Last semester when we went to Anguilla to celebrate Arif’s birthday, Arif, Chris, and I made a pact. On each of our birthdays, we would spend it on a different island surrounding St. Maarten. We see the islands everyday when we walk to and from campus. But what is it like being there? And what better way it is to explore as a kick start to a new birth year? Last weekend it was my turn. On March 21, I turned 26, and Arif, Chris, JP, and I hopped on a high speed ferry to sail over to the neighboring French island of St. Barthelemy for a day of exploration, beaching, and sightseeing.
A little about St. Barths… a French overseas collectivity with a population of around 8000 and a land area smaller than St. Maarten, it is one of the few places in the Americas (and in the world) that was once colonized by Sweden for a significant amount of time. Hence, there are still many traces of Swedish culture in the buildings, flag, and place names like the capital of St. Barths, Gustavia, named after King Gustave of Sweden. Today, as a French territory, it is known to be a favorite place to retreat among the rich and famous, and given how hard it was for us to get there, I can understand why they’d choose St. Barths as a haven away from the crowds.
The 40 minute high speed ferry ride to Gustavia was bumpy, but the nice wind and warm sun more than made up for it. As we approached St. Barths, we could see St. Maarten getting smaller and smaller in the distance, yet still dominating the horizon. I realized how comparatively large St. Maarten was. We passed small, barren islets and approached the harbor of St. Barths. The first thing I noticed were how many luxury yachts and sailboats there were in the harbor. The island was very mountainous, jagged, and very lush with greenery. In the capital of Gustavia, I noticed that there were no large buildings or high rise hotels. All the buildings were small, traditional, and topped with red roofs. The streets were immaculately clean. Protected by steep mountain, and I felt like I had sailed into a secluded pastoral village in France.
After going through customs and stepping onto the streets of Gustavia, I suddenly became quite surprised at how different St. Barths is compared to St. Maarten, given how close they are geographically. Unlike St. Maarten which has Burger King, Subway, and American tourists everywhere, in St. Barths, most of the stores are privately-owned boutiques, and all the signs were in French. Also unlike St. Maarten, the Euro is the preferred currency and the store owners greeted us in French. I was also quite surprised to find that most of the people who live in St. Barths are of European descent, rather than African or Indian like St. Maarten. As none of us were competent in French (not even Arif, the token Canadian in our group), we ran into some funny misunderstandings a few times because of language barriers. But with a “bon jour” and “merci” here and there with big smiles, we managed to get by.
We rented a car for the day. We had about seven hours before we had to get back to the ferry. Without having a set plan on where to go, we set out immediately. “Why carry a map when we can explore ourselves?” I thought. As we passed windy roads through mountains shaded by flowering trees of all colors, something caught my eye. “Oh my goodness, we’ve got to stop here!” I said in excitement. We were at St. Jean Beach, perhaps the most famous beach on the island, and anyone can understand why. In a bay, the water was calm, with virtually no waves. The water was clear and blue, and there was a steady decline into the ocean. The scenery was unbeatable, and the few restaurants and stores that were around were elegant and chic. After we got into the water, it was hard leaving it.
Reluctantly, we finally left the water. It was time for lunch. After walking around to find an affordable place to eat, we finally settled at a small bakery selling paninis and salads. It was the least expensive restaurant in the area we could find, yet most of our meals still ended up costing over $20. The other restaurants would have easily charged $40 or $50 for an entree. “St. Barths certainly draws in a select crowd,” one local chatted with Arif and I, and we completely understood what he meant, seeing Bvlgari stores and $30 appetizers on menus. It made me wonder where we fit in, being students living off a limited budget of government loans. I am usually one to save money and bring sac lunches if I had known earlier I was about to spend $27 on a Ceviche and assorted salad plate for lunch. Although I was not so big of a fan of the expenses of St. Barths, the free luxurious beaches and dramatic landscape made the trip worthwhile.
If God accidentally dropped a rock in the sea and forgot to pick it up, that rock would be St. Barths. The island literally juts straight out of the waters, without much of a transition, and because of this, there is hardly anywhere on the island that is flat. The mountains are jagged, and many of St. Barth’s villages perch on top of the mountains, hanging over steep slopes overlooking the vast seas. Everywhere we drove was a Cezanne painting. The roads were narrow and windy, flanking the edge of cliffs most of the way. The drive was indeed very breathtaking and the picture was quite different from that of St. Maarten.
In the evening, we drove back to Gustavia where we climbed to the top of historic Fort Carl, or at least what was left of it. As I looked out over the yachts in Gustavia harbor, I wondered to myself why an island so close to St. Maarten can be so different? I was in a land where my speech is not as understood, where my money isn’t worth as much, and where the commercialized life I am familiar with is tossed out the door. It is a different culture, albeit a charming one, and it is only 40 minutes away. After we sailed back to St. Maarten and drove through the modern, seemingly characterless buildings of Philipsburg on the wide, straight, flat roads, for the first time I felt the sense that I had come home, to St. Maarten, to a place that I am so familiar with.