St Bart’s for Le shopping and turtles

St Bart’s has a certain prestige that seems to incite a reaction all around the Caribbean. When we told an Antiguan lady that we had just been to St Bart’s a dreamy look came over her face. “Oh St Bart’s! You’re lucky. I’d love to go there and shop, shop, shop one day,” she said. Then she added “One day when I marry a rich guy”. We had heard that St Bart’s is the home of designer shops and that it was the place to buy a Cartier watch or a Hermes handbag (if Hermes do handbags, I’m not sure of my facts here). It sounded scarily glamorous for a couple of salty old live aboards like us. I was told that after hurricane Irma, St Bart’s even refused the offer of any financial aid from France, informing them that they were wealthy enough to repair their own island, thank you very much. I knew that the French super-rich holiday there and that Johnny Hallyday (the recently deceased French crooner who is as famous as Elvis in France) is buried there. When we left Saint Martin I texted Sally to say “Off to Saint Bart’s. We’ll have to dig out our clean shorts”. When we subsequently changed our plans and went to Saba instead, Sally received the news from the app, Marine Traffic and sent me a reply. “I see you didn’t make it to St Bart’s. Couldn’t you find any clean shorts, then?” Cheeky!

So our expectations were both high and low. On the downside we had been told that you have to pay a daily fee to anchor outside of Gustavia (and you can’t simply lie, as a patrol boat goes around and notes down the names of all boats anchored there). It is a bit annoying to have to pay as this is usually an incredibly rolly anchorage. On the plus side, we had been promised that the anchorage at Colombier bay to the north of the island is superb for swimming with turtles (thank you, Gina). This was true. Prepare for more photos of turtles.

What we hadn’t expected was the extremely friendly welcome from the Capitainerie and the wild feel of the island once we left for Colombier bay. Although you do have to pay to anchor outside Gustavia, checking in and out is free, which compensates. There is the usual French computer system which you can do online in advance (don’t worry too much about arcane extra questions about things like “customs number” or “year of previous registration”, just make something up). Because I had pre-filled the online check in form, it was the quickest process in the whole Caribbean. Sign this paper, welcome to Saint Barth’s. Three minutes and we were done (if you don’t count the chat about pirates in Trinidad). And disappointingly for me (as I like to feel useful) all the Capitainerie staff were perfectly bilingual.

If Guadeloupe feels French, St Bart’s feels like a bit of the Champs Elysées has been beamed down into the Caribbean. Yes, there are designer shops but there are also affordable bars and a decent supermarket with fresh food that was not bonkers expensive. No Hermes handbag for me. Give me yogurt and cans of choucroute instead. And there are actual pavements to walk up and down. In fact, you can stroll along and look around you at the smart shops without risking stepping into a knee deep pothole. That’s fancy!

Not a shop for you, Simon

But Saint Bart’s is not snooty. We love a supermarket on a dinghy dock, especially one that sells yogurt (had I mentioned the yogurt) and French bread and what’s more, fresh yogurt. Some of it cherry flavoured. Simon needs litres of cherry flavoured yogurt per day. He gets up in the night and has to inject it intravenously. So off we zipped in our trusty shabby (that’s the name of our dinghy) to stock up. Having put over 300 Euros worth of shopping through the tills and into our cool bags (some of it not cherry flavoured yogurt) we discovered that we had left Simon’s wallet in the boat (and by we, I mean Simon). How embarassing. However, the friendly lady at the cash desk offered to let us take it all anyway and come back and pay her later! You can’t get away with that for a packet of crisps in the UK! There are three kinds of people in Gustavia; well heeled locals, well heeled tourists and those strange people who live on boats and move around. Sea vagrants with waterproof bags and sandals that have almost disintegrated. They can’t get away very fast, as they live on those floating contraptions with small engines and sails. It was pretty obvious which category we belonged to!

Well done Simon. This is more your sort of thing.

So one myth dispelled. Saint Bart’s is not expensive (unless you marry the aforementioned lady from Antigua). And it does have amazing, clean buildings that can rival Saba for their eerily pristine condition but being French, there is a bench beloved of the local winos right on the front walkway where you can sit, watch the sunset and drink Merlot out of the bottle (or in my case, scoff salt and vinegar pringles out of the tube).

View of the fort from Merlot drinking platform

Out of the city and down to the sea-side

We stayed and rubbed shoulders with the hoi poloi until Simon remarked that I was using the term “hoi poloi” a lot, maybe too much. Time to move on, then! All of one hour’s motor-sail around the corner to another world. Such is the charm of the sea vagrant’s life. Have yogurt, will travel…

Another crowded bay

What I looked like in Colombier bay for three days (and Simon for an hour or so)

Colombiers bay was the perfect place for the Skipper to have a cold. His first Caribbean cold with runny nose and sniffles. He initially felt very down in the dumps about this, as it seems wrong to have a cold in the tropics. We then worked out that he hadn’t had one for over a year, which was a record. After a while, he decided it was the perfect place to have a cold, as it was the one place where he didn’t need to worry about me nagging him to dinghy me to a beach so that I could go off walking in search of a local bus that would mean I could get to a nice hike up a  hill, visit a fort (because let’s face it, they are all ever so slightly different) or get to some ridiculous parrot museum or whatever that I’d read about in that pesky Doyles’ guide book. I was happy as Larry snorkeling around all day long.

A turtle swimming away

A turtle looking happy to see me again

Colombiers bay is a marine reserve with free (yes, free!) mooring buoys. We were there in low season but even so, the bay filled up on Sunday with visiting catamarans and motor boats. It is turtletastic (sorry). You can see turtles all around doing their turtle thing, which is generally eating turtle grass and occasionally swimming away from snorkelers. Of course they are used to the swimming monkeys that they have to share a marine reserve with and don’t shoot off quickly. However, they do seem to surface quite often when stalked and I later read that they do this when stressed. After three days I finally stopped hounding them like an aquatic News of the World paparazzi photographer. I have plenty of nice pictures of turtles now. I have also improved my duck diving.

The turtle spotting here is only part of the fun for a keen snorkeler. I saw stingrays galore! Whole troops of them, up to eight in a group, hoovering up the sea bed in formation.

Mother and daughter stingrays (maybe)

An impressive but unidentified fish that I saw was a small, very timid kind of shark which took shelter under a passing turtle to hide from me. I was a little disappointed to find out, on doing a spot of googling, that it is possibly a dog fish, which doesn’t sound as impressive as a dolphin shark (the working name I had given to it). Still, a member of the shark family (as are rays, apparently) and the most cowardly shark you could ever wish to see. So a good beginner’s shark, I would say.

The dog fish or dolphin shark (as I like to call him)

A very exciting moment for me… a scrawled cowfish! yay!

My name for this fish may be due to dolphin envy, as my friend Gina on arriving in the BVIs sent me some fabulous pics of a mother and baby dolphin which had come swimming right up to her as she was swimming off her boat. I was very happy for her and very, very jealous. But now I have been swimming with a dolphin shark (dogfish) and how many people can say that, eh?

As a recent snorkeling geek, I was not only excited by the lovely, big fish like rays and dolphin sharks (dogfish) and the beautiful turtles, but got really, really excited to see things like a Nassau Grouper and (wait for it…) a scrawled cow fish followed by a scrawled trunk fish!  Two scrawled fish in one day! The excitement was all going to my head and also my feet were starting to look a strange colour from not having dried out for three days, so it is probably a good thing that Simon felt recovered and took me ashore for a walk on dry land.

Could this be a selfie, possibly?

The bay had a surprisingly wild and unkempt side with a little pathway up the hillside which leads to the village and gives great views over the bay and Saint Martin. Going for a walk in the Caribbean usually means going for a walk up a hill, so it was a good thing that Simon had got some of his strength back. This was the first time that we saw any signs of hurricane damage here. There is a whole peninsula which is cordoned off and an intriguing, seemingly abandoned property lies empty. We found a complete boat keel rusting away on the beach. The rest of the boat can’t have fared well.  Another little reminder if ever we needed one, that we will soon have to check the NOAH website for hurricane updates every day with our morning coffee! 

Staying in Saint Barth’s in low season has its upsides. As our water maker was playing up (again) we filled up with water on the quayside just outside the Capitainerie and were allowed to go alongside. This was such a bargain way to have a step ashore pontoon in the heart of Gustavia  (we only paid for the water) that we decided to repeat the experience when we returned to check out. We had only used three day’s worth of water, but we were happy to get more and it was so much more convenient than anchoring up and dinghying in. What’s more, the staff were so relaxed that we even got the chance to have a final stroll along the town and enjoy an overpriced cappuccino in the smart café where French celebrities that we didn’t recognise were possibly hanging out, who knows? And of course, this was a great opportunity to stock up on more cherry yogurt. 

This wheeze is probably impossible in high season when the town must be absolutely buzzing with super yachts. However, in low season the town is friendly and relaxed. I was sad to leave the turtles and the dolphin sharks but the rainy season (also known as the hurricane season) was definitely upon us and we had to start sailing south. We will feel more relaxed when we get to the islands that don’t have so many wrecked bits of boat sticking out of the water or washed up on beaches!

Filling up the tank very slowly in the heart of Gustavia

Good bye Saint Barth’s and thank you for your warm welcome.  Au revoir Saint Barth et merci pour l’acceuil chaleureux. We know where to come if we need to buy a designer watch or if I run out of turtle photos for screen savers!