The morning view from our villa, overlooking Lorient beach

How to Hack St Barths:

A Budget Guide to Vacationing Like A Billionaire

You don’t need a yacht or a private chef to chill out in high style


All I’d ever heard about St Barths gave me the impression of a Caribbean island ringed with a velvet rope: An enclave for yachting billionaires, partying heirs and heiresses, and Russian gangsters, with tabloid newspapers and gossip blogs reporting every celebrity suntan and mogul make-out.

Little did I suspect what the place had to offer those flying commercial, and vacationing on a budget.

St Barths combines French sophistication with tropical nonchalance. Physically unspoiled, the butterfly-shaped island boasts stunning volcanic peaks surrounded by lush flora, giving way to white powdery beaches. The land harbors abundant wildlife—turtles, songbirds, butterflies, lizards—and the brilliant turquoise waters offer excellent snorkeling and scuba diving, surfing and kite boarding. There are no hotel chains, timeshares, casinos, golf courses, or cruise ships packing tenders of tourists into the port.

The island brims with world-class hotels and restaurants, yet doesn’t feel overdeveloped. And the quality and service expected from the high-end establishments extends beyond their gates: even the simplest shops are impeccably clean and friendly. More importantly, there’s very little poverty—unlike other Caribbean islands, where the shantytowns are often tucked away from the tourist trail.


BACKSTORY

Several years ago, my best friends and I moved out of New York City — I headed to L.A., they moved to New England with a baby on the way. Vowing not to grow apart, we began a tradition of escaping to a warm climate every winter. Our criteria are basically the following:

  • surf-able waves and calm swimming waters
  • good, fresh food
  • not more than seven hours away
  • affordable (no hotels or fancy restaurants; we mostly cook for ourselves)

This year, when my friends proposed St. Barths, I laughed out loud. I pictured cabana boys handing out iced towels on the beach to hedge funders. No, thanks!

But my friends claimed an insider connection—a neighbor who captains a sailboat for a one percent-er and docks in the island for the winter. He promised it was within our budget and guaranteed us good surf, not to mention epic croissants. Before I could protest further, we’d found a 10-day villa rental — three bedrooms with a pool for $2,400. (Tip: Look for a villa offered by the owner rather than a broker, and you will find options for two to three times less than the marked-up properties.)

So we booked our tickets. It’s not the easiest place to get to—in the French West Indies, about 150 miles east of Puerto Rico. Direct flights to St. Maarten are plentiful, but we had to weigh our options for the final leg of the trip: 10 minutes in a tiny plane (Winair or St Barth Commuter, $132 round trip) or a 45-minute ferry for roughly the same price. We decided to fly, which turned out to be just as gut-wrenching as the boat may have been. The tiny airport, with a short field strip wedged between the base of a slope and a beach, makes landing feel like a nosedive onto a slip of concrete.

Flying over St Barts, Columbier beach below

Surviving that landing nearly took the edge off the fact that my baggage had been delayed in Miami—excruciating, since I was sweating through my jeans and dying to dive into the Caribbean. But the rep was sympathetic and friendly, assuring me that bags are often lost en route to St Maarten. He took my phone number and promised to call me when it arrived. As I was leaving, he smiled and added that, if the airline failed to produce my bag within 24 hours, I would be authorized to shop for what I needed and expense it to the airline. More on that later…

We picked up our rental car (absolutely essential — the second most expensive part of our trip after the villa rental) and followed vague directions (“after two cemeteries, make a right and go to the top of the hill”) to find our villa in Lorient, on the north shore beyond St. Jean. Incidentally, there were no keys to the place, since the island is known for being incredibly safe. We had no choice but to swallow our skepticism and leave the house unlocked.

FOOD

We were in the land of private chefs, but we planned on cooking together at home. This worked out beautifully, thanks to the vast assortment of high quality, fresh produce, including French staples and incredible bread. One of the best baguettes we bought came from the SUPERETTE DE L’AEROPORT — a congested supermarket steps away from the airport, with all the ambiance of a NJ Stop and Shop but a cheese counter and wine selection that could have passed muster in Paris.

Some other food shopping essentials:

Le Boucherie (St Jean): Great for organic meats; they sometimes have a chicken & ribs roast in the parking lot.

Ti Marche (Lorient, open Friday — Monday): No-frills produce stand with exquisite fruits and vegetables from nearby Guadelupe. At the juice bar in back, a fresh watermelon juice was 4.50 Euros, half the price of the same thing from Tom’s Juice Bar in St Jean.

La Petite Colombe (Lorient, no sign): Excellent Boulangerie-Patisserie with the most exquisite croissants and strong, delicious cappuccinos, which immediately became my daily habit. This was also our go-to stop for picking up lunch — a 12” sandwich made on fresh baked bread, smothered in brie, pesto, lettuce and tomato, and a giant goat-cheese vegetable salad (10 Euros). Cheaper and fresher than any sandwich spot in NYC, I dare say.

The strawberry grouper we bought from the fisherman was so colorful and gorgeous, I had to make a painting of it…

For the freshest fish, see the fisherman across the street from the Lorient cemetery, as you head out of town towards Marigot. Go early in the morning for the daily catch.

Natural Delights (Rue Oscar II, Gustavia): A must for the best gelato on the island—or, if you’re craving some serious French junk food, a banana nutella crepe. Great espresso too.

Jojo’s (Lorient): A casual burger joint with a surf vibe — the latest surf videos are always running on the screens. This is a great place to grab dinner on Friday night before the weekly outdoor movie screening in the schoolyard next door, packed with local families. Go early—the movie line runs around the block.

Jojos, in Lorient

SHOPPING

Twenty four hours after landing, the man from the airport called to tell me my bag had not shown up yet, basically giving me permission to splurge on new beachwear. Struggling to contain my excitement, I headed to St Jean, which is sprinkled with beachy boutiques servicing the island’s very specific, haute gypsy dress code — part Positano chic (jewel-crusted sandals & coverups), part California beach bum (relaxed, but no cut-offs).

The coolest assortment of bikinis were at KIWI ($70–150) — unique cuts and prints for adults and kids. I wanted everything in this store, from the espadrilles to the towels.

A lot of the shops in Gustavia, the capital, are the same as what you’d find in the duty-free mall: Cartier, Bulgari, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, but the little streets behind the main road are full of one-off boutiques, all of which seemed to be having incredible sales.

My favorite was Popie (Passage de la Crémaillère, Gustavia), which was full of cotton bikinis and dresses handmade by the namesake owner, a Bordeaux native who spends winter on the island. I picked up a gorgeous wrap skirt made of Liberty Fabric designed by William Morris, and my friend bought matching bikinis for herself and her daughter. We all received an invitation from Popie herself to join her family in Bordeaux this summer.

Popie’s shop. I wanted to buy everything here: the dresses, bikinis, sandals and jewelry.

Once I was all bikini-ed up, I headed to the pharmacie — a decadent oasis of European hair and skincare products, free from the hazardous chemicals found in their American-made equivalents. I picked up my favorites: La Roche-Posay Anthelios sunblock and Caudalie shampoo and conditioner .

Colombier, exquisite and off the beaten path

BEACHES

While the beach at St Jean—the only beach where we found a crowd—offers beds and cocktails on the sand, we were in search of a quieter scene. (All the island’s beaches, by the way, are public and free.)

Our favorite beach day was at Anse du Grand Columbier, accessible only by boat or on foot. Park at Petite Anse and walk along the volcanic cliff path, where you might encounter a goat while watching pelicans nosedive into the sea.

Along the hike to Columbier

There are no amenities here, but the spectacular hidden beach is worth toting your own snacks for a perfect afternoon. It was here that I first laid my eyes on Sea Bobs—a mutant jet ski / electric underwater scooter that looks more like a personal torpedo. The group of tourists trying these out looked ridiculous yet I was slightly jealous and wished I had one. You can set up your excursion via Seabob St Barth.

When there’s a swell, Toiny is the spot for surfing. St Barths may not be known for world-class waves, but that has its upside: The water isn’t crowded, and the surfers don’t get territorial.

My friend managed to borrow a board from someone for a day (surfboards are not allowed on flights into the island) and while he was out shredding, a local photographer shot photos of him. This led to a meeting with the island’s board shaper, who kindly rented him one of his own boards for the week for € 10. Seriously friendly vibes here.

18th century windy houses at Toiny, the oldest structures on the island, once housed lepers and now are solar powered bathrooms

If you’re not a surfer, there is a spectacular hike around the point with views of the Atlantic and Petite Anse.

At the top of the point at Toiny.

Gouverneur, on the south side of the island, is a magnificent stretch of beach that’s great for swimming. This was the only place I spotted Hermès beach bags and Marc Jacobs swim trunks.

Gouverneur Beach

Shell beach is the perfect place to watch the sunset, with a disco soundtrack courtesy of Do Brazil, a club/restaurant that is jamming at dusk with couples and families.

Limpets galore at Shell Beach

Oddly, this is the only beach on the island where there are any shells…

We either began or ended every day at Lorient as it was steps away from our house and hands-down our favorite spot. Past the colorful cemetery, follow the path to a shaded beach with calm waters for swimming and a reef for snorkeling, popular with local families. At the far end is an occasional surf break — often packed with school kids early in the morning.

The beautiful cemetery leading to Lorient. Each beach in St Barths is decorated with a unique ceramic tile sign by local artist Veronique Vander Noot. Each sign portrays the view from the beach and a defining element of each location.
Shaded hammocks by the beach at Lorient

Bottom line: As much as this place may boast bold-face visitors and high-end services, you do not have to be a VIP to have a good time at St Barths. I managed to rest, catch up with my dear friends, soak up some European style, surf, swim, eat lots of amazing fresh bread — and, OK, perhaps feel just a little bit fabulous.

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