Competition for “Best Caribbean Island” is getting fiercer and fiercer. Destinations such as St Kits, Anguilla or even St Lucia are increasingly establishing themselves as havens of luxury with the aim of catering to the rich and famous. But make no mistake: in terms of gastronomy, luxury boutique hotels, nightlife and turquoise colored bays, the sophisticated yet unpretentious Island of St Barthelemy, or St. Barts as New Yorkers affectionately call it, remains far ahead of its rivals. Indeed, in a truly unique style, St. Barts, an overseas collectivity of France, blends in the glitziness and culinary clout of the French Riviera with the subtleness of the Hamptons, set in a quintessentially laid-back Caribbean environment.
Exclusive destinations are hard to get to and St. Barth, especially, is no exception to the rule. This is mainly due to the islands only airport and the spine-tingling landing strip which is infamously renowned for being no longer than an aircraft carrier’s one. With this in mind, I get chatting to two locals who, with a cheeky grin on their faces, confess to me that not even “Maverick” off the movie “Top Gun” could land his F-14 jet there. We nervously board our tiny propeller driven air craft operated by Winair, a pioneering local airline, who connect Princess Juliana Airport in St Marteen, the regional transport hub, to St Barth ten times daily. One more turn on the runway, and we are off, paradise awaiting!
Following a sweat inducing landing, we are finally on our very last leg of the journey. Nothing more than a mere 10-minute airport transfer stands between us and our beautiful private cottage at Le Guanahani Hotel and Spa, part of the Leading Hotels of the World collection. As we wind ourselves around the edge of the Island and rollercoaster up down it’s lush rolling hills, I can’t help but notice a spectacular array of turquoise bays with golden powdery sandy beaches each lined with rows upon rows of blooming palm trees, chic bars and world-famous restaurants. Discerning architectural and design features that are unlike any other style we have seen on neighboring French islands can be distinguished; and to be honest are more akin to something out of a Stieg Larsson novel, the Swedish master of suspense. Chatting to our driver about them. I discover that St. Barts, was under Swedish colonial rule for just under one hundred years, thereby explaining Gustavia’s Nordic architectural design. This unique, multi-cultural heritage is held onto very dearly by the locals and embodied by the iconic Three Crowns, symbol of the Swedish National Arm, on the island’s flag.
Two flights and one van ride later we finally discover with great eagerness the wonderful charm of Le Guanahani, which in Taino, a local dialect spoken in the region many moons ago, means “welcome”. Le Guanahani, has the luxury of being situated on its very own peninsula offering breathless views of Marigot Bay to the left, where waves roll in from the Atlantic; and Grand Cul de Sac to the right, a reef protected lagoon offering perfect kite boarding and snorkeling conditions. As we step into the comforting environment of the open-air lobby with its walls lined with retro issues of National Geographic and whose front desk looks like a 1920’s luggage trolley, Martein, the properties’ charismatic Managing Director, greets us with a warm welcome and a King Kong Splash; the signature cocktail, which at that stage in our journey was exactly what we needed. Martein, who has been at the forefront of the hotels four-year and $40-million renovation, speaks to us about the amelioration brought to the hotels facilities and assures us that we will have a mesmerizing stay. That, I have no doubt…
Mazing ourselves through the lush bougainvillea, hibiscus and palms to our private, creole inspired cottage, we take in the beautiful scents on offer to us and admire the ways in which, designer Luis Pons, transformed Le Guanahani using the Panama hat (yes, the headwear worn so charmingly well by Sean Connery in “The Man Who Would Be King”) as his pedestal. I’ll get back to this fun fact in a moment.
After several hours “lizarding” by our cottage’s private pool, I catch up with Martein once more, this time for a succulent tasting menu at the resorts signature restaurant: Bartolemeo, headed by Italian chef Nicola di Marchi. Following some brief yet necessary small talk, we get down to the nitty gritty and I question him regarding Pon’s quirky sources of inspiration first, especially the vision behind the Panama hat which I find very inquisitorial. In a bold but assured manor, he tells me that “It’s elegance and refined ways make it the perfect integration of form and functionality” rendering it an object of great inspiration and key to the resorts identity and culture. Slightly perplexed, I think back to my grandma’s dictum: “sometimes it’s the small things in life that matter”. Somewhat clichéd but devastatingly accurate.
When on St Barts, the best and most efficient way to see the Island and appreciate its dazzling beauty in its entirety is by renting a car or scooter. Arnaud at TopLoc has an excellent range on offer and will give you the skinny on where to go and what to do. After picking our Mini Moke, the ultimate St Bart ride, we head straight away to the Island’s best kept secret, L’Anse Colombier Beach, where resident Hawksbill turtles are almost a guaranteed sight. This impeccably kept and blissful beach can either be reached by boat or via a raggedy little footpath, adding to the sense of immersion and escape. As you descend look out for the colorful and pre-historic looking iguanas and the friendly Red Footed Tortoise. Make sure to keep this a secret though or else folk will flock in the masses.
After a testing day of being beach bums, we carry on our culinary voyage that evening with a stop at MAYA’s, a well-established restaurant run by Chef Maya, who grew up on the neighboring French island of Martinique but trained in France; and Randy, husband and Rockstar maitre d’hotel. MAYA’s, which has been set up for close to 30 years, is considered an institution by returning visitors and prides themselves on serving wonderfully fresh Creole food at the water’s edge.
Keen to know more about the Islands past and best kept secrets, I catch up with Nils Dufau, president of the Territorial Tourism Committee of Saint Barthélémy, at Le Tamarin restaurant hoping to unearth some key insights into the island’s beginnings as a jet set destination, and whether the growth that the island is currently experiencing is sustainable in the long run.
Under the branches of a staggeringly beautiful tamarind tree Nils explains that “Everything started with one family” he says, “well actually two, the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds”. Usual suspects, I think to myself. “they bought some land here in the fifties for a handful of dollars and the rest is history” he exclaims, whilst intermittently tucking into his freshly caught grilled “langouste” and sipping on his crisp rose; with what seems like the garden of Eden as setting. Concerned with the island’s ability to remain sustainable amidst the many constructions sights that can be seen amongst the hillsides, I question him on what exactly is being done to make sure areas of natural beauty remain untouched.
Reassuringly, Nils conveys to me that above all, his priorities are to conserve the beauty of the island, making sure that certain areas such as Colombier bay remain pristine and build free. “We do not want to develop mass tourism here, unlike some of our perceived competition in the region. In fact, by law, I am told, the construction of a new build cannot be taller than a coconut tree which makes for an interesting and unusual standard bearer. Finally, as our sumptuous lunch draws to an end, Nils insists on the fact that, whilst there is no doubt that St. Barts remains a destination for the Roman Abramoviches and Jay Zs of this world, especially during the week of Christmas and New Year’s Eve where accommodation is known to quadruple in price, it also offers options for a slightly less extravagant clientele who seek a laid back, family orientated and un assumptive vibe.
This sentiment is echoed by Ashley Lacour, CEO of Sibarth, a pioneering, 37 years old company specializing in villa rentals with a bespoke and tailor-made services, as epitomized by their catchy slogan; “Our Island, Your Way”. Just like you don’t judge a book by its cover, Ashely tells me that: “despite its appearance and reputation, life is casual on St. Barth. Someone very famous might drive around in a Mini Moke and go for Lunch and a Ti Punch, the classic Caribbean drink, at Le Select”, a bar in Gustavia which provides funky vibes and an eclectic mix of people. Ashley goes on to explain that “whilst you tuck into a cheeseburger there, you could well bump into local legend and singer Jimmy Buffet. Rumor has it that it was at Le Select that he wrote the lyrics to his signature song, Cheeseburger in Paradise. “And this”, Ashley concludes “is what makes St. Barts, “St. Barts”. The reality here, is that we all enjoy living and sharing this beautiful haven of peace. Celebrities who live a casual lifestyle here are not bothered, people are not running after them asking for selfies or what not. We are one big family sharing a piece of paradise.”
Back at Le Guanahani, and after a quick game of tennis, it is time for our long-awaited spa treatment at Spa my Blend by Clarins. The Spa area here, oozes a sense of soothing serenity and is the ultimate gateway for wellness, peace and absolute tranquility. In a unique way, treatments here incorporate lifestyle factors such as climate, sleep, diet and stress into the development of its formula. As we enjoy our personalized treatment, we feel the Caribbean zephyr gently impressing our skins and I am quick to doze off to the melodious sounds of waves rolling in and the gentle breeze whistling through leafy palm trees.
Nils had mentioned to me that our culinary sejour on St Barts would not be complete without a trip to La Case de L’isle, Cheval Blanc’s signature restaurant where executive chef Yann Vinsot creates exquisite locally-inspired French food. Here, the design of the restaurant matches the exquisiteness flavors and colors of the food served. Whilst contemplating the infinite Azur of the renowned Anse des Flamands, we indulge in a symphony of incredible food, kicking off with “L’oeuf parfait”, an egg which is steamed for 64 minutes at a temperature of 64 degrees laid on a bedding of asparagus and a drop of caviar on top. “La piece de resistance” will be “L’Agneau decline des frères Metzger”, a slow roasted lamb shoulder sourced from the famous Metzger Brothers, a high-end meat dealer located in the world famous Rungis market.
Sadly, our time on St Barth was ending and as a result am therefore made to be shopping assistant at Le Guanahani’s very own small luxury goods boutique. Whilst cunningly duped into thinking it was mainly made up of souvenir items, I actually find there a curated selection of swimwear, apparel and accessories for men and women. In this moment, my diplomatic and innate negotiating skills come to light as I bargain one hour’s worth of watching her try things on, with one final escapade to one of Ashley’s favorite part of the Island: the rugged and wild l’Anse Toiny; which he tells me offers perfect waves to surf and is renowned for being slightly off the beaten track. At the end of a windy and dusty track, we find recently renovated, Hotel Le Toiny’s, beautifully landscaped beach club garden, where we enjoyed yet another mouthwatering lunch and our last sun kissed afternoon on St Barts before flying back to London the following day.