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Saint-Barthelemy Keeps Your Heart Pumping

Your first aerobic exercise happens before you even land on the French West Indies island of Saint-Barthelemy - St. Barth to all itsfriends. 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.

St. Barth is a desert island in the Caribbean, just a 10 minute flight from Sint Maarten. Much of the plant life is composed of cactus and other succulents which can survive with very little rain. My friend Louise and I even saw an endangered iguana when we were there in February of 1994, along with the other much smaller lizards we usually see. The terrain is hilly and steep, not quite rising to the level of mountainous. There are 22 beaches on the island, some of them quite calm and family-oriented and others with treacherous undertows, currents, and crashing waves which make swimming impossible. All the beaches, of course, are casually topless for young and old.

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 de 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 windsurfing 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.

Anse du Colombier has a lovely beach which can only 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.

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.

Bartians (the people who live on St. Barth are Bartians) have had a difficult problem: since the jetsetters have left, the local merchants are going broke. The island has water problems (much of it is shipped in on a water tanker), and it is not capable of supporting large numbers of tourists. This was ideal when the rich and famous wanted their seclusion, but now the island no longer attracts a relatively few people spending really big bucks on prestige items. There was a fight over whether to attempt to attract tourists or leave the island alone as a reclusive resort. Tourism won out. St. Barth now has cruise lines parking their ships off the coast at Gustavia and taking cruisers in on cattle boats. These are not the high rollers of St. Barth's glorious past, and the merchants are feeling the difference.

There are now a few restaurants which cater to the crowds less able to pay the lofty prices of the world class restaurants, and the service, food, and clientele are not up to St. Barth's old standards. If you want to go to St. Barth, do so in the very near future. I am afraid that the glory of St. Barth is about to succumb to American tourism, and it will become another St. Martin.

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