Dispatch, St. Barts: Paying for exclusivity

By Johanna Jainchill
StBarts-GustaviaHarbor-JJJohanna Jainchill, Travel Weekly's destinations editor, was in St. Barts, exploring the island and staying in two hotels and one villa. Her third and final dispatch follows. Click to read Johanna’s first and second dispatches.

St. Barts carries a certain mystique, and a reputation, for being the most exclusive and upscale island in the Caribbean.

That description is fair, and for the most part, the prices match it. Even the rare budget hotel in the low season will run about $200 per night, while the fanciest properties’ entry-level room starts above $600.

During peak Christmas and New Year’s dates, those rates can more than triple. But that is also the season when celebrities and millionaires show up on their yachts and private jets. And St. Barts is open for business year-round.

So what exactly do people pay for here?

First of all, being a French island, the prices here are always in euros. For Americans, who make up the majority of travelers to St. Barts, this means that everything costs a lot more than it would in dollars.

While a $14 cocktail won’t give sticker shock to the average New Yorker, that’s $18 in euros. (Most places accept dollars so you won’t always incur a conversion fee).

But travelers are really paying for exclusivity. St Barts does a good job of limiting the number of tourists, and even people, on the island, with strict development limits. There are no high-rise hotels, no casinos, and St. Barts' tiny airport only accommodates prop planes.

This allows for some of the Caribbean’s most pristine beaches, fronting clear, turquoise waters.

Scooters, Mini Cooper convertibles and Jeeps are the car rentals of choice, and visitors love exploring as many beaches on the island as they can. There seems to always be parking available, for free, and aside from the beaches closest to town, they are never crowded.

Then there’s the food. St Barts is an epicurean destination. Eating well is part of the experience here — one you will pay for, usually with pleasure.

French culture pervades much of the cooking, but some of the finest establishments are a fusion of Creole and French cuisines. And fresh seafood is always the centerpiece of any menu, with local catches of mahi-mahi, wahoo, shrimp and langouste on most menus.

StBarts-LeSerenoDining-JJIf you enjoy the kind of travel where you won’t find Starbucks, McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken locations, St. Barts is for you. Fast food here consists of a creperie or getting a baguette sandwich at a boulangerie.

And it is possible to eat on a budget — the markets here have fine selections of French cheese and charcuterie, making a picnic at the beach with a baguette, cheese and a bottle of French wine a wonderful experience. In fact, French wines are one of the few bargains on the island, and there is impressive variety.

Finally, St. Barts is safe. After years of traveling around the Caribbean and living in New York, I was surprised to learn that people here leave their car windows open with iPads exposed on the seats. Nobody seems to worry about leaving belongings on the beach while swimming or taking a long stroll.

And while I don’t know if it’s by design or culture, but there is never anyone approaching tourists to sell trinkets or tours.

This all adds up to a unique and beautiful Caribbean destination, one that will not be enjoyed by all, which is exactly how both the locals and frequent visitors want it to stay.

Follow Johanna Jainchill on Twitter @jjainchilltw. 
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