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Houses and hotels are built into the hillsides overlooking the impossibly blue water at St. Barth.

St. Barth is a European gem in the Caribbean.

Houses and hotels are built into the hillsides overlooking the impossibly blue water at St. Barth.
Houses and hotels are built into the hillsides overlooking the impossibly blue water at St. Barth.

Whether it’s called Saint Barthélemy, St. Barts or St. Barth, for Francophiles like me, the allure is the same: an 8.1-square-mile slice of France anchored in the blindingly blue waters of the Caribbean. Given the chance to experience a bit of that country’s culture blended with white sand and tropical breezes, I couldn’t say, “Oui! Oui!” fast enough.

Getting to St. Barth doesn’t require a transatlantic flight, but it does take a bit of planning. The closest airport for jet traffic is St. Maarten, 28 miles northeast. Flying into the Dutch island first is an adventure in itself: The airport is noted for its extremely short runway, forcing the big birds to pass about 100 feet above a stretch of beach made famous for the crowds who gather at the boundary fence to experience the wakes. (Google it!)

A puddle-jumper takes 15 minutes to land between St. Barth’s steep cliffs. The rugged terrain is the result of the island’s having once been an active volcano. Those peaks and valleys presented a bit of a walking challenge, but the driver who whisked me to the hotel was adept at navigating the ups and downs that led to my destination, the Hôtel Barrière Le Carl Gustaf.

Though St. Barth has been a French overseas territory since the late 1870s, its origin story is steeped in British and Swedish history, hence the non-French name of the island’s most intimate and luxurious accommodation. The property incorporates 21 suites and lofts, as well as a palatial villa, built into the side of a steep hillside. The bar and dining room at the top offer sweeping views of a harbor crowded with yachts and sailboats. The spa is one level down, and the accommodations are situated to the right and left of a rather daunting, outdoor staircase that requires some physical agility. I was grateful for the athletic bellhop who toted my bags without a luggage rack.

Each table in the Carl Gustaf's restaurant has a sweeping sea view.
Each table in the Carl Gustaf’s restaurant has a sweeping sea view.

The unusual configuration is also one of the hotel’s primary assets: Each suite offers almost perfect privacy. Expansive decks provide harbor views from the plunge pools with water-friendly stationary bikes.

At the bottom of the hotel’s staircase is the path to Shell Beach, lined with white sand, crystal-clear water and topless sunbathers. A musical backdrop comes from the party beats blasting through the speakers of Shellona, an open-air restaurant where seafood and island cocktails are the stars. It’s a casual contrast to the Carl Gustaf’s fine dining experience, Beefbar, which opened in November last year.

All the beaches are open to the public, and each offers a different experience. Saint-Jean is a favorite for its mile-long stretch of sand and views of the airport landing strip. The Grand Cul-de-Sac is a magnet for water sport enthusiasts who can rent equipment from nearby kiosks. And several spots like the Petit Culde- Sac are unspoiled stretches with nothing but sand and native plants.

Exploring the various beaches is easy by boat. A variety of seafaring craft are available to rent, and charters with crews who know the best nooks and crannies can be booked. A sunset cruise on the St. Barth Sailor took me and a small group of catamaran travelers to a secluded cove where we watched the sun dip below the horizon while sipping champagne. But the best part of the evening was swinging into the water from a hammock off the back deck. Fantastique!

With fine French food and gorgeous beaches to experience, I skipped the historic sites that mark the influences of former colonials. I traded a day of gallery hopping and shopping at Louis Vuitton and Cartier along the harbor for bobbing in the warm sea waters. A few days on this French isle wasn’t enough, and I left with one word in mind: “Encore!”



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