St. Barts has some 21 white-sand beaches. Few are crowded, even in winter; all are public and free. Topless sunbathing is common (nudity is officially permitted on two). The best known is St-Jean Beach, which is actually two beaches divided by the Eden Rock promontory. It offers watersports, restaurants, and a few hotels, as well as some shaded areas: There's fine snorkeling west of the rock. Just to the east is Lorient Beach, on the north shore, quiet and calm, with shaded areas. An offshore reef tames breakers save on the wilder western end, where locals and French surfer dudes hang out.
The largest beach on the island is lovely Flamands Beach, to the west, dotted with a few small hotels and in some areas shaded by lantana palms.
For a beach with hotels, restaurants, and watersports, Grand Cul-de-Sac Beach, on the northeast shore, fits the bill. It's narrow and protected by a reef. The shallow lagoon waters aren't great for swimming, but the breezy conditions make it ideal for wind- and kite-surfing.
North of Gustavia, the rather unromantic-sounding Public Beach is a combination of sand and pebbles more popular with boaters than swimmers. There is no more beautiful place on the island, however, to watch the boats at sunset. Also in Gustavia, Shell Beach is awash with lovely little seashells -- or it is when the conditions are right. Rocky outcroppings protect the beach from strong waves. It's also the site of popular Do Brazil, a favored lunch spot as well.
In the picturesque fishing village of Corossol, Corossol Beach offers a typical glimpse of French life, St. Barts style, facing a bay dotted with bobbing boats. This is a calm, protected beach, with brown sand and a charming little seashell museum.
Southeast of Gustavia, Gouverneur Beach, on the southern coast, can be reached by driving south from Gustavia to Lurin. Turn at the popular Santa Fe restaurant (tel. 590/27-61-04; stop for drinks on the way back to savor sensational sunset views) and head down a narrow road. The uncrowded strand is gorgeous, ringed by steep cliffs overlooking St. Kitts, Saba, and Statia (St. Eustacius), but there's no shade. You'll find excellent snorkeling off the point. Grande Saline Beach, to the east of Gouverneur Beach, is reached by driving up the road from the commercial center in St-Jean; a 10-minute walk from the parking lot over a rocky pathway and you're here. Lack of shade doesn't deter the nude sunbathers (the late JFK, Jr., was famously photographed here).
Colombier Beach is difficult to get to but well worth the effort. It can only be reached by boat or by taking a rugged goat path from Petite Anse past Flamands Beach, a 30-minute walk. The lookouts here are breathtaking; several adjacent coves are usually patrolled only by peacocks and mules. Shade, seclusion, and snorkeling are found here, and you can pack a lunch and spend the day. Locals call it Rockefeller's Beach because for many years David Rockefeller owned the surrounding property (Harrison Ford allegedly bought his blue pyramidical house).
More than one local has taken me to the fiercely beautiful Grand Fond, on the Toiny Coast, overlooking a rock-strewn beach and rough seas. Facing the beach (and on the other side of the two-lane road) is a mossy green hill that rises sharply; here, goats serenely graze the pastoral and undeveloped cliffsides.