The Tropicana ring around the earth provides ample palmculture (palm-tree culture) alternatives for backpack nomads, divers, package tourists and everything in between. When vacationers and celebrities seek the ultimate tropical fantasy, they come to St. Barth’s—an eight mile-long, hilly volcanic island epitomizing French chic in the Caribbean sun. A jetsetter dream where the setting overshadows the jets.
This sophisticated, off-the-beaten-path destination is an enduring favorite of the well-heeled. Sexy and far flung, there’s not a single touristy thing about it, which is why famous folks feel so comfortable here. The French Caribbean is completely different from the American Caribbean, which can feel more like the Florida Keys. You won’t find any drinking games or wet t-shirt contests here.
St. Barth’s is used by the French while Americans call it St. Barts. Those not challenged by syllables call it Saint Barthélemy. Either way, the island was named by Christopher Columbus after his brother Bartholomeo. He would be happy to know the island still does not have any large resorts, casinos or golf courses. Not sure how he’d feel about the overflow of barely-there-bikinis.
Supermodels don’t get all the attention here. St. Barth’s is also an international showcase for the world’s finest sail and luxury boats. The hilly marvel has 22 epic beaches that are all public. Its eight square miles are encircled by shallow-water reefs that wow divers from around the world. Because of the island’s petite size, any turn you make lands on dreamy, silky-white sand by the sea. St. Barth’s is rocky and dry because it doesn’t have mountains tall enough to attract regular clouds like neighboring Saba, which supports jungle foliage. There are still a few stream-fed salt ponds close to the aquamarine beaches that, in another era, were vital to what is now a tourist economy. If you don’t rent a car, navigating these narrow, windy roads in a cab costs about five bucks a minute when converted from Euros.
Even though St. Barth’s seasonally overflows with tourists, it’s still remote. Case in point: There are doctors on the island, but all situations requiring hospitalization, including giving birth, require a flight to nearby St. Maarten. And, despite the growth, visitors from urbanity still discover the quaint. The mini harbor town/capital, Gustavia, pairs a likable indoor/outdoor dive bar next to chic boutiques, while salty beer sippers mingle with flashy yacht skippers. Four hundred-foot yachts owned by billionaires moor here for months at a time. Word is that extravagant yacht parties are crashable—pack your tuxedo-themed bathing suit.
If you’re not on a boat, you’ll need a place to stay. Hôtel Le Toiny (pronounced twanee) is a superstar villa resort, restaurant and spa with options for unrivaled privacy. An enduring hideaway since 1992, the private and discreet French Colonial-style resort is located on the island’s underdeveloped southeastern side. Spread across 38 acres, Le Toiny’s 15 elongated, hillside-hugging pastel-colored villas enjoy a private heated pool and terrace with lush vegetation cover that ensures no peepers but still affords stunning views of the Caribbean Sea, a prime surfing beach and mountainous St. Kitts and Nevis in the distance decorate the vistas. Being on the laidback, windy side of the isle resets your clock and the finely-appointed villas maintain that relaxed zone with a Volkswagen-sized bathtub and stocked kitchenette. I recall the bed sheet thread count also being in a league of its own. The onsite Serenity Spa Cottage invites further calm; some deem spas only as good as their massage therapists and its staff delivers.
Le Toiny mirrors the early plantation houses found in the French Caribbean and speaks a rare language to couples seeking the ultimate romantic honeymoon or simply a quiet, reacquainting getaway. Although you certainly don’t want to bar your room attendants from working their magic, they do take the do not disturb sign—a red mailbox flag on the gate fronting your bliss compound—very seriously.
Sustainably designed Le Toiny, far removed from any population concentration, boasts the island’s (and many testify the Caribbean’s) premiere restaurant, Le Gaïac. Its 45-seat open-air balcony has lofty sea views and warm tableside service options. Absolutely French gourmet, the subtle long service is under the leadership of Grand Chef Stéphane Mazières, the first chef in the Caribbean to receive the esteemed Grand Chef Relais & Châteaux award. The refined and sophisticated menu has featured innovative blends of French and Creole influences. Mango crab salad with guacamole sorbet and lime foam, anyone? The restaurant’s covered open-air terrace also overlooks an infinity pool. Gentle tropical breezes flow through the restaurant day and night while the all-white upholstered furnishings create a refined sense of chic. It has mellow live entertainment on weekends and a Sunday brunch buffet that redefines the good life.
Nearly everything on the island is imported and the tap water is desalinated from the sea. Some of St. Barth’s 8,500 residents think it’s growing too fast, but the island’s “movie theatre” is still an open-air affair showing one movie each Friday.
In any country, I trust long walks to create an intimate connection between my host’s soul and my own. The five-mile hike from Le Toiny to Saline Beach is not for everyone—it makes you realize that parts of this island are still completely wild. The first stop is the famed Washing Machine, a tiny cliff-encircled surfers’ beach not recommended for amateur swimming. From there, the hike turns into a bushwhack along the arid ridgeline navigating cactus colonies and thorny brush while scaring packs of wild goats. The meandering trails here are indeed mislaid goat tracks. When the half-mile-long, pristine Saline Beach, one of the island’s nude options, came into view after the two-hour trek, the vacation restarted—there was even a soundtrack provided by a bobbing offshore party boat.
Saint Barthélemy is a French Territory originally colonized in the mid-seventeenth century. Sweden “borrowed” it from France from 1784 until 1878. Today, also being a French Subsection means they can vote in French elections—hopefully they won’t adopt France’s knack for going on strike. The indigenous people called the island Ouanalao…imagine if they could chime in. The Carib Indians also once inhabited this storied isle. They specialized in decapitating visitors’ heads. Caribbean history, though multihued, is seldom an easygoing read. Has the peace returned here? Oui. French wine has a way of doing that.
On a mission to smell all of the earth’s blossoms, I’ve explored 125 countries hunting their bliss—some people call it travel writing. Patriotism, from my perspective, means improving every country. It seems as if St. Barth’s is all set. I strive to be a frontline worker in the battle against boredom and bad news. Again, this island seems immune to the harsh realities gripping the rest of the planet. St. Barth’s makes you wonder, can life really be this fabulous? Anybody you meet who’s also visiting this jewel in the French West Indies shares the sense that today is a very special occasion—with a dash of swank. Pinch.
Visit letoiny.com for more on the quiet side of this island and the deluxe villa resort that embraces its awe. Easy Time Tours is a splendid van ride roam with a twelfth-generation islander, stbartheasytime.com. Kicked-back Maya’s Restaurant has huge seafood portions; owned by affable, relocated Americans, mayas-stbarth.com.
St Barth Essentiel wants to keep St. Barth’s unspoiled for future generations, stbarthessentiel.com. Helene Bernier, is a one-woman tour-de-force opposing a wave of overenthusiastic development on the island presenting itself primarily as Russian billionaires buying out traditional family home plots and building unsustainable mansions.
Bruce Northam’s ramble continues on americandetour.com