St. Barthelemy Avec Amour

written by | Posted on November 12th, 2012

Le Sereno, located on a cove, features 37 suites and three villas

Lunching at Tom Beach Hotel’s La Plage or Nikki Beach St Barth [sic], the sight of so many perfect bodies splashing in the surf between courses almost makes you ignore the artisanal pizza a stunning waitress has just served you. Welcome to St. Barthelemy—aka St. Barts, St. Barths, and St. Barth—where a disproportionate number of women are gorgeous and many of the men look either movie-star handsome or Wall Street rich. Or both.

Not everyone who visits St. Barts is a boldface name, but yes, the stars do shine here. And the astonishing thing is, while other destinations attract the glitterati for a year or two, after which the trend-setters move on to new horizons, St. Barts has been hot since Greta Garbo “vanted” to be alone at Eden Rock in the 1950s.

Remarkable, considering that this famous place is just 9.3 sq. miles of land. It feels much larger, to be sure, because its amoeba-like shape and steep hills make for narrow roads with hairpin turns that encourage (very) careful driving. Also, there’s no denying that St. Barts has several beautiful beaches, such as picture-perfect Flamand and snorkelers haven Columbier in the Northwest, bustling St. Jean in the center, and Saline, accessible only by foot, in the south.

However, nearby Anguilla and St. Martin have some pretty swell beaches, too, so St. Barts has no monopoly in that department. Moreover, this is a destination whose largest hotel—Guanahani, the closest thing to a traditional resort here—has fewer than 70 rooms, and there are only 500 hotel rooms and 800 villas on the entire island. No matter: Year after year, St. Barts attracts the likes of Derek Jeter, Daniel Craig, Ellen DeGeneres, Shakira, The Black Eyed Peas and Paul McCartney. And that’s just a partial list from a single hotel, Eden Rock. So what makes St. Barts so everlastingly hot?

boutique hotels, yes; mass tourism, no

“First, St. Barts never got into mass tourism,” explains Nils Dufau over dinner at Wall House Restaurant, which faces the yacht-filled harbor in historic Gustavia, the capital. The guy at the next table looks like he’s somebody, but Dufau, president of St. Barth Tourism Committee, expertly avoids staring. “We didn’t react to landing on hot lists by building big hotels and tourist traps,” he says. Au contraire, St. Barts enacted restrictions on new construction and on speculators, discouraged stops by large cruise ships, and focused on luxury villas and boutique hotels—“quality, not quantity,” as Hotel Le Village St Barth manager Catherine Charneau puts it.

This self-discipline has helped St. Barts maintain its status as “a beautiful island with unspoiled beaches, major shopping, the best dining, no poverty, no crimes, and so many celebrities that everyone wants to go there,” says Pascale Gherardi, president of tour operator Voyage by Pascale and a French expat who has lived on St. Barts.

Instead of staying within the confines of large resorts, people who choose to visit St. Barts are independent types who rent cars and sample the island’s scattered beaches, 100 restaurants, and joie de vivre. “The population is very young, tanned, and sexy,” says Gherardi, risking understatement. “St. Barts is a bit like fantasy island.” No wonder even Dagmar Lombard, general manager of the acclaimed—and secluded—Hotel Le Toiny, often sells the island first, and then her hotel.

french way of life

Sitting in Bonito St Barths’ hillside terrace restaurant and looking down at the lights of Gustavia while a server places a dish of tuna tataki in front of him, Pierre Eric Houdant, manager of Les Ilets de la Plage, says the fact that St. Barts is populated by “French people who cultivate a French way of life—only it’s France with Caribbean beaches and warmth” is also a major contributor in St. Barts’ success.

Incidentally, the attentive reader will have noticed by now that on this island, important conversations and revelations occur over meals, or at least good wine. That reader may also wonder what the tuna tataki costs. It was $47, and worth-the-trip…delicious.

Gherardi admits that prices on “Little France” are “through the roof,” but, she points out, that helps keep the place exclusive. Most high-season visitors, she notes, are travelers who can afford $2,000 a night. Sure enough, an observer watches a couple stroll through a wine store in Gustavia without flinching at the €1,328 magnum of Haut-Brion.

what’s new

But although St. Barts’ exclusivity, commitment to maintaining its culture and ambiance, and sheer buzz are constants, the details do change, especially as its stellar hotels continue to raise the bar. Two years ago Le Sereno, a 37-suite, Christian Liaigre-designed retreat, opened three sprawling 3 1/2-bedroom villas on a rise above the beach; sit down for one minute by one of the villa pools overlooking St. Barts’ only lagoon, and you don’t want to get up. Ever. Last year Le Sereno opened a new, 2,300-sq.-ft. indoor/outdoor spa featuring fine Ligne St Barth products and techniques.

In 2011 Hotel Le Village St Barth (aka Hotel Le Village St Jean), perched above St. Jean Beach, began replacing Traditional Cottages with Superior Cottages and installing windows in the showers (nice!). Stephane Caubel and Marielle Delaporte redesigned the hotel’s 2-bedroom, private-pool Villa Iguana, and now the new Villa Polaroid is opening with a layout that features three bedrooms, Pop art, and a private pool and garden.

The two restaurants at Eden Rock, the celebrity magnet that invented St. Barts-style tourism, have a new (super) chef—Jean-Georges Vongerichten—resulting in black truffle pizzas, poisson with bok choy, crispy sushi, and desserts that are dangerous, but in a good way.

The other new star of this 34-unit hotel occupying a promontory and part of St. Jean Beach is the Villa Rockstar, a beachfront complex with four master bedrooms, eye-catching decor (e.g. a white-gold bathroom), butler service, a gym, a screening room, and a recording studio. The garage’s toys include two cars and two motorcycles. You say your clients are inviting the Claptons? No problem: Combine Villa Rockstar with 2-bedroom Villa Nina.

In 2011 Le Toiny, the ultra-romantic, mountaintop hideaway, renovated the private pools and terraces at its 15 villa suites. This year its Michelin-starred Le Gaiac (the first Relais & Chateaux restaurant in the Caribbean to earn Grand Chef status) restaurant has been extensively renovated, as have the bar, library, and terrace pool. The views of lower-lying hills and the blue sea? They couldn’t possibly be improved.

Hotel Saint Barth Isle de France, fronting beautiful Flamand Beach, has curb appeal in spades: A semi-circular staircase ascends to a white, plantation-style mansion with a portico and classical pillars. Its beachfront suites underwent a complete renovation last year, with an ingenious mix of traditional and modern furniture, plus white textiles. Surprise: A stone fountain in one suite turns out not to be a reproduction, as one might expect, but a museum-quality original from an English estate. This fall, the garden bungalows across the street also got a makeover.