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St. Barts is only 21 square kilometers (just over eight square miles) in size, so it can easily be seen in a day. Most visitors arrive at this Caribbean island on a ferry or 15-minute flight from Saint-Martin/St. Maarten or by cruise ship, as we did. A few arrive on private or chartered yachts.

Visitor views La Petite Anse and Anse des Flamands.
Visitor views La Petite Anse
and Anse des Flamands.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Saint-Barthelemy was named by Christopher Columbus in 1496, after his brother Bartholomew. (Columbus didn't land because there was no gold to interest the Spaniards.) Over the years, the island was affectionately called St. Barth (the "h" is silent) and St. Barts.

While tours are available, it's far more fun to explore the island's 48 kilometers of winding, hilly roads in a jeep-like Mini-Moke. (There are car rental agencies at the airport and in the capital, Gustavia, where cruise ships dock.) Any valid driver's license is acceptable on St. Barts.

Before departing in our Moke, we spent an hour visiting the picture-postcard town of Gustavia (named after King Gustav III of Sweden, which owned the island for nearly a century). We climbed between the red-roofed buildings to the hilltop stone clocktower above town, and then descended to the horseshoe-shaped harbor, where elegant yachts creaked at their moorings.

Duty-free shopping

Shopping in Gustavia
Shopping in Gustavia
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Strolling along streets, lined with boutiques, we shopped for duty-free perfume, wines and jewelry. (While the legal tender is the French franc, US dollars are accepted almost everywhere.) French is the official language, but many people speak English.

For our driving tour, we stopped at a boulangerie/patisserie to buy a crusty loaf of French bread, still warm from the oven, a wedge of Brie and some fruit tarts, for a picnic on the beach. The French food and language remain from the years when the island was owned by France. Today, it's a dependency of Guadeloupe.

Leaving the traffic and shoppers behind us, we followed the paved road toward the airport. Driving is on the right-hand side.

The tiny airstrip, wedged between the hills, is a tourist attraction. We spent a half-hour watching propeller planes make white-knuckle swan dives to land. They brake to a stop just before kissing the beach at the end of the runway.

Seafood restaurants

Past the airport, we found Baie de St. Jean, the first of 14 beaches on St. Barts. Each has its own personality. St. Jean is popular with windsurfers, and boasts an array of seaside restaurants serving poisson grillé, pommes frites and salade d'homard.

Examining roadside signs on Mini-Moke driving tour
Examining roadside signs on Mini-Moke driving tour
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

To the east, Anse de l'Orient offers great swimming, while Grand Fond features crashing surf. The nearby "washing machine," nicknamed by locals for its impressive breakers, is ideal for body-surfing.

To the west, Corossol is home to fishermen, who beach their colorful wooden boats on the sand. Anse de Flamands was our favorite crescent of white sand, with a picturesque cove of gin-clear water for snorkeling.

Topless beach

Yacht moored in Gustavia Harbor at sunset
Yacht moored in Gustavia Harbor at sunset
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

On the south coast, we heard the pounding of surf at Grand Saline long before we saw it. Parking our Moke, we walked ankle-deep through talcum-powder sand, past clumps of sea grapes to the wild and untouched beach. The few couples that we saw sunbathing were topless.

The population of St. Barts is only 7,000, so we weren't surprised to see few cars on the road. We were elated to have most of the panoramic views to ourselves. The windswept rocky cliffs at Pointe Milou, overlooking the beach at Marigot. The roller-coaster roads lined with stone fences, tall cacti and pink bougainvillea. And the palm-fringed lagoon at Grand Cul de Sac.

Without a doubt, the highlight of our journey was the view from the lighthouse at the fort above Gustavia. We stood, arms wrapped around each other's waists, watching the setting sun silhouette moored yachts against a gilded sea.

On the horizon, the islands of St. Kitts, Nevis, Saint Eustatius, Saba and Les Petits Saints, stood out like rough-cut emeralds and amethysts against the tangerine sky. At our feet, the lights of Gustavia flickered on, mirroring themselves in the tranquil harbor. It was an indelible image that remains with us today, whenever we think of Saint Barts.


St. Barts Tourist Office: www.saintbarth-tourisme.com/en