A cruising guide to Saint Barth (published November 2016)
You have the freedom to call it Saint Barthelemy, Saint Barth, or St. Barts. After all the term laissez- faire is French. Fly your yellow quarantine flag as long as you need to and stop by the Capitainerie du Port de Gustavia at your convenience to enter your particulars in the computer for clearance in. Stay as long as you like; pay your port fees on check-out. The further you anchor from the town of Gustavia, the lower the fees. We picked up a mooring ball on the north end of the island at Anse du Colombier, away from the swell that was running on the west side of the island. It was a bit of a dinghy ride into the main town of Gustavia but a very quiet and beautiful place to hang out for a few days.
But let’s back up just a bit…We departed from the French side of Saint Martin through the causeway swing bridge on the 8:15 a.m. opening, putting us on the Dutch side, Sint Maarten, to make the 8:30 a.m. opening of the Simpson Bay bridge. Having anchored on the French side, we avoided the Dutch bureaucracy and fees and were able to pass out through the Dutch side without charges as we departed, saving quite a few miles on our way south versus leaving from Marigot Bay on the French side.
On the way to St. Barts (okay if between us we just call it that?), we picked up a free mooring at Ile Fourche, a private island once overrun with goats which stripped it bare of vegetation before they were removed from the island. Over the years, the vegetation has grown back and it is green now, though still far from lush. There is good snorkeling on both the north and south sides of the bay. The moorings have helped preserve the grass of the sea floor and the turtles have been the beneficiaries. It was hard to look off the boat and not see a turtle at the surface within a few minutes. As we swam from the boat to the reefs, they seemed to be everywhere around us. We even found some feeding on the bottom in pairs.
As nice as Ile Fourche was, the anchorage was quite rolly so we pressed on the next morning to the main island of St. Barts. Moored at Anse du Colombier, we kept the quarantine flag flying and waited until the next morning to take the dinghy through the cut on the northwest side of the bay to run against the waves about a mile into the calm bay of Gustavia to check-in. Normally when checking into a country only the captain can leave the boat but here everyone was welcome to come in for some air conditioning while the captain entered the particulars into one of the computers at the Capitainerie. We figured we would like this place so we did not set a departure date though, if we had one, we could have checked in and out at the same time.
The Capitainerie is also a source of free internet. A “ticket” provides a username and password for a few days. You’ll need one per device, but the officers there are more than happy to provide as many as you need if you just ask. The Capitainerie also had the best book exchange we have seen so far in the islands—one section in French and one in English.
From there the next stop for many sailors after the ATM is Le Select, an open-air restaurant grilling great hamburgers at a fair price; get your beverage from the window in the side of the bar next door. Everywhere else we found to eat in Gustavia was significantly more expensive and more in line with the upscale and posh image this town maintains.
Indeed, St. Barth affords an upscale image attracting actors, musicians, and other sundry wealthy for regularly scheduled music, art, and movie festivals. This week, the Transat two-handed Transatlantic race was finishing here—boats arrived amongst much fanfare over two days followed by grand parties and entertainment well into the night. After that, a Caribbean movie festival. We enjoyed window shopping the Cartier, Hermes, and other stores. Our favorite store though was one that offered something for the person who has everything including an antique Land Rover and a jetfighter ejection seat complete with helmet and pressure suit for 35,000 Euro. That evening over sundowners, the crew of another boat told us about their drink with the singer Billy Joel at a hotel bar on the east side of the island where they had stopped to use the internet earlier that day.
ANSE DU COLOMBIER
Back at Anse du Colombier, one can see the village of Colombier high on the hill above. Steps at the south end of the bay lead up to a trail that forks either to Colombier or to Le Petit Anse and Anse de Flamands on the northeast side of the island. Jill and I hiked the trail past spider lilies, goats, land turtles, and had great views of the surrounding smaller islands on our way to these quiet villages. Each of course with a boulangerie or at least a small market where we could pick up our daily baguette, one of the great pleasures of visiting the French islands. In the market we also grabbed a few sodas to cool ourselves off. Always wanting to try the local food and beverages, we discovered a new favorite, L’Ordinaire, an anise soda. A big part of the fun of cruising is discovering what the locals already know and love.
The bay also offered snorkeling on either side of the beach where we found the variety of fish and the size of some of the representatives, including a spotted eagle ray, to be larger than any we had seen so far on our trip south. Unfortunately this included the predatory, though lovely to look at, lionfish.
Some super yachts ventured out of the bay at Gustavia to spend a few nights at Anse du Colombier. They mostly anchored well outside the mooring field on a few hundred feet of chain in 50 feet of water. It was fun to see the comings and goings of the folks as they rode in tenders often larger than our 42 foot boat.
Returning to town the next day we hiked up to Fort Karl, one of three forts around the bay of Gustavia. From here we captured breathtaking views of the whole bay and west coast. Just down the hill and around the corner from Fort Karl is Shell Beach which, true to its name, has no sand but instead the “soil” is all tiny shells. We found ourselves collecting shells with the children there and enjoying it just as much as they were. Amongst the shells we also found some sea glass and a miniature dried fish, perhaps a tiny sergeant major.
A trip to St. Barth is not complete without taking a rental car drive around the island. The roads are in places extremely steep, full of switchbacks, and often not wide enough for two vehicles to pass. Some of the roads were so much fun to drive that we went back over them in both directions several times! Of course there are some amazing views along the way as well. Leaving Gustavia and traveling north one quickly comes to a traffic circle at a cut in the hills. Below is the airport runway. No stopping is allowed in the circle as the airplanes pass just a few feet overhead on approach to the runway.
At the top of the island on the north end, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we stopped at Le Petite Colombe, a “boulangerie artisanale /patisserie”. Bread and pastry making is already a high art for the French but this place takes it up one more notch. We had lunch here, desserted on Pain au Chocolat, and secured our daily baguette to take back to the boat.
Clearing out of St. Barth was even easier than clearing in since our boat’s record could be called up against a password we created when checking in. We were cleared to depart for St. Eustatius, or Statia, if you prefer, the next day. The fees were minimal since we did not stay in the main harbor. And as an added bonus, we enjoyed almost no swell and great snorkeling and hiking at Anse du Colombier.
Over the last several years we have watched Pete and Jill Dubler’s restoration and refit of their Pearson 424. In December, they began their new life as cruisers aboard S/V Regina Oceani.