Paradise, we all know, is preordained to be lost; every tale of paradise from Genesis on tells us so. Paradise is, by definition, inherently fragile, transient, vulnerable.
The Spoiled Guest was lucky enough to have been introduced to the small Caribbean island of St. Barthélemy – nicknamed St. Barth or St. Barts, depending on who’s talking – in the early 1990s, when it was just becoming mainstream fodder for the travel press and was still a spot where celebrities like Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley could vacation unencumbered by anyone’s excessive interest. Tucked away in the delicate crescent of the French West Indies, a prefecture of mainland France, predominantly white, historically poor, St. Barth was a place you went to get away from being seen, not to be seen. There were no phones (so proclaimed a popular t-shirt sold at the time), roads were hilariously narrow, vehicles were small and primitive, the food wonderful but simple, the accommodations rustic but affordable, the beaches wide and uncrowded.
Each time I go back – and I’ve gone back almost annually since that first visit over 25 years ago – I wonder when St. Barth will reach that tipping point that is the fate of every paradise, where it slips into the ordinariness of everyday life. I regret to report that our most recent visit, in February, 2017, made me think that time may be near.
By now well past its prime as a go-to spot for A-list celebrities and mega-moguls, St. Barth is still just hard enough to get to (typically by turboprop from Puerto Rico or nearby St. Martin), and hard enough to afford that you can still convince yourself that being there at all puts you in the derided but enviable one percent, despite reports that tourism was off up to 20% this season due to fears about the Zika virus. While in halcyon days of yore a Texas oil magnate or New York investment banker might have aspired to own a bungalow by one of St. Barth’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).
Two events have contributed mightily to make St. Barth’s place in the pantheon of the paradisiacal more tenuous. The first was the devastating hurricane of ‘95, which wiped out a lot of waterfront housing and all of that year’s tourist season, and gave lasting license to excessive construction on the island, not all of it remedial.
The second, according to locals, was the election in 2007 of Bruno Magras, owner of a concrete factory and a local commuter airline, as “President” of St. Barth (a position to which Donald Trump would have been much better suited than the one he currently holds). Perhaps not coincidentally, new rental villas have sprung up on every hillside, the airport has been gussied up, road projects are unending, the steep green hillsides are everywhere dotted with construction cranes and earth movers, and some low-end motel-style structures have sprouted near the less-popular beaches like mushrooms after a long rain.
The terrain is sprawling and hilly enough that everyone drives 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 drove cheap little open-topped British “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. That shark-shaped lump out there on the near horizon? That’s the tipping point.
Symptomatic of the prevailing trend is what is happening at Hotel Le Toiny, a Relais & Chateaux on the sparsely-populated extreme eastern end of the island. This is the “wild” coast of St. Barth, and the Spoiled Guest stayed at this hotel –actually a collection of high-end bungalows that the hotel insists on calling “villas” – over 15 years ago, when it was new, and was recently convinced to return there by his lovely wife, who wasn’t around for that first visit and is never one to miss a chance to impersonate Eloise at the Plaza when an opportunity presents itself.
Le Toiny was recently purchased by Charles (“Charlie”) Vere Nicoll, a charming Brit with a curriculum vitae that includes ownership of the hotel Isle de France on the opposite end of the island (since sold to the Louis Vuitton conglomerate) and, improbably, a stint as pastor of the local Anglican church. Like any good hotelier, he is affable as the day is long, but also out to maximize the return on his investment. Hence, the hotel has embarked on a significant construction project that will double the number of rooms from the current 17. The new units, half-built, lay silent during our visit in deference to the high season, but by the end of the year should be complete, a further goose to the housing inventory in keeping with the overall growth trends on the island, but one which can’t be greeted warmly by those of us who remember simpler times.
Our stay at Le Toiny was pleasant enough. The open-air greeting and dining area is serene and smartly decorated, though the view to the distant Anse de Toiny is actually one of the less impressive ones from comparable elevations on the island. Our “villa” –really a one-bedroom suite –was decorated in the standard-issue taupes and beiges, and comfortable if not opulent. A heavy wooden sliding door separated the bedroom from a modest but adequate seating area. The bath was reasonably spacious, with separate tub and shower and his-and-hers sinks. There was a nicely-heated plunge pool on the private deck facing the distant bay. Nothing glaringly deficient, nor anything wildly over the top. One might even say a bit bland, which may be exactly what some are looking for (if you’re looking for it at upwards of two grand per night).
Because let’s be bluntly clear about where Le Toiny sits in the St. Barth tourist ecosystem. It’s for newlyweds whose main activities will occur in bed, the occasional celebrity who wants to minimize contact with humanity, and those who lack the energy or interest to venture out much. If you’re looking for a true “beach” vacation (which is arguably the primary reason to go to St. Barth), this isn’t the place, as the nearest beach — a hair-raising ride down a precipitous unpaved road from the hotel in a retrofitted Land Rover Defender (fun the first time, tedious thereafter) — is rocky and dangerously unswimmable.
In an attempt to address this deficiency, the management has created a “beach club” next to the water, imported a lot of sand, arranged a lot of chaise lounges, set up palapas and tents where lunch is served, and converted a charming old case (as the few remaining ancient stone houses are called) into a boutique. The result is pleasant enough (though of dubious legality according to some locals, who complain that a public beach has been pre-empted and a favorite surfer spot compromised to cater to foreigners), but it seems a bit strained, and all this decorative hand-waving can’t change the fact that this beach club has no ….beach. This, and the fact that the hotel itself is rather remote, miles from the nearest restaurant on an island teeming with them, and a good twenty minute drive over hill and dale to the main shopping and nightlife centers, insures that those who stay here will, deliberately or otherwise, miss much of what St. Barth has to offer.
Moreover, there were minor lapses not representative, we thought, of the Relais & Chateaux brand, especially at this stratospheric price point: our pool deck was infrequently tended, with used beach towels left untouched overnight, and on windy days (which are many on this part of the island) collected piles of plant debris that were never swept up. The front desk personnel were sometimes less than warm (though most of the staff was unfailingly gracious). There is no gym, nor a spa to speak of (only a small treatment room open by appointment only). Hotel vehicles motor about the grounds at all hours, making one feel as though one were in an urban setting rather than in one of the most remote spots on the island.
Most glaring was the surprisingly poor quality of the two dinners we had in the hotel’s famed restaurant. In this elegant place that aspires to Parisian excellence without the fuss, I had a nearly inedible slab of fish of uncertain provenance, while my wife gnawed on a piece of nearly raw lamb loin. I thought it must be a fluke (the experience, not the fish) until I overheard a gentleman at the next table, where some seemingly seasoned St. Barth veterans had just finished their meal, politely but firmly read Charlie Vere Nicoll the riot act over the sub-par fare they too had experienced.
Mind you, this is the sort of place were the trophy wives of Russian oligarchs prop their Pomeranians up tableside to eat along with the humans, and we’re all supposed to find it charming. Complaints are not made, nor presumably received, lightly in these parts.
In fairness, the Spoiled Guest is, well, spoiled, and is used to renting an actual villa, with a couple of bedrooms with baths, a full kitchen, an open-air dining room and living room, and deck and pool, all overlooking the spectacular bay of Flamands, minutes from the airport, St. Jean, and Gustavia, for significantly less than the 2100 Euro per night tariff charged by Le Toiny. You pay your money and you choose your vacation.
Ah yes, the cost of it all. The strengthening of the dollar against the Euro provides some psychological anesthesia for the scalping you will endure, but it’s still the case that 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 Donald Trump. A perfectly acceptable hamburger slathered with foie gras at Eden Rock will set you back sixty bucks (okay, maybe fifty bucks this year with the Euro having fallen to near-parity with the dollar).
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, for the most part, unbelievably good for a small island that imports almost everything from Guadeloupe. Any other Caribbean island will seem culinarily deprived by comparison, and you cry when you think about eating back home.
Eating is a central element of the St. Barth experience, and 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; the overall “Value” rating represents the ratio of quality to cost; again, the higher the better):
La Guerite – on the site of what was for decades the Wall House (an old standby that had seen better days), this newest entry in the Gustavia restaurant scene is vibrant, beautifully decorated, and professionally staffed with young, pretty people serving excellent seafood. Sister to the one in Cannes, in case you were wondering. Ambiance: 5; Service: 5; Food: 4; Value: 5.
Santa Fe – an informal spot where, in decades past, we played pool by the bar, on a high promontory facing south across the sea toward Nevis. The pool table is gone, but sit on the terrace and order the lobster club sandwich and some gazpacho or ceviche, and you can be convinced you’ve died and are in Heaven. Great drink menu, and all the old Do Brazil staff is here (see Shellona, below). Ambiance: 5; Service: 5; Food: 4; Value: 5.
Le Sereno – in the hotel of the same name, on the beautiful, shallow bay of Grand Cul-de-Sac, this lovely circular room (or a table in the sand, if you prefer) can be the site of a wonderful lunch gazing out at the kite-surfers, or a casual but impeccably presented dinner. The serene, uncrowded setting is out of your fondest beachside dreams, the service attentive, and the food remarkably good. Ambiance: 5; Service: 4; Food: 4; Value: 4
Eddy’s – A fixture in Gustavia since time immemorial, it’s a funky, open-air lot festooned with palms and Christmas lights and crowded most nights. Last season we had one of our best meals here, yet this year it was completely ordinary, bordering on bad. Go figure. Ambiance: 3; Service: 2; Food: 2; Value: 2.
Orega – Opened last season; we tried to go again but were prevented by a sudden, unexplained closure of the entire place for a week. When we asked the young proprietor about it, he was defensive to the point of hostility (“We’re just curious,” we said. “I’m not,” he snapped), so we didn’t re-book. When open, it serves French-Japanese fusion fare, which mostly translates as good-but-not-exceptional sushi. Ambiance: 3; Service: 3; Food: 3; Value: 1.
L’Isola – If you just can’t take any more of this island paradise vibe and are pining for New York, go to this uber-popular place in Gustavia. Once inside, you could be on the Upper East Side, or for that matter in almost any high-end Italian restaurant in any major city in the States. Hopelessly loud and full of Americans who seem to think this is the height of sophistication, it’s like you never left home (if that’s what you go on vacation for). Food is merely good, prices St. Barth stratospheric. Ambiance: 2; Service: 3; Food: 3; Value: 1.
Maya’s – a popular mainstay, also expensive and full of Americans every night, but pleasantly laid-back and welcoming, run for the last 30+ years by the ever-amiable Randy Gurley and his chef-wife, Maya. Ambiance: 4; Service: 5; Food: 5; Value: 3.
Eden Rock – up the stairs by St. Jean beach in the Eden Rock Hotel. A bit overblown, but fun, in an incomparable location. Ambiance: 5; Service: 4; Food: 3; Value: 2. And for lunch, nothing beats the scene or the food at the beach-side Sand Bar at Eden Rock; spectacular sushi, wonderful gazpacho, riveting people-watching, on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Really. Ambiance: 5; Service: 4; Food: 5; Value: 4.
Black Ginger – a reliable, relatively new restaurant with a terrific Thai/Asian menu, in Gustavia. The atmosphere is moodily dark, with gigantic blood-red lighting fixtures, and always fun. Ambiance: 4; Service: 5; Food: 5; Value: 5.
L’Espirit – run by the redoubtable former chef at Eden Roc, Jean Claude DuFour. Out in the boonies near Grande Saline. Food always wonderful but service can be very spotty, and they could try a little harder with the furnishings. Tends to attract a picky New York crowd, who are inevitably disappointed that it isn’t Maya’s. Ambiance: 3; Service: 2; Food: 4; Value: 2.
Shellona– this cornily-named spot on Shell Beach used to be Do Brazil, a St. Barth institution that had a hippie vibe, great food, and sometimes music. Under new management, it’s been dragged into the 21st century, gussied up, and made more like every other beach-side hot spot on the island (see Nikki Beach or La Plage, below), which may or may not be a good thing. Snag a table downstairs in the sand. Ambiance: 5; Service: 3; Food: 3; Value: 4.
Bonito – white-on-white pretty but 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 joint. Get a window seat overlooking Gustavia if you can fight off the investment bankers and survive the withering condescension of the hostess; otherwise you’ll be ignored for long stretches by the self-important wait staff. The sea bass is always good, and for the ultimate in decadence don’t miss the Smoky Whiskey, served under a smoke-filled bell jar. Ambiance: 5; Service: 3; Food: 4; Value: 2.
La Langouste – Our go-to place for lunch, on Flamands. Unpretentious and charming. Spiny lobster from a tank in back, cod fritters, wonderful crepes suzette, pineapple carpaccio, reasonably priced wine list, hard-working staff. Ambiance: 3; Service: 5; Food: 4; Value: 4.
La Plage – in the Thom Beach Hotel, this is a less uppity version of Nikki Beach, its so-hip-it-hurts 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: 3; Food: 3; Value: 3.
Tamarin – the dramatically resuscitated reincarnation of an old warhorse out by Grande Saline, with delightfully lush grounds (including the famously irascible parrots, now caged to protect the patrons) and an approachable menu. But it’s already begun to rest on its laurels, service is execrable, and who knows how long it will last. Ambiance: 4; Service: 1; Food: 3; Value: 2.
A caveat: we’ve learned over the years that one’s experience of a particular restaurant in St. Barth can be very inconsistent year to year, and sometimes even meal to meal. Take all these reviews with that grain of salt, but also with the grateful recognition that even a mediocre meal in St. Barth is, as my wife says, a piece of heaven.
Paradise lost? Not quite yet. À bientôt!