Blessed with a runway too short to land jets on and surrounded by reefs so cruise ships can't get to the port, St. Barth has had limited access for tourists. The island has an area of only about 8 square miles and a residential population of about 3,500 persons. Only Gustavia, the island's only port, qualifies for the appellation of town. Other places are villages. Because of its small size, the limitation on the number of tourists who could come to St. Barth has been a blessing. Because of the surrounding reefs, most of the beaches have placid, clear water for wading.
The island has little of the glitz, crass tourists, and nightlife of most Caribbean resorts catering to American tastelessness. All the beaches are casually topless, with no gawking even from the Americans. Two of the beaches are clothing optional, without the uniformed guards deemed necessary at L'Orient on St. Martin. Nightlife is limited to the nightclub in L'Orient (yes, it's the same name as the beach on St. Martin; many of the place names are the same) called Autor de Roche and the struggling Exstaxy in St. Jean. There are no casinos. Although the island is small, you can go to a different beach every morning and every afternoon during a week's stay. Your major activities are likely to be going to the beach, napping, and eating.
Although St. Barth is French, and many of the islanders are from Normandie, a knowledge of the language is not required. In fact it is not even necessary to convert your dollars to French francs. All shops accept dollars, although your change may be francs. Generally, the shops give better exchange rates than the banks. (And they certainly have better hours!)
If you want to go to a Caribbean island where you're not likely to have more than a few hours rain during your week's stay, where you want plenty of uncrowded beaches safe for swimming and snorkeling, where you will not be bothered by beggars, and where the food is wonderful, St. Barth is the paradise for you.
Unless you want water.
Although growth has been slow, the island has been developed beyond the capacity of its water system. It is definitely a desert island. Its water comes from a desalinization plant and by tanker which brings in fresh water. Most homes also have a cistern for the rain which falls during the rainy season in the late summer. In August of 1991, the tanker was drydocked for repairs, the rainy season failed, and much of the island was completely without water. You may think the inconvenience is not being able to drink from the tap or take a shower, but no, my friends. You can buy bottled water everywhere on St. Barth. You can forego bathing and smell like a native. The real inconvenience is that your toilet does not flush when it has no water. What do you do when you have no in-door plumbing? Picture your entire town without working bathrooms even in the restaurants, retail stores, and gas stations. Picture your children and you hearing the calls of nature. Picture your children asking, "What are we going to do?"
It's a problem.
Before you go to St. Barth in the summer, check to see if the tanker is in service and if it rained sometime in the fall. Specifically confirm that the hotel or villa where you are staying has water. Get the confirmation in writing. And be prepared for the water to fail anyway. NOTE: I consider it unlikely that you will be without water. However, please be aware that it happens.
In the summer, most of the islanders go back home to France for vacation. As a result, many of the best restaurants are closed for four weeks. This four-week period varies from restaurant to restaurant; some may be closed all of August, some may split the time between the end of August and September, and some take all of September. In all events, eating out is limited because of the closures. Remember, this is a small island with little to do but eat out. During the summer, it is especially difficult to find a place on Sunday night. Some of the retail shops will be closed as well, but this is less of a problem because there are more of them.
But there is good as well as bad. August is the official vacation month in all of France. You will find many more French people here and fewer Americans. St. Barth puts on special events for its residents, like the Round the Island Race. It's remarkably home-town like it used to be on TV in the '50s. The residents are always friendly, and they have even more time for you in the summer when the crush of American tourists is gone.
This is Veronique on Grand Saline beach in August of 1991. She's using an archaic ballpoint pen to send a postcard to her friends in Paris. Talk about snailmail! It'll take weeks! She'll be home before the postcard is. And lucky you sitting at your terminal communicating with the world at the speed of light (or 14.4kbps which is not the same). Where would you rather be this August? If you want my advice, I wouldn't go back to St. Barth in the summer, and not for fear of a water shortage. But many people disagree. If you really like solitude (see the lack of crowd on the beach?) and want nothing to do but lay around all day and enjoy the beaches, then it's just for you. Be prepared for water shortages. There may be more rain because August and September are the rainy seasons (but even with more rain, it won't be enough to spoil your vacation). But be more prepared for restaurants and stores to be closed and for the residents to be gone on vacation.
A view off the beach at Anse de Maréchal.
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