The little island of St. Barthélemy –St. Barts, as it is most popularly known — lies nestled in the delicate southward crescent of the French West Indies, east of Puerto Rico, a stone’s throw from St. Maarten. We’ve visited it almost every winter for over twenty years, most recently this last February, 2015. It’s French and predominantly white and historically poor and well past its prime as the go-to spot for A-list celebrities and mega-moguls. Now the waves of real celebrities have moved on to other shores and the island is touted by every travel agent in Des Moines as the place for little Lindsay and Biff to have their honeymoon. It’s crawling with middle-class Midwesterners along with the entrenched seasonal population of cellphone-enslaved New Yorkers, and has been thoroughly raked over by the travel press. What more is there to say?
Well, a few things are worth noting about the present-day St. Barts. It’s still just hard enough to get to (typically by boat or plane from St. Maarten), and hard enough to afford that you can convince yourself that being there at all puts you somewhere in the derided but enviable one percent. In fact, while once a Texas oil magnate or New York investment banker might have aspired to own a bungalow by one of St. Bart’s many turquoise bays, nowadays you have to be a Russian oligarch or own large swaths of Argentina to afford to buy land there, and it has become shockingly expensive even to visit (more on that later).
We’ll leave to other sources the oft-told tales of St. Barts’ history (a chaotic colonial badminton match between France and Sweden), its climate (benignly tropical), its terrain (seven disjointed miles of hills jostling each other above the blue Caribbean), its beaches (varied and numerous), the experience of landing on its famously-tiny runway (still heartstopping), which celebrities have most recently been there (don’t know), and which restaurants are in or out (ditto, though you will find below a candid rating of our current favorites). The Spoiled Guest wants instead to describe what it’s like to be there now that it has become a cliché.
Much of the attractive beachfront (and there is no unattractive beachfront on St. Barts) is owned either by the French government (St. Barts is a prefecture of mainland France) or by private individuals of stubborn Gallic temperament, and they and the island fathers have commendably continued to resist the incursion of big hotel chains and large cruise ships (though some smaller ones can occasionally be spotted offshore). The few hotels here are of human scale; some are quite old and faintly shabby, though the oldest, the Eden Rock Hotel, became Euro-chic sometime last century and these days is painfully hip. Sofitel is the one, notably French, hotel chain that has a foothold here, in an odd little set of isolated bungalows on Pointe Miliou, a part of the island where, in Gallic irony, there is no beach. Apparently Louis Vuitton’s empire just acquired the Isle de France, a charming little formerly independent hotel on the beach of Flamands that teems with Americans from Christmas through Passover. Whether this bodes good or ill we cannot say, but we’re guessing ill.
The devastating hurricane of ‘95, which wiped out a lot of waterfront housing and all of that year’s tourist season, gave lasting license to a good deal of construction on the island, most of it more entrepreneurial than remedial. New rental villas have sprung up on every hillside, widened roads encircle the gussied-up airport, and some low-end motel-style structures have sprouted near the less-popular beaches like mushrooms after a long rain. Some changes are innocuous: the Match supermarket, where once , in headier days, we spied Gerard Depardieu padding along the aisles in his bare feet with a little red plastic shopping basket, is now a Marché supermarket (though we persist in calling it the Match). Gerard, we take it, has moved on to Russia.
Speaking of Russians, you can tell how well the Crimean economic sanctions are working by how many Russians are in St. Barts in February. We can report that they had a much less obvious presence this winter than just a year ago. Last year, one of those aforementioned Russian oligarchs had berthed his enormous yacht, looking for all the world like a CGI rendering out of a James Bond movie, outside of Gustavia harbor, for which privilege he reportedly funded most of the cost of the island’s brand-new soccer and tennis complex. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my many years, it’s that the French will take anyone’s money (they may not act like they like it, but they’ll take it).) This year that dreadnaught was nowhere to be seen, and it was much easier to get lunch reservations in restaurants that last year were choked with high-rolling Bolshies.
Still, the island has become almost hopelessly congested with vehicular traffic. The terrain is sprawling and hilly enough that everyone rents a car to get around, and the profusion of new villas has meant thousands more annual visitors. The result during the high season is daily traffic jams in St. Jean and Gustavia, the main commercial nodes of the island. Where once everyone got around in cheap little open-topped “Mokes” not much bigger than a golf cart, now the Americans and Russians need big SUVs to make them feel secure when confronted with French driving habits, and Mini Coopers are the Moke of the moment. Hence roads have been widened, driving speeds have risen, and good luck finding a parking space. It’s reached the breaking point – meaning the point at which you start to wonder if being there is all that much of an upgrade from, say, Fort Myers.
In the antediluvian (literally) early ‘90s, a popular T-shirt sold in St. Barts was imprinted with an outline of the island and the words “No Phones.” It was a point of local pride, and it was true. When I and the investment banker friend with whom I shared the cost of a beachfront villa wanted to make a call to an important client, he and I would trudge down the road to the nearest pay phone with a plastic card loaded up with Francs (in those days) and pass the handset back and forth between us. Now, of course, wi-fi is ubiquitous, the New Yorkers at the Isle de France wander up and down the beach with cellphones stuck to their ears, and all the villas have satellite dishes sucking American television from the sky. If you weren’t blinded by the sunlight or intoxicated by the intense blueness of the sea or distracted by the French language lilting around you amidst the Brooklyn accents, you might think you’d never left home.
Unless you looked at a menu. Did I mention the place is expensive? Modest little lunches for two, admittedly including a bottle of nice rosé and perhaps a crepe suzette or cappuccino afterwards, will routinely run you a couple of hundred dollars. Dinner is in the realm of high-end Manhattan venues frequented only by hedge fund managers and maybe Michael Bloomberg. A very nice hamburger at Eden Rock will set you back sixty bucks (truffled fries are extra).
Don’t misunderstand: after the initial shock and rationalization that you can always take out a second mortgage, you cease to care. The French don’t really know how to cook badly, or make merely passable wine or so-so bread or indifferent coffee, and being surrounded by white sand and a warm turquoise sea sure hasn’t taught them. The food is unbelievably good for a small island that imports almost everything from Guadeloupe (except chefs, who are apparently imported directly from Paris). Any other Caribbean island will seem culinarily deprived by comparison, and you cry when you think about eating back home. Eating is, in fact, such a central part of the St. Barts experience that we would be remiss if we didn’t offer the following candid ratings of a completely idiosyncratic sampling of local restaurants (scale of 1 to 5, the latter being best):
Maya’s – a popular mainstay, full of Americans every night, run for the last 30+ years by the ever-amiable Randy Gurley and his chef-wife, Maya. Ambiance: 4; Service: 5; Food: 5.
Eden Roc – up the stairs by St. Jean beach in the Eden Roc Hotel. A bit overblown, but fun, in an incomparable location. Ambiance: 5; Service: 4; Food: 4.
Do Brazil – on Shell Beach, a great, modest lunch spot with a hippie vibe, and sometimes music. Ambiance: 5; Service: 3; Food: 3
Black Ginger – a newcomer with a terrific Thai/Asian menu, in Gustavia. Ambiance: 4; Service: 5; Food: 5.
Espirit – run by the redoubtable former chef at Eden Roc, Jean Claude DuFour. Out in the boonies near Petite Saline. Food always wonderful but service can be very spotty. Ambiance: 4; Service: 3; Food: 5
Bonito – pretty but insufferably pretentious, full of hedge fund wannabees fresh off the rented yachts in the harbor. Old-timers resent it because it replaced a perfectly good, reasonably-priced Thai eatery. Get a window seat overlooking Gustavia if you can fight off the investment bankers and survive the withering condescension of the hostess. The sea bass is always good, and for the ultimate in decadence don’t miss the Smoky Whiskey, served in a smoke-filled bell jar. Ambiance: 5; Service: 3; Food: 4.
La Langouste – Our go-to place for lunch, on Flamands. Unpretentious and charming. Spiny lobster from a tank in back, cod fritters, wonderful crepes, pineapple carpaccio, reasonable wine list, hard-working staff. Ambiance: 3; Service: 5; Food: 4
La Plage – the less pretentious version of Nikki Beach, its neighbor down the beach in St. Jean. Great food with your toes in the sand on one of St. Bart’s most beautiful, see-and-be-seen beaches, with planes zooming off the runway next door and the occasional fashion show from the in-house boutique. Ambiance: 5; Service: 4; Food: 4
Tamarin – the dramatically resuscitated reincarnation of an old warhorse out by Grande Saline, with delightful grounds (including the famously irascible parrots, now caged to protect the patrons) and an approachable, delectable menu. Ambiance: 5; Service: 5; Food: 4
Gaiac – in the remote and exclusive Hotel Toiny, this expensive, elegant place aspires to Parisian excellence without the fuss. No view to speak of, but the fettuccine Alfredo alone is worth the visit. Ambiance: 4; Service: 5; Food: 4
There are those who attempt to go to St. Barts on the cheap, as though they were backpacking through Costa Rica. This is not recommended. My wife and I witnessed a trio of none-too-svelte American women enter a restaurant at the height of “first seating” hour and announce that they were just there for dessert. The proprietor politely directed them to the bar, where they proceeded to cozy up to a man who appeared to be a direct descendant of Harry Belafonte, and openly mooched his dinner. One can only guess where this led, but I’m sure it was nowhere good.
So what does one do here, other than eat? We get up when we get up, usually early by our own standards (what is it about the absence of a requirement that makes the result desirable?). In the kitchen of our little hillside villa, the automatic coffee maker has begun its interminable dripping of hot water through the French roast grounds, and maybe we’re off to the little patisserie up the road for a fresh, fat beignet stuffed with cream or jam, and the day’s baguette. Then we SPF up and lie down in the sun to read. (Another sea change: we used to ship a crate of books ahead to St. Barts and work our way through it during the stay. Now we just bring iPads. We accept this as progress.)
In times past we would spend a few days struggling with some guilt about work. We’ve matured. The fax machine in our villa has become a charming antique. Whereas previously a vacation in St. Barts was a frivolous interruption of an important job, now it is the job. We pull out the binoculars and with renewed seriousness study the topless sunbathers up the beach for signs of fleeting celebrity.
The days of a longer stay tend to assume the languid indeterminacy of a childhood summer. Is it Tuesday or Thursday? Did it rain yesterday, or was that Monday? And if it does rain for a day or two, you don’t panic with betrayed disappointment the way you would if those were two precious days out of your one precious week. We laugh at the rain, and open another bottle of Barbeyrolle.
Eventually the days dwindle down, as the song goes, and you begin to count the number left before you have to climb on the little turboprop that will haul you heavily out of here and back to St. Maartin or San Juan, and then get on some packed cigar tube for the long flight home. But for now there are a few more sinuous little mountain roads and rum-embroidered naps not yet taken, and sunset dips in the translucent sea, and though they are working hard on it all over the island, they’ve not yet succeeded in making St. Barts easy to leave. Not just yet.