St. Barths is my favourite island in the Caribbean. It ticks all the boxes you’d expect: sunny skies, clear ocean, beautiful sandy beaches… but without the attitude, aggression, grubby tourism, touting and poverty that you find at other Caribbean locations.
Plus, it has great restaurants, French chic and luxury resorts run by owner-proprietors and not by large American corporations.
This Travel Intelligence Report comes in 3 parts…
First off, let’s get the spelling right. It’s not st.barts, it’s “St Barths”. Okay?
Perhaps the ethos of this island is different because of its history. It never had much of an indigenous population on account of its inhospitability to agriculture. Established primarily by French buccaneers in the 18th century, it was later sold to the Swedes in 1784. France repurchased the island in 1878. Consequently, the locals are French and Swedish but the French outnumber everyone else.
Despite the population boom, they never did manage to grow anything here, so everything is imported. But it did become a popular port for pirates.
One might say that the island is still run by French buccaneers, if the prices are anything to go by! Don’t be surprised to spend 100 euros a head for lunch with wine at some of the ‘fancier’ establishments. And by ‘fancy’, I mean tres shabby chic. The island is very bohemian. I imagine this is what St Tropez was like once upon a time – in the Brigitte Bardot era – before it became overrun by Russians and the One-Percenters. Nowadays, it’s a popular destination for Mega Yacht owners, cruise ship day trippers, New York tourists, Island hippies and European Trustafarians.
Leave your blazers at home and plan to spend all day in swim trunks (Villebrequin, of course). Lots of linen, Kaftans and sandals are the norm. Last night at dinner, a gentleman entered wearing a long indian-style, embroidered ankle-length coat. He looked like a salty French Captain Jack (or, frankly, Captain Kangaroo). Suffice to say that nearly anything goes, as long as it doesn’t look like it came from JC Penney.
Food & Beverage
Dine on copious amounts of seafood (flown in, mind you) and Domaine Ott Rose (at 85 euros a bottle in restaurant but 25 euros at the local supermarche). Take a short shopping spree at Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Channel, Todds and others conveniently clustered next to one another in Gustavia. Or, purchase a Patek Phillipe watch sans tax and at a significant discount a stone’s throw away from the cheapest and yummiest island burgers on the planet.
[the watch store is one of the few ‘bargains’ on the island… that is, if you consider spending $100,000 instead of $150,000 on a watch a bargain… Still, they offer significant discounts to most other places – even HK]
Apparently, many of the local fish gorge themselves on poison corral that upset the stomach, so most of the seafood is caught further away. If you are determined to eat local produce, good luck. Nothing is grown here and there’s only so much Dourade and Red Snapper you can eat day after day.
[EDITOR: Photo removed for copyright reasons]
I’m writing this from a pretty villa overlooking Colombier – one of my favourite sea views from the island. When I first came here, I stayed at Le Toiny and, later, at the Eden Roc. Both are very pleasant hotels – institutions, even – but now I prefer to stay exclusively in villas. If you want the creature comforts of a hotel, then hire a chef and stay at a villa within spitting distance of a good resort (Ille de France is only a short 2 minute drive away from where I am now).
If you want to find a good villa, check out Wimco and Sibbarth. The two companies were once partners in villa rentals but have recently split and gone their separate ways. Personally, I find the Sibbarths staff to be more professional and on the ball but I’m sure this changes every season with the revolving staff.
St Barths Useful Numbers – emergency, supplies, restaurants, etc.
The Good, The Bad and The Franchise
Not much has changed over the eleven years that I’ve been coming here (this is my 7th time). I’m with a friend whose been coming here for 25 years and he concurs. However, change is on the horizon and I’m not sure I like what I see.
For instance, much of the charm of St Barths comes from the fact that most of the establishments are run by local owner-proprietors who take pride in their work and do what they do as a lifestyle business. This makes their properties very unique and personable. But a number of owners have sold their stakes and are quitting town. Ille de France is up for sale. Eden Roc has gone on a major expansion spree and lost its charm. Tamarin has sold out. Gustavia now suffers from major traffic jams throughout the day outside of the Christmas period. Furthermore, land rights have been eased, allowing for more construction. Now, everywhere you look you see villas and apartments.
The net effect of all this expansion activity is a gradual corporatization of the island. When the hotel chains arrive, it will herald the beginning of the end.
I hope this doesn’t happen, as it will destroy the heart and soul of St Barths.
I’m signing off for now. It’s time for a gelato run and a sundowner. I’ll post some more later in the week.
In my next instalment, I’ll give some tips on the beaches, hotels and amenities.