“….St. Barts … a luxury hideaway for Beautiful People.” So read my guidebook. But who were the Beautiful People? I was headed for a week on that mountainous 8.5 square miles of Caribbean sun and sand so naturally I look forward to meeting the Beautiful People. A nonstop, Newark-St. Martins, a 10-minute puddle jumper over to St. Barts and within 30 minutes I’m afloat in the infinity pool at the Hotel Village St. Jean, gazing out at a sublime view of flowering trees framing azure sea and cloudless blue. So far, so good.
Dinner that night is at the Wall House Restaurant where the owner, Bernard Tatin, greets his guests on the steps, hand outstretched in a sweetly old-fashioned gesture. Taking time out from his busy rounds, he sits with me to give me a brief but much-needed history lesson about St. Barts.
The French claimed the island in 1648 and held onto it until 1784 when they swapped it with Sweden for some trading concessions. The French departed. The Swedes moved in.
Bernard Tatin’s Wall House Restaurant takes its name from the sturdy stone building next door, a leftover of the Swedish days. The Swedes laid out the island capitol of Gustavia and named it for good King Gustav III. He was a bon vivant, a staunch defender of royal privilege who died at 46 after being shot in the seat of his pants at a masked ball. In 1878 Sweden sold the island back to the French for hardly more than a pittance. The Swedes departed. The French returned. Since 2007 the island has enjoyed a special relationship with la belle France: Government is vested in what is called an Overseas Collective with an elected representative in the French parliament.
Let’s start with what you’ll not find on St. Barts. The list is impressive: No high-rises, chain hotels, casinos, day-trippers. No Club Med, Couples Resorts, income tax, open-air market (always such ubiquitous photo op for overweight cruise ship passengers; no overweight cruise ships either). And finally, no golf! How can that be? So what in the world do people do on this uphill, downhill, rock-studded piece of Caribbean real estate? The answer is oh, so simple. They enjoy life!
Gustavia is the hub of island life. Its cobbled streets border the U-shape port where HRH yachts with helicopters atop bob amiably beside the yachts of lesser folk. Only the smallest of cruise ships can put in there. The “Biggies” either don’t come calling at all or if they do, they are relegated to an anchorage “out there” easily seen with a good strong pair of binoculars.
Exploring Gustavia is like doing Paris in flip-flops. Stylish restaurants, sushi bars, barefoot bistros, casual cafés are scattered among elegant little shops and high-fashion salons. Best to ignore price tags!
In any of a dozen ‘boutiques’ a size zero “vendeuse” can sweet-talk you into a $400 T-shirt or $1,000 sunglasses. And out you waltz, all smiles, confident of having acquired the bargain of a lifetime.
Shopping anywhere on the island is a laid-back experience. It’s “take your time.” No one shoves or snickers at your schoolroom French. Indeed, there seems to be an air of geniality, in the streets, the shops, the bars and even in the post office. Car keys are left in parked cars, purses and cameras are safe on the beach and a lost wallet turns up at the gendarmerie.
Is there something special about St. Barts? Something indefinable but decidedly pleasing? Catherine Charneau has an answer.
Thirty-some years ago Catherine’s father purchased land on an uncleared, hillside overlooking pristine St. Jean’s Bay. He built the first villa of what grew into the small, luxurious Hotel Le Village St. Jean where I am staying. Catherine presides over this family-owned hotel. “When my father bought land here ‘tourism’ was a total unknown,” she says. She recalls an idyllic life among fellow islanders, a life of self-sufficiency, of neighbor helping neighbor with no seasonal influx of migrant workers.
“Without casinos or huge hotels, without gargantuan ships disgorging thousands into our tiny streets, we were able to retain our own identity. I call it the Spirit of St. Barts. I think it’s still with us.”
Her family-run hotel is luxurious yet affordable. Across the island Hotel Normandie rates itself economy. True, it has no concierge and not much of a view but it’s a 2-minute walk to l’Orient Beach, which is long, lovely and uncrowded. All of the St. Barts beaches are unspoiled, uncluttered, devoid of vendors and free of charge. There are surfing beaches, toddler-safe beaches and nude beaches. There are “au vent” beaches and “sous vent” beaches (leeward and windward). There are beaches replete with parasol, chaise and waiter. There are beaches where you can stay all day with a picnic hamper and a great book, or a picnic hamper and the love of your life.
In the airport as I depart, I bump into a longtime friend. The Christmas season is just cranking up.
“I’m coming just as the Beautiful People are arriving,” he laughed. “Wrong,” I tell him. “The Beautiful People are already here. They live here year-round.”