Cruise Ports on Your Own: “Doing” Gustavia, St. Barth’s

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Lovely Gustavia

St. Barth’s – the very name conjures up pictures of powdery white sand beaches with photogenic celebrities cavorting in the surf, evenings at chi-chi cocktail bars and designer boutiques with that French je ne sais quoi. And so it is. But we’ve been to St. Barth’s twice now and have never once laid eyes on a single celebrity – major or minor. Gustavia is, however, a charming Caribbean cruise port that is worth exploring on your own.

 

The first time we set foot on the tiny island was a few years ago when we took our first Silversea cruise. St. Barth’s isn’t a regular cruise ship destination because it does not have any cruise ship dock or dockside facilities and it isn’t the kind of place that caters to the mega-ship passenger. You’ll find no trace of Señor Frog’s, Margaritaville or rafts of duty-free shops lining sweaty streets. Instead, you tender ashore to a tidy, sleepy well-heeled French town filled with the likes of Dior, Chanel and even a Longchamp Paris outpost. It’s lovely.

During that first visit, we had organized a car and driver to give us a tour of the island (which was, by the way ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus in 1493) and drop us at Le Gaiac, the restaurant at the exclusive resort Le Toiny, a Relais and Chateaux property on the private, not-yet-developed southeastern coast of the island. It was a lovly, relaxing lunch. [Evidently the restaurant has been completely refurbished and is now referred to simply as Le Toiny Restaurant.]

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Beautiful vistas in St. Barth’s

 

For anyone who wants to see the island (which doesn’t take long since it’s only 25 square kilometres, not quite 10 square miles, in size) hiring a taxi at the pier would work just as well – and at considerably less expense than we spent arranging in advance. But on our recent visit this year, we decided to spend the time in little Gustavia.

Patty did have a goal in mind: when offered the opportunity to visit a French town or city, she makes her way to the nearest Pharmacie to discover the latest stash of French, drug-store skin-care products. She wasn’t disappointed. Even in this tiny French outpost, the Pharmacie was filled to brimming with the likes of LaRoche Posay, Embryolisse, Caudalie, Vichy and Nuxe to name a few.

We took a walk along the pretty, tree-lined streets around the edge of the tiny harbour where the lines of yachts bobbed in the gentle waves. We did a bit of window-shopping at Cartier, Eres, Chopard, Roberto Cavalli and Longchamp to name just a few of the shops we passed and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the French-imbued surroundings.

If you have two-and-a-half minutes, join us on our walk through Gustavia.

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So many beaches, so little time: The travel dreams of many

The deserted beach ringing the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda just coming into view as we approach from Antigua via fast ferry.
The deserted beach ringing the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda just coming into view as we approach from Antigua via fast ferry.

What is it about beaches?  When we want to conjure relaxing thoughts, we often find our minds wandering to the sounds of the waves rolling in and out, the wind, the seagulls.  There’s just something about them, and this world is full of extraordinary swaths of sand that beckon travelers.  Our recent return from the South Pacific and Australia with the plethora of beaches inspired us to pause and consider beaches we’ve walked – because, make no mistake about it , we prefer to walk a beach rather than lie on one – and beaches we’ll walk in the future.

Our most recent beach experience was Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia, the subject of our most recent video.  An urban beach, it really does go for miles and the boardwalk is a magnificent way to see it in its entirety.  And Manly did remind us a bit of Waikiki, which for all it has to recommend it, is not one of our very favorites.  So, we started to think, what were our favorite beaches?

Barbuda
Barbuda

A few years back we spent some time at the St. James’s Club, a wonderful resort in Antigua.  With its crescent-shaped beach within a lagoon, it offered many of the beach-side amenities everyone craves.  However, it wasn’t especially long, had little wave action and was bordered by the resort.  That trip, however, did take us to a beach that holds some our best beach memories.  We decided to take a trip to Barbuda.

We embarked the fast ferry, known to us now as “the vomit comet” (we were thankfully among the few who did not…well, you know) that beached itself along the deserted shores of the tiny island of Barbuda.  Although there are a couple of small, low-rise hotels along the beach, for the most part it was completely deserted.  We walked for kilometers in the sun listening to the sea roll in and out.  It was heaven.  Even now, years later, as we think about that day at the beach, we relax and breathe deeply.

Another of our favorites is the beach along the Condado in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Stretching for several kilometers along the high-end neighborhood of the Condado, it is long, wide and sparsely populated – or at least it has been on the several occasions we visited San Juan.  Despite the hotels along this beach being a drive from Old San Juan, their proximity to this beach (just walk out the back door) makes them our choice when visiting Puerto Rico.

The beach in Philipsburg, St. Martin
The beach in Philipsburg, St. Martin

Two other beaches that are among our favorites are on that list for a different reason.  Rather than a day-long beach walk, they both offer interesting perspectives.

The beach at the Crane Resort on Barbados is often listed among the best in the world.  Well, that is clearly a subjective assessment, but it is beautiful and its location on the wild Atlantic side of the island does make its roaring waves mesmerizing.  Add onto this the fact that you reach it via either a steep staircase or the elevator (!) and you can get a sense of the kind of beach it is.

The other interesting one that brings a smile to our faces is the beach in downtown Phillipsburg, St. Martin.  The locals have built a magnificent boardwalk that divides the beach from a string of shops and restaurants.  Many of the restaurants offer beach chairs and buckets of beer for a lazy day taking in the activities in the harbor.  The sand is soft and the sun is hot.

Speaking of sand, our final two memorable beaches are memorable both for their locations and for their sand – we use that word loosely!

Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France
Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France

In the south of France, the grains of sand on the beaches cannot really be described as grains at all.  They are pebbles.  The beachfront in Nice is wonderful for a variety of reasons.  It is bordered by a several-kilometers-long walkway where people stroll, cycle and roller-skate, as well as some of the most interesting beach-front restaurants where you can sit on a lounger and sip champagne to while away the day.

Finally, if you ever have a chance to visit Canada’s most easterly province, grab a sweater and take a trip to Topsail Beach just outside the city of St. John’s in Newfoundland & Labrador.  Sit for a moment in the bracing breeze and pick up a few beach rocks to skim into the waves.  Listen to the seagulls and remember what Dennis Wilson of Beach Boys fame once said:  “On the beach, you can live in bliss.”

Have a few minutes, come along to Manly Beach with us.

Travel for Christmas? You bet!

Big cities are exciting at Christmas! The Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto is always dressed for the season and when you can walk through after hours, the Swarovski tree gleams just for you.

It’s that time of year when everyone we know starts turning their attention to home & hearth.  Not these discerning travelers—our excitement is just starting to build as we anticipate the travel season ahead.  And that travel season begins with Christmas away.

This morning’s Globe and Mail greeted us with a travel section headlined “Six Destinations to Get Your Christmas On!” and they weren’t talking about department stores.  So, I guess we’re not alone, but people often ask us how we do it.  When everyone is running around from family obligation to grocery store to the kitchen and back, we might find ourselves in a hot tub at a hotel, basking on a pristine tropical beach or experiencing white-glove service at a wonderful restaurant with a view of the Mediterranean.  All of these are things we’ve done on Christmas Eve over the past years.

It’s been a long time since we spent Christmas at home, and we’re not going to start this year!  It all started back when our now 23-year-old son was eleven.  He was a student at the National Ballet School of Canada, a two-hour trip by plane from where we lived.  It had never occurred to us that when the students performed with the National Ballet of Canada in the annual Nutcracker that it would run over Christmas, and that the students could not go home.  So we adapted.

Ian and a Nutcracker aboard our Holland America Christmas cruise.

That first holiday season away, spending Christmas in a hotel with a child, taught us many things about ourselves and the season.  It taught us that breaking with tradition can be liberating (Christmas Eve celebrations with the family were fine, but year after year after year of the same thing can begin to wear on one).  It taught us that we could be more creative with the Christmas morning ritual under the Christmas tree opening presents (the hotel staff even helped us as we sent Ian on a scavenger hunt all over the hotel to find his Christmas present that first year).  It taught us that having Christmas dinner in a hotel is not without its upside (impeccable service, incredible food and no clean-up: what’s not to like?).  And over the years, it has taught us that experiences are far more important than presents.

After several Christmases in downtown Toronto at a hotel, Ian finally had a year when he didn’t have to perform.  Rather than spending it at home, we took a Christmas cruise (which we’ve talked about before).  The most important lesson from that trip (apart from how utterly amazing it is to spend Christmas eve on a private island in the Caribbean under a palm tree), that the presents are secondary and are only as important as the sentiment behind them.

That Christmas we had a family agreement: one present for each other person, bought after the ship sailed from Fort Lauderdale – and they had to be wrapped.   Streamlining those Christmas presents gave us time to really think about each present and each person.  It was wonderful.

Casino Square in Monte Carlo makes a magical scene dressed for Christmas.

Then there were three recent Christmases in Monte Carlo and the French Riviera.  There were so many wonderful memories that we made together as a little family.  Without the stress of the extended family activities, we have been able to focus on enjoying what the season has to offer – and on the Riviera, there was much to enjoy.  The Christmas market in Nice, the incredible decorations in Casino Square in Monte Carlo, the streets lined with trees highlighted with fake snow, the outdoor champagne bar at Christmas Land on the waterfront in Monaco, the chance to see Les Ballets de Monte Carlo performing on their home stage with Princess Caroline in the royal box, Revéillons (Christmas Eve dinner) at the Fairmont in Monte Carlo.

And now we will prepare for our upcoming Christmas in London.  We’ll take in the English National Ballet’s Nutcracker, several fabulous dinners; we’ll visit the Christmas windows on Oxford Street and visit the Christmas markets.  And the memories will be our presents.

Art takes in the Christmas ambience in Nice, France.

So, how do you get away from the expectations that your extended family has of you over the holidays (for those of you who have often thought about doing just that)?

  • Start getting them warmed up to the idea many months before.  By the time Christmas comes, they’ll think it’s always been that way.  Okay, there will be a few who will balk – but that’s only because they won’t have you to share their misery.
  • Get your little travel group to set some family ground rules. Activities? Budget?
  • Take our advice, agree to one present each.
  • Set up all the important parts in advance.  If Christmas dinner is important, get on it several months before.  You’d be amazed how many people eat out on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, not to mention how many restaurants are not open.  Hotels are your best bet.
  • Do something completely different from what you’ve done before on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  One Christmas we went to a movie at a theater in a mall late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve.  There were exactly four other people in the theater and when the movie was over, we emerged into a completely quiet mall that had only hours before been pandemonium.  It was like taking a deep cleansing breath.
  • Don’t think that you have to go far away.  Get in the car, drive for a couple of hours, and you’re away for Christmas.
  • Remember to Skype your family at home – and don’t gloat!
Nice dressed for Christmas.

Return to Èze: Revisiting memories in the south of France

Champagne on the terrace at Le Château de la chèvre d’or, Èze, France

It was our twentieth wedding anniversary and our Mediterranean cruise was set to take us along the French Rivièra.  Art had been there before, but it was Patty’s first visit, and he wanted to make it special by taking her to a magical place he knew that she’d enjoy.  His destination: Èze, a medieval hilltop town overlooking the azure waters of the Mediterranean, and more specifically Le Château de la chèvre d’or, a Relais and Chateaux property with a spectacular terrace boasting two Michelin stars.

Our young driver Caroline dropped us at the cobble-stoned entrance to the city where we’d begin our climb, on foot, to the top.  We often walk through these destinations where the history oozes from the walls and ponder what life might have been like in the fourteenth century in a village that actually dates to 2000 BC!  Sometimes it’s hard to summon the feeling, but not in Èze.  Every step took us back another century to the fourteenth century when the first buildings that are still there today were built.  At just over 1400 feet elevation, the hilltop village is crowned by an exotic garden that we visited before our lunch at the chateau.

That lunch began with the waiter asking us if we’d like to begin with champagne.  But of course!  So he wheeled over the champagne trolley and asked us which would be our pleasure.  We chose, we drank (in their bespoke crystal champagne glasses with stems shaped like goats – in case you missed it, the French word chèvre means goat, and chèvre d’or means golden goat), we enjoyed, and we nearly swallowed our tongues when we realized at the end of our lunch that the two glasses of champagne had cost more than the rest of the lunch – including wine – all together.  But we laughed.  It was worth it for the experience.

Then it was wonderful to share Eze with son, Ian.

So we savored every moment, thinking that we’d never return.  We lived in the moment taking in all the sights, sounds and tastes.  Then, our son moved to France at the age of 21.  He moved to southern France.  He moved to Beausoliel so he could work in Monaco.  And we visited him.  And we took him to Èze to experience the village.  And to lunch.

Our experience the second and third times were just as magical, but we learned one very important lesson through this: make every travel moment count.  Feel the experiences in the present moment and just really be there.  Step away from looking at everything through your camera lens for a while and really make a point of remembering.  It might just be the only time that you’ll have that experience.  And it will stay with you to take out and think about any time you like in the future.

If you have five mnutes, come to Èze with us…