April 20, 2020

St Barts: A Whirlwind Tour

We left Frigate Bay, St Kitts on March 12 for the 30 nm sail to St Barts. We rose and were underway before sunrise and had a fantastic sail in 15-20 knots of wind on the beam and 4-6 ft seas.

Saint Barthelemy, known as St Barths or St Barts (depending if you are French or English) is a small French-speaking island known for its white sand beaches, designer shops and high-end restaurants. St Barts has a reputation as a Caribbean playground for the rich and famous, but it's also a lively and colorful island with numerous historical and natural sights. While it's definitely a high-end destination, we found St Barts more charming and laid back than expected and would definitely recommend it as a destination.

Anse du Columbier

We arrived to Gustavia, St Barts' main port early in the afternoon and found the anchorage to be very crowded with boats and somewhat rolly, so we continued 2 nm north to Anse du Columbier, a well protected and secluded anchorage with free moorings available for a dozen or so boats.

Busy (and rolls) Gustavia harbor

Columbier bay originally belonged to the Rockefellers, who built a now-dilapidated home on a southern hill of the bay.


We didn't know it at the time, but we had only a few days to explore St Barts, before the mandatory Coronavirus closings, but we thankfully made the most of our time there.

On our first day in St Barts, we headed into Gustavia. There is no road access into town from where we moored Borealis in Columbier, so it was either a 3-mile hike or a long and wet 2-mile dinghy ride — we chose the later!

Gustavia is an incredibly charming Caribbean port town with its colorful flowers and red clay roofed homes and buildings. Sweden controlled the island for hundreds of years, until 1878 when it ceded the island back to France, and many of the island's homes and buildings still reflect Swedish architectural design.

Gustavia has a lovely waterfront and harbor area, and we enjoyed a nice (but hot) walk up to Fort Oscar, home now to the island's police force. From there it was an easy walk to the ruins of Fort Karl, which offers a lovely view of Gustavia harbor and nearby Shell Beach, one of only a few shell beaches in the world.

We also visited several of St. Barts’ historic buildings dating from the late 1700s, including the Catholic church, the Swedish Clock Tower, and the red topped Fort Gustav lighthouse, which is undergoing renovation.

Of course we had to do some window shopping at the luxury clothing boutiques and jewelry stores along the main street. No purchases though since we are on a cruisers budget!

We couldn't visit St Barts without dining at Le Select, the hamburger joint that inspired Jimmy Buffet's famous "Cheeseburger in Paradise" song. The restaurant-bar was St Barts' first back in the 1960s and is a popular lunch spot for locals and tourists alike since the food is delicious and affordable.

After a full day of sightseeing Gustavia, the following day, March 14, we decided to stay closer to Columbier. There is no road access to the beach from town, but there are several mile-long trails over the hills, so we headed for the high trail and some panoramic views of the nearby bays and uninhabited islands; we saw cactus, numerous goats and tortoises along the trail.

After a hot hike back to the boat, we headed straight into the water for a swim and snorkel. Because of the moorings in the bay and limited anchoring, there are very healthy grass beds all around and we saw so many turtles feeding and swimming in the bay, as well as some rays and smaller reef fish. (Despite their similar appearance, we promise these are different turtles!)

The following day, we followed the lower trail from the beach and up into the ridge line to Anse des Flamandes beach.

Coronavirus hits the Caribbean

On March 16, we headed back in to Gustavia; because of some larger swell, we opted to walk the 3 miles into town rather than dinghy around. We'd hoped to rent a scooter for the day to explore the rest of the island, but when we arrived into town we found every business and restaurant closed. The afternoon before, on March 15, France announced a mandatory lockdown, which included all overseas islands. Coronavirus had hit the Caribbean!

With nothing open, not even the grocery store, we headed to the port captain's office, where we heard that island borders could be closing as early as the following day.

With so much unknown about Coronavirus and fears of being quarantined to an island, we decided to immediately check out of

St Barts; our plan was to rise before dawn the following morning to sail 25 nm north to St Martin, which would give us access to more resources and anchorage options if we were "stuck" longterm on an island.

We had hoped to take a taxi back to the boat, but with all business shuttered, it was a long, hot 3-mile trek back to the boat feeling anxious and worried about the virus and arriving to St Martin the next day and finding the border closed to us (in which case, we'd have to sail overnight to the closest US territory — the US Virgin Islands).

St Martin or bust

While our time in St Barts was cut short, and we weren't fully able to explore and enjoy it, we are very glad we had the opportunity to visit and really hope we can someday return to the island.

The following day, March 17, we crossed all our fingers and toes and headed for St Martin before first light.

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