Getting in and Out of St. Barth’s

This trip to St. Barth’s came up at close to the last minute, so I was scrambling to make arrangements to travel during a peak holiday season, something I usually try hard to avoid. Fortunately, my schedule is flexible (I can work anywhere I can get online) and Ross wouldn’t suffer by missing a few classes, so we were able to set our return for after the rush, with the added bonus of spending more time on “the island” (as residents and frequent visitors call it, implying that there is no other island worth bothering with).

St. Barth’s is tiny (total land area 21 km2 / 8.1 square miles), with a proportionally tiny airport and very little room for a runway. The only planes that can land here are small and local, so longer-range travelers fly in to nearby St. Maarten and then have to get across somehow. There are frequent commuter flights from three different airlines, but, when I tried to book a connection for our arrival, they appeared to be completely sold out. I’ve since learned that I should have checked with the airlines upon arrival in St. Maarten; anyone with a ticket can and frequently does get onto a later or earlier flight, so exact availability is unknown up to the last minute – we might have gotten seats.

However, worried about being stuck overnight and having to pay for a hotel in St Maarten, I asked Jeet to book us on the ferry. One of the ferry services isn’t running at all (the boat broke down), but we got reservations on the other without difficulty (60 euros apiece).

Our JetBlue flight from JFK arrived early in St. Maarten, a little before 4 pm. It then took half an hour (by my watch) to get through immigration – the airport employees moved on “island time” as they processed a horde of tourists who had not yet had the opportunity to reach that happy state of being and were impatiently looking forward to their first ti punch.

By the time we got through, the last in our line, our suitcase had nearly made it onto the carousel. We only had to wait a couple of minutes before we could collect it and go into the bathroom to wash up and change into lighter clothing. We apparently had plenty of time before our 6:45 ferry, but I wasn’t sure how long it would take to reach it. Twice a week this ferry leaves from Oyster Pond, the other side of St. Maarten, which meant a taxi ride which cost $30 and took half an hour – on a Sunday. Another friend hit rush hour on a weekday and spent two hours in a taxi trying to get to the much closer ferry dock.

Our driver was a woman, who told me (when I asked) that there are many women taxi drivers in St. Maarten. She was playing Christmas music on the radio, which seemed incongruous with the tropical weather.

We got to Oyster Pond shortly before 5:30 pm when the Voyager ferry office was supposed to open. It opened a bit late. When the woman finally got her counter window propped up, she confirmed our reservations and told us the ferry would be arriving and boarding around 6:30. We went to the nearby bar for drinks and a snack of fried calamari.

The ferry was late due to mechanical problems; for a while we wondered whether we’d get to St. Barth’s at all that night. We finally departed around 7:30, and I quickly realized why I didn’t want to take the ferry ever again: I spent most of the trip vomiting (“Raphael! Un sac!” shouted a nearby passenger). I’m not usually so sensitive, but become so when I’m tired, and the big ferry was bounding over heavy seas. I may never eat calamari again – that rubbery texture is extremely unpleasant on the way back up.

We reached Gustavia port in St. Barth’s around 8:30 where Jeet & co. picked us up and took us home.

I didn’t have reservations back out of St. Barth’s, either, but now knew that I’d rather avoid the ferry. A round of web searches showed that apparently only WinAir had seats available at a reasonable price and time, but, for such a small local airline, it seemed safer to book directly at the airport than via Travelocity. Jack was going to get a rental car anyway, and all the rental agencies are there. (Note: Avoid the Suzuki Samurai jeeps, which have a dangerously high center of gravity. Jack’s not the first person of our acquaintance to have tipped a Samurai onto its side.)

JetBlue had advised its passengers to allow three hours to get through St. Maarten airport on the way back, and I was told that flights out of St. Barth’s are frequently late, so I’ve booked our return flight at 1:20 on Tuesday, which should put us into St. Maarten at 1:40, with comfortable leeway for our 5:10 pm flight and room for some delays. I was startled to be told that we need to arrive at St. Barth’s miniscule airport two hours before the flight, but, as the counter guy said, they have the same post 9/11 security requirements as any other airport. It’s going to be a long trip back.

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