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Is St. Barths Over?

© Jean-Philippe Delhomme

Overrun with celebrities in recent years, the island is returning to its laid-back European roots.

From a high cliff on the winding hike to Colombier Beach, waves crashing against the rocks below on one side, a giant bed of seaweed bobbing in a tiny cove on the other, St. Barths looks exactly as it might have in the 1950s, when the French-Caribbean island used to be a private playground for the likes of the Rockefellers and Rothschilds. (The former David Rockefeller mansion sits right above Colombier.) Cacti of all sizes line the dirt path, where an occasional turtle lumbers along, and underneath the cloudless sky, the dark-blue waters turn turquoise as they near the shore. Here and there, a green or an orange roof peeks through the trees of the craggy mountains. A carefree European air permeates the tiny island.

Since the ’50s, St. Barths has become a beloved destination for American jet-setters as well as boldfaced names, from former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld to Jay-Z and Beyoncé to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich to, rather unfortunately, the Real Housewives of New York. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is infamous, a time when people show off their yachts in Gustavia harbor and revel in being seen. (Accommodations can quadruple during this week.)

“The island was a refuge with a laid-back vibe—Europe in the Caribbean,” says contributing editor Cathryn Collins, who used to spend several months of every year on St. Barths for more than two decades. “I wouldn’t wear shoes most of the time—I still don’t—and carried a raggedy old monk’s bag to throw a book in for the beach.” Collins’s recent visit in March was the first time she had returned for a long vacation in about six years. “I was busy making a film, but another reason I stopped going,” she says, “was because the island took a glitzy turn.”

Locals admit that during the economic boom eight years ago, the island became overrun by new-money types who came to party and prove a point. “It became too flashy,” says photographer Tierney Gearon, who owns on St. Barths and has spent every summer there for 15 years. Thankfully, however, that fringy European air has returned. With a little help from the recession—which weeded out much of the ostentation, leaving the more modest and genuine, those who truly appreciate that St. Barths is about relaxing—the island has reclaimed its understated exclusivity. “Aside from that one week in December, there’s no party scene,” Gearon says. “It’s a calm, quiet life.”

“It’s a pain in the neck to get to, so you have to love the landscape, the water,” adds Collins. “St. Barths has some of the world’s most beautiful and pristine beaches. You go to lie on the them, to snorkel, sail, hike, read, paint—and you have to be happy with that.” Luckily, St. Barths’s 17 beaches are free and open to the public (and it takes only 20 minutes by car to get anywhere on the eight-square-mile island).

One property that has maintained the refined, boho spirit of the old St. Barths is Le Sereno (rooms, from $635; BP 19 Grand-Cul-de-Sac; 888-537-3736; lesereno.com), on the Grand Cul-de-Sac lagoon on the island’s northeastern side. The handsome, impeccably dressed general manager, Christian Langlade, and his equally chic wife, Sandrine, make it a priority to get to know all their guests, even hosting a cocktail hour every week just for this purpose. And they take their clients’ opinions seriously. “Back when we heard some visitors were looking to party, we suggested trying to create more of a scene or to open another restaurant to add more of that feel,” says Sandrine. “But our guests—65 percent are repeat customers—insisted we don’t, because they come here for the peace.” Christian even experimented by playing music during breakfast, and a few minutes later, he recalls, “the owner called me from New York telling me to turn it off. I guess one of the guests had complained straight away about ruining the atmosphere.”

While St. Barths is known for its wealth of rentable homes (see “Renting on St. Barths”), many hotels have added villas to their properties, providing guests with access to all the hotels’ amenities and services. Perhaps the most impressive of this bunch are Le Sereno’s three 7,000-square-foot villas (from $4,860), created by the renowned French interior designer Christian Liaigre. Opened in 2010, the four-bedroom, two-building villas include a pool, terrace and meticulously landscaped garden (be sure to have breakfast there), all with views of Grand Cul-de-Sac. As he does best, Liaigre, who had revamped the hotel (which has 37 oceanfront rooms) in 2006, created a minimalist sanctuary: Warm dark-wood furniture commands the space, with sleek touches of teak and gray. Just enough bursts of colors can be seen in, say, the two yellow single-seat sofas in the living room as well as the custom red-and-cream accent pillows. Italian Pietra Serena stone can be found in the bathrooms. For those traveling with children, the discerning staff will prepare their rooms with stuffed animals and even custom jigsaw puzzles handcrafted in France and illustrated in Venezuela. Should guests want to prepare dinner for the ten-person dining table, the kitchen cabinets are stocked with Le Creuset cookware. And as public transportation is basically nonexistent on the island, the villas come with a Mini Cooper convertible—perfect for zipping along the twisting roads. Ligne St. Barth spa treatments can be done in guests’ rooms or in the waterfront spa pavilion (watch out for mosquitoes). Le Sereno’s only caveat is that Grand Cul-de-Sac is mostly shallow, making it hard to swim or enjoy the waves. But this makes it ideal for other activities such as Jet Skiing, kiteboarding, windsurfing and paddleboarding, all available right on the beach.

Next door to Le Sereno is Hotel Guanahani & Spa (member of Fine Hotels & Resorts rooms, from $500; Grand Cul-de-Sac; 590-5/90-27-66-60; leguanahani.com). Where muted hues dominate at Le Sereno, Guanahani is a rainbow of yellow, orange, lavender, lime, teal, turquoise and coral. With 68 cottages, this family-friendly property—there are two tennis courts, a water-sports center, a Clarins Spa, a Frédéric Fekkai salon, three restaurants and even a kids’ club—is the largest hotel on St. Barths. Conveniently, there’s an Avis car rental station right on the grounds. There is only one villa, La Villa (from $3,660), with three bedrooms and a private pool, but there are plenty of cottages to choose from, most notably the new lavender Serenity Suite (from $3,470), whose 538-square-foot pool deck and giant sunken whirlpool tub in the master bathroom make you never want to leave.

A quick drive south from Le Sereno and Guanahani is Hôtel Le Toiny (member of Fine Hotels & Resorts rooms, from $740; Anse de Toiny; 800-680-0832; letoiny.com), a Relais & Châteaux property with perhaps the most magnificent views on the island. Located high on a cliff overlooking an old goat trail, palm trees, a salt pond and the dramatic Toiny beach (a favorite among surfers), Le Toiny’s 15 Caribbean plantation house–style bungalows, which underwent major renovations in 2008, have simple white and dark-wood interiors, and each has a terrace with a private pool. All are one-bedroom suites, with the exception of the Junior Suite (one large room) and the 5,900-square-foot, three-bedroom La Villa (from $1,730). The hotel’s Restaurant Le Gaïac is a must-do. Few dining experiences on the island offer such pristine views of untouched nature, and chef Stéphane Mazières’s truffle spaghetti is unsurpassed. Prepared tableside, the spaghetti is tossed with cream, truffle oil and fresh truffles inside a carved-out 77-pound wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano, then flambéed.

On the northern part of the island, on Flamands Beach, is Hotel Saint-Barth Isle de France (rooms, from $620; BP 612, Baie des Flamands; 800-810-4691; isle-de-france.com), which in September joined the Oetker Collection, manager of luxe properties such as the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc on the Côte d’Azur. Though the hotel has adopted a rather scene-y vibe, with guests and Flamands Beach visitors alike donning logo-fied designer labels, Isle de France still offers 39 well-appointed rooms, from Garden Bungalows to the popular Suites on the Beach. The hotel also introduced two three-bedroom Flamands Villas (from $3,560) in December 2010, furnished with plenty of the modern comforts: a screening room, a fitness room and an infinity pool; best of all, there’s private access to the beach. (Something to keep in mind: While Flamands’s deep, clear waters are great for swimming and frolicking, the winds can sometimes blow a lot of sand, making it hard to lie on a lounge chair and read, nap or soak in the sun.)

In Gustavia, St. Barths’s “downtown,” Hotel Carl Gustaf (rooms, from $640; Rue des Normands; 866-297-2153; hotelcarlgustaf.com) offers breathtaking views of another kind, this one of yachts moored in the harbor and the charming orange roofs of the city below. A much more formal atmosphere can be felt here, and it extends to the rooms, although recent renovations, just completed in October, introduce a more contemporary, Caribbean look. While the seven-bedroom Villa Golden Reef (from $6,720 a week) is majestic, with a spiraling mahogany staircase, chandeliers and a 915-square-foot terrace, the two-level rooftop Royal Suite (from $3,230) is the room to book: sleek interiors, a private entrance and an almost-scary infinity pool that looks as if it just drops off the cliff. At Victoria’s, Carl Gustaf’s restaurant, chef Emmanuel Motte changes his Mystery Menu daily depending on what’s fresh, incorporating ingredients like sea bream with cucumber, chiles and wasabi, and wahoo with celery purée.

When it comes to food, locals and St. Barths regulars go to one place: Maya’s (BP 197, Plage de Public; 590-5/90-29-83-70; mayas-stbarth.com). The 28-year-old restaurant on Gustavia’s Public Beach is the island’s social nerve center. “Maya’s is home for me,” says Collins. “It’s practically the only restaurant I go to here.” Owners Maya and Randy Gurley serve the freshest ingredients (the menu changes daily) cooked in the simplest of ways—grilled mahi-mahi, for example, with nothing but a side of vegetables. The waterfront tables are perfect for counting the stars in the silent night sky.

Other favorites in Gustavia are L’Isola (Rue du Roi Oscar II; 590-5/90-51-00-05; lisolastbarth.com) and its newly opened pizzeria, L’Isoletta (590-5/90-52-02-02). When the former opened in 2008, St. Barths was desperate for a good Italian restaurant. In a formal setting—the one downside is that there are no views—chef Fabrizio Bianconi uses ingredients flown in from Italy to create such plates as penne with langoustines in a spicy tomato sauce and homemade veal ravioli. Bonito (Rue Lubin Brin; 590-5/90-27-96-96; ilovebonito.com), a hillside restaurant with a cozy-chic open-air pavilion overlooking Gustavia harbor, has quickly become a popular spot since it opened in 2009. While its specialty is the flavor-bursting, globally influenced ceviche—salmon tiradito; tuna in yuzu juice and black sesame seeds; wahoo with chile, sweet potatoes and corn; octopus with black-olive paste and paprika—chef Laurent Cantineaux, a Daniel Boulud protégé, also turns out a melt-in-your-mouth foie gras and a perfectly cooked Parmesan-crusted rack of lamb.

A bit off the beaten path, near Saline Beach in the south, Le Grain de Sel (Route de Saline; 590-5/90-52-46-05) is a shack-like space helmed by a former Maya’s chef, Eddy Coquin. Like Maya’s, this tiny restaurant, which serves Creole dishes such as goat stew and stuffed christophine (chayote), is filled with locals and St. Barths purists. Either before or after a meal here, be sure to make the ten-minute hike to Saline, which, like Colombier, is protected by the government from development. The waters are virginal, the sand is white and soft. During the afternoon hours of peak-summer days, the sun can get a bit brutal, as there’s little to no shade, but the water is perfect for cooling down, although on windier days, the waves can get a bit rough.

This being St. Barths, storefronts in Gustavia display familiar designer names, from Hermès to Bulgari to Cartier (and Louis Vuitton is opening its first resort concept store here in December), but one well-edited boutique is the original Calypso (Carré d’Or; 590-5/90-27-69-74), owned and curated by Liliane Jossua, founder of Paris’s Montaigne Market. Crammed into this jewel box of a store is everything a woman needs for island life: Missoni bikinis, Maison Michel hats, Liberty bags for the beach, Stella McCartney sandals. KoKon (Rue Fahlberg; 590-5/90-29-74-48), too, carries a smart selection of clothing and accessories, including Lulu Guinness beach bags, embroidered leather pouches and patent-leather sandals. Maryvonne and Gérard Mignot’s Bijoux de la Mer (Rue de la Républic; bijouxdelamerstbarth.com) has become a sort of institution for one-of-a-kind handcrafted pearl jewelry. One of their nine children, Yvan, recently opened his own jewelry line of Tahitian pearls, sea glass, uncut stones and clay beads (mignotstbarth.com). Over at Sabina Zest (St. Jean; 590-5/90-27-90; sabinazest.com), in St. Jean, all the designs, whether loose men’s shirts, hand-embroidered tunics or kids’ jumpsuits, are made on the island. While in this area, cigar aficionados should head over to La Casa del Habano (La Villa Créole; 590-5/90-27-78-73), where managing director Sandrine Lassalle will impart her knowledge about her diverse collection over a glass of rum.

On this French-Caribbean island where everyone seems to know everyone; where hotels, restaurants and shops don’t compete with one another; and where crime is never a concern, the common goal seems to be preserving St. Barths’s natural spirit and special culture. As Tierney Gearon puts it, “The island is such an incredible gem. Even with the changes in the last eight to ten years, it just gets better and better.”

Renting on St. Barths

The island has more villas than hotels, a rather unique situation for a vacation spot. But the reasons are clear: “By encouraging rentals,” says Ashley Lacour, who recently took over Sibarth, a 37-year-old family-run villa-rental company, “we found a way to make St. Barths available to more people without spoiling our beaches and charm with massive hotels.” Sibarth and Wimco are the two main villa-rental agencies here, but while Wimco has properties elsewhere in the Caribbean, Europe and North America, Sibarth is a St. Barths—specific business, with 177 villas in its tightly regulated portfolio. And Lacour makes it a point to hire only locals. “Nurturing our personal connections with the island and our guests is the most effective way to attain the ideal outcome for everyone,” he says. Here, three of Sibarth’s top villas. All come with concierge service as well as daily housekeeping (except Sundays), and private drivers, personal trainers and chefs can be arranged upon request. To book, call 888-334-7609 or go to sibarth.com.

Villa Oto
Location Gouverneur
Number of rooms 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms
Price From $3,215 a night
The best part about the simply furnished OTO is that it overlooks Gouverneur Beach, an area that remains undeveloped. It’s also a quick drive to all the shopping and dining in Gustavia. The living room opens onto an enormous, sunny terrace with, of course, an infinity pool. The kitchen, with its SubZero refrigerator and Lacanche Cote d’Or range, entices guests to show off their culinary skills. One of the bedrooms is in a separate cottage and includes its own terrace for ultimate privacy.

La Danse des Etoiles
Location Pointe Milou
Number of rooms 5 bedrooms, 7 bathrooms
Price From $4,715 a night
The gray stones that make up the exterior and parts of the interior took two years to cut, and dark-wood furniture creates a homey vibe. The infinity pool overlooks Lorient Bay and St. Jean Beach, and all the bedrooms have a private deck with an outdoor shower.

Villa Sand Club
Location Flamands Beach
Number of rooms 6 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms
Price From $14,290 a night
Location, location, location is what Sand Club is all about, as it sits right on Flamands, one of St. Barths’s most popular beaches. The grand entryway lined by a row of palms takes you into the all-white interior, which has punches of bright blue everywhere. The bedrooms feature four-poster beds, while the children’s “dorm” includes four bunkbeds.

Getting There

Anyone who has traveled to St. Barths knows there are no direct flights to the island. JetBlue, Continental, Delta, American and United offer direct flights to neighboring St. Maarten from New York. From there, visitors can take Winair (fly-winair.com) or St. Barth Commuter (stbarthcommuter.com) for the ten-minute flight. Private planes are allowed, but because of the very narrow landing strip, pilots must receive a special permit. There are also ferries, like Great Bay Express (greatbayferry.com), that depart from St. Maarten, usually a 45-minute ride that’s sometimes choppy. High season is from November to May; low season, June to August. Many hotels, restaurants and stores close September through October.