St. Barths’ reputation as the place to see and be seen in the Caribbean leads many to believe it caters only to the jet set crowd. But families who venture to this small island discover what an exceptional destination it can be for a relaxing beach vacation with kids. To determine if it is a good fit for your family, it’s helpful to know what St. Barths is and what it is not.
St. Barths is luxuriously chic, while being peaceful, private and quite natural. With its fine dining options and French Creole cuisine, it is notably delicious. And with some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, St. Barths is a picturesque tropical paradise. But St. Barths is not convenient or cheap to visit, and it is not a place where families will experience days full of an endless array of kid-centered activities and entertainment.
Christopher Columbus began referring to this destination as Saint Barthelemy, named for his brother, after he invaded the island during his second trip across the Atlantic in 1493. Now more commonly called St. Barths or St. Barts, it was a longtime French commune (and briefly, Swedish) but became an overseas territory of France in 2007. Residents of St. Barths are French citizens who primarily speak French and use the Euro as currency.
Located in the French West Indies/Lower Antilles, due east of the U.S. and the British Virgin Islands, St. Barths is quite small at just under 10 square miles; its population is less than 10,000. Like much of the Caribbean, the chain of islands was formed by volcanic eruptions. Aside from the tourism infrastructure that began developing in the 1960s and 1970s, services on the island are limited.
An important factor when gauging whether this is a destination for your family is the logistics of arrival and departure. The size of St. Barths’ lone airport does not allow for large commercial aircraft. Therefore, visitors typically fly into St. Martin/St. Maarten or San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then take a small plane, ferry or yacht to St. Barths. It’s for this reason that many guests choose to stay for a week or longer, and many rental properties require a 7-night minimum.
Whatever kind of beach your family most desires, you’re likely to find it on St. Barths. If you want to be in the heart of all the action with restaurants and shopping nearby, Saint-Jean Beach is the spot. Kids will get a thrill from watching the small planes cruise overhead, as the airport runway is nearby. Families also seek out the expansive Lorient Beach, because the west end has waves for older kids while the east end has reef pools perfect for little ones to splash around in.
It’s quite fun to hunt for shells on the appropriately named Shell Beach, but wear shoes! Nature lovers gush about Colombier Beach and Saline Beach, to which families can hike from the main road. Visitors often have these gorgeous stretches of sand practically to themselves. Both beaches are also great places to snorkel, as the quietness lends itself to lots of marine life.
There are a few things to note about the beaches on St. Barths, however. As is often the case in France, going topless is quite common, and on quieter beaches, some visitors may be nude, though it is not explicitly permitted. Families need to determine their comfort level with this upfront and have the appropriate preparatory conversations with their children.
The more popular beaches feature full-service beach clubs, where families will pay a premium to secure a chair or two for the day. And you’ll want to be prepared for a livelier party atmosphere at some of the hot spots on the island, especially during peak travel season, though earlier reservation times at beach clubs tend to be more family-friendly.
When energy levels ramp up and everyone is ready for more action, the beach is still the place to be, as watersports are the primary activities to choose from on the island. The larger beaches all have equipment rental companies onsite, while the bigger resorts usually have their own to offer guests. Catamaran cruises, sailing or surfing lessons, snorkeling and clear-bottom kayaks are all popular options. The latest craze is seabobs, which are basically underwater scooters, for kids 10 and older.
Nature enthusiasts will be quite pleased to discover that portions of the island are undeveloped and protected, and there are plenty of hiking trails to choose from. Several large swaths of the water surrounding St. Barths are marine reserves. Animal encounters in and near the water are plentiful, like humpback whales, rays of all kinds, sea urchins, lionfish and angel fish. More than 80 exotic bird species call St. Barths home, and kids love spotting the iguanas that roam on land.
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Fine dining is a huge draw for visitors to St. Barths. But parents face the age-old question: Does all that fanciness mean kids aren’t welcome? Few of the nicer restaurants on the island have dedicated children’s menus, and the duration of a multi-course meal is equivalent to the leisurely pace of service found in Europe. But there are ways to indulge in the spectacular French Creole cuisine here with kids in tow. A few insider tips:
Eat early. The earlier the reservation time, the more comfortable families feel in the premier restaurants. It is common in St. Barths to have dedicated seating windows (when most of the tables in a restaurant turn over at the same time). Choose the earliest lunch or dinner slot, and you’re likely to see other families dining alongside you.
Pick a beachfront restaurant. Many of the nicest restaurants on the island are located directly on the beach, making it easy for kids to play in your line of sight between courses or while parents linger over dessert. Also, the larger resorts have restaurants that are more accustomed to families dining with children, where you can expect to find kid-friendly menu options, highchairs, etc.
Visit local pastry shops for picnic fixings. True to its French connections, St. Barths has amazing patisseries and bakeries, and they sell incredible picnic supplies perfect for enjoying on the beach or poolside at your villa. But be aware, these shops often sell out before the lunch hour, so plan a morning outing (who would turn down a breakfast croissant anyway?).
Hire a chef. Because villa rentals are such a popular accommodation option here, it is quite easy (albeit expensive) to secure the services of a private chef for one-off meals or for the duration of your stay.
There are three common categories of accommodation style for families visiting St. Barths: luxury resorts, private villas and yacht charters. For each, we highly recommend using travel agents (like us!) who will only recommend vetted inventory, choose standalone rentals that have local property managers who can help if anything goes awry, and who have access to resort booking perks through affiliation with the Virtuoso luxury travel network.
Fans of luxury resorts have plenty of options to choose from despite the island’s small size. A few favorites are Eden Rock, Cheval Blanc, Rosewood Le Guanahani, Hotel Christopher and Le Sereno. Each has its own distinct features and charms; our Family Travel Advisors can assist with narrowing down options that are the right fit for your stay. All of these properties have fewer than 100 rooms or suites, but still offer restaurants, spas and activities for guests and get top marks for their high-end service. Ciao Bambino can offer exclusive perks to our clients for stays booked through our agency, like complimentary gourmet breakfasts or room upgrades.
While we are better known for helping clients book hotel accommodations such as those mentioned above, we are also equipped to help research and secure luxury cottages and villa rentals. Some are affiliated with the 5-star hotels listed above and allow guests to use the hotel amenities. We can also assist with private yacht experiences (St. Barths can be your exclusive destination or one of several Caribbean islands your family visits). Reach out and give us your search parameters to get started.
Like many tropical destinations, St. Barths has a dry season (December-April) and a rainy season (May-November). The most popular time to visit is during the winter months, and the island is a reliably sunny and warm respite during brutal northern winters. However, unless your main goal is to catch a glimpse of your favorite celebrity on the beach, consider avoiding the peak festive period, when the island is at maximum capacity. The New Year’s holiday is particularly booked out.
With limited medical services on the island and its location in the hurricane and cyclone zone, travel insurance is a must here. A trip to St. Barths is a considerable financial investment that you’ll want to protect. On the plus side, visitors greatly appreciate that St. Barths has one of the lowest crime rates in all of the Caribbean. It feels quite safe to explore off-property on this island, a feeling of security that some destinations in the Caribbean lack. If you don’t mind self-driving, consider renting a car to explore the variety of beaches and natural areas.
For these reasons and more, it’s not surprising that those who can afford to go anywhere in the world often choose to go to St. Barths year after year. Budget permitting, this is a place to put at the top of any beach vacation wish list.
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This is a challenging time for our clients given the uncertainty around the spread of coronavirus, particularly for those with near-term travel plans in impacted areas. We’re working with our suppliers on being flexible with their booking conditions, and enabling families to postpone travel to a later date without a penalty, when possible. Likewise, given the unpredictability around destinations that may be impacted in the future, we’re helping clients planning new trips and understand ways that they can protect themselves until the situation improves. We are ready to help our clients work through questions and concerns.