By Ron Bernthal
Forget the turquoise waters off Grande Saline beach, or the spectacular view from Morne de Grand Fond. Don’t even think about the picturesque harbor of Gustavia, or the quiet little fishing village of Corossol. You can shrug your shoulders at the balmy winter nights, or the ever-present smell of jasmine.
After all, the island of Saint Barthelemy, more commonly known as St. Bart’s, IS in the Caribbean, and is just one of several dozen West Indian island paradises where warm January evenings, white sand beaches, and the sensual ambiance of the tropics are almost taken for granted.
But if so many Caribbean islands offer similar physical amenities, how come St. Barts collects so many celebrities each winter that some writers are calling the island “Hollywood South.” Recent sightings on the island include Tara Reid, Uma Thurman , David Letterman and Penelope Cruz.
“Oui, oui, Madonna was right there,” said Marc du Bonnet, the boyishly handsome owner, with his stylishly gorgeous wife Veronique, of the popular harbor-side restaurant L’Escale. “There are so many of them that come in every night during the season that we don’t pay much attention anymore,” he said, as he joined the wait staff bringing plates of fresh poisson, salade, bifsteak, and pommes frites to the tables.
At the end of each evening, after the entrees have been served, the restaurant manager, Terence Bachiri, a Steven Segal look-alike, dressed in black and sporting a long pony-tail, sticks a CD (perhaps a jaunty Edith Piaf or 60′s rock n’ roll) into the PA system and guests take turns dancing between the tables. “It’s what serves as island entertainment,” Mr. Bachiri said, as he eyed two young women, in mini-skirts and tank tops, dancing together in a close embrace.
“This past winter one of the paparazzis took a photo of Brad Pitt by his pool,” said Laurie Smith, the British general manager of the very upscale (what isn’t here?) Le Toiny Resort. “He was with a young lady, whose name I can’t reveal, and he got quite upset.”
“We only have 12 suites here, and most are usually filled with people who don’t want their photos taken, so we try to be quite protective of them,” Ms. Smith said, as she walked along the lush grounds of the property. At Le Toiny, where in-season rates can start at $750 per night, the suites are fully booked from mid-December to mid-April.
One afternoon I was driving my rented jeep (the ubiquitous door-less, roof-less Suzukis) around the island, whizzing up and down the narrow roads, exhilarating in the incredible sun-splashed beauty of St. Bart’s, when I stopped to pick-up a hitch-hiker.
Anna, who looked so French in her sandals, pareo, and tank top, turned out to be a young American woman who had been trying to make a living on St. Bart’s for the past three years. This can be a prodigious task for someone without a work visa, a limited knowledge of French, and a modest bank account. But whatever the situation, conversations begin with celebrity sightings.
“I always see Kathy Lee Gifford in St. Jean,” she said, as we drove through the dry interior of the island to an area called Camaruche.
“The last time I saw her she was yelling at her kid Cody,” Anna said, her sun-lightened hair blowing in wispy strands around the inside of the jeep. The celebrity stories on St. Bart’s are rampant, everyone has at least several, told in a casual, off-handed way, as you would tell a funny story about a sibling or a close friend. Although St. Bart’s had begun to feel like an office party at People Magazine,the stories were fun and gossip, on an island with only 5,000 year-round residents, is unavoidable.
Anna had done whatever she could to remain on St. Bart’s. A boutique failed, so did a frozen yogurt shop. She found some work as a waitress, and as crew on a local sailboat. After Hurricane Luis ripped across the island last September she helped repair damaged hotels. But in the end, it was too much of a struggle.
“You really need to be connected to one of the established French families, or have your own money, in order to live here permanently,” she said. “I’m going back to the States soon, I have no more money, but I’ll think of another way to come back. Once you’re here for a while, it’s impossible to think about living anywhere else.”
“We live in a celebrity culture, and St. Bart’s is a celebrity island,” a middle-age St. Bart’s businessman told me during lunch one day at Filao, a 15-bungalow beachside hotel.
“The island is known for its cuisine. Every restaurant offers excellent French dishes, and celebrities love to eat good food and drink the best wines. On other islands, even if you have the money, you can’t get real French food.”
“This is an island with an attitude,” Maurice continued, smiling at his choice of words. I asked him if he means this in a negative way.
“No, no, the attitude of this island is fantastic. It is so typically French in some things, like the food, the language, the topless beaches,” he said, adjusting his heavy-looking Breitling watch and Porsche sunglasses. “But, there is also the Caribbean influence. No jackets or ties for the men. Simple dresses for the ladies. There are no traffic jams here, no tension, no labor strikes. It is how the small towns of the French Riviera were 20-30 years ago.”
St. Bart’s is so typically French because it is part of France. Legally, it is a dependency island of Guadeloupe, which in turn is an Overseas Department and Region of France. Thus, St. Bart’s participates in French elections, has 13 gendarmes (hardly necessary, there is no crime here) sent from France on two-year assignments, regards the French franc as local currency (although everyone accepts dollars), and imports almost everything from France, including mineral water, floor tiles, bathroom faucets, lots of wine and cheese, clothing, furniture, appliances, paper goods, and of course the current French newspapers, magazines, and television shows. They do have great boulangeries, however, and the baguettes are baked fresh every morning.
St. Bart’s was discovered by Columbus in 1493 and named for his brother, Bartolomeo. It was not permanently settled until 1673, when Frenchmen from Normandy and Brittany started small dairy and vegetable farms. The agriculture was poor, however, and much of the island’s wealth during this period came from French pirates who swarmed to the island, bringing with them vast quantities of plunder taken from Spanish galleons.
The island’s heritage took a strange turn in 1784, when it was sold suddenly to Sweden by Louis XVI. While the French population continued to farm, the Swedes sent a small delegation that renamed the harbor Gustavia, after their king, and declared it a neutral free port.
France repurchased the island in 1878 and has held on to it ever since. The Swedes left their mark, however, in the names of several streets, and in the blonde hair of many descendants. St. Bart’s is also one of the few Caribbean islands with out a sizable black population, since the dry and hilly terrain hindered the development of plantation crops like sugar cane and cotton.
“When I sailed into Gustavia, in 1974, there was only one yacht in the harbor,” said Peter O’Keefe, a 57-year old American who has lived on the island since the late 1970′s.
We were sitting on the terrace of his hand-built, barn-red, wood house, on a hill overlooking the village of Lorient and the Caribbean Sea. It was difficult to imagine a more idyllic setting.
“There was little law enforcement down here in the 70′s,” O’Keefe said, as his French-born wife, Laurence, and their four year-old son played nearby.
“I had a degree in architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design but I always wanted something different, ” O’Keefe said. “This island was a popular place in those days for a certain type of rough crowd. At the same time, some French and American movie stars started to discover the charms of this out-of-the-way place, and when money and glamour begin to rub shoulders with petty thieves and adventurers, well, you have all the ingredients for the creation of a new in place.”
O’Keefe, who bought his few acres of land in the 70′s, and who built the house and constructed the steep driveway himself, has seen his simple real estate venture mature a hundred-fold in value. Still, the island remains simple, albeit wealthy.
“Remember, we’re almost into the 2lst century and the island’s largest hotel has only 70 rooms. Most of the places have 6-20 rooms, and there’s no movie theater, no casino, no fast-food outlets,” O’Keefe said, as we compared development on St. Bart’s with its more developed island neighbor of St. Martin, 15 miles across the open blue sea.
Although tourism is now St. Bart’s only source of income, it is remarkably free of commercial clutter. The island’s political bosses, long-standing families descended from the original French settlers, have made a conscious decision to maintain the island’s early reputation as a secret little French paradise, somewhere in the Caribbean, where rich and famous people go to avoid the rest of the world.
They’ve done this by keeping prices high, the airport small, and by not selling building permits to the highest bidder. They are presently fighting a Burger King franchise that wants in, and are raising passenger port charges to keep cruise ships out.
Bruno Magras, the current mayor of St. Bart’s, can trace his island ancestors to the 17th century. He vows that the island will never become another Caribbean mass tourism destination.
“There is always a thin line between development and exploitation,” Mayor Magras said. “We are such a small island, with limited space, so we must be very careful with our resources and tourist levels.”
St. Bart’s only real town, the port of Gustavia, is built around a small harbor filled with multi-million dollar yachts and old wooden fishing boats. The cafes and restaurants are low-key and expensive. A cheeseburger at Le Select, where locals claim Jimmy Buffet wrote his famous “Cheesburger in Paradise” song, will set you back about $12. High-price shops, like Hermes, Gucci, Polo, and Cartier are neatly tucked away among unassuming weathered 19th century buildings. Because Gustavia is a duty-free port, however, there are bargains to be found on certain products, such as French wines and perfumes.
Outside of Gustavia the countryside is dotted with small hotels, private villas, and wonderful little restaurants, often with outside terraces overlooking the sea, or perched on a hillside, with stunning views and fragrant breezes.
The entire island is only eight square miles, crisscrossed with 25 miles of narrow, roller-coaster style, concrete roads, just barely wide enough for two jeeps to pass. Fortunately, the tourists drive slowly, while staring with amazement at the tire-squealing antics of the crazy locals.
St. Bart’s seemed so Disney-like in its perfection–the weather, the food, the exquisite little villages, the attractiveness of the people–that I kept asking natives who lived on the island if I was missing something. Were there no problems in this paradise?
“C’est quand meme ravissant,” said Catherine, a thirty-something St. Bart’s mom who I met on the beach at Gouverneur. While admitting the island was certainly ravishing, she mentioned that her children would have to finish their education on Guadeloupe, or in France, since there is no high school or ollege on St. Bart’s.
She also said that food prices are high because everything has to be imported, and unless you have your own well, fresh water from the desalination plant is extremely costly.
“But for the prices you pay you get this,” she said, waving her arm around in a full circle, as if to include the entire island in a single gesture.
As we talked the sun slowly descended into the sea and a fragile light painted the rock cliffs behind the beach a soft purple hue. Catherine, who wore only a bikini bottom, turned to help her 7 year-old daughter look for oysters under the rocks. The calm, simple arrangement of mother and daughter against the rock face, both bathed in the soft Caribbean twilight, seemed a perfect metaphor for St. Bart’s..
Unless you’re starring in a TV show or feature film, or have a large trust fund, stay away from St. Bart’s during the winter season, mid-December to mid-April. Rates at the top resorts are astronomical, airfares are at their peak, and dinner reservations at St. Bart’s’ restaurants are next to impossible to obtain.
Off-season, however, prices drop dramatically and the pleasures of the island become quite affordable.
From the U.S., the principal gateway is St. Martin, where connections are made with inter-island air carriers for the 10-minute flight. American Airlines provides daily, non-stop service from Kennedy Airport to St. Martin. Excursion fares, based on travel dates, are available. 800-433-7300). Ferryboat and catamaran service is also available from St. Martin. These trips take about 1 1/2 hours.
The following hotels are offering special summer packages:
St. Bart’s first hotel, the Eden Roc, built in the l950′s, has been renovated into a charming six-room property overlooking St. Jean Beach. $200 per night, double, includes breakfast (800-932-3222)
The Carl Gustaf Hotel has a five-night package which features a suite with a private plunge pool overlooking the harbor; welcome cocktail, fruit and champagne; daily breakfast; one dinner for two persons, all taxes and gratuities. Price is $2,400 per couple.(800-948-7823)
The island’s largest resort, the 76-room Guanahani Hotel offers a seven-night “French Caribbean Escape,” with deluxe accommodations, breakfast daily, seven days’ car rental, catamaran trip, one gourmet dinner for two. Price is $2,340 per couple.(800-223-6800)
Since many deluxe hotels on St. Bart’s charge $700-1000 per night during season, off-season packages provide good value.
If you prefer to rent your own villa, complete with swimming pool, kitchen facilities, housekeepers, and cooks, you should contact WIMCO,a U.S.-based company with over 200 properties on the island to choose from. Prices range from $500-5000 per week. (800-932-3222) With dozens of excellent French restaurants, it is impossible to get a bad meal on St. Bart’s. Prices range from $15-100 per person. The Second Annual Festival Gastronomique, to be held in April, is a two-week celebration of French cuisine with chefs and vintners invited from France for the occasion.
For further information on St. Bart’s, including a list of hotels, restaurants, and upcoming special events, contact your travel agent, or the French Government Tourist Office, 444 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022
© Ron Bernthal – No editorial content, portions of articles, or photographs from this site may be used in any print, broadcast, or Web-based format without written permission from the author or Web site developer.