Saturday Diary / Postcard from St. Barths

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I swear we didn't schedule it that way but the week of Jan. 19-24, the coldest in Pittsburgh's winter so far this year, my wife and I were on the Caribbean island of St. Barths for a music festival.

We had several reasons for going. First, neither of us had ever been to St. Barths, considered one of the most desirable islands to visit down there. Second, our daughter-in-law, Ana-Maria Vera, an internationally known classical pianist, best known to us as the mother of a rambunctious 6-year-old, would be performing. Third, the organizer of the 29-year-old festival is a friend, fellow Pittsburgher Frances deBroff.

St. Barths is perhaps unique among the Caribbean islands. It consists of 8 square miles of beaches, rocks, mountains, villages and some greenery. It is very French.

French is the language of the place, although English is widely spoken also and a few Russian billionaires have now installed themselves. One of the glossy publications, with photos of shockingly and barely dressed models, was in French and Russian.

The climate is perfect. We left 84 degrees there to return to 16 degrees in Pittsburgh. It rains a little each day to water the flowers and keep the island green.

There was a bakery right across the road from us with all of the French pastries, freshly prepared each day, and good coffee. There was also a shop with all the national newspapers in French, English and German, only one day late. (No Post-Gazette, though.) St. Barths has its own daily paper, "Le News." Full of ads for bathing suits and lost dogs.

Criticisms: It takes 14 hours to get to St. Barths from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh-Charlotte-St. Martins, then by boat, a 45-minute trip, to St. Barths. The roads are narrow, with lots of hair-raising hairpin turns. The car-rental people gave us a huge Jeep Wrangler, scary to drive on St. Barths' roads. I got used to it but finding our hotel in the dark the first night was an adventure.

There are charming touches. A mourning dove -- looks like a trim, brown park pigeon -- came to our seafront porch every morning to collect crumbs of food from the day before. They coo nicely.

The food was excellent. There was a restaurant across the road called Jo Jo's where we were told that Jackie Kennedy used to take John-John. Prices were stunning. The Jo Jo Burger was 19 euros, at $1.33 to the euro. A mojito at sunset in a hotel on the beach was 15 euros. But who cares? It's always 5 o'clock there.

Frances' music festival, held every January, was really good -- the jazz and classical music, the ballet and an opera, Puccini's "La Boheme." There was the John Ellis Jazz Quartet, including Jason Marsalis on drums. Jimmy Buffett was in attendance. Ana-Maria played Schumann, Mendelsson, Brahms, Ravel, Albeniz, Debussy and Faure, even though she had cut her finger opening a wine bottle and left blood on the keyboard.

St. Barths is formally part of the French West Indies, along with Guadeloupe, Martinique and Saint Martin. It is officially the Territorial Collectivity of Saint Barthelemy and situated in the Leeward Islands of the northeastern Caribbean. At one time or another it's been the property of Sweden, Holland and Great Britain, but it is mostly exceedingly French. The capital is Gustavia, population 9,000, give or take.

One visit is probably enough for me, although Frances, who also has a short attention span, has gone back every year for decades.

St. Barths never had plantations so racial relations are more relaxed than they are on islands such as Guadeloupe, Martinique and Jamaica. Comparing it to other Caribbean islands I have known and to the United States, I found myself considering the differences between Caribbean-origin African-Americans and other African-Americans, but arrived at no profound conclusions. The wine, rum and food were too good for such deep reflection.

St. Barths was captured for me in an inscription on a tombstone in an above-the-ground cemetery on the main road. The grave was that of a lady who had lived a long life. She invited friends of hers who passed by to think of her and pray.

Once I've had a chance to think about the place for a while, perhaps I'll go back to St. Barths and pray for her.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is an associate editor and columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).


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