MILES FROM CHARLOTTE: 1,628
TRAVEL TIME: 3-hour, 55-minute flight to St. Martin, plus a 10-minute puddle-jumper plane or 45-minute ferry
What little I knew about Saint Barthélemy (St. Barts or St. Barths for short) before my trip there in early May centered on its renowned luxury: designer stores, five-star hotels, and fine dining that caters to the rich and famous. I pictured myself dripping sweat as I dragged my off-brand suitcase into town. Kris Jenner would lower the tinted window of her black Mercedes to gape at the commoner someone allowed onto the island. Ivanka Trump would squint in my direction from her yacht docked in the harbor. I shop at Target, not Dolce & Gabbana. I drive a Camry, not a yacht. I pay taxes, not evade them.
So I more than half-expected to be utterly disgusted by the opulence of the one-percenters romping around the island. And don’t get me wrong, I rolled my eyes more than once. But I also discovered why people who can afford to go anywhere in the world, and even those who can’t, choose St. Barts.
It’s not the creature comforts—those can be manufactured. St. Barts, in the northeastern Caribbean, about 200 miles east of Puerto Rico, is an island of the French West Indies and a place of stunning natural beauty. The water is shallow and crystal clear, and you can easily spot sea turtles, stingrays, and all kinds of tropical fish. Tortoises rumble around on overgrown trails. The island encompasses lush jungle, mountains, deserts spotted with cacti, and both white-sand and pebble beaches—all in 8 square miles. None of these wonders is accessible only to the ultra-rich, and the coolest things I found were free.
Regardless of what you do, though, know that you’ll drop some cash in St. Barts. Make peace with the idea of a ravenous animal gnawing into your bank account.
It’s my first full day, and I finish my lunch of fresh fish crudo—with a cocktail, because vacation—at a beachfront restaurant. When I left my nearby hotel that morning, I realized I’d forgotten my sunglasses back in Charlotte.
“Do you know where I could buy some cheap sunglasses around here?” I ask the host at her stand. “I can’t believe I forgot mine at home.”
She smiles sympathetically. “In St. Barts,” she says in a thick French accent, “that is a problem.”
A few minutes later, I cringe as I swipe my card. The sunglasses at the pharmacy down the street cost 50 euros, about $55—a “steal” in a town where the other stores include Luis Vuitton, Hermès, Cartier, and Rolex.
Eyes protected, I take a cab about 3 miles away to Grand Cul-de-Sac beach on the island’s northeast corner. My hotel’s bartender, Nicholas, told me the night before that it’s the best place to snorkel if you want to see sea turtles. I do want to see sea turtles.
The ride takes about 10 minutes. The cab pulls up to one of the public accesses, an open spot between resorts, and I pull my wallet from my bag.
“What do I owe you?”
How do you even rack up a fare that high on an 11-by-2.5-mile island? I learn later that experienced St. Barts visitors rent a car or moped when they arrive. Too much, too late for me. I pay up and step out into the sun.
To my left stands a leathery-tan man in a wooden shack with signs that advertise kayak, Jet Ski, and paddleboard rentals. It doesn’t say anything about snorkel gear, but I ask anyway.
“Um,” he says, looking around the shack, “yeah, sure, I can do that.” He pulls a snorkel set, but no swim fins, from behind the wooden counter.
“How much?” I ask, not to be robbed blind again.
“I don’t know.” He shrugs. “15 euro?”
Sold, to the tourist with no other options. He tells me that the turtles like to hang out along the bay’s eastern shore.
It takes only about 10 minutes of swimming on top of the calm, shallow water, listening to the sound of my breath in the snorkel, to find one. He’s (gender assumptions are for turtles only) about 2 feet long. The olive-green sections, or scutes, of his shell are divided by lighter, sage-colored lines. A similar pattern on his flippers reminds me of giraffe spots. His oval head is almost too small for his body, which is inexplicably and outrageously cute. The shape of his little mouth and nose—I believe the scientific term is “snoot”—give him the appearance of having a slight overbite. I love him so much.
I swim above him and, occasionally and gently, touch his shell. He dips to the ocean floor from time to time to eat algae and seagrass, then rises a foot or so to lazily continue his swim. Somehow, he’s completely unbothered by my blob of a shadow blocking his dappled sun like a needy eclipse. I lose all track of time.
St. Barts has 11 five-star hotels, but only one is in Gustavia, the island’s only town. Hôtel Barrière Le Carl Gustaf Saint-Barth is built into the side of a bluff that overlooks the capital. It’s less than a five-minute walk to the beach or the town center. Each of its 21 suites has its own ocean-view deck and wading pool. The rooms have more amenities than I’ve ever seen in one place. (A remote control with a dozen buttons operates your heated toilet-bidet combo. I do not recommend pressing buttons willy-nilly while seated.) The vibe is Nantucket-luxury-meets-season one-of-White Lotus.
Two miles outside Gustavia, another five-star resort, Eden Rock, straddles a white-sand beach and a rocky inlet at St. Jean Bay. The colorful, midcentury decor in the hotel’s 37 rooms, suites, and villas include touches like textured wallpaper, classic wood paneling and built-ins, and windows in quirky shapes and sizes.
If five-star hotels aren’t your speed or budget, Airbnb and Vrbo each offer a wide range of accommodations, and price points, all around the island.
You don’t have to be a hotel guest to dine at Le Carl Gustaf’s on-site restaurant, Fouquet’s. It’s a location of the famous Paris brasserie of the same name, and run by three-Michelin-starred Chef Pierre Gagnaire, who creates dishes with French and Caribbean influences. The hotel’s other open-air restaurant, Shellona, is on nearby Shell Beach. It’s more casual, and Greek Chef Yiannis Kioroglou’s dishes showcase the freshness of the island’s seafood.
At some point, take a drive to Tamarin. Its food and drinks are tasty, but that’s not why you’re there. It’s one of the most beautiful restaurants I’ve ever seen. Tables are spread throughout an enormous, lush tropical garden. You might even see a wild tortoise or one of the restaurant’s cats or parrots emerge from the foliage during your meal.
For authentic Creole food, grab a table at Le Grain de Sel, which overlooks Saline Beach and the island’s former salt marsh. (Salt production was St. Barts’ largest source of income until the tourism industry took off and production shut down in 1972.) Le Grain de Sel’s menu includes local squash stuffed with codfish, conch fricassée, and grilled lobster with creole and ginger butter sauce. Finish your meal with saline cake and the restaurant’s homemade vanilla or ginger rum. (You can also take a bottle home. I took two.)
There are 11 public beaches on St. Barts, each with its own feel. Most offer watersport and snorkel rentals. But the local favorite, and the place to avoid crowds, is Colombier Beach, on the island’s northwesternmost tip. You’ll have to hike for about a half-hour from the roads, and it has no amenities, so take plenty of water, snacks, and anything else you need. You can use either of two trails. The first, which kicks off from a dead-end road at the top of the hill, takes you down a series of steps that winds through a desert-like landscape. Watch for cute green lizards. The second, my favorite, is a rugged trail that begins by the entrance to neighboring Flamands beach. It’s not nearly as steep but much less developed and cut into the cliffside, so it’s a no-go for those afraid of heights. You’ll likely have a few moments where you’ll second-guess if you’re still on the trail, but you probably are. The path is frequently interrupted by wild tortoises, goats, and chickens. It feels very “Charles-Darwin-in-the Galapagos.” Pro tip: Take the first trail downhill to Colombier, then explore the more rugged one on the way back.
You’ll likely be one of only a handful of people on Colombier Beach. Peek up and to your left, and check out a stone house, formerly owned by David Rockefeller, perched atop the mountain.
St. Barts has only one runway, and it’s 2,100 feet long. (Most are at least 6,000.) Only small prop planes can land on the island, which has a reputation for scary landings. French aviation authorities require pilots who want to land in St. Barts to obtain a special permit. The flights from St. Martin take only about 10 minutes, but they’re characterized by turbulence and steep drops between mountains. Once you land, it looks like you’re going to plunge into the ocean, and pilots must turn the plane 180 degrees as they decelerate. (I knew none of this ahead of time.) Do yourself a favor and note the availability of another option: a 45-minute ferry across the Saint Barthélemy Channel.