Fine villas in ice cream colors dot the hillsides around the capital of Gustavia, where boutiques sell Chanel, Hermes, Versace, Gucci, Bvlgari and other designer labels, and multi-million dollar yachts are moored in the marina. Also of interest to cruise passengers are great restaurants serving French cuisine and more than a dozen white sand beaches--visitors may encounter topless sunbathing as is common in the French Riviera.
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A popular tour sold on board ships circumnavigates the island and makes a stop at a cove for a swim. The tour employs RIB speedboat (similar to the vessels used by the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue sailors in distress) with room for about 11 participants. Tour guides point out the villas of the rich and famous who have bought property on St. Bart's, including those of David Letterman and Rudolph Nureyev as well as the villas and hideaways of others who visit frequently including Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Madonna. The tour zips participants from one gorgeous cove to another --some with the rocky cliff formations or "calanques" also found in the south of France that reminds travelers of such places as Marseilles, St. Tropez and Cassis. In St. Jean Bay, the boat lingers with the sight of Eden Rock Hotel in one corner and St. Bart's legendary airport, with its beach-towel-sized runway that ends in the ocean, in another, and participants often see airplanes taking off directly over sunbathers on the beach, and their boat.
The whole circumnavigation of the island takes about an hour and participants stand --there are no seats in this type of boat as the speeds it can attain can be too jarring (up to 48 knots, making for a sometimes bumpy ride when the boat hits waves). When we left the Caribbean side and got to the rougher Atlantic side of St. Barts, we understood. Towards the end of the excursion, the boat stops in a cove and participants jump right in for a swim.
Good beaches for swimming and snorkeling include Marigot Beach on the north shore. Another good spot for snorkeling and diving is Les Gros Ilets, two rocky formations guarding the entrance to Gustavia, where turtles, squids, sponges in many colors and other marine life are usually visible.
Partaking of local flavors is a must in St. Bart's. Lunch or dinner --if your ship stays in port long enough --is a pleasure at one of the island's restaurants serving gourmet French fare. Among these is La Plage offering French dishes and seafood in St.-Jean, and Wall House serving French and Creole cuisine in the La Pointe area of Gustavia. A picnic on a beach with supplies from one of the local delis is a good, less expensive option and delightful with a bottle of French wine and perhaps paté or cheese on a baguette. Among the delis is La Rotisserie on Oskar II, convenient to the harbor in Gustavia.
Cruise lines that call on Gustavia include Azamara, Crystal, Holland America, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea and Windstar. IF YOU GO --For additional information on Gustavia and St. Barts, visit gotostbarths.com