Saint Martin is situated in the middle of a group of nearby islands which are connected together by short plane and ferry routes. We had planned to travel to the closest major island of Anguilla, a former British colony located a short distance away to the north of Saint Martin. Unfortunately, Anguilla was observing strict entry restrictions for all visitors due to the COVID pandemic and anyone entering the little island country had to quarantine for a full week on arrival. We were only looking to catch a ferry for a day trip and that ruled out trying to cross into Anguilla. Instead, we decided to take the slightly longer ferry crossing over to the French island of Saint Barthelemy, an even smaller island known for catering to the high end luxury tourist trade. Known by its nickname of "St Barth" or "St Barts", this island is where millionaires and movie stars often take vacations during the winter months. It's not the easiest place to visit since there are no direct flights to Saint Barthelemy from Europe or the United States but we were in a position to take the ferry crossing over to the island and explore the place for ourselves.
The first hurdle to clear was making our way across the sea from Saint Martin to Saint Barthelemy. We made reservations ahead of time on the Great Bay Express which runs a ferry service traveling several times each day from Philipsburg on Saint Martin over to Gustavia on Saint Barthelemy and then back again. This was a public ferry and the fare was relatively inexpensive, about $75 per person total for the roundtrip between the two islands. The outbound ferry was leaving at 8:00 AM which meant that we had to arrive about an hour earlier to be there for boarding, making for another early morning excursion. We did get to watch the sun rise over the hills east of Philipsburg which helped offset our tiredness. After presenting our tickets and passports and vaccination records, we were able to board the ferry itself and take a seat up on the top deck. We had great views of the Philipsburg harbor from here as the ferry began chugging its way out to open waters:
Great Bay spread out in front of us in a wide arc and slowly receded from view as the ferry began traveling southeast towards Saint Barthelemy. Our destination was located about 22 miles / 35 kilometers away from Saint Martin and the ferry transit time would only take 45 minutes to reach the other side. I had the chance to walk around the ferry and take pictures from several different perspectives while watching the rocky cliffs of Saint Martin fade away into the distance. We could immediately see Saint Barthelemy off in the distance coming closer which should provide a sense for how close these islands are to one another. It was a glorious morning and a wonderful time to be out on the ocean.
Or at least that's what we thought. Despite the total lack of storm clouds or rain falling from the sky, once the ferry pulled away from the sheltered waters of Saint Martin the waves became extremely choppy. I guess that it must have been windy because the ferry started wallowing back and forth like a tipsy bull. There was one of those old timey bells attached to the side of the ship, the kind that only rings when the boat lurches drastically to one side or another, and it kept ringing over and over again in what had to be a bad sign. Liz and I are both somewhat prone to seasickness and we didn't find ourselves enjoying this trip at all. There was one poor passenger on the boat with us who had been taking pictures at the railing like me, and when the boat started tumbling about he couldn't make his way back to his seat because it was tilting too badly to walk. This guy spent 20 minutes hanging onto a pole near us because he couldn't stand on his feet otherwise. Every advertisement that we had seen for the ferry crossing over to Saint Barthelemy had said that this was a smooth and easy passage - what the heck was this! We actually passed a couple of uninhabited islands on the trip over that I wanted to photograph and couldn't take any pictures because the ferry was too unsteady for the camera.
After a nerve-racking half hour of transit time, the waters calmed down once again as we approached the shores of Saint Barthelemy. Like we had seen with Saint Martin, the island was surprisingly hilly and didn't seem to have any expanses of flat terrain. There were no highrise buildings to be seen here, only lots of expensive-looking private dwellings and vacation homes perched on the slopes of those green hills. We were entering the harbor of Gustavia, the main town on Saint Barthelemy, located on the western edge of the island with a sheltered natural resting place for ships. There were tons of fancy boats anchored just outside the harbor, the toys of wealthy vacationers who had traveled to Saint Barthelemy for the winter holidays. Don't get me wrong, we were well-off travelers ourselves or else we wouldn't have been able to come to a place like Saint Barthelemy at all, but Liz and I didn't have the kind of money to sail into the harbor in a big yacht.
Here's an overview map showing the geography of the island with Gustavia located on the middle-western portion of the coast. Saint Barthelemy (more properly Saint Barthélemy but I'm skipping the accent aigu punctuation marks since I'm working on an English keyboard) is a tiny island with a total area of only 10 square miles / 25 square kilometers. It has a permanent population of about 10,000 people but hosts roughly 200,000 tourists per year as visitors flock to its beaches and luxury accomodations. That doesn't mean that the island has lots of big resorts, however, as there are only about 25 hotels on the island and most of them have about a dozen rooms apiece; Wikipedia claims that the largest hotel has a grand total of 58 rooms. This means that Saint Barthelemy is an impossibly expensive place to stay which is the whole point of keeping people out and preserving the exclusive status of the island. We looked briefly at rates for hotel rooms and had to laugh as many of them ran into the thousands of dollars per night. Most of the super wealthy visitors simply rent their own houses or villas to avoid bothering with hotels at all, which is of course even more expensive to do. We were content to come over on the ferry and return back to Saint Martin on the same day.
The first thing that we wanted to do upon arrival was eat some breakfast since we hadn't had a chance before catching the ferry. It was a short walk from the ferry terminal to the pictured Bar de L'Oubli ("Oblivion Bar" in English) which was serving a full breakfast menu. Liz ordered some scrambled eggs while I had some fresh French croissants which made for a tasty meal. This place was a bit on the pricey side but much, much less expensive than most of the other restaurants and cafes that we came across on Saint Barthelemy. Afterwards, we spent some time walking through the shops in Gustavia which were clustered on the eastern side of the harbor where the ferry arrived. We saw a bunch of jewelry stores and lots of high-end clothing retailers offering their wares: Prada, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Brunello Cucinelli, and so on. We went into one store and found a Saint Barth souvenir shirt that we liked... only to spot that the price was 80 Euros. Well we didn't like the shirt that much, heh. There were some smaller and more artisinal shops that we found off the main road and these were more in our price range. We purchased a couple of Christmas ornaments and a souvenir T-shirt at a more reasonable cost.
I have to highlight this one vendor in particular for being completely ridiculous in terms of luxurious products on display. We were walking past this store when I spotted that it was a wine cellar associated with the Baron de Rosthchild family. The Rosthchilds are a famous German banking family with wealth dating back to the 18th century; the very name "Rothschild" was synonymous with immense riches and luxuries during their heydey in the 19th century. So of course there was a wine cellar associated with the Rosthchilds family here and this was perfectly emblematic of the type of visitor that Saint Barthelemy tends to attract. Anyway, what put this store over the top in terms of silliness was a series of wine bottles on display in the window, one of which was dated 2004 and had a hand-written inscription stating "To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale". That was the prewar alliance between Britain and France leading up to World War I that eventually resulted in the defeat of imperial Germany in 1918. I couldn't think of a better example of how there was old, old European money invested into this place.
Gustavia is a small town and it didn't take too long for us to reach the southern end of the harbor even at our leisurely pace. There was a small church here at the base of the harbor which I was surprised to see was Anglican in denomination, named after Saint Bartholemew. This church had been built by British residents on the island and it was one of the oldest surviving buildings on Saint Barthelemy dating back to 1855. There was a small outdoor pavilion across the street from the church and Liz decided to relax here for 15 minutes while I checked out the western side of the harbor to see if there was anything else of interest over there. We knew that the majority of shops and restaurants were over on the east side where the ferry arrived but I also wanted to use this time to visit the old colonial-era forts built by the Swedes when they were in control of Saint Barthelemy. This is why Gustavia has its Scandinavian-inspired name despite everything else on the island being French: Saint Barthelemy was initially colonized by the French but was seen as having such low value that it was sold to Sweden in 1784 and held by them for the next century. Since the whole island remained culturally French, the Swedes eventually sold the island back to France again in 1878 but some of the Swedish names (and the occasional Swedish flag) remained.
First I headed to the northwest corner of the harbor where I knew that there was a fort up on top of the hill because we had seen it during our arrival. There was indeed a colonial-era fortress up there and in fact it was still being used by the local French police as a headquarters and as such wasn't open to the public for visitng. That was a bit disappointing but I doubled back in the opposite direction to the southwest corner of Gustavia where I found a staircase leading up to Fort Karl, another old fortified area initially constructed by the Swedes. This was exactly what I was looking for as the hilltop yielded up stunning views looking out at the town in every direction. Off to the west I could see the coastline of the island and some offshore rocks named Les Petits Saints. North was the best direction for pictures as I could see the whole town of Gustavia with its rectangular harbor stretching out at the foot of the hill. Off to the east was a steep drop down to a little cove named Shell Beach where I could see a handful of tourists swimming in the sparkling waters. If you're wondering about Fort Karl itself, well, there was basically nothing left of the structure aside from stones poking out of the ground. I highly recommend anyone visiting Gustavia take the short walk up here to get a chance to enjoy these beautiful views.
Saint Barthelemy is a small island but we still needed to find some other method of transportation if we intended to see anything other than Gustavia. We decided to rent a car for the day (after also considering renting a motor scooter which cost about the same price) and didn't have any trouble acquiring the rental despite the lack of a reservation. We drove for about 15 minutes before reaching Saline Beach which was rated in the travel guide books as one of the best on the island. This stretch of sand was located near an old salt pond that gave the beach its name and we found that it was mostly deserted when we arrived. There were only a handful of other beachgoers spread out across a wide expanse of oceanfront and we were left with plenty of room. We stayed here for the next hour or two and I greatly enjoyed swimming in the waves, which were a bit rougher here than on the other beaches we had visited on this trip. Unfortunately we didn't have an umbrella with us for the beach (we brought towels but couldn't take something that large with us since we would have needed to carry it around all day) and the sun was hot enough that we couldn't stay for too long. We remained until a little after noon and then headed off to find a place to get lunch, preferrably also on the beach somewhere in the shade.
Saline Beach was situated on the southern side of the island but it was a drive of only 10 minutes to reach this separate beach at Baie de St Jean on the northern side of Saint Barthelemy. The beach here was surrounded by a series of hotels and several restaurants as this was one of the more populous parts of the island. We stopped to get lunch at the restaurant attached to the Pearl Beach hotel where we were able to sit in the shade and watch the waves roll in from the ocean. This was where we ran into another example of the luxury costs associated with Saint Barthelemy: the cheapest entrees on the menu were at least 30 Euros and many of the full meals were pushing triple digits. Liz ordered a burger as one of the most inexpensive options and it cost a whopping 35 Euros, yikes! It made us glad once again that we weren't trying to spend the night on Saint Barthelemy. As for the beach at Saint Jean, it was much too choppy for any swimming as the warning flags were telling everyone to stay out of the water. There were a few boats out there bobbing in the waves but otherwise everyone remained on shore.
After eating lunch, Liz and I decided to split up again for a couple of hours. Liz wanted to relax and read a book on the beach at Saint Jean while I took the rental car to drive around exploring a bit more of the island. I looked at a map of Saint Barthelemy and decided to see the eastern end of the island which was all of 15 minutes driving distance away. I passed Lorient Beach without stopping and headed south, quickly finding myself atop one of the central hills looking down at an area named Grand Fond. This didn't seem to be one of the more touristy parts of Saint Barthelemy as there were several hundred people living in this little valley sandwiched between two hills. I followed the road down to the coastline where it traced the blue waters of the Atlantic heading eastward. I wound up on a little beach named Petit Cul-de-Sac which lived up to its name by having an empty waterfront. This was a case of me driving too far, missing the small walking trail at the eastern end of the island near the Hotel Le Toiny that I had driven past. I should have stopped to take pictures of that hotel because it's considered to be the most prestigious on Saint Barthelemy. A quick Google search revealed that the starting per-night hotel price at Le Toiny is $2500 and they only go up from there - again, that's the kind of place that Saint Barthelemy is!
It took some poking around but I found the small walking trail at the eastern end of the island; I had to take the entrance to Le Toiny and drive past the hotel to get there. It wasn't much of a trail in practice, more of a gravel road that wound up to the top of a hill that fortunately did provide some fantastic views of the surrounding landscape. There weren't many hotels over here at the more secluded eastern part of Saint Barthelemy and instead I spotted lots of private villas and vacation homes for the ultra wealthy. From up here, I was high enough to be able to see the folds in the land as I looked out at the hills down below. The small size and hilly nature of Saint Barthelemy made it a poor choice for plantation agriculture and therefore this island never saw the sugar cultivation or mass slavery practiced elsewhere in the Caribbean. This made Saint Barthelemy nearly worthless in the colonial period but ironically set the stage for its luxury status in the late 20th century because it didn't have all of the negative repercussions leftover from earlier sugar production. Anyway, I enjoyed having this opportunity to capture these views and Saint Barthelemy was small enough that I could see about half the island from up here.
The afternoon was dwindling away at this point as I drove back to Saint Jean to meet back up with Liz. Saint Jean is also known as the location of the only airport to by found on the island where small propeller-driven craft takeoff and land on a daily basis. Gustav III Airport turns out to be one of the most dangerous airports in the world due to its tiny size and the need to manuever in between hills to reach the runway. Pilot must have a special license to be able to fly into this airport which of course also helps to make Saint Barthelemy more expensive and exclusive to visit as compared to the typical Caribbean island. Most of the planes that fly into the airport carry fewer than 20 passengers and arrive from nearby local airpots like the one in Saint Martin. Despite all of the problems with traveling by air to Saint Barthelemy, the airpot was quite busy on this afternoon as tourists arrived for the December holiday season. We watched half a dozen planes arrive and depart over the course of half an hour, with the planes barely clearing the automobile traffic on their descent and barely making it up into the air before reaching the waters of the Baie de Saint Jean on their departure. I think that we were both pretty content with traveling by ferry after watching all of this.
It was time for us to begin the trip back to Saint Martin as we returned our rental car at the airport and were driven back to the Gustavia ferry terminal. The streets of the little town were crowded with traffic for the evening rush hour and as night fell the place was lit up with holiday decorations. It was a little more than two weeks before Christmas and this was one of the busiest times of the year for Saint Barthelemy. We went through customs again at the ferry terminal and boarded the same ship that we had taken early that morning. From the top of the ferry we could look out across Gustavia's habor where the nighttime lights of the stores and restaurants were casting a cheery glow across the dark waters. I have to admit that I was feeling a bit uneasy though: it had been such a rough passage over to the island that morning, how much worse would it be at night when we couldn't even see what was going on? This had the potential to be unpleasant.
Fortunately it turned out that we had a much smoother trip back to Saint Martin which was nothing like the initial voyage. There was a bit of spray kicked up by the movement of the ferry and a light drizzle fell from the sky at one point but we never experienced anything like the pitching and tumbling from that morning. Given that the ferry over to Saint Barthelemy isn't supposed to be particularly rocky, I have to believe that our morning trip had been something out of the ordinary caused by high winds. We had a relaxing trip back to Saint Martin that proved to be pleasantly uninteresting in nature. The darkness meant that there wasn't much to look at after we left behind the yachts outside Gustavia but we could live with that. Eventually we spotted the cruise ships in Philipsburg's harbor and knew that we were almost back to our starting point.
We deliberately avoided eating dinner on Saint Barthelemy due to its outrageous prices and therefore were more than ready to get something on the waterfront in Philipsburg. A number of restaurants were closed for the night but we spotted this placed named Aziana which proved to be a great choice. This was essentially an Asian Fusion place that offered seafood, steaks, sushi, and assorted East Asian offerings on a large menu. We both opted for different types of stir fry and were delighted to get an absolutely delicious meal at an affordable cost. This may have been due to the fact that we were hungry and feeling scarred from Saint Barthelemy's prices but this was an excellent meal that we both greatly enjoyed. Definitely recommended for anyone who happens to find themselves near the ferry terminal in Philipsburg.
With the return back to Saint Martin our vacation came to a close. We spent one additional day on the island (detailed on the previous page) and then flew back to the United States on the following afternoon. I've talked a lot about planes and airports on these pages which wound up being relevant one final time as we were in a position to take some more photographs as our plane departed Saint Martin. The planes do not depart over Maho Beach, instead taking off in the opposite direction heading to the east. Our plane raced down the runway and rose into the air, immediately wheeling to the south as soon as it had achieved lift. We passed directly over the main road in Simpson Bay where Zee Best and Topper's Distillery were located and headed south near Cole Bay where we had gone horseback riding at Lucky Stables. These were some amazing views as the plane passed above hotels and boats before reaching open waters to the south of Saint Martin and then turning westward to begin the return flight. We actually passed directly over the British Virgin Islands at one point while flying back; I had to do some poking around in Google Maps to figure out exactly where we had been. The rest of the trip back was uneventful as we landed in Atlanta and then in Baltimore... which was not where our car was located because we had accidentally flown into a different airport than where we had left. Whoops! We were able to take an Uber van back to our house and then pick up our car the next day.
This was a fun and mostly relaxing trip to take even if the pandemic made it a pain in the rear at times. This was the first time that I'd visited the Caribbean and I enjoyed the opportunity to experience a part of the world that I'd often read about but never seen in person. We were able to eat a lot of excellent (if sometimes expensive) food and swim at a series of beautiful beaches around the island. I'm not quite as good at relaxing as Liz and I know that she would have preferred a more laidback vacation but I think that we both had a good time. While we probably won't go back to Saint Martin since we saw pretty much everything on the island, this is a unique place due to the Dutch/French split and a great place to take a tropical vacation. Thanks as always for reading along!