Twin peaks loomed ahead and finally a runway came into view between and below them.
Treetop (or is that Mountaintop?) Flying.
"You have to have special training to land here," said Buffett.
As we rapidly descended, my stomach dropped and the view became disconcerting. We were at eyeball level with the low mountain off to the left and seemed near enough to touch the greenery off to the right. I've flown a lot, but have never landed on a runway that had such dramatic and dangerous landscape nearby. At the end of the runway was... a beach. Blow the landing, and you'd better be ready to rapidly lift off.
Copilot John Kelly pointed to the windsock at the top of the hill. The windsock is a decidedly low-tech, but visually accurate way to tell what you're about to be dealing with upon landing. The wind was blowing uphill from the sea and as we crossed the tip of the ridge, the plane shot skyward for an instant before Buffett finishing its flight with a rapid descent to the runway. As we passed, I noticed that the other landmark above the runway was a cross. "They put a cross up there so you can pray to God when you see the runway," Kelly said when we were safely on the ground.
Mike Ramos filmed the landing from the hill - click to check it out. (Quicktime)
What a rush. Landing in St. Barts beat any video game simulator that I could ever imagine.
Jimmy stopped the Caravan and pointed it to a grassy area where several other planes were parked. Some looked a bit worse for wear. Buffett pointed to a wheeled Cessna Caravan whose nose was nearly on the ground, "hey man, what do you think of that?"
It was a plane with no nose landing gear to speak of. Next to it was a plane whose propeller had bent off and the wing landing gear was collapsed. Four planes at this airport were out of commission as a result of landing here. Then there was a bigger plane with a crushed rudder. Turns out that it had simply been backed into a hanger.
I asked Jimmy and John about landing here. Apparently training with a special French instructor is required for a landing permit. Kelly called it: "the most difficult flying workout that he had been through in several years."
Jimmy speaks next to a damaged plane.
As we began unloading gear, the first thing that Cameron wanted was his skateboard. Earlier in the trip I had been berated by a customs official for skateboarding across the runway in Exuma, but Cam got off scot free. This time he wouldn't be so lucky. As he pushed his way across the rough concrete, some solid object brought his board to an immediate stop, but his body had other ideas. Cam was rewarded with bright red scrapes across his nose and elbow. After comforting him and drying his tears, Jimmy was philosophical about his son's accident: "Cam will become his own arrestor," he said, "A few more falls like that and I'll never need to tell him to wear pads."
After making our way through customs at the airport, I was given my first view of St. Jean, St. Barts from ground level. Tiny cars made their way along equally tiny roads, and the tiny airport was a flurry of activity. Vehicles of preference seemed to be Suzuki Sidekicks, Samurais and other miniature Japanese vehicles with an occasional Renault or Peugeot thrown in for good measure. The narrow roads seemed to snake up into the hills at impossibly steep angles and the hills were lush and green from a fairly recent dousing from Hurricane Floyd.
Normally St. Barts, and indeed this whole part of the Caribbean, are relatively dry. The air is humid, and often full of puffy clouds, but the strong tradewinds stir the atmosphere and keep showers from forming much of the year. That is, unless an island has particularly high mountains that cause the moisture to condense and fall as rain. St. Barts is particularly hilly, but Marne du Vitet, its highest peak, rises to only about 1000 feet -- not enough to act as a rainmaker. Unless a tropical depression, or worse, a hurricane decides to pay this outpost a visit, rainfall is sparse at best. Floyd was just such a visitor. In late September, this strong storm drenched the Leeward islands, dropping over a foot of rain on St. Barts before moving up the Caribbean and all along the US East Coast. St. Barts would still bear much damaged vegetation, standing water, and beach erosion -- signs from Floyd's earlier visit.
Ramos met us at the airport. He debriefed Jimmy on concert preparations and asked him if he wanted to meet Kino to discuss concert preparations. Originally from St. Barts, Kino Bachellier had the tall order of handling logistics for Jimmy's free show on the harbor. "I don't want to go see Kino right now," said Jimmy, "Let's go to the beach."
Jonesing to surf, Mike told us about the waves on the island -- chest-to head-high and very fun. So to the beach we headed. Apparently there was a good break in front of the Hotel Manapany, and Jimmy also told us of a good break at a nearby place called L'Orient.
Driving around the island, I was struck by differences between St. Barts and other Caribbean islands I've visited. Among the most obvious was that there weren't very many black folks here, and I really didn't detect any pockets of poverty in the places we drove. Indeed, most of the island's 6,000 or so permanent inhabitants are white, affluent and of French descent. French detail defines everything here. From the radio stations, to the small, red-roofed homes, stores and small alleyways to the amazing cuisine. It's as though someone grabbed various pieces of La Mére Paye (the Mother Country) and dropped them down onto this little island of green. The fact that the island is tiny -- 8 square miles -- so hilly, and surrounded by offshore reefs, means that it is able to avoid the twin fates that befall many Caribbean outposts: cruise ship traffic and major international airports. Despite the St. Bart's small size, the topography, its many nooks and crannies, winding roads and number of beaches makes it seem much larger. The island has 18 villages, and its beautiful, cosmopolitan capital Gustavia is straight out of a storybook. St. Barts is positively charming, and positively expensive. The people who live here, have it good, and those who visit here can afford to have it good too.
Things here were not always trés cosmopolitan. The island was first colonized by 60 Catholic settlers from nearby St. Kitts in 1648, they named it San Bartolomé, after Columbus' brother. At that time, the island was a scrubby, rock-soiled outpost with pretty views, good fishing and lousy agriculture. The first settlement was wiped out by Carib Indians, and then resettled by Protestant Huguenots in the late 1600's. While other islands made their money through sugar cane and cotton, St. Barts thrived on Piracy. Its convenient coves provided excellent cover for raiding ships, and its constant windy conditions made for fast getaways.
The island remained a French colony until 1784, when it was sold to the Swedes, who turned their sole Caribbean holding into a free trade port. The island still has many Swedish names on its signposts, samples of Swedish architecture still dot the landscape and Gustavia was named after Swedish king Gustav III.
In 1878, with business trailing off, St. Barts was sold back to the French. It faded back into impoverished obscurity through the late 1900's. In fact, according to Marius Stackelborough, owner of the Le Select, making a living here during the early 1900's was a seriously difficult endeavor. The fact that life was tough, and that there were so few places to socialize, or to serve the number of yachters and merchant marines who were stopping off in Gustavia's port led Marius to open the Le Select. Fifty years later, the bar is still humming and serving beer and cheeseburgers to all.
When latter day pirates like Jimmy Buffett discovered St. Barts in the late 1970's, the Le Select was the social center of the island. St. Bart's obscurity led Buffett, several other celebrities and well-to-do, but generally laid-back French make a second colonization of the island. It was the perfect sort of place to escape the fast-paced world and create an alternate universe. Buffett came here first by boat, and then decided to stay for awhile. He bought a stunning little hotel on the top of a hill called Au Tour de Rocher (Around the Rock) With the opening of his hotel, there became two places to socialize here. But that is a story for another time.
Loaded with boards, we pulled up to the beach at L'Orient to see a beautiful, deserted beach, with a beautiful little swell unfolding across a gorgeous bay. St. Barts is exposed to regular Caribbean tradewind swell in addition to the powerful north swells that make their way south when northeasters run up along the eastern seaboard of the US It wasn't huge, but it sure looked fun. Our small crew wasted no time in getting down to business. The water was perfectly clear and about 82 degrees. Waves were up to head-high and the winds were light. During a lull, Jimmy stared up to a blufftop at a ruined house and smiled. "That's Au Tour de Rocher," he told me, "that was my fateful attempt at running a hotel."
I was stunned at the beauty of Buffett's old haunt and wondered what the view must be like from the dilapidated old house. 'Who owns it now?' I asked.
"I think Letterman owns it," he replied, "but he hasn't done anything with it. Maybe I should buy it back."
A chest-high set came in and Jimmy was in position for the first wave. 'That's all you man,' I hooted. The boss paddled, dropped left and cruised his Stewart longboard all the way in to the beach. The next wave rose up and I paddled for it. As I stood and cruised through the transparent water, the reef below passed in sharp detail. The blue sky and green hills rose above me, and off to my right was a battered reminder of Buffett's former life.
This place didn't even seem real.
Buffett takes a cruise.