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Time Stands Still on Caribbean's St. Barts

February 21, 1988|DALE KOPPEL | Koppel is a free-lance writer living in Brookline, Mass. and

GUSTAVIA, St. Barthelemy — J.B. Priestly, the late English novelist and playwright, once said: "A good holiday is one spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours."

He must have vacationed on St. Barthelemy, the Caribbean island in the French West Indies, better known as St. Barth or St. Barts. On St. Barts, time stands still.

But little did Priestly know that during the off-season here he could have a sterling silver vacation on a stainless steel budget, and with none of the traffic jams, crowded streets and waiting at restaurants that takes place during the high season (mid-December through April).

During the rest of the year, the low season, it's different; it's paradise. Birds sing during the day; tree frogs chirp at night. There's always a delightful breeze. The days are consistently sunny, with perhaps just the slightest interruption from a brief shower.

Plane watching is the most popular spectator sport (quite marvelous to watch as the plane drops out of the sky and makes a three-point landing on the short runway that ends at the water). There is only one disco, Autour de Rocher, owned by singer Jimmy Buffett.

Not Much to Do

There's not much to do on St. Barts, and that's why vacationers return year after year. It has no golf courses, but you will find tennis courts at some of the newer hotels, including Manapany, Taiwana, St. Barth's Beach Hotel and Guyanahany.

Off-season rates at these hotels are from $155 to $260, depending on view and size.

At the Hostellerie Trois Forces in Vitet, where off-season rates for cottages are $90 a day, you can set up an appointment with Hubert Delamotte--owner, chef and island astrologer--who will do a Tarot card reading or check your astrological chart.

It is up to you to pay him what you think is fair, which seems to be anywhere from $25 to $100 U.S.

Second only to plane watching is people watching, best accomplished at Gustavia's open cafe, L'Oubli (Oblivion). Sit there more than once and you are guaranteed to see familiar faces pass.

In the low season your face, too, becomes familiar as you stroll down the streets of Gustavia or wander in and out of the shops in St. Jean.

You feel as if you belong, and, unlike the intimidation often felt in foreign-speaking countries, everyone in St. Barts will communicate so that you understand, even if it means leading you personally to the street you point to on the map.

The island has no organized sports but you can learn to windsurf at Grand Cul de Sac and St. Jean Beach where several hotels skirt the water, among them Emerald Plage, which offers bungalow-style accommodations for $110 to $200.

Charter a Yacht

You can charter a sailing or power yacht through La Caleche Yacht Charter Agency or LouLou's Marine, both in Gustavia, and take advantage of snorkeling over coral formations or fishing for dolphin, tuna or marlin.

There are billiards and table-tennis at Le Patio. At Le Tamarin you can practice archery, or you can just order a cool drink and lie in a hammock under the Tamarin tree.

For an island the size of St. Barts (9.6 square miles, with a population of about 3,000), there is a surprising number of good clothing stores.

The latest, and sometimes the most outrageous, in Paris-design fashion can be found in Le Bastringue and Diva (with stores in Gustavia and St. Jean).

One of the best stores is Vali Baba in Gustavia, where the fabrics are hand-woven in Marrakech, Morocco. Papagayo, across from Tastes Unlimited, sells wonderful signed reproductions of scenes of St. Barts for $30 by artist Stanislas DeFize.

Although you can cover the island in half a day, the more you drive around, the more you discover. (The Moke--a "prehistoric" facsimile of a Jeep--is the best car-rental game in town at $30 to $35 a day). You can take picture post card shots of historic cemeteries, quaint fishing villages such as Corossol where women in Breton clothing peek out of their gingerbread-style cottages or set up roadside stands with their straw work, sunsets to write home about and beautiful white-sand beaches.

The visitor may try one of the 22 beaches, many accessible only by boat or footpath. If you're looking for solitude, Columbier is the most deserted. On a weekday you may be the only person there.

Saline is another deserted beach, especially idyllic just before sunset. Gouverneur offers privacy, plus dramatic vistas of white sand and steep mountains.

Swimming, Picnicking

Residents gather for family swimming and picnicking at Lorient and Marigot; tourists tend to congregate at Grand Cul de Sac, St. Jean and Flamands.

On one of your jaunts into Gustavia, wear a swimsuit under your clothes so you can experience a swim at Petite Galet, also known as shell beach (one look and you'll know how it got its name).

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about St. Barts in low season is the opportunity to live in your own condo or villa for about half the price of what it would cost in high-season, and for less than the cost of a hotel room.

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