1. Take the plane. All flights to St Barths come via St Martin, and you're much better off with the 12-minute white knuckle ride than the 40-minute pukefest aboard the ferry; not exactly the glamorous arrival you want!
2. Rent a car. The island is compact but you need your own wheels to get around. Roads are steep and windy, and locals can drive aggressively, so go easy on the rose at lunch.
3. Avoid the high season, or it will cost ya. All the rich and famous descend on St Barths from early December through mid January, so unless you can tolerate grid lock traffic and tripled prices for everything, save your visit for March-May.
BEST BEACH CLUBS FOR DAYTIME
Any of the recommended restaurants are perfect for that long boozy lunch that should play a large part of any St Barths getaway - but if you're looking for more of a daytime scene and party, these are the two places to go.
Tom Beach Hotel, St Jean.
One of the only two beach clubs on the island, our friends who have been visiting here for years always rate this as one of the best spots for a long boozy lunch. Set in the middle of St Jean beach.
St. Jean. www.nikkibeach.com/stbarth/
You always know what to expect from this winning global franchise - chic decor, cool tunes and lots of good people watching from the staff to the patrons. Themed parties include Eyes Wide Shut and Sinners and Saints.
BARS & CLUBS FOR NIGHTTIME
Le Ti St Barth
Pointe Milou. www.letistbarth.com
No visit to St B is complete without a night of silliness at this supper club meets cabaret meets rollicking nightclub. Even in low season, the staff can somehow make a party out of a handful of people and their seemingly genuine enthusiasm is contagious. Your concierge will likely encourage you to go early for dinner, and a dinner reservation might be required during high season. But the food's nothing special, so if you're there in the quieter periods, grab dinner somewhere else and come in time for the show (usually starts around 10pm).
Short for "Le Bêtes à Z’ailes", the owner's nickname "the beast with wings", this portside bar and sushi restaurant is a St Barths institution. Features live music nightly.
Another global franchise famous for its beautiful people, electro music party scene, this location is portside with a small outdoor deck.
On the Rocks
Eden Rock Hotel, St. Jean.
This bar/restaurant perched high above the water was the go-to for the low season crowd, both locals and tourists alike.
With so many to choose from, there's a perfect beach for every taste. Here are my top picks, in order of preference:
Many people don't bother with this pristine, deserted beach because of the "hike" that's involved. It's actually just a 10-15 minute, scenic coastal walk, with just a couple small hills, and then you have an incredible beach practically to yourself (at least in low season, in high season, quite a few yachts pitch up here). So just pack a picnic and a couple towels and plan to spend a few hours here. There's little to no shade, so don't forget the sunscreen.
A lovely beach with a steeply sloping beach so it's deep like a pool quite close to shore. Apparently it's a popular pick among the naturist crowd.
Watch out for the green hornets that line the long, narrow dune approach to this lovely expanse of beach. It's wider, more exposed and less steep than neighboring Governeur.
This would be the perfect beach recess during a Gustavia shopping trip. Located just in town, you can easily walk there, have lunch or a cold beer at Shellona (formerly Do Brazil), and then take a dip in the crystal clear waters. See "Where to Eat" for more.
A great place for a swim or a long walk, this enormous bay is a must for a visit to St Barths. Make sure to get down to the airstrip end of the beach to watch a few takeoffs and landings.
Grand Cul de Sac
At the northeastern part of the island, right in front of Le Sereno, this reef protected bay is where kitesurfers come for the steady winds and flat water. Truth be told, it's not a great beach for either sunbathing or swimming, but the submerged reefs make for a gorgeous view.
A popular beach among the locals, while the water looks crystal clear from above, when we went for a snorkel, the visibility was just OK and there were lots of weeds.
St Barths is well-known for its shopping, from local boutiques to world-class designer fashion brands. The Gustavia port has pretty much everything, though there is also another cluster of shops in St Jean, right across from Eden Rock hotel. Ubiquitous in St Barths is jewelry made from the grey/black Tahitian Pearls, often simply strung on pieces of leather but can come as fancy as you like. For souvenir t-shirts, sweatshirts etc, we loved the fashion brand L'Avion, with the signature logo of a small plane landing on the runway.
See above. I can't recommend it enough!
Ice cream and sorbet at Le Petit Deauville
Gustavia. Two locations: Rue Jeanne d’Arc and Rue de la République
The island's most famous gelato and sorbet maker, the gorgeous owner Yann Colin supplies most of the top restaurants on St Barths and here you can taste any of the couple dozen familiar and unique flavours on offer.
Take a moment to see the planes land and takeoff. For landing, the roundabout above the head of the runway is a great spot to see the final approach over the saddle and diving down onto the runway - you can practically spin their wheels with your fingertips! And watch the planes soar into the sky from St Jean Beach.
WHERE TO STAY
The first question is: villa or hotel? Obviously, both have their pros and cons, but for a first-timer, I would strongly recommend a hotel stay as almost all of them are right on the beach and have all the usual amenities, and depending on when you go, the rate will include things like breakfast and even car rental.
So for hotel stays, almost any travel website will list the following five as the main contenders: Ile de France, Eden Roc, Le Toiny, Carl Gustav and Le Guanahani.
For some reason, not many websites list Le Sereno as a prime choice, but I can tell you right now, after spending a week in St Barths, stopping at at all the recommended properties, there is no other place we would rather stay. Le Sereno happened to be the top recommendation from friends who have been going to St Barths for over a decade, and actually got married at the property. They couldn't have been more right about it (thanks K & T).
So my top three hotel picks are the following:
Grand Cul de Sac.
The thing we liked best about Le Sereno was the seclusion of it - it's in the northeast corner of the island on the stunningly picturesque shallow coral reef bay called Grand Cul de Sac. The property has a wonderful pool (handy, since the bay isn't great for swimming), but they set out loungers directly facing the sea, which makes a great spot to watch the many kitesurfers who come for the consistent winds. The design by Christian Liagre is, well, very serene, all grey and white, simple, streamlined, and the food is some of the best in the island. The Bonito owners have just taken over chef is a Marseille local and his bouillabaisse is the best I've ever tasted - breakfasts are plentiful, the staff is so gracious, and all i all, ticked every box we want in a hotel stay. There's a nice variety of rooms, all nicely appointed, but ranging from basic garden style with private patios, or ones stacked up the hill and perched over the bay that are significantly roomier.
Hotel Ile de France
Bought by LVMH in Summer 2013, Ile de France is a lovely boutique set up, but perhaps too small and intimate for my liking. Many of the rooms are practically overlooking the pool (which is quite small) and I felt like the overall layout was just very tight. The beach (Flamands) however is absolutely stunning and it was easily one of the best lunch spots.
The celebrity pick of the island, the hotel has a great central location, near the airport and equal distance to Gustavia and the beaches of Grand Salines and Governeur. The beach is great for swimming and you can't go wrong with food from Jean Georges. The only caveat I've heard from friends is, room choice is essential to a good stay: for those in search of a quiet holiday, avoid those rooms that are on the rocks, overlooking the sea but backed up onto On the Rocks restaurant and bar.
And in case you're wondering why I would NOT recommend the following:
I hate the color scheme - grey and orange will always remind me of Easyjet - so even though the designer was apparently a protege of Le Sereno's designer, there's something that just isn't' classy about the overall look. The pool also has a VERY rough bottom, at least at the zero entry part, and with many of the rooms looking straight onto the pool, it just didn't seem that private. There's also no beach here, just rocky coastline, so you'll have to drive to get those toes in the sand.
This felt like a Sheraton, replete with corporate furnishings and just a total lack of ambience. The location is unique for its views down onto Gustavia Harbor, but even coming here for a sundowner was just, well, a bit of a downer.
Anse de Toiny.
The location kills it for me - set high on a clifftop, the ocean views are too distant and I want to be as close to the beach as possible on an island getaway. If you're a fan of tasting menus, come for dinner, as it does have the islands finest dining establishment (Relais & Chateaux).
Between Marigot and Grand Cul de Sac.
One word: cheesy. This vast resort shares the same bay as Le Sereno to one side, and Marigot Bay to the other. Billed as St Barths only full-service resort, it has a very commercial feeling to it. We came for dinner, and the food and ambience were just average.
"BUDGET" OPTIONS WORTH CONSIDERING
Having gotten its start as a foodie destination more than 2 decades ago, it's added on accommodation over the years and now has around 20 different suites. Rates start from Euros 380/night.
Les Ilets de la Plage
St. Jean. www.lesilets.com
One of the few "budget" options on St Barth's, this family-friendly set of bungalows is situated at the airport runway end of St. Jean beach. Rates start from Euros 320/night.
Tom Beach Hotel
St. Jean. www.tombeach.com
Another of the few "budget" options on St Barths, some say it's in need of a revamp. It hosts La Plage, one of the two most popular daytime beach clubs, so it might not be the quietest of stays. Rates from Euros 350/night.
Perfect starting point to start planning your trip here, with comprehensive beach, restaurant, accommodation information.
I love this website for its presentation and beautiful photography, along with the wealth of information.
A great resource for accommodation listings, both hotels and villa.
Stay & Play: St Barths
Best beach: Colombier
View down St Jean beach from Sandbar, Eden Rock
Entering paradise at Le Sereno
Flamands beach, with Hotel Ile de France and Hotel Taiwana in the distance
The approach to Grand Saline beach (beware of the green hornets)
Wide expanse of Grand Saline beach
Crystal clear waters at Shell Beach
Lots of free souvenirs at Shell Beach
Gotta get a cone! At Petit Deauville, one of two locations in Gustavia
Plane spotting at the roundabout over the foot of the runway
Pool at Le Sereno
Poolside at Hotel Christopher, Pointe Milou
The show at Le Ti St Barth