St. Barts 2023: the end of an era, the beginning of…what? (including an indispensible restaurant guide)

The Spoiled Guest was lucky enough to have been introduced to the tiny, mountainous Caribbean island of St. Barthélemy over 30 years ago, when it was just being discovered by the mainstream travel press and was still a spot where celebrity couples like Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley would vacation unencumbered by anyone’s excessive interest. 

The beach of St. Jean on St. Barts

In those days, St. Barts was a place you went to get away from being seen, rather than a place from which to envy-bomb your social media followers. There were no TVs, no phones (so proclaimed a popular t-shirt at the time), not even of the wired kind, roads were narrow and poorly paved, vehicles were small and primitive, the food wonderful but unpretentious, the accommodations modest and affordable, the beaches wide and uncrowded.

That was then. Each time I’ve gone back, almost annually over the ensuing decades, I’ve wondered when St. Barts would reach that tipping point that is the fate of every paradise, where it becomes a caricature of itself, a warped mirror of travel press clichés and transient visitors’ expectations rather than a place in its own right. 

I regret to report that our most recent visit in February, 2023, after a five-year hiatus imposed by Covid and hurricanes, convinced me that sad moment has finally arrived.

St. Barthélemy — St. Barts or St. Barth to most of us — long ago became synonymous with the sort of high-end luxury beach vacation that attracts both the wealthy and those who want to live as though they were. Its wildly varied dining options still dazzle, its many bays are a shade of turquoise found only in dreams, and it’s still just hard enough to get to (typically by turboprop from Puerto Rico or nearby St. Martin), and hard enough to afford (more on that later) that you can still convince yourself that being there at all puts you in enviable company.

But assuming you can afford it, do you want to? That’s the increasingly difficult question — and one I’d never thought I’d ask.

A little background:

After being passed around among European colonists for a century or so, St. Barts was acquired by France from Sweden in 1878, presumably because Sweden, having recently freed all slaves there, had no further use for it. The French had no idea either, but an enterprising Swede had developed some evaporation flats on the eastern end of the island and, for a long while, salt, rather than Instagram posts, was its principal export.

Things changed forever in 1945 when a French artist who’d grown up in the islands named Remy de Haenen successfully landed a single-engine plane on a field on St. Barts, and today the island’s tiny airport, known for its hair-raisingly steep final approach over a rocky ridge, is named after him.

David Rockefeller built a house on St. Barts in the 1960s, and the rise of international tourism put the little island on the map, though largely beneath popular radar, which remained focused on the easier to reach precincts of the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, and Jamaica.

Starting in the 1980s, New Yorkers and other high-rollers discovered that they could jet down to St. Martin/Sint Maarten, the French-Dutch island where Caroline Kennedy vacationed, and then puddle-jump for another 15 minutes over to wholly French St. Barts, where the food was better, the beaches emptier, the terrain more dramatic, the hotels more intimate and, incidentally, the population a whole lot whiter.

An entrepreneur named Bruno Magras, who happened to be the local cement magnate, started a small turboprop airline called St. Barth Commuter to ferry the rich and famous from the (then) third-world conditions of Princess Juliana Airport in Sint Maarten to the more upscale charms of St. Barts. (He would later become President of St. Barts, a title that belongs right up there with Sausage King of Chicago for sheer panache.)

All was well for a couple of decades, as a reasonable equilibrium was maintained between the influx of American and, later, Russian money and the instinctive French resistance to change. Restaurants and rental villas got more refined and more expensive, the tourism net began bringing in honeymooning couples from Dubuque as well as New York hedge fund moguls ready to burn through fifty grand a week on food, housing, and magnums of Domaine Ott.

Huge yachts began to crowd the harbor in Gustavia (the town center still named for old King Gustav of Sweden), and even bigger cruise ships began to lurk offshore, ready to disgorge throngs of middle-class Americans onto the little streets where Dior and Chanel had set up shop next to humble patisseries and the funky open-air hamburger joint that supposedly inspired Jimmy Buffett’s immortal ballad, “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”

But this delicate symbiosis couldn’t last. The devastating hurricanes of 1995 and 2017 wiped out a lot of waterfront housing and all of those years’ tourist seasons, and the response of local government was to license excessive construction on the island, not all of it remedial.

New rental villas sprouted on every hillside, the airport was gussied up, road projects became endemic, and the steep green hillsides were and are everywhere dotted with construction cranes (which locals joke is the official bird of St. Barts).

The massive increase in rental housing and cruise ship visitations has meant thousands more annual visitors, and the terrain is sprawling and hilly enough that all those additional people need to rent cars to get around. The result during the high season is daily traffic jams in St. Jean and Gustavia, the main commercial nodes of the island. 

Not only the number, but the size of the vehicles has ballooned. Where once everyone drove cheap little open-topped British “Mokes” not much bigger than a golf cart, now the Americans rent big SUVs to make them feel secure when confronted with aggressive French driving habits (you haven’t been tailgated till you’ve been tailgated by a French girl on an ATV with a Gauloise dangling from her lips), 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 when you go to dinner. 

That shark-shaped lump lurking just off the beach? That’s the tipping point.

The locals say that in the last 10 years St. Barts has become more “corporate,” by which I infer they mean not only that foreign-owned legal entities are buying up more and more of the local real estate, but also that the island’s tourist clientele itself has changed, from adult couples indulging their taste for luxury and one another, to motley groups of business employees being rewarded for hitting their sales targets.

Perhaps the most gruesome example of this trend is the obscenely huge “villa” being built by the New York hedge fund billionaire Noam Gottesman on the north side of the island. Chiseled into what was a picturesque hillside and well into its fourth year of noisy construction, reportedly designed to house no less than eight bedrooms, it hangs over Flamands — one of St. Barts’ prettiest beaches — like a massive, dark cloud. When you ask locals how such a monstrosity was ever approved by local authorities, they rub their thumbs and forefingers together in the universal gesture for “money talks.”

The Gottesman monstruosite’ over the beach of Flamands

The threats to the St. Barts tourist ecosystem are not only human. Sargassum seaweed, a thick, brown form of kelp that has bedeviled mariners and beachcombers alike for centuries, has undergone explosive growth throughout the Caribbean in recent years (can you say “climate change” in French?), and after a storm or on a windy February day it covers the beaches of St. Barts with an ugly, smelly carpet, totally at odds with the island’s pristine aesthetic, that has to be raked up and trucked away in order to allow the Upper East Side refugees, AirPods in ears, to once again stroll the sand with equanimity.

Sargassum seaweed befouls the beach at Eden Rock

The uninitiated may find it all acceptable, and no doubt the place can ride on its reputation for a awhile longer, but those of us who’ve been going to the island for over 30 years know the reality: we’re witnessing the end of an era, and greed is steadily destroying what was once St. Barts. 

The only way this can be averted is if the gatekeepers of tourism — the rental agencies, the hoteliers, the travel press — combined with concerned locals and the wealthy New Yorkers and other US citizens like me who’ve enjoyed the place for over a generation, start making noise about the rate and nature of development on St. Barts. Eventually knowledgeable tourism will go elsewhere, and that’s in no one’s interest. 

An aforementioned word about the cost of visiting St. Barts. 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, probably 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 the likes of Elon Musk and Ivanka Trump. A perfectly acceptable hamburger slathered with foie gras at Eden Rock will set you back sixty bucks.

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 such a central element of the St. Barts experience that we’d be remiss if, in a more upbeat conclusion, 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 is a charming, nicely decorated, professionally staffed restaurant serving excellent seafood. Sister to the one in Cannes, in case you were wondering. Ambiance: 4; Food: 4; Service: 5; Value: 4.

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 gone to heaven. No view at night, and frequented then by an older crowd that lingers endlessly, so not particularly recommended for dinner. Great drink menu, and all the old Do Brazil staff is here (see Shellona, below). Ambiance (daytime): 5; Food: 4; Service: 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 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 (daytime): 5; Service: 4; Food: 4; Value: 4

L’Isola – If you just can’t take any more of this island paradise vibe and are pining for New York, go to dinner at 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. 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 passable, prices St. Barts stratospheric.  Ambiance: 5; Service: 3; Food: 3; Value: 1.

Sand Bar at Eden Rock – this old standby’s former incarnation was up the stairs in the Eden Rock Hotel by the beach on St. Jean. It was fun and laid back, though preposterously priced. The hurricane of 2017 destroyed it, and it’s been rebuilt as a much-expanded and glitzified venue where the hotel’s beachside lunch spot used to be. At dinner the beautiful beach disappears into the darkness, and you’re left feeling like you’re in Vegas, with shiny surfaces everywhere, metallic sheathing on the columns, clients more interested in posting on Instagram than eating, and far too many tables for the harried, undertrained staff to accommodate properly. Prettier for lunch, and the food is uniformly good, but the service is randomly inattentive.  Ambiance: 3; Service: 2; Food: 3; Value: 2. 

Black Ginger – a reliable, charming restaurant with a terrific Thai/Asian menu and a pleasant, hard-working staff, in Gustavia. The atmosphere is moodily dark, with gigantic blood-red lighting fixtures, and always fun. Ambiance: 4; Food: 5; Service: 5; Value: 5.

L’Esprit – run by the redoubtable former chef at Eden Roc, Jean Claude DuFour. Out in the boonies near Grande Saline. Once open to the evening air, it’s been covered post-hurricane with an actual roof, which gives it a more refined feel. Food always wonderful but service can be spotty. Tends to attract St. Barts veterans who are pining for Maya’s, an island mainstay that recently closed after 30+ wonderful years. Ambiance: 4; Food: 4; Service: 2; Value: 3.

Shellona– this cornily-named spot on Shell Beach, just over the hill from Gustavia, used to be Do Brazil, a St. Barts institution that had a hippie vibe, great food, and sometimes music. 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 Pearl Beach, below), which may or may not be a good thing. You used to be able to snag a table in the sand, but now that we’ve gone “corporate,” all the seating is upstairs. Ambiance: 5; Service: 3; Food: 3; Value: 4.

Bonito – white-on-white pretty but pretentious, full of aging moguls fresh off the rented yachts in the harbor, eager to instruct their middle-aged children in how to experience the “real” St. Barts. Old-timers who can remember this far back resent it because it replaced a perfectly good, reasonably-priced Thai joint. Get a window seat overlooking Gustavia if you can fight off the wealthy retirees and survive the withering condescension of the hostess. The sea bass is always good, the truffle risotto is out of this world, and for the ultimate in decadence don’t miss the Smoky Whiskey, served under a smoke-filled bell jar.  Ambiance: 5; Service: 4; Food: 4; Value: 3.

La Langouste – Our go-to place for lunch, on Flamands, inside the tiny Hotel Baie de Anges. Unpretentious and charming, with seating next to the hotel’s small swimming pool. Spiny lobster from the tank in back, cod fritters, wonderful crepes suzette, pineapple carpaccio, reasonably priced wine list, hard-working staff. Ambiance: 4; Food: 4; Service: 4; Value: 4.

La Case at Cheval Blanc – within the swanky confines of the LVMH-owned hotel Cheval Blanc (formerly Isle de France), this is a miniature close cousin to Nikki Beach (see below) on the much quieter beach of Flamands. Pleasant seating overlooking the beach, some tables with toes in the sand. Excellent luncheon fare and an efficient, mostly amiable staff, though we were asked to leave after one brief lunch because they “needed the table,” a breach of restaurant etiquette unheard of on St. Barts or, for that matter, anywhere in France. Ambiance: 5; Food: 4; Service: 3; Value: 3.

The Beach Club at Le Toiny – at the Hotel Le Toiny, a Relais & Chateaux on the sparsely-populated extreme eastern end of the island, this “beach club” is reached via a hair-raising ride down a precipitous unpaved road from the hotel in a retrofitted Land Rover Defender (fun the first time, tedious thereafter). The beach itself is one in name only, as it’s rocky and unswimmable except by experienced local surfers, and is actually one of the least attractive stretches of sand on the island. Still, the ambiance is agreeably balmy and thatched, the menu inviting and generally well-executed, but the service can be scatterbrained and at the end of it all you stand in line waiting for the Rover to haul you back up the hill as though you were on a subway platform. Ambiance: 4; Food: 3; Service: 2; Value: 2.

Pearl Beach — formerly called La Plage, this lunch spot is hidden at the back of the Thom Beach Hotel, and is trying to be a less uppity version of Nikki Beach, its so-hip-it-hurts neighbor down the beach in St. Jean. For some reason they’ve darkened the decor and eliminated the actual toes-in-the-sand tables (too messy?), but still worth a visit on one of St. Barts’ most beautiful, see-and-be-seen beaches, with planes zooming off the runway next door. Ambiance: 3; Food: 3; Service: 3; Value: 3.

Nikki Beach — perennially popular and always jumping, this has become the place for lunch by the sand, eclipsing the formerly unbeatable and once-serene Sand Bar at Eden Rock (see above). Fabulous food (the sushi pizza is not to be missed), endless people-watching, engaged, professional staff (you’re not in the full Nikki Beach spirit until you’ve summoned an attractive French waitperson with a Jeroboam of Domain Ott over her shoulder to fill all the glasses of the crowd at your table), spectacular beach outlook. Go, the expense be damned. Ambiance: 5; Service: 4; Food: 5; Value: 4.

Tamarin – the reincarnation of an old warhorse out by Grande Saline, with delightfully lush grounds and an approachable menu. But it’s long since rested on its laurels, service is execrable, and not likely to improve as it hasn’t in the six years since it opened. Ambiance: 4; Service: 1; Food: 3; Value: 2.

Zion — a new entrant to the busy St. Jean scene, with a jungly atmosphere, an open kitchen, and inventive, satisfying cuisine. And we are shocked — shocked! — to find that it’s reasonably priced. Ambiance: 4; Food: 5; Service: 3; Value: 4.

Kinugawa — another new spot, in Gustavia, resolutely focused on excellent sushi and other Japanese fare. It succeeds where earlier attempts at this sort of thing (i.e., Orega) failed. Fun staff, delightful décor (blue ceramic feathers bedeck the walls), vibrant bar. Ridiculously expensive, but hey, it’s St. Barts!

A caveat: we’ve learned over the years that one’s experience of a particular restaurant on St. Barts 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. Barts is, as my wife says, a piece of heaven.

Paradise lost? You decide. À bientôt!

Rainbow over Flamands

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About Keith McWalter

Keith McWalter is an author and lawyer. His essays and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Wall Street Journal. He lives with his wife Courtney in Granville, Ohio and Sanibel, Florida.