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Sip of the bubbly between beaches

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / August 14, 2011

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GRAND CUL-DE-SAC, Saint Barthélemy- Everything about the night was so dreamily romantic that even Danielle Steele would struggle to find adjectives to adequately set the scene.

From my al fresco table at a lovely seaside restaurant, I could see the glow of a full moon diffused through milky clouds. Gentle tropical breezes blew off a delicately rippling sea, sending palm fronds swaying lasciviously above.

There were just a handful of occupied tables nearby - lovers nuzzled and held hands. But it didn’t matter that there were other couples. It felt as if Cooky and I had the restaurant to ourselves. In the orange glow of the candlelight, I looked into Cooky’s gold-flecked eyes. She looked up and sleepily returned my gaze. Then I reached down and scratched behind her ears.

Yes, my dinner companion was Cooky the cat - in her finest rhinestone-studded, mustard-yellow vinyl collar. Cooky lives at the hotel where I dined and was the ideal companion for the night. She was quiet, charming, and her calming presence only added to the tranquil nature of the evening.

St. Barts may enjoy a reputation as a pricey, celebrity-friendly party destination chockablock with yachts in season, which starts in November and winds down by April. But summer is a different story. The tourists retreat, prices drop, and the pace on this Leeward Island in the northeastern Caribbean is subdued.

Summer in St. Barts is the antithesis of summer in New England. On the Cape, chairs clog the beach and the ocean water still chills to the bone. But on my St. Barts beach days, there were just a handful of fellow sunbathers. Often, I was the only one floating in the balmy, clear aquamarine water.

Before my trip, I quizzed friends on hot spots and restaurants. I dutifully studied guidebooks, and researched websites. But as I lay poolside with planter’s punch in hand at Le Sereno, my indulgent hotel home for the week, I realized that I didn’t want the same vacation my friends or other tourists had had.

Instead, I spent a week driving around the 8-square-mile island beach hopping, getting lost on precariously steep roads, and discovering tucked away restaurants.

I quizzed the locals on their favorite beaches, and the clear winner was Gouverneur, on the south side of the island. All of the beaches are free, but it’s essential to rent a car to get around. The nearby Grand Saline Beach is ideal for snorkeling, which I bravely attempted for the first time. I also tried St. Jean Beach and Colombier, but found myself returning for long days at Gouverneur.

The free beaches and casual nature of my trip helped with expenses. There is no denying that St. Barts is pricey. In the capital city Gustavia, the streets are lined with Louis Vuitton, Hermès, and Cartier. Perhaps that’s why celebrities such as Hugh Jackman, Beyoncé, Daniel Craig, and Mariah Carey are often seen in tabloid pictures frolicking here. Sadly, Jackman was not on the island when I was there.

Aside from the luxury and expense, what makes the island - an overseas collectivity of France - unique among Caribbean islands is its small size and lack of development. There are no high-rise condos, no casinos, and the two dozen hotels are primarily clusters of bungalows and villas. The island was not a tourist destination until the 1970s, and by the 1980s it started gaining a reputation for celebrities and luxury. Development was carefully monitored. The only chains here are luxury clothiers.

Despite the fact that I was ignoring suggestions and guidebooks, there was one spot that I heard about repeatedly: Le Ti St Barth. The restaurant-nightclub is owned by island legend Carole Gruson and regularly features post-dinner fashion shows, DJs, and table dancing. (I’m quite sure that table dancing is a requirement for entry - and yes, I did.)

I wanted to try the Ti punch, a delicious, esophagus-burning daiquiri. But my primary purpose for dropping in was to get a glimpse of French pop icon Johnny Hallyday. Known as the Elvis of France, Hallyday is the celebrity I was most interested in stalking (aside from Jackman), and I was told he was on the island.

I didn’t find Hallyday, but I did find a group of French vacationers who were fascinated to learn an American was hunting for him. When I explained that I occasionally DJ French pop music in Boston, they immediately began hatching a plan: They would move their party to their yacht, and I would act as DJ for the impromptu soiree.

Normally, I would have politely declined. When a group of strangers ask you to join them on a boat, the result can be a story the following day about a body found floating in the harbor. But I thought the party sounded like more fun than another night with Cooky. I went back to my hotel, grabbed my laptop and headphones, and an hour later I was playing 1960s chestnuts by Hallyday, France Gall, and Françoise Hardy on a rather large yacht.

It was all going well, and no one looked homicidal. People were dancing, and every time I turned around there was another cocktail in my hand. Perhaps that’s why when someone called my name and I started toward them, I walked directly into a glass door.

I’ll spare you the bloody details, but after a bottle of vodka was used as a disinfectant for my laceration and a Frette pillowcase was filled with ice and held to my (nearly broken) nose, I decided it was time to call it a night.

I convalesced at the beach the next day with a sandwich from Maya’s to Go. That night, with my swollen, cut, and black-and-blue nose, I met up with my new friends at a restaurant called Harbour’s St-Barth. They were feeling understandably guilty about the injury and insisted on taking me out. I agreed under the condition that I would not DJ near any glass doors.

I looked around the restaurant and spotted a familiar face. After a week of searching, I had finally found my pop idol Hallyday. After resisting the urge to scream “Johneeee!’’ I hesitated briefly. I had been told that celebrities come to St. Barts because they are seldom bothered by the locals. I did not want to become known as the crazy man with the damaged nose who attacked Hallyday. So I took a deep breath and approached him with my heart racing.

I leaned in and said hello, quickly fawning before I returned to my table. My French friends ordered champagne to celebrate the encounter - there are advantages to befriending the wealthy - and after a glass or two, they suggested we go back to the yacht to celebrate. This time, however, I decided that I would be better off with a quiet evening petting Cooky.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
Le Sereno
Grand Cul-de-Sac
Saint Barthélemy
888-537-3736
www.lesereno.com
Newly remodeled on the beach and many rooms have views of the sea. Winter $950-$2,140, off-season $678-$1,520.
La Normandie
Lorient
011-590-590-27-61-66
www.normadiehotelstbarts.com
By St. Barts standards, a bargain. Winter $260-$500, off-season $160-$450.
Where to eat
Wall House
La Pointe, Gustavia
011-590-590-27-71-83
www.wallhouserestaurant.com
Former La Voile chef Julien Tatin joins Bernard Tatin in this spot with striking harbor views. Lunch and dinner; mahi-mahi ceviche ($22), filet mignon ($36).
Maya’s to Go
Les Galeries du Commerce
St. Jean
mayastogo.com
011-590-590-29-83-70
The ideal spot to pick up lunch for the beach, $13 or $14 per item.
What to do
A trip to St. Barts means one sure thing: beaches. There are other activities, such as fishing trips and half-day chartered sailing expeditions for large groups, in addition to snorkeling and scuba diving, but the beaches are free, abundant, and pristine. Try Gouverneur Beach on the southern coast, or St. Jean Beach. Shell Beach, near restaurant Do Brazil, is a bit livelier. Another pastime is shopping, but even those with a passion for fashion will have a hard time digging up bargains in the luxury chain stores.