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Vacation Rentals: Caribbean

Bargain St. Barts

Five friends share a villa and feel as rich as Rockefeller on a deluxe French isle

April 12, 1998|BETTY LOWRY | Lowry is a freelance writer based in Wayland, Mass

ST. BARTHELEMY, French West Indies — Our first morning on St. Barts, I woke to blue skies, a sweeping view of the sea and the sound of my friend, Julie, talking to a parrot. The parrot was sitting on the roof of the lanai, pointedly less interested in conversation than in the baguette in Julie's hand. Another friend, Mary-Alice, called to the parrot in French. He perked up but refused to reply. "These Frenchmen are all alike," Mary-Alice laughed.

It was my introduction to this tiny Caribbean island, French in nationality, language and attitude, and world-renowned for privacy and luxury. The shop-aholic in our group of housemates, Emily, said that the duty-free prices on St. Barts are possibly the best in the Caribbean, with designer clothes one-third less than Paris.

Our friend, Martha, had discovered this enclave of villas on her vacation the year before. After asking around, she found that one would be easily affordable in the off-season (mid-April to mid-December) if a group split the cost. Four of us, all acquainted through Martha, agreed. She negotiated with an agent for the owner, settling on a price of $2,450 for a week in November in a new, three-bedroom, fully furnished villa with swimming pool and access to tennis. That came to $70 per person per night. We also agreed to share the cost of renting a "car" (more on that later) and groceries for breakfast and the odd picnic lunch or dinner in. The asking price for Villa les Gaiacs a month later: $9,000. A fully staffed house with pool can cost more than $20,000. Yes, per week.

When Martha met the parrot that first morning, she regarded it as an omen. "The best things on St. Barts are free!" she cried.

We spent a lot of the week just driving around, admiring flower-filled lanes, comparing the merits of beaches and bays, taking lazy walks and vigorous hikes and basically storing up sensations against the approaching northern U.S. winter.

The 8-square-mile island has 25 miles of paved roads and 23 beaches, all public and free, though some are reachable only by boat. According to the Inter Oceans Museum in the village of Corossol, each has slightly different sand, white to gold, fine to coarse. One of the best snorkeling beaches, Anse de Chauvette, has green pebbles. At Petit Cul-de-Sac there are salt caves, and from there to Pointe a Toiny, tide pools. Camping is not allowed, but, this being a French territory, topless sunbathing is legal.

One of our "bargains" was the $25-a-day Mini-Moke we rented at the airport. The topless jitney was closer to a golf cart than a car. It could only hold four of us at a time, so it took two trips to get us and our bags to the villa from the airport, fortunately just 10 minutes away. Mary-Alice said she would rent her own motorbike but never got around to it. Maybe doing things in twos and threes rather than all five together contributed to our getting along.

Villa les Gaiacs, named for a blue-flowered tree, was on a steep hill above Petit Cul-de-Sac bay. The Mini-Moke had so little power that it needed a running start to negotiate the hill.

The island called Ouanalao by the Carib Indians was sighted and named (but never visited) by Christopher Columbus. It wasn't settled by Europeans until the 17th century, and was subsequently owned by the Knights of Malta, fought over by England and France, and in 1785 ceded by France to Sweden, whose King Gustaf III declared it a free port. After 93 unprofitable years, Sweden gave the island back.

Julie and I did the marketing, finding excellent wine and cheese from France--Saint-Julien and Camembert became poolside favorites--for far less than what we paid at home. And when we indulged in dining out, we found that Creole has invaded if not replaced classic French cookery, at least in the less expensive places.

*

St. Barts' reputation for pricey exclusivity is probably traceable to the parade of CEOs and celebrities that began with David Rockefeller in the 1950s. Moderately priced vacation packages sold in France keep cafe prices competitive and the less expensive hotels and guest houses filled year-round. A harbor too small for cruise ships but perfect for yachts has held drop-in visitors to an affluent minimum.

Water sports are very big, especially snorkeling, windsurfing and sailing. Deep-sea fishing is expensive, but we made a point of watching the boats come and go at dusk and considered it a certified event.

Night life is a bargain because it is particular rather than spectacular: jazz in the bistros, piano bars in the pricey hotels. One night, we lingered over wine in the lounge of the elegant hillside Ho^tel Carl Gustaf and crooned over the view of the Gustavia harbor below.

Gustavia, the colorful capital, has red iron roofs and many buildings of yellow and blue with white gingerbread trim reminiscent of Sweden. Designer boutiques and souvenir and craft shops line the narrow streets and front on the harbor.

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