiling waitress and the chef came around to ask how we liked his food. A local construction worker hopped into my rental car when I got hopelessly trapped in a cul de sac a thousand feet above sea level, and maneuvered it around, all with shrugs and smiles. And in many shop windows you’ll see signs that you may not normally associate with St. Barts’ boutiques: Soldes! (means sale).
This was a kinder, gentler St. Barts.
Many may not realize that St. Barts, itself a part of France (along with Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Martin), was quite severely impacted by the one-two punch of hurricanes Irma and Maria, the deadly storms that also devastated islands such as Barbuda, St. Martin/St. Maarten, Puerto Rico and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. It was a storm so bad that, when asked to describe the experience, one local told us that “it was like war.” All but four of the island’s hotels, many of which are five-star ultimate luxury destination resorts, are so badly damaged they are closed entirely for the winter season. Many of the ultra-luxe villas that also attract the rich-and-richer to this winter playground are still being repaired (though some weathered the storms quite well). Some restaurants and bars along the beachfront are out of service for at least awhile. Long haul airlines, such as Air France, that shuttle Europeans here (via St. Maarten), don’t resume service until after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
So, unless you have your own yacht (or have friends that do) or you’ve been able to score a villa, a cruise itinerary that calls here at St. Barts might be the best way to visit.
And indeed, the irony is that an island that has long had a tetchy relationship with cruise ships and the passengers they disgorge -- shopkeepers have been known to shutter their designer boutiques in the main town of Gustavia when big ships have come calling – is now grateful that cruise lines are here.
And there’s more good news, if your cruise is calling at St. Barts:
- Most beaches are gorgeous and back to normal, from Shell Beach to Gouverneur (including, as well, Colombier, Flamands, Corossol, Saline, Petit Cul-de-Sac and St. Jean, near the airport). The incredible blue-green hues of the sea look like they’ve come from a paint can and the island is lush with blooming flora and fauna.
- In downtown Gustavia, more than half the shops and restaurants are booming and bustling (others are working feverishly to get back in business before the holidays). Supermarkets are well-stocked with Francophiles’ favorite imported products; great souvenirs to bring home range from Provencal roses to sea salt.
- The island’s excellent network of roadways is in good shape; we had no problem renting a car the day of arrival. (If your heart is set on moving around, book ahead and make sure to inquire about picking up your car in town, rather than out at the airport, if possible.) The streets around Gustavia, the airport and St. Jean are choked with traffic. Far less congested, and still as stunningly picturesque as ever, are the wilder parts of St. Barts, like Grand Fond and Grande Saline.
On the other hand, rebuilding all of the island is still a work in progress. One of its most popular tourist areas – known not only for its great beaches but bars, restaurants, and chi-chi boutiques – is Nikki Beach. This area has endured massive damage. Eden Rock hotel, one of the beach's stalwarts, was so badly mangled it will be under refurbishment until at least next spring if not longer. You can see signs that the area will rebound – some shops are already back open, and more are in far-along stages of progress – but there are plenty of twisted rooftops and dismembered palm trees to remind you of how scary the storms were.
There’s one other thing about St. Barts, post-Irma. From first-time cruise visitors to veterans, you’ll notice an especially strong, heartfelt sense of community there and nature has not only survived but also thrived. It’s what has helped the island progress so quickly, considering the damage’s extent. On The Insiders’ Guide to St. Barthelemy (https://www.sbhonline.com/), a forum and information site about the island, poster “Davesmom” writes: You “will not feel that the essence of St. Barth has disappeared. Shorelines change with the tide, the seaweed comes and goes, and the hikes to the natural pools may have changed, but the sand, the rocks, the trees, the iguanas and the goodness of those who live and work on the island have not.
“There will be some familiar and some new places for the magic to happen, but happen it will because no hurricane can wipe out the essence of so much love.”
And in case you’re worried that with such sentimental outpourings St. Barts might actually become too warm and fuzzy, have no fear. Islanders are watching avidly for the return of the mega-million dollar yachts that define it. Indeed, there was just one in our harbor on our first night -- the $100 million Utopia. (I looked it up.) When, yesterday, we were joined by another cruise ship, Regent Seven Seas’ Navigator, Utopia upped anchor and sailed off, all the way to the Baie St. Jean, across the island, a cruise-ship-free anchoring spot. It was a geographical move that was duly noted by local resident Kevin S., who chronicled Utopia’s maneuver on The Insiders’ Guide. “Sightseeing? Lost? Change of scenery? Wants to get away from two cruise ships in town?”
St. Barts is most definitely on its way back.
--By Carolyn Spencer Brown, Chief Content Strategist