St. Barths Online

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Dec 16, 2000

GETTING HERE IS HALF THE FUN

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Luckily for those of us who live in St Barthelemy, this island has only one small flat piece of land that can possibly be used as an airstrip or runway.
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The first air service came to St. Barthelemy in the 1940s, when former mayor Remy DeHaenen discovered that he could land a small plane on the flat savanna not too far from his aerie at Eden Rock. Since he was Dutch, he had seen airplanes before, but you can just imagine the shock of the local population at seeing the first plane circling over the island at a time when cars were still a rare novelty and the only forms of island transport were by shoe leather or mule.
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In the early days of aviation in St Barthelemy, each time a plane arrived the goats moved aside and the planes landed next to the field where the local boys played soccer. For many years passengers waited under a large tree for the next plane to come in. But once a landing strip was established it wasnít too long before the more imaginative folks saw visions of 747s landing in St Jean. But as luck would have it, we are still limited to planes no larger than 21 seats that swoop in over the mountain and screech to a landing before hitting the beach or entering the sea. This landing has developed such a reputation that people at parties the world will tell you all about it. Iíve seen people clutch their loved ones and close their eyes, expecting a regular thrill ride, but the plane almost always comes to a smooth landing and the pilots have got it down to a science.
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Today, the airport is being expanded with a new restaurant and new control tower, but the runway remains the same. Thousands and thousands of passengers come and go each year, and the airport remains a popular place to meet and greet your friends and family. The new building makes us nostalgic for the old one, with its open porch where you could sit and watch the comings and goings, and hand your friends a rum punch to welcome them to the tropics. Things are a little different now, with a real baggage carousel to help move luggage around.
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For the past few months itís all been under construction with a make-shift waitin room outside, just like the old days. But this is the time of year when it seems like everybody in New York and Los Angeles has to come to St Barth so the frequency of little planes flying in and out makes it one of the most popular little airports in the world. Here are a few tips for making the trip as easy as possible. If you fly on American Airlines, you might want to bring only carry-on bags. For some reason American will not transfer bags directly to or from St Barth, although US Air, Continental and TWA will. If you must check bags that are not checked all the way through, you must collect them in St Martin and move them from one side of the airport to the other. There are a few baggage men who can help you do this, and Iíve found that a very visible five dollar bill helps get their attention. Once you have checked in, you need to go to the departure tax window and stand in line, but you do not have to pay the $20 tax if you are in transit (in fact they now allow you 24 hours in St Martin before you have to pay). The departure lounge in St Martin has just been renovated lost its charm. Gone are the outside tables and the long bar where you could get a hot dog, a rum punch and ice cream bars. The new area is air-conditioned and the bar is a themed version of its former self (no more ice cream but the hot dogs are still good).

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And it still amuses me to swoop past the endless groups of tourists who stand on the top of the hill with their video cameras to film the planes as they head onto the runway and head for the beach where there a always a few fearless sun-bathers standing right in front of the plane with their cameras clicking away. Where else can you have so much fun?

More to come,


Ellen Lampert-Greaux


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