Arriving onto the upscale Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy can be a nail-biter. All flights are via small plane, and the landing is a quick, exhilarating – some say scary – dive past a peak to a short, seafront runway that ends at ocean’s edge. Pilots have to be specially certified for the task.
The decidedly French island, which Christopher Columbus named for his brother, Bartoloméo, lies about 150 miles east of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the French West Indies. In addition to commuter flights from St. Martin, Anguilla or San Juan, the island is also accessible by 45- to 90-minute ferry ride from St. Martin.
Locals call the island St. Barth for short, and it’s sometimes spelled St. Bart (St. Bart’s). No matter the spelling, it equals splendid beaches, great cuisine and plenty of luxury.
After David Rockefeller bought a property here in 1957, the little island of eight square miles quickly grew into an upscale tourist destination.
Our tour guide, Claude Questel, told us about Russian tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov’s New Year’s Eve bash that featured a performance by the Black Eyed Peas. Questal himself was assigned to drive actress Salma Hayak to the party and around the island during her stay.
He drove us past a wooden, oceanfront home built by Russian ballet star Rudolph Nureyuv. Rustic – some say eccentric – Maison Nouveau is now a guest villa for rent and remains as the dancer left it. A plaque at the front gate proclaims, “I count only the hours that are serene.”
St. Barth is also a yachting destination with plenty to do on water and land: boat tours, sunset cruises, surfing, scuba diving, sun bathing and hiking. Other favorite pastimes are shopping in Gustavia’s trendy boutiques and sampling the wide variety of cuisines. Wining-and-dining choices are amazing for an island this size. And yes, the French food is fantastic.
There are only about 8,400 year-round residents, a number that’s doubled the past two decades. Part of St. Barth’s charm is the lack of high-rises because of a ruling that no building can exceed two stories.
Our guide escorted us to all of St. Barth’s main beaches, each postcard material, including Grand Fond, Flamands, Gouverneur, Lorient, Saline (named for the nearby salt flats) and our favorite, Shell Beach.
There’s a terrific viewpoint on the far northwest of the island with Colombier Beach to the left and beautiful Flamands Beach to the right. The highest point on the island is 938 feet. Colombier, incidentally, is only accessible by boat or on foot by hiking. From our vantage point, we saw several sailboats serenely moored in its sandy cove.
Churches we spotted along the way included Gustavia’s Saint-Bartholomew Anglican Church, built in 1885 with stones brought from St Eustatius, and circled by a low rock wall. There were several other picturesque churches in Gustavia, Lorient and Colombier.
While in Gustavia, we made a quick stop at 62-year-old Le Select, a hole-in-the-wall bar and shady outdoor café said to be the inspiration for Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” He’s a frequent island visitor.
On the hillside site of historic Fort Gustave above Gustavia Harbor, the squat, white lighthouse has a red top hat bearing the word “Gustavia.” It flashes every 12 seconds, and its original lantern is now on display at the city museum here.
Small properties big on luxury
We experienced three distinctly different properties and can attest that size at the island’s boutique properties does not diminish service in the least.
A regal perch: Hotel Carl Gustaf, named for King Gustav III of Sweden, is perched on a cliff with a gorgeous view of the harbor below in Gustavia, the island’s main town and capital.
Well-designed suites have private plunge pools and gorgeous views. Equally impressive is the property’s hub – one open space divided into reception, bar and dining, a prime spot to watch a sunset.
Victoria’s Restaurant has a great “mystery dinner” of chef surprises that can be paired with wines by the glass (the poached foie gras is delicious).
For pampering, there’s also a two-level Boutique Spa, as well as a fitness center and adjacent hydro-zone area with a huge whirlpool bath, a Hammam and essential oils shower, a jetted footbath with pebble floor, and an ice fountain.
Oh, what a pool:Hotel Christopher is laid out on hillside terraces alongside a rocky shoreline with rooms and suites sporting hip décor in wide swaths of black, white and natural wood, all about openness and leanness – think Scandinavian.
The property centerpiece is a stunning pool with surround wood decking sporting comfortable, cushioned loungers and large, fun, bean-bag-like chairs amid well-placed beach umbrellas.
Suites have 100-square-foot balconies and large windows overlooking the pool and ocean.
Hotel Christopher has two dining options: Taïno and Mango. Mango is feet-in-the-sand casual, great for lunch or sunset snacks and drinks. Taïno Restaurant, a little more formal, is located just off the "living room" space of the resort, a covered open area with a small library and sitting room. Dining can be inside or out with sea or pool views, quite romantic at night.
Exclusive and private, plus fine dining:italics Hôtel Le Toiny sits on 38 acres on the eastern side of the island featuring only 15 pastel-colored Villa Suites – all with fantastic ocean views and private pools – and the island’s most celebrated “gastronomique” restaurant, Le Gaïac.
The hotel “living room,” behind reception, houses the restaurant and its open-air terrace that overlooks the infinity pool and sea. To one side, La Case Bar encompasses two bungalows with one completely open wall. The all-white upholstered furnishings invite guests to come, relax and catch the breeze.
The roomy villas, in French Colonial décor, have a living area, small kitchen, oversized baths, elegant bedrooms with four-poster canopy beds and Frette linens. The piece-de-resistance, however, is that each has a private pool and stone patio terrace surrounded by lush, tropical foliage plus ocean views.
Each stand-alone villa is designed to operate as a well-run home, and Le Toiny’s site remains preserved with natural vegetation, including cacti and St. Barth’s rare Gaïac trees (from which the restaurant takes its name).
There’s a small fitness center and small Serenity Spa Cottage, with rave-worthy treatments and products. The Ligne St. Barth spa products are all natural and made on the island, making perfect take-home gifts. Factory tours are available.
Saint Barthélemy is distinctly French though English is very widely spoken. It remains a casual, chic hideaway with lots of private villas, many owned by wealthy families and celebs, plus a variety of small hotels welcoming French and international visitors – about 200,000 a year.