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The Civilized Explorer

The Civilized Explorer

St. Barth in 1997

An Island in Decline


See St. Barthelemy for current information.

We arrived on St. Barth late in the day on a Friday. We were picked up by Catherine Tiberghien, the owner of Les Ilets Fleuris, our destination for the next two weeks. (You may find it interesting to read about how one gets to St. Barth from Juliana Airport in Sint Maarten.)

Three cruise ships off Gustavia

There were cruise ships at Gustavia that weekend, one on Monday overnight, and more the following weekend. There were traffic jams not only in Gustavia, not only in St. Jean, but in Lorient. As we drove around the island, we were constantly being approached by large utility vehicles traveling at high speeds on roads that really are only a lane and a half wide. At one time, we were enmeshed in a gymkhana. We were honked off the road by a group of four people in red t-shirts in a Jeep, who passed us and the Jeep ahead of us containing four people in orange t-shirts. At the next intersection, the Jeep ahead stopped and the people had a lengthy conversation with the group of green t-shirt wearers in another Jeep. We could hear them shouting at each other in Italian as we waited. And waited. I pulled up and tried to pass on their right. They maneuvered to let me through as they continued the conversation.

St. Barth is trying to attract visitors. As we have mentioned in other pages, the glory days of St. Barth passed, and with them so also passed the very wealthy American and European visitors. In the olden days, one arrived on St. Barth on one's yacht, one's private plane, or by commercial aircraft with not more than 18 passengers. The number of visitors was limited by the lack of access, and this exclusivity was brilliantly exploited by the islanders. Hotels and restaurants were intimate and provided world class service and world class food. The largest hotel on the island today has only 78 rooms. Shops carried only the toniest goods, Manuel Canova, Chanel.

When we first went to St. Barth, we were shocked and pleased at how easy a vacation there was. We compared it to a small town in 1950's America, where everyone was friendly and knew your name. It was easy to get anywhere you wanted to go. Everyone spoke English and seemed truly pleased to have your business. The level of service was truly remarkable.

But times changed, and the exclusive cachet of the island became less exclusive as the merely rich came to stay. The truly wealthy were lured elsewhere, and the island found itself without the means of supporting the lifestyle to which it had become accustomed. There were discussions of inviting cruise ships, and they were invited. There are stories of an uprising of Gustavians blocking the way of cruise passengers in the streets. But Hurricane Luis was a watershed event.

We spoke with a restaurateur in Gustavia, who we were surprised to find opening his restaurant for lunch. He was adamant that St. Barth should not become another St. Martin with t-shirt shops and fast- food restaurants. But he ruefully admitted that Hurricane Luis destroyed the tourist season in 1995 - 1996; people who would have come and stayed on the island did not. The only thing that saved his business, he says, were the passengers from cruise ships. He opened for lunch as well as for dinner, and made up the lost trade.

Now when cruise ships are in, the booming businesses are taxi rides around the island, scooter rentals, and car rentals. Now when cruise ships are in, you cannot park in Gustavia, and the road leading to St. Jean is clogged with cars parked along the side. You get stuck in traffic jams in the middle of nowhwere because taxis with six to eight passengers have stopped on narrow roads to let their passengers take photographs of Baie de St. Jean and the airport. While we were there, the island averaged one accident per day involving scooters, with minor injuries (usually scrapes). We were advised not to go to Shell Beach because it is within walking distance of the port of Gustavia, and all the "cruisers" head there with their box lunches.

We spoke with Elise Magras, in the office of tourism for St. Barth, and we asked if the island was going "down market" for tourists. She turned the answer to what St. Barth had to offer. She pointed out that it is a small island with small hotels, small restaurants, offering what she called an intimate experience. The island is being made available to persons who seek that kind of experience; there is no marketing to any particular economic demographic, she said.

We had lunch at the Villa Creole a day or two later. We were asked for our "coupon." What coupon, we asked. The maitre d' realized we were not with a cruise ship and seated us in an area away from where tables were already set. We watched as that area filled with people. Then a waitress began literally running from the kitchen to the tables, with three and four plates of food on her arms, yelling "Excuse me!" at people in her way. Ah, yes. The intimate dining experience in the new St. Barth. It is heartbreaking.

We discuss elsewhere the worst meal we have ever had in the French West Indies, which honor goes to Le Rivage, and compare it to the wonderful food and service at Le Toiny. But let us discuss our dinner at the Hotel Carl Gustaf. The Carl Gustaf is a Four Star hotel overlooking the harbor in Gustavia. We recommend it for an extra- special weekend getaway. Our dinner, however, was lackluster all around. We had visited the restaurant on other trips and had found it always packed. This time, for whatever reason, the restaurant was nearly empty. We sat in the bar area and had a couple of drinks, watching the sun set over the harbor, a very lovely, very romantic way to spend the early evening (about 6:00 pm in late January, early February). We dawdled over our drinks; service was good, as were the drinks. The concierge, not knowing we had reservations, came by and suggested dinner at the hotel. We told her we already had reservations for 7:30, and she indicated we could be seated now if we liked. We demurred. The hotel has a keyboard player/ singer. He was not horrible. His keyboard was truly a wonder. He had a microphone hooked in and got reverberation and could duplicate his own voice in a maximum of four notes in addition to his own singing, a modern miracle.

When we were seated we were asked if we would like an aperitif. Since we had already had two each, we declined. This clearly annoyed our waiter. He took our order and asked if we would like wine. We had Ti Gourmet's booklet with us and asked for the complementary champagne it offered. Again, an annoyance. The location of the restaurant is lovely. It adjoins a pool which runs over one side about a dozen feet into a spash pool below it. The view of the harbor is wonderful, especially at sunset. Several selections of bread were offered to us; they were fresh, different from all other breads on the island, and delicious. Try as we might to get the waiter's attention, we could never get another piece of bread during our meal. I guess I should have accepted the his offer to take more than one bread at first. Our order included tournedoes, which we asked for á point. The meat was served medium rare inside, but it had been seared to a crisp on the outside, and the burned taste overpowered the flavor of the meat. The service was much less than I expect from a hotel described as Luxe. Dinner is overpriced -- go elsewhere for a meal, but return for coffee and deserts, which were quite good. (In fact, do not go to the Carl Gustaf for sundown drinks -- they were 60 francs each. Go to L'Ananas or La Mandala instead.)

This meal and service is not the norm for St. Barth. Although there are some exceptions, overall St. Barth is now on a level with St. Martin in terms of ambiance, service, and cuisine. Our preference for an island of the French West Indies has shifted from St. Barth to Guadeloupe, where the European standards and qualities still reign.

Vacations on St. Barth are now no longer easy. Traffic is a serious problem, making it difficult to get places. We would never have dreamed that we would be tied up in traffic jams in Lorient several times during our two weeks. Service has declined, and we put the blame on cruise ship passengers who are not on a leisurely vacation, but who are pressed for time and demand quick attention. Unlike Guadeloupe, which is a large island with a large population and which can absorb the effects of cruisers, St. Barth is too small to avoid the congestion and other sad effects of dumping that many people on the island in one fell swoop.

We discussed writing off the island entirely and advising "civilized explorers" to go elsewhere. We cannot do that, yet. Even in decline, St. Barth is still is delightfully small island with wonderful beaches and good food. It is still French, even though we hear the language less and less. We receive email regularly from people who have just returned and who are still glowing from the experience. We have too many fond recollections of its past glory. And our conversatons with its residents have convinced us that the last chapter is not yet written. There still are no American fast food restaurants on St. Barth; there still is hope. We were advised to have faith in the government and business leaders on the island. Much discussion continues, and the residents expect that the present situation is an experiment, not a solution.

We are keeping our fingers crossed.

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