Nancy and I haven’t been alone since the kids were born. That's eight years. We committed to getting away together this year, however, as we passed our 10th wedding anniversary in June.
Since I wasn’t making my usual fall trip to the Rhône, I was in need of something hearty, where red wine and the scent of burning autumnal leaves in the air would fill the gap; Nancy needed a beach.
As is customary in our house, she arranged the trip, and I carried the bags. She promised me a direct flight and two carry-on bags only. When we landed, we were whisked through the Saint Martin airport customs (I blinked and think I missed it), out onto the tarmac to a waiting 20-seat puddle jumper. The copilot gave his safety instructions while turning around from his seat in the cockpit.
"Four exit doors here and there," he said. "Buckle up. 10 minutes."
The woman next to us asked if we’d ever landed in Saint Bart's before. After answering her with a "no," she said "Well, I won’t ruin the landing for you then."
The estimated time frame was generous, and the bank we took into the airstrip was steep. I could see people on the beach looking at us … welcoming us? Hoping we’d land safely? The plane hit the breaks, hard, and in about two minutes we were through the St.-Barthélemy customs and in our courtesy van up to Hôtel Le Toiny. Nancy had brought me to St.-Bart's for a few days of R&R, and I think she was unaware how soothing it would prove. Not only were we spending some long-awaited time alone, but I wound up getting my Gallic itch scratched at the same time.
We’d gotten in early enough for lunch, so we sat alone in Restaurant Le Gaïac at the Hôtel Le Toiny, starting with a couple of glasses of 2006 Château Mont-Redon Châteauneuf-du-Pape White, which is the best white wine you’re not drinking. Some invigorating tuna tartare and a pair of the freshest, most elegant club sandwiches (Nancy got the chicken and egg, me the roasted vegetable) helped restore the appropriate blood flow to the brain, while a bottle of the 2007 St.-André de Figuière Cotes de Provence Rosé Vieilles Vignes (a blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cinsault) offered an extraordinarily pale color, with elegant rose petal and cherry pit notes followed by a long, minerally finish. It was just the tonic to settle us in after the trip, and it diverted our attention just enough from the mosquitoes that were enjoying the fresh meat known as our legs.
For the trip I had brought a copy of La Vie en Rosé by Jamie Ivey, and I was already a third of the way through it after the flight down. It’s a fast, light, engaging page turner of a wine book – three English folks get enraptured by Provence and aim to set up their own, rosé-only wine bar in the south of France. By now, these tales of romantic wanderlust rewarded have become a bit clichéd, but I never tire of reading them. If you’ve ever driven through the hills of the Lubéron with the garrigue-scented air filling your nostrils, well, you’ve got enough visceral memory to help you empathize with their tribe for life.
Riffing off the book, I was on a rosé bent this trip—we were greeted by sunny 88° F weather and within minutes of landing, a heat rash had broken out on my arm. Now was not the time for a hearty, full-bodied Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Following the bottle of St.-André de Figuière at lunch, I decided to see how much rosé I could drink in the next few days—yes, I drink rosé and am proud to do so.
Following lunch, we retreated to the cool shade of our room where we did what all self respecting Day 1 tourists do – we alternated between discussing the merits of lunch and debating the possibilities of dinner. When it came to the latter, we were not disappointed.
At dinner, I resigned myself to picking up my pursuit of rosé the following day: A bottle of 2006 Condrieu Le Grand Vallon from François Villard was blaring far too loudly from the solid, nearly French-only wine list. It begged for, and received, a pairing with the salade des legumes avec truffes noires ("Périgord, bien sur," said our waitress when I asked her the origin) followed by the homard avec ceps. I was taken aback by how fresh the food was, especially the salad, whose greens melted in the mouth while the pungent earthiness of the truffle helped light up the Viognier. To finish off, I had a glass of 1970 Darroze Armagnac, and Day 1 in Saint Bart's was chalked up as a success.
Both Nancy and I were interested to see how ingrained eight years of waking up with children would be on our solo vacation. With the shades drawn on our south-facing windows, the room was pitch black and the mattress deep and welcoming. I thought if we made it to 8:30 a.m. (as opposed to the usual 6:59) it would be a surprise. At 8:47 a.m. I was the first to stir, and we were officially in vacation mode.
When staying on Saint Bart's, you need to make some decisions in the morning, because if you get a late start in the day, as we did, you have to manage around the fact that the wine shops close between noon and 3 or 4 p.m.
Gustavia is a small town with a huddle of shops cramped up against the fairly busy harbor. While we were quickly bored by the preponderance of Cartier, Bulgari and Vuitton storefronts, it was comforting to find more than one competent wine shop (even if they had also given in to the arrival of Le Beaujolais Nouveau).
At Le Goût de Vin, a prominent display of various rosés, in bottles of all sizes, forms the centerpiece of the display area, while the walls are lined with a Bordeaux- and Burgundy-dominated selection. Providing a nice contrast is Le Cellier du Gouverneur, where manager Thierry Méon silently emerges from the back after the door’s bell is jangled upon opening. He offers a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau, which in 2008 is rather tart and clipped, but nonetheless manages to get you in the shopping mood. The selection of Alsace (Deiss and Hugel) as well as Loire (Alphonse Mellot, Didier Dagueneau) wines is notable (one of the store’s partners is Alsatian), while the Rhône, Bordeaux and Burgundy also get ample treatment. Prices at both shops are in line with your standard Manhattan retail markup: A bottle of Domaine La Roquète Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2006 (Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Bourboulenc) is 27 euros (currently 1:1.25), while the 2004 Didier Dagueneau Pouilly-Fumé runs 34 euros. We grabbed a bottle of each to stock our hotel room and headed out in search of a lunch spot.
If you take a poll of locals for recommendations, it seems just a few restaurants dominate the scene. But the island is actually awash in eateries. Those who venture off the beaten track, and away from the 27-euro salads that line the beachfront area and the center of Gustavia, will be well-rewarded. Take the small, unmarked, winding road toward the Les Salines area of the island, where just before the end of the road, sitting in front of an inlet and tucked up against an impressive rock face, is Le Grain de Sel. A gentle breeze blows under the tented awning, while a flurry of small white butterflies flitters constantly about the edges of the restaurant. The menu—mostly simply grilled foods—is a fresh, more moderately priced tonic from the financially overbearing restaurants in town. The wine list is short but focused: A bottle of Château Salettes Bandol Rosé 2006 (a blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache and Cinsault, aged 18 months in foudres) offers a creamy texture, with lovely flavors of watermelon rind, mulled passion fruit and cherry pit, with a long elegant finish.
"I don’t think you can mull passion fruit," said Nancy in her unconvinced tone.
"Well, I just did it," I said, nonplussed.
The wine was the perfect foil for the tuna tartare and whole grilled fish. Nancy’s salad with grilled shrimp was good enough for me to warrant suffering through some minor protestation on her part as I picked at it.
Now into our second day, I’m totally into island mode. Bob Marley plays almost everywhere, yet never gets tired. It’s November, yet I’m under a blazing sun drinking rosé and eating Périgord truffles. And for the first time in a long time, I’ve got my wife all to myself.
On the island, service is attentive when you are able to engage them, but it can also be maddeningly nonchalant, a combination of the worst traits of Caribbean and French customs together. This afternoon, sitting by the pool back at Le Toiny, it took 30 minutes to flag a waiter down to bring us a wine list. Another 45 minutes later, no one has returned to see if we actually want to order a bottle of wine.
We’re starting to see a pattern develop that we brushed off the evening before, when at dinner, we were graciously led to the patio for an aperitif and presented with menus, a wine list and amuse bouches (the black olive macaroon and curry spiced shrimp in pastry dough are mouthwatering). But after another 45 minutes we’ve been left for dead, and have to walk back into the dining room to get someone’s attention, where the maitre d’hotel then promptly seats us at the table, only to offer us the menu and wine list once more.
But with Bob Marley, truffles, and an apparent oversupply of excellent rosé on the island, I figured all would come out well in the end. Heading into night No. 2, we decided to brave the nighttime drive (it’s dark and the roads are not well-lit here) back into Gustavia for dinner at The Wall House. More later …
Le Goût de Vin
Rue Oscar II
Le Cellier du Gouverneur
Where to Eat:
Restaurant Le Gaïac
Hôtel Le Toiny
Le Grain de Sel
Kevin Muth — Cincinnati — November 23, 2008 10:24am ET
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