08 April 2006

Beaches, II

Okay, sabbatical is over, and we are back to telling it like it is:

Where were we? Oh, yeah, at Nikki Beach with Bill Gates. Well, I didn't go up to him and ask to see his passport, but there was he, or his twin brother, sitting at a table with what looked like an up-tight group of businessmen. No, there were no nieces at the table. Why do you ask?

Aside from Nikki Beach, St. Jean East is pretty much like Airport Beach, just no airplane watching, not as noisy. Otherwise it's the same beach.

Columbier Beach

At the northwest end of the frankfurter, the land forks and the result is a gracefully curved bay and a white sand beach named Columbier. This beach is sensational. Natural dune, vegetation, great protection from the wind and waves, gorgeous. Just one small problem: There are three ways to get there, none of them simple.

1. Most people at this beach are off the boats anchored or moored in the bay. It is a well-protected harbor and probably the best place to spend the day at the beach if you're on a boat. Sensational. Shore has some great rock formations so that in addition to plain old sand and water, there are little pools, eddies, the whole exotic thing. You can find some shade if you get there early and get behind one of the big rock formations. Boats in the bay vary from 20 feet to 200 feet.

2. If you drive to the end of the road to Columbier Point, there is a rock platform that has a tableau set in stone that names all the islands you can see from there. There are about ten of them, St. Martin, Anguilla, Forchue, and others. After you have taken in that breathtaking sight, just walk about 200 yards down a path and you come to a field with a worn track. Make that right turn and in about 50 yards you find yourself in a ridiculously steep descent through a jungle. No kidding. Very hard work. Hand over hand, holding onto vines and saplings, stepping over big holes, rocks, scary sweaty stuff. And that's on the way down! After about 25 minutes of that, you arrive at a field leading to the beach. Of course by then you are soaking wet, your arms and legs are scored from thorns and branches, and if you are a young woman of my close acquaintance, you are barefoot because you refused to listen to moi and you did this in stylish rubber flip-flops, one of which broke one third of the way down.

When you get down to the beach you then must decide what to do now: i) swim, laze in the sun, at one of the premier beaches in the world, or ii) take a drink of water and start back up the trail, wondering why you bothered to come down since you didn't choose i). Ah, the satisfaction of doing your own tropical version of Everest, that's why.

We have done this route three or four times, none since I have reached the age of reason.

3. If you drive your car to the end of Flamands Beach, and park there, you will see a path cut into the lower part of the mountain you surmounted via car and descended on foot in option 2. This is still a healthy walk, (a sneaker walk, not a flip-flop walk) part of the time grasping rocks and stuff, with wonderful views of flowering cactus, crashing surf below, islands on the horizon, and even includes some shallow caves en route. Take your camera. The walk takes about 30 minutes if you are me, about 1/3 that if you are a seven year old french child in sandals. In all, the walk is easy enough so you can enjoy a couple of hours on the beach without stressing about the return.

We interrupt this travelogue to bring you a slice of island life: I am punching this out on my laptop at the dining room table, which is really outside, barely under a pitched roof. What I mean is, when it rains, if the wind is out of the south or the west, we get wet. Just east of this area is the living room- no wall separates us. And north of the living room is the kitchen, some walls but mostly not. Ceilings are vaulted--about 20 feet at the apex. What this means is that when we are outside of our airconditioned bedrooms, we are essentially outdoors, mostly protected from the sun and rain. The only way to close all this in is with accordion pleated metal hurricane shutters.

So this morning when I went into the laundry room behind the kitchen, also vaulted ceiling, with a doorway leading to the kitchen and another leading outside, as I leaned down to get a liter of water, I saw a dark-hued creature about six inches in diameter sitting on the floor. Boy, did I jump. Too small to be a "squirrel", too large to be a bug. Perhaps a curled up iguana? Nope, turns out to be an exhausted hummingbird, deep purple feathers, long curved beak. Flew in and can't get out, because it instinctively flies to the top of the ceiling, flaps its wings against the beams for 60-90 seconds, and then sits,exhausted on top of one of the beams or on the floor near the water bottles. I am paralyzed with indecision. Try to help by catching the delicate critter in the pool net? Risk of injury is too great. Will it break a wing against the beams if I do nothing? Ah, I guess the mantra has to be "Do no harm." Me and Dr. Kildaire. Anybody remember him? Back to the beach. I will do nothing and report the denoument as soon as I have one. (Denoument: Several hours later, he (she?) gone. Either flew off or eaten by a cat, or snake, or rat, or my next door neighbor. I dunno.)

Lorient Beach:

An eastern continuation of the "Anse de St. Jean", the jug handle which is the concave part of the frankfurter on its northern perimeter. Lorient (some confusion here: road signs say "Lorient" but some map and other designations say "L'Orient." Seems to me the latter is correct, but who am I to tell these people what to call their island?) Nice beach, a little wider than those to the west. We have been there in previous years when we rented villas in that area. Emily calls it "Beach-glass Beach" for obvious reasons. Why that section of the Anse is so full of beach glass is a mystery. But there it is. So much of it that it loses its value, sort of.

Flamands Beach:

This northern beach, on the western end of the island, is gorgeous. Wide, gracefully curving, often windy, the only beach that has a semi-reliable "surf." For that reason, it is Stephanie and Robert's favorite. We have friends with teen-age boys who would not consider going elsewhere.

The beach hosts several hotels, mostly clustered on its eastern end, the most famous of which is the Isle de France, a very high end hotel, owned, interestingly enough, by the island's Anglican Vicar. M. Viernickel is a movie-star handsome fiftyish UK lawyer, who, before he "retired" to this island, was a UK lawyer by training but an investment banker by vocation, in London, . When we chatted last Spring at the the Easter Egg Hunt for kids, (The Vicar, having just finished presiding over the Easter Mass, was still wearing his black collar, but had removed his black robe, under which he was wearing a respectfully clerical pair of black shorts. Where does one buy such things? I assume there is a shop, or internet site, where one can buy clerical garb, but clerical shorts? ) M. Viernickel is as charming as he is handsome, and has won the hearts of not only the Anglicans here,--a distinct minority to be sure -- but of many of the island's Catholics as well who reject the rigidity of the island's only priest.

Anyway, the good Vicar runs a very successful hotel, which has just constructed new units which are being sold as time shares, or something like that. That's the new wave here, I guess. The Grande Dame of hotels on this island, The Eden Rock, is doing likewise.

Flamands, and many of the structures on its upland edge, were demolished by the hurricane of 1995. When Pinks and I first came to this island some 12 or 13 years ago, we rented a charming villa on this beach. We loved it so, that after our week here, Pinks wrote a letter to the Washington D.C. woman who owned it, thanking her for renting it to us. The owner said, "You're welcome. Why don't you buy it from me?" Alas, we declined. The villa survived the hurricane, but the two protecting beach dunes were destroyed, as was the swimming pool that separated the master bedroom from first dune. The hotels have long since been repaired and rebuilt, the beach has returned (I am not sure whether nature had some help or not) and the concrete shell of a 20 unit two-story condo, which remained a derelict eyesore for ten years, has now been sold, demolished, and is being replaced by two private homes.

For the most part, Flamands is bordered by small rental villas and tiny hotels. The beach, except in front of the large hotels on the eastern end, is mostly vacant, except for a few renters here and there. It very much reminds me of Westhampton Beach in that regard. There is not much place to park, but then, for reasons that elude me, there are not that many people that choose to go there, so it all works out nicely. I would say Flamands is by far the most spacious and underused beach on the island, especially considering its ready accessibility via auto.

Shell Beach

The only beach one can walk to from "downtown" Gustavia. It is just a few "blocks" from the harbor. Some anomaly in currents, or structure of the bottom, or I-don't-know-what, dumps a zillion small shells on this beach, so in many spots you are walking on shells, not sand.

This is strictly a "local" beach. It is immediately adjacent to the school, and local moms bring their kids there in the afternoon. One of our guests accused me of being a "dirty old man" cause I can not take my eyes off the my favorite mom, the one in the black string bikini that is one size too small, and who occasionally changes into and out of the bathing suit on the beach. Pinks agrees she is one of the most beautiful women we have ever seen, (and we have seen a lot of her!) in every dimension, from every angle and therefore, as far as Pinks is concerned, I am free to ogle. Indeed, MRFL ogles pretty good too. Hey, it's Paradise, remember?

Shell beach is somewhat smaller than the other beaches, tends to be more crowded, and is backed up by the restaurant Do Brasil, informal, some tables on the sand where you can get drinks, a nice open covered deck where they serve lunch and dinner, one of the more reasonably priced restaurants on the island. When we go there these days for lunch, the waitress, who has some English but not much, smiles sweetly and says "Ah, two club sandwiches, n'est ce pas?" Recent publicity re Yannick Noah's son, (MVP, Florida Gators, winner of March Madness tournamentment) has yielded the info that pere Yannick is, or was, co-owner of the place. So that's why there is big poster with his picture on it! All this time I wondered.

Grand Cul-de-Sac

Anse de Grand Cul-de-Sac is a small but deep dent in the northern shoreline of the island, east of Lorient. The Anse has a long narrow (6-10 feet) beach, bordered by restaurants and hotels, great and small. Adjacent to the charming Gloriette Restaurant (Creole menu) and its first cousin outdoor CocaLoba Beach restaurant (picnic tables in the sand, large-leaved trees providing shade,) is the famous, or infamous Lafayette club, home of the $100 hamburger. That is, of course, an exaggeration. I have seen the menu (gaping in from outside, on the beach, not from a table inside the beachside restaurant.) and I feel the need to set the record straight. First of all, the Lafayette Club has no hamburgers on the menu. Second, there is not one main course over 75 euros. And class is worth paying for, right? In the Lafayette Club, the waiters are not barefoot.

On the other hand, there are no nine-euro paninis either.

When Jesse and Freda and the kids were here, Jesse and Zach several times rented jet skis at a place down the beach from CocaLoba and we would meet them there for lunch. Zach, the international adventurer, would always order a hamburger and fries. On the third visit, the waitress said she was out of hamburgers, and Zach was persuaded to try a ham and cheese panini. He took two bites and turned to his father and said "This is tbe best sandwich I have ever eaten in my life. You mean I could have been eating these from the beginning?" Now that is what I would call an endorsement.

The beach also has a number of smaller hotels and motels which I think are reasonably priced, and at the western end, the newly re-built Sereno Hotel, and at the far western end, the newly renovated Hotel Guanahani, one of the high end hotels on the island.

Grand Cul-de-sac is protected by an extensive reef system. The water is not only flat, is is uniformly about 3 feet deep for several hundred yards out to the reefs. The place tends to be windy and it is the home of kite boarders and sail boarders, many of whom are talented and acrobatic, providing a great floor show while you are eating lunch.

In all, this is not a place you would come to go to the beach. There is only about six feet of beach between the property line and the water's edge, and the only people who use it as such are those in the adjacent hotels who utilize part of their property as an add-on to the beach. ( All beaches on St. Barts are public, and all have designated public access ways.)

Public

Public is the center of industrial activity on this island. A dozen acres on the shore west of Gustavia, Public is home to the island's garbage dump, incinerator, electric generation plant, water desalinization plant, the commercial dock which lands all island cargo, a cemetary, the crushed-auto graveyard, sand, gravel and concrete yard, oil and gasoline tanks, and an overpriced restaurant popular with American tourists. Between the commercial dock and restaurant, directly across from the dump is a charming little beach, bordered by palms and other greenery. The sand is pure white, the water clear green and blue, and the beach is home to lots of small boats. Indeed, this is the home of the sailing school attended by all the island kids. And, most importantly, it where MRFL and Frank go for their walk every morning. Frank loves it there. Especially on Monday mornings, before the beach gets raked and cleaned, and before all those panini crusts left over from Sunday's family picnics get removed. Frank is 12 now, and for the each one of those years, Pinks has been urging him to be true to his heritage and swim. Frank, on the other hand, thinks his heritage is those little old ladies I recall from Rockaway Beach whose idea of swimming is to go in knee deep, and pour handfuls of water down the front of their black one-piece bathing suits. Hey, it's what makes him happy, right?

Corossol

Our area's own little beach. Small in all dimensions, very local, beautiful beach facing west, backed by a seawall. It's where the Corossol locals, (including nous) keep their dinghies to row out to the small boats moored in Corossol Harbor. And where Corossol families take their kids on weekends. The houses on the other side of parking lot bordering the beach include one or two in which elderly women weave straw hats by hand, and leave them out on the wall in front of their house should a tourist stumble down to Corossol. Almost none do. In fact, when people familiar with the island ask where our house is and we tell them Corossol, they most often say something like, " I've been coming here for ten years, where's that?" We say, "Never mind."

When I row my dinghy ashore from Fish Faster, I need to drag the 80 pound boat across about 12 feet of sand before I get it to the seawall. Usually, at mid-day, there is nobody present. Infrequently, one or two women are sunbathing. More infrequently, a guy is there, alone or with a companion. More often than not, the guy will get up and help me drag the boat to the wall. Just like in New York.

Miscellany:

There a number of other areas that have what might fairly be called "beaches", but are unattractive for a number of reasons involving lack of sand, rocky shores, lack of easy access, etc.

Besides, I am really tired of this travelogue, and need to move on to other subjects, like Buckets, snakes, and maybe even dentists, we'll see.

A bientot.

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