St. Barts – France in the Tropics

The closer I got to the island of St. Barts, in the French West Indies, the smaller the airplanes became. The final aircraft was just a 12-seater. Ten minutes of skimming low over the turquoise sea took us from St. Martin to this bit of France in the tropics. I barely had time to crack my paperback, when we coasted in between two peaks. My view was limited to the left-hand peak, and I couldn’t see the runway, so it was an exciting landing. There was an airport at the base of those twin peaks (thank goodness) but matching the island, it was tiny.

A smidgen more than 8 square miles, St. Barts was under Swedish control for 95 years, but in 1878 it became a French territory and remains so today. Never coveted as a prize during the Colonial wars of the 18th century, St. Barthelemy was, and is, too steep, too rocky and too small for sugar production. The terrain however, doesn’t stop sun-seekers.

Our stay was at Hotel Guanahani, on the northeastern end of the island. Forget neon and nightlife, Guanahani has attributes harder to find: tranquility, fantastic views, fine service and of course world-class French cuisine.

The lobby opened onto a breezy veranda, with a view to the sea. A black-and-white cat was sleeping on one of the lobby chairs, oblivious to newcomers, no matter how expensive their luggage. It was our introduction to the kitty community at the resort, which numbered at least a dozen. A floor-level fountain in the reception area provided fresh water for them, and as I watched, another one sauntered up to quench his thirst. I frequently find myself in hotel lobbies, usually lacking kitties, but somehow the presence of these felines seemed perfectly natural.

Keeping with the times, Guanahani offers free Internet service from its lobby-convenient when you want to send a quick note, or two or three, back home.

The cottages at the resort are interspersed among heavy tropical foliage, in a terraced fashion. From my sliding glass doors I could see two large rock formations in the sea and three different kinds of tropical flowers in the foreground. It was an inviting scene, drawing my eyes like an exquisite painting.

When I did manage to look down, I saw a striped gray cat staring back at me, another ambassador from the kitty association. She looked clean and well-fed, but small in stature compared to my Rudy back home. Kitty and I grew very friendly over the next four days, as she let me share her home. We even played peek-a-boo on the bedspread one afternoon.

The main pool and beach area at Guanahani belong on the cover of a travel glossy-no touch-ups or digital wizardry needed. Close to the water’s edge, aristocratic palms produced patches of shade. To the left, a green knoll spiked skyward, with no man-made structures visible.

All kinds of water sport activities are available to make good use of the warm, relatively calm seas.

Guanahani has two restaurants on the property, fine dining in the evenings at Bartolomeo’s and Indigo for a buffet breakfast or a light lunch. Indigo overlooks the water, and their morning pastries rival the great view.

Part of one day was spent on a driving tour around the perimeter of the island. Roads are narrow on St. Barts, the equivalent of one lane by U.S. standards. The hilly landscape was dotted with pastel dwellings, and around every curve was another remarkable view of the sea.

Our driver, an island native of 14 generations, pointed out the significant sights, including other islands off in the distance, The vague outlines could be easily mistaken for low hanging clouds. Only about 7,000 people call St. Barts home. On any given day, another 3,000 to 4,000 visit as tourists. The residents prefer the current size and exclusive atmosphere of the island, with no high-rise hotels and no fast food chains. Unlike other islands, they have no plans to build a dock to accommodate large cruise ships.

Another afternoon excursion took us around the island on a speedboat. Officially, the island has 14 beaches, all free and open to the public. We cruised past most of them during our jaunt. Part of our time was spent lounging in the sun with our anchor down, just off the beach. We had a picnic lunch on board and frolicked in the water to our heart’s content. Other yachts were docked nearby and as we watched a Labrador retriever jumped into the water and swam his way to shore, a good 80 yards, I’d guess. For the next hour, he romped the beach, happy as any 6-year-old child with his first bucket and sand shovel.

St. Barts and Hotel Guanahani are off the beaten path, but for many travelers, that’s exactly the point.

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