St. Bart's: Tiny Caribbean jewel for food, fashion

ST. JEAN, St. Barthelemy - Wheels up at the island of St. Maarten and we skim across the waters of the French West Indies to St. Barthelemy - a tiny Caribbean jewel for Francophiles, foodies and fashionistas.

The island is a haven for the chic and the hip. Cutoffs rarely meet the dress code, unless they're designed as such and topped off by a fabulously sexy top - for men or women.

St. Barthelemy has a couple of pet names. Americans tend to say St. Bart's, while the Francophiles declare the nickname is St. Barth, though still prounonced "bart." The capital is Gustavia, a port town resembling a Mediterranean village with stucco buildings and colorful decor. The world's top designer boutiques, including Hermes and Roberto Cavalli, line the streets, along with a myriad of restaurants and cafes.

The second major community on this dot in the ocean is St. Jean, also a shopper's paradise with elegant hotels and inns on the beach and nestled in the mountains just above the commercial area. The language is French, the atmosphere refined and laid back and the currency is the euro on this island that's far more European than it is Caribbean. Typically, you fly to St. Bart's via nearby St. Maarten, the Dutch side of an island that's shared with the French St. Martin.

On the beach at St. Jean, topless is de rigueur, though not mandatory. No worries if you don't have the perfect magazine-cover figure; you see all ages and shapes enjoying the sun, pure white sand and turquoise sea, sans swimsuit top.

For guests of the world-class Eden Rock hotel, ice buckets with your beverage of choice (usually Perrier and Evian) along with a petite brochette of pineapple, blueberry, watermelon and cantaloupe, are brought to you in your personal lounge chair at midday by servers who could grace any modeling runway.

St. Bart's feels unassuming and unpretentious despite its wealth. Shoppers who shyly ask whether an item is made in China are sweetly told that such merchandise is not found on St. Bart's. Instead, the boutiques are filled with clothing and accessories that come mostly from France and Italy, though Portugal and Romania appear on labels from time to time.

In addition to the top designers, you'll find lesser known manufacturers that are still stylish in their lines and fabrics, including orange cobra and suede handbags by Claudio Merazzi, Loona Cantare cotton tank tops, Hartford Moroccan linen trousers and linen/cotton skirts by Interfashion SPA from Rimini, Italy. Even the beach towels are finished with a French jacquard design.

St. Bart's also has a cottage industry that produces fashion items that are trendy as well as practical for the island's uneven sidewalks. Flip-flops with bronze leather straps, decorated with turquoise, amber and gold stones have rubber soles. Belts meant to be slung low on a skirt come in deep brown leathers, decorated with tortoise shell and gold beads.

Accommodations include the boutique Hotel Le Village St. Jean, perched on the mountainside of the town. Just below and on the beach is the exquisite Eden Rock, with Bulgari amenities, high-tech Euro decor and imported linens.

Practically next door is the famous chain-brand Nikki Beach, whose trademark is a Euro rock lifestyle, where white outfits rule the day and the evening.

St. Bart's also is a great place to practice your French. Most people speak English as well, but prefer French and are delighted to help visitors struggle through their explanations en francais. Spanish also is spoken, but this really is a place for Francophiles in every sense of the word. Ethnic restaurants, whether Italian or Asian, have the distinctly French flair. You'll also find butcher shops with French cuts of meat, vegetable markets, pastry shops and grocery store shelves stocked with canned goods from France.

If you can tear yourself away from the beaches, the restaurants and the boutiques, take a stroll up some of the mountainous side streets. You'll see a goat here and there and hear roosters crowing throughout much of the day. A chartreuse parrot also might approach you for a chat. Just say, "Bonjour! Ca va?"

What you won't see is a sprawling golf course. Not one. There is, however, an equestrian center, and there are excursions you can take by boat.

Hotels offer packages that often include a car. With driving on the right and roads generally in good shape, tooling around St. Bart's is an uncomplicated diversion when you're shopped out and seeking new adventures. Grand hotels such as Le Toiny and Isle de France may be off the beaten path but are worth visiting.

By the time you arrive, you'll want to cool off in the hotel pools, have a snack and a graciously served cool drink. Just be sure to wear your new St. Bart's swimsuit with your new St. Bart's linen coverup.


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