GUSTAVIA, ST. BARTS - Merde! The French expletive jumps out of this Montrealer’s mouth when the snooty shopkeeper on Rue du Bord de Mer looks down his pointy nose and tells me in a smug Parisian accent that “we only accept euros here,” while I (and everyone else on our cruise ship) only have American dollars to spend.
Merde! I mutter it again when cars parked on the sidewalk of this south-of-France-wannabe obstruct my walk around the U-shaped harbour where million-dollar yachts are anchored.
A man in front of me shouts “merde” when he steps in a pile of dog poo (that would be the word, actually) which litters most streets of this “trendy” French West Indies outpost.
Merde! I repeat it once more (mentally) as I look at the menu in the harbour-side bistro and see that an appetizer costs 12 euros (about $18 Cdn).
Quickly I determine that Gustavia, St. Barts’ capital, is not my kind of place and I head back to the cruise ship that delivered me here just a few hours earlier.
When I reach the pier, many of my fellow passengers are there waiting for the tender to arrive. They, too, have had enough and are retreating to the ship that won’t sail for another 12 hours.
We’ve been greeted by warm smiles everywhere we’ve landed in the Virgin Islands. But not here. In St. Barts, tourists seem to be an irritant. The residents show their disdain every chance they get, from seemingly trying to run you down on the traffic-clogged streets to refusing to answer questions about directions.
From the distant deck of our approaching cruise ship, St. Barts seemed a charming mix of pastel-painted homes and million-dollar mansions clinging to the sides of dramatic hills.
Snotty St. Barts is the playground of the rich and famous. In high season, French politicians, actors and sports stars can be seen walking the downtown area, darting in and out of the high-end designer stores that dominate the main streets.
Left: Homes cling to cliffs. Middle: Hilly streets require stamina. Right: Posh Paris-style cafes line the harbour.
The island (officially called Saint Barthélemy) was once a Swedish colony but came under French rule in the 1870s. Only a few reminders of its colonial past remain, since most of Gustavia was destroyed in a huge 1850s fire.
The charming Dinzdy House on Rue Jeanne D’Arc, which the Swedes built when they were in control, is one of the few original buildings left standing.
The most visible structure in town is the imposing Carl Gustaf Hotel. Its luxury bungalows, each of which come with a private pool, hug the hillside above town and can clearly be seen from passing cruise ships.
The City Hall and Clock Tower are other examples of early Swedish-style architecture and the old warehouses along Le Pointe, which once stored spices en route to France, have all been converted into chic shops and restaurants.
The tiny Musee Municipal showcases a collection of old photographs which gives you an insight of what the town looked like when it was a working port. It also displays a nice arrangement of watercolours by local artists.
St-Jean, where the airport is located, has the most popular beach on the island, but it’s right on the airport’s flight path and swimmers can almost touch the underbellies of passing planes. St. Barts has 14 pristine beaches in all, most protected from ocean currents by a coral reef.
Unlike neighbouring Caribbean islands like St. Kitts, St. Barts was never suited for growing sugar or cotton and became known under Swedish rule as a “neutral” port where warring colonial factions could resupply their ships.
Because streets here are so steep, most residents own a car, which means the narrow roads are clogged with traffic most days. But that doesn’t stop visitors from renting small odd-looking cars and ATVs to tour back roads.
Other well-known places on St. Barts are Lorient, the first French colony whose cemetery is noted for its historic grave markers, and Corossol, a small fishing village which is known throughout the Caribbean for its fine straw hats.
Back on board out ship, a loud cheer goes up when the tour director announces we are about to set sail.
There’s no doubt St. Barts has left a bad taste with all of us.