The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for St. Barts: Peg Walsh of St. Barth Properties.
Peg Walsh, who founded St. Barth Properties in 1989, spends half the year (December through May) on St. Barts. Her company has a Boston-area office, as well as a fully-staffed bilingual office on the island. Since she focuses exclusively on this tiny isle, her team knows every beach and cove, as well as every nook and cranny of the 200 private villas they represent, ranging from beachy-casual bungalows to chic hillside homes and Architectural Digest-worthy estates. Peg re-inspects them all regularly to ensure they meet her strict standards, so she has an encyclopedic knowledge of each house’s features and amenities: which have heated pools, athlete-worthy gyms, and the best wintertime sunset views. Every client also gets Peg’s ten pages of Helpful Hints, advising on all aspects of a St. Barts vacation—from warning people about taking the ferry from Sint Maarten (rough seas) to tipping guidelines—and outlining special perks at certain restaurants and on some excursions.
St. Barts is on the road to recovery after Hurricane Irma and officially reopens for tourism on October 30. It is amazing that some villas had very little damage, other than loss of foliage. A few are ready for rental right now; others November 15 and still others December 15. Still others were hit harder, so they are postponing their openings until 2018, although many restaurants and hotels are ready for visitors already, so contact me for first-hand input on what’s available and where.
Things to Do and See
The Mardis Gras Carnival. It’s a fun parade that winds through Gustavia, and many locals don costumes to join in. However, it gets hot when you’re standing in the sun, traffic and parking are restricted, and the restaurants are jammed. We recommend giving it a pass and enjoying a beach day or lunch away from town.
An island tour with Easy Time Tours. Founder Hélène Bernier’s family has lived on St. Barts for generations, and she is passionate about sharing the island’s history, culture, and flora and fauna. She knows where the best views and photo ops can be had too. Transportation is via a comfortable, air-conditioned van.
Colombier Beach—a gorgeous, secluded beach that can only be reached by a rocky goat path, or by boat. It’s an ideal spot for picnicking, swimming, snorkeling, and sunsets.
Watching the puddle-jumpers take off and land from St. Jean Beach, where the runway terminates, or from the traffic circle at the opposite end of the airstrip. Many find the approach to the island hair-raising: Planes clear a mountaintop, and then drop down quickly onto the short runway.
Where to Stay and What to Eat
Hotel or villa?
In general, villas are better for independent travelers seeking more privacy and space. Villas can also be the ideal option for extended and multi-generational families, and in many cases are more economical than hotel rooms: Cooking at home, poolside BBQs, and the ability to easily pack picnic lunches for the beach can be a significant cost-saver. For those who want room service, restaurants within walking distance, food and beverages delivered poolside and beachfront, and easy access to water sports, a hotel is the right choice. See our Insider’s Guide to St. Barts Villa Vacations.
The best of both worlds? Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France rents out a pair of three-bedroom villas, and Le Sereno has two four-bedroom villas. All are stunning, and guests get full access to the hotel’s services.
Best new boutique hotel
The Sibuet family, famed hoteliers in France, have replicated their signature intimate ambience at the stunning Villa Marie Saint-Barth, which honors West Indies architectural styles with bright Caribbean colors and a soupçon of French elegance; it’s now the best overall value among five-star hotels on the island. Whitewashed walls, colonial woodwork, rattan furniture, and vintage pieces throughout combine for a boho-chic vibe. There are 19 charming bungalows with verandahs; some have a view of the tropical gardens, while a few—including the Family Bungalow—look onto the ocean. I like the Plantation Bungalows, which are close to the pool and the open-air breakfast and lunch area, and have covered terraces with garden or pool views. At the restaurant, François Plantation, fine French cuisine and reinterpreted heirloom Caribbean recipes are served in a romantic setting. The hotel’s cozy bar offers an extensive selection of the region’s rums and a humidor filled with Cuban cigars.
Best hotels for beach lovers
The new Le Barthélemy Hotel & Spa is a scrumptious blend of Parisian chic and St Barth’s casual sophistication. The Barth Jardin accommodations—the entry-level option among the hotel’s 46 rooms and suites—are plenty spacious, at 610 square feet, and include a sitting area and a terrace with a view of the lush gardens and Hermes toiletries in the bathroom. Some rooms connect, making Le Barthélemy ideal for families with younger children, who will love the lagoon’s warm, shallow waters; the infinity pool; and the easy access to a wealth of water sports. Michelin-starred chef Guy Martin runs the seaside restaurant, which is called Le Barth at breakfast and lunch; at sunset, it transforms into Aux Amis, turning out Caribbean-inspired French cuisine. Even if you’re not staying here, my clients who visit Le Barthélemy receive special privileges, such as complimentary use of beach chairs, snorkeling gear, and canoes, and discounts at the boutique and spa.
A classic Caribbean beach with a wide strip of sand and rolling surf capping its azure waters, Flamands Beach is home to two five-star properties: Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France and the Taïwana, which is tucked into the end of the beach. Both have the island’s signature ambience of casual sophistication, and vibrant lunch scenes. The Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France is the larger and more amenity-laden of the two (with a Guerlain-branded spa); the smaller-scaled Taïwana is a bit more laid-back. Couples looking for a romantic getaway would love either—as would fashionistas: The Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France has a poolside fashion show on Tuesday evenings, and the Taïwana is an outpost of iconic St. Barth brand Poupette. At the Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France, the lowest-priced Garden Rooms are very similar to the more expensive Garden Bungalows, but without a bathtub; and even though they’re not advertised as ocean-view, you can still get a peek at the water. At the Taïwana, by contrast, it’s worth paying a bit more for the ocean-view Coral rooms, which feel more spacious than the equivalent courtyard-view accommodations.
Best hotels for families
Five-star Le Guanahani is the island’s largest hotel, with two beaches, two pools, two tennis courts, loads of water sports, and a robust—and complimentary—kids’ program. The suites that are farther from the beach are the most private. Families with kids also love Le Sereno: Little ones play in its lagoon’s warm, shallow waters; teens thrill to the kite-surfing and other water sports; and the Italian restaurant has a kids’ menu. The pool is also child-friendly—when it’s not being used for Victoria’s Secret fashion shoots. Le Sereno has a nice variety of room configurations, from one bedroom to four, and many of the suites connect for larger family groups.
Best hotel for a quiet getaway
Since it’s perched overlooking a bay, the five-star Christopher makes up for its lack of a beach with the island’s largest pool. The Mango restaurant sits atop a faux beach, for that toes-in-the-sand feel, and the prestigious Sisley Spa has waterfront treatment tables, so that you can hear the waves during your massage. This is also just about the only hotel on the island with a view of the sunset—a vista you can enjoy from your room, if you book one of the upper-level Ocean Panoramic Junior Suites, which offer the most space and privacy.
Best hotel for romance
Secluded on the far end of the island’s craggy east coast, the luxurious Le Toiny gives guests plenty of privacy; each fully detached suite comes with its own pool. Not surprisingly, it’s a celebrity favorite. Don’t bother paying 1,000 euros or more for a Villa Suite when you can get a slightly smaller Junior Suite, with a partial ocean view, for quite a bit less. Foodies rave about the award-winning cuisine in the poolside restaurant, and the hotel’s open-air bar is perfect for pre-dinner aperitifs. A four-wheel-drive vehicle takes guests to and from The Beach Club, which includes a chic boutique, lounge chairs, and a beachside restaurant. The beach is lovely, but swimmers beware! The currents are dangerous.
Those looking to be in the midst of the action should consider the more casual and less expensive Tom Beach hotel. This youthful boutique property is steps from the water at St. Jean Beach and walking distance to St. Jean village’s bistros and shops. It’s also home to La Plage, one of the island’s hottest restaurants and clubs. Book one of the rooms closer to the beach than to the entrance, where you’ll be nearer the road and its noise.
Restaurant the locals love
There’s admittedly not much in the way of ambience at the Santa Fe—the décor is downright awful—but it’s a charming, casual place with excellent French food. The incredibly friendly staff remembers my clients from year to year, even if they dine there only once. The covered patio has a lovely view, with the lights of Saba, Eustatia, and St. Kitts twinkling in the distance. The Dover Sole Meunière is classically prepared and exquisite. The icing on the cake: You needn’t deal with Gustavia’s traffic.
Meal worth the splurge
The foie gras at L’Esprit in Saline. It is Chef Jean-Claude Dufour’s signature dish and worth every euro.
Dish you have to try
Bo Káo—a Peruvian-Japanese place with great sushi, seafood, and meat dishes—serves a delicious appetizer called Anticuchos: marinated chicken bites fried tempura-style and drizzled with corn cream. Each morsel melts in your mouth.
High season runs from mid-December to mid-April, simply because that’s when cold weather sends American travelers to the Caribbean. The rest of the year, St. Barts’ climate is much the same, but hotels often throw in freebies (extra nights, a car rental, a sunset cruise or complimentary meal) and, during this “value season,” the island is quieter and less crowded. Shoppers come for the annual sales, which run from May into early June, when there are bargains galore at the island’s boutiques. I also love November, when everything re-opens after hurricane season, so things are fresh and new.
Over Christmas and New Year’s, hotels require 10- to 14-night minimums—and it’s hard to even get a booking, as there’s so much repeat business. It is the see-and-be-seen season for celebrities and pop stars, and the harbor is filled with millionaires’ yachts—but traffic, parking, and restaurant reservations are all difficult and can offset the glam factor. From early September to mid-October, the island goes on hiatus, with many shops and restaurants closing.
Not packing a bathing suit, cover-up, and change of clothes in your carry-on. If your luggage doesn’t make it onto the puddle-jumper in time (there are flights to St. Barts from St. Maarten and San Juan), you’ll still be ready for your first swim and dinner out that evening.
Adapters and converters for your electronic devices: St. Barts has 220 voltage, and the outlets only accept plugs with two round prongs.
Stop on the back road that leads into Gustavia from Lurin and take a picture-postcard shot of the harbor, with the red rooftops in the foreground and St. Maarten in the distance.
Flavored rums (or rhums, as it’s spelled in French). There’s a little shop at La Gloriette Restaurant in Grand Cul de Sac that features a variety, including vanilla and ginger. The harborside restaurant Côté Port sells bottles of its famous vanilla-flavored La Pinta rum.
Service is included at restaurants. You can add a tip to show your appreciation, but it is usually 10 percent or less. The person who greets you at the airport and escorts you to your accommodations should be tipped about 20 euro. If you do not have any euros, U.S. dollars are fine to give.
At Nikki Beach, for its Sunday-themed lunch. This sexy seaside restaurant is open daily for lunch, but on Sundays they ramp it up with a DJ and super-fun themes, such as Superheroes, Candyland, St. Tropez, or the Love Boat; the costumed wait staff really get into it. People come early, stay late, order jeroboams of champagne and wine, and dance on the tabletops.