Four Saintly Islands in the Caribbean

By Andrea Sachs
The Washington Post


If you vacation in the same place as David Letterman, Harrison Ford and Mariah Carey, does that make you rich and famous by association? Only a visit to St. Barts can answer that.

In the late 1970s, officials decided to transform the French West Indies island into a high-end destination; their efforts paid platinum. “It became a destination for rich people,” said Eddy Galvani, director of the Wall House Museum in Gustavia, the capital, named when Sweden was in control. “It’s a fashion place.” The haunt of the mega-wealthy and obsessed-over is often a stop on a kind of Route d’Affluence: Cannes, Paris, New York, St. Barts.

Yet St. Barts also has an earthy side, like Marie Antoinette dressed down in plastic flip-flops and cut-offs. “It’s a very human, authentic place,” said Louisa Messous, who runs Drugstore des Caraibes beachwear and souvenir shop in St. Jean. “Everyone says `Allo, allo’ to each other. No one is (she placed her finger under her nose and lifted slightly).”

To be fair, St. Barts did make my bank account bleat. A room at the luxe Hotel Carl Gustaf, for example, starts at nearly $700, and you must brave hurricanes for that “low” price. At the Hotel Guanahani’s restaurant, Indigo, hamburgers cost more than $30. Everything, in fact, seems pricier than its stateside equivalent because of the euro, the local currency.

However, I never balked at the prices because I was never a slave to them, finding pleasure in the island’s simpler offerings. St. Barts is an overgrown garden of bougainvillea, hibiscus and cacti interrupted only by twee red-roofed homes and shredded roads. The 20 or so beaches promote egalite: All are public and none has less-white sand than the others. Some promote true liberte: On Saline beach, many sunbathers strip down to their Adam and Eve costumes.

In Corossol, the dress code is more puritan. Not too long ago, the women of the fishing village were still wearing bonnets. Unlike the designer scenes at such resorts as Eden Rock and Le Toiny, here the community is subdued and reserved. The men fish for a living and the women weave palm fronds into hats, clutch bags, place mats and napkin ring holders. The items are displayed on windowsills and in yards, de facto stores.

St. John

The true nature of St. John is exactly that: nature.

“Many of the islands have a national park,” said Babs Raley, who works at Maho Bay Camps, an eco-lodge with tented accommodations and more than 30 years of green cred, “but two-thirds of St. John is protected.”

The safeguarded land was a gift from Laurance Rockefeller, a member of that monied family who had a soft spot for the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. In 1956, he donated thousands of acres to the National Park Service, preserving not just his legacy but also the hills, trees and reefs.

Despite my expectations, the 30-minute ferry from St. Thomas did not drop me off in an impenetrable grove with only birds and bugs as companions. The town of Cruz Bay is a small but intense square of commerce, with popsicle-colored shops and restaurants tumbling over one another. The knots of traffic and lack of parking were reason enough to seek less-populated terrain.

One of the island’s top treks is the Reef Bay Trail, a nearly five-mile route that ribbons through subtropical forest. The hike descends 937 feet, which translates to an extremely arduous return. During the busier seasons, park rangers lead hikes that include a boat ride back to Cruz Bay. Independent trekkers have to hoof it back themselves.

I was not thinking about the ascent as I rambled down the root-strewn trail, passing a bay rum tree carved with lovers’ initials (hope T&K are still together after that walk). The route was still except for the hermit crabs that cascaded down the slopes and landed by my feet.

About three-quarters down, a sign pointed toward petroglyphs and a 40-foot waterfall, precipitation-dependent. Some experts attribute the rock etchings to the Tainos, early inhabitants of the islands. However, their meaning has not been deciphered. The fact that the design resembles ski goggles adds to the enigma.

Later in town, I met another facet of St. John’s. “This is Love City,” said “Gemini” Felix, a wide-grinning gent who was standing beside the giant head of a freshly caught yellow tuna.

It was easy to feel the love, or at least the like. In Coral Bay, the wacky sister of Cruz Bay, I was only two sips into my beer at Skinny Legs when I started chatting with Carl to my right (topics: sailing, World War II, southpaws), Lisa to my left (nonprofits, Haitian immigrants, Target), her sister one seat over, her sister’s husband (third chair from my right) and Chris (behind the bar). By the end of the night, Lisa had given me her earrings, which I had admired; Phillip, a regular customer, had made me a salad in the kitchen; and a live-aboard sailor named Vince had invited me to compete in a regatta (they needed some X chromosomes at the helm). Hugs, kisses, exchanged emails — St. John love all around.

Other points of interest: Annaberg Sugar Mill Ruins, an old plantation now part of Virgin Islands National Park; Trunk Bay, site of the national park’s underwater snorkel trail; Caneel Bay, a luxury resort once owned by Rockefeller; Mongoose Junction and Wharfside Resort, shopping complexes in Cruz Bay featuring such eco-friendly shops as the Friends of the Park Store.

St. Martin/St. Maarten

St. Martin sounds like a Kmart sale: Get two (countries) for the price of one (island). But this is no marketing gimmick.

The Lesser Antilles island is famously governed by France to the north and the Netherlands to the south, though sometimes one can become confused about the allegiance. Eating a baguette in St. Maarten, for example, or seeing Heineken signs in St. Martin.

On the Dutch side, the capital of Philipsburg is a whirlwind of shops (including the iconic Delft Blue Gallery), restaurants and a long, paved boardwalk trimmed on one side with a wide band of sand. At the Guavaberry Emporium, co-owner Ghislaine Thompson was helping pour samples of the signature liqueur at an hour better suited for coffee and orange juice. I tossed down a shot of the candy-sweet alcohol, then chased it with a guavaberry colada. Any more freebies and I’d be napping under the display of jams and honey.

Thompson is French, her husband is Irish and the employee behind the counter came from Jamaica. I had yet to hear Dutch spoken, and, down on Orient Beach, Christine de la Cruz, editor of a Caribbean magazine, explained why. “We have around 90 nationalities living here,” the Brit said.

And so my search for wooden clogs and Edam ended, and my quest for multiculturalism began. I unearthed it without much trouble: I found jewelry stores run by Indians, craft shops stuffed with African totems, a food cart serving Suriname dishes and a vegetarian restaurant run by a Rastafarian couple from Curacao.

Many of the people I met eagerly waved their country’s flag, but the casinos had no homeland. They were not Las Vegas nor Monte Carlo nor Foxwoods.

The half-dozen or so establishments are centered mainly in Philipsburg and the west end, and they cater to entry-level gamblers who prefer to bet a nickel at a time. Devoid of hokey themes and spangles, the casinos are almost ascetic, featuring only a few poker tables and a cluster of slot machines, some of which still accept dollar bills. (How quaint.) Each casino has its regular crowd. In Philipsburg, employees of nearby shops pop in for a quick hand during their lunch break, while the Atlantis Casino attracts medical students who attend the school next door and undoubtedly have big loans to repay.

The French side of the island does not permit casinos, but it does allow decadence of another kind: haute cuisine. The capital of Marigot is a semi-hectic town with a workhorse harbor, European fashion houses and cafes stocked with such staples as pain au chocolat and croissants.

“St. Martin is the gastronomic capital of the Caribbean,” said Jean-Francois Monnier, a Frenchman who owns La Parisienne cafe in Marigot. “It’s the tradition to have good food here.”

St. Thomas

I felt guilty for not shopping. St. Thomas, which is landscaped with stores, can weigh on your conscience like that.

The U.S. Virgin Island is known for its duty-free shops, where gems are displayed like colorful gumdrops, bottles of liquor are lined up like toy soldiers and perfumes scent the air of Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the USVI. In addition, nontraditional malls have sprung up around the cruise ship dock: Yacht Haven Grande, for brands worn label out, and Havensight, a complex of warehouses stocked with jewelry, T-shirts and space-filler knickknacks.

The enthusiastic consumer culture here today has roots in the island of yesteryear. In 1671, St. Thomas was settled by the Danes and the Danish West India Company, which helped transform the isle into one of the largest trading hubs in the Caribbean. The boats would swap the ballast in their hulls for molasses, sugar cane, rum and other products sourced from the land. The slave trade was rampant, and Emancipation Park pays tribute to the day (July 3, 1848) when Denmark freed the slaves.

So, to understand the island’s past, go shopping. Many of the downtown stores sit inside centuries-old warehouses built of the red or yellow bricks carried across the Atlantic by merchant ships. At Gallery Camille Pissarro, owner Debra Wombold pointed out the thick, bumpy layers of the interior walls, describing each stratum with the precision of an archaeologist. Behind her hung a small display of art and photographs detailing the life of Pissarro, the impressionist who was born in St. Thomas and learned his trade by painting outdoors in the protean Caribbean light.

“The most famous person from the Virgin Islands is Pissarro,” she said. “But for some reason, the tourism office only mentions Tim Duncan.” (The San Antonio Spurs basketball player was born in St. Croix.)

At the Afro-Caribbean Drum Center and Museum, Mel Jonassen makes and sells beaded creations that range from pretty drop earrings to a bracelet with political commentary on capitalism. However, I was not there to wield my purchase power; I came to bang drums.

Jammin’ Jerry Z, a former dance accompanist at Connecticut College, moved his wife and 80-piece collection to the island this past summer. He set up the museum and started tours, which involve detailed descriptions of the instruments and their use, followed by fervent demonstrations.

Other points of interest: Magens Bay, a heart-shaped beach with sand as soft as cashmere; Frenchtown, a tiny fishing village settled by French from St. Barts; Drake’s Seat, a hillside spot from which Sir Francis Drake spied on the Spanish fleet; Red Hook, a dining and night-life quarter; the sandy-floored St. Thomas Synagogue, which claims the distinction of being the oldest temple in continuous use under the American flag.

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