As we financial institution in direction of the well-known runway, metres from the seashore of Saint Jean, the visions that fleet throughout my thoughts are of Henri Matisse’s colour-saturated work. It’s my fifteenth go to to St Barths in 20 years however the visible explosion of the arrival – frothy neon-blue sea, acid-green vegetation, brilliant-red roofs – nonetheless makes my coronary heart skip.
People think about St Barths as a tropical model of St Tropez: fairly, charming however teeming with the frippery and posturing of wealth. And it may be that place, particularly round Christmas, when the likes of Jeff Bezos, Barry Diller and Jay-Z and Beyoncé drop anchor simply offshore, turning the harbour right into a type of floating automobile park. Or in April throughout the eight-day annual crusing race, Les Voiles de St Barth Richard Mille (based in 2010 and regarded by many to be the Caribbean’s final crusing competitors), when as much as 80 boats glide across the island like supermodels.
But that’s all an amusing sideshow to the actual star, which is the island itself. St Barths has character in spades – one thing I’m trying to seize for the e-book I’m writing on the colorful French territory (printed by Assouline later this yr). There are boulangeries, traiteurs and pharmacies round each nook; even gendarmes on the streets. Not that it’s completely Gallic: Christopher Columbus was the primary European to set foot right here in 1493, naming it after his brother Bartholomew. The French then colonised, adopted briefly by the Knights of Malta; later Sweden held onto it for nearly 100 years earlier than returning it to France. All their traces are very a lot seen immediately, from the Gustavian structure to the combination of cuisines.
The island has by no means been self-sustaining (largely barren and with no pure water supply, which is why indigenous Carib communities by no means settled there for any size of time); so it wasn’t till tourism got here alongside – because of the imaginative and prescient of French-Dutch aviator Rémy de Haenen, who landed the primary aircraft in 1946 – that it prospered. He constructed the Eden Rock, finally turning it into St Barths’ first lodge. Rockefellers and Rothschilds, Nureyev and Johnny Hallyday began to reach. They fell for its contours, constructed homes, and the jet set started to return in droves. But the distinctive bohemian flavour is right down to those that had been born and reside right here – corresponding to outgoing president Bruno Magras, who for 27 years staunchly maintained his ideas: no huge lodge teams, no golf programs, no tour operators or casinos.
A tiny island, whose widest level takes solely half-hour to traverse in a Jeep, a lot of St Barths needed to be rebuilt following the 2017 harm wrought by Hurricane Irma. I’d heard rumours that the final environment had gotten slightly fancier since. But aside from the opening of two Parisian outposts, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Fouquet’s (a part of the Hôtel Barrière Le Carl Gustaf, above Gustavia), the laidback temper of earlier than persists. Meanwhile, St Barths achieved the virtually inconceivable feat of rebuilding itself in a means that, in case you didn’t learn about Hurricane Irma, you wouldn’t even discover the distinction.
Hotels have all the time acted as social magnets right here. Of its estimated 200,000 yearly guests, roughly 130,000 keep on boats and lots of hire villas. Only a tiny minority keep within the inns, lots of which have solely 15 rooms or fewer; however guests flock to their eating places and seashores. The island’s two most well-known inns, Eden Rock and the Isle de France, had been based by British households: David and Jane Matthews and Charlie and Mandie Vere Nicoll, respectively (Vere Nicoll was, till just lately, the one ordained Anglican priest on the island). The latter couple offered to LVMH in 2013 – the lodge is now known as Cheval Blanc St Barth-Isle de France – and purchased and revamped a much-loved property, Le Toiny, on the wilder south-eastern shore. The three make up, as they all the time have, the island’s golden social triangle, and every has its personal quixotic character.
The Eden Rock, which sits on a bluff in buzzy Saint Jean, is a focus – a spot to eat and take the temperature of the scene. Over the years I’ve seen Rihanna, Leonardo DiCaprio and Bella Hadid all wandering round, and I bear in mind David Matthews as soon as telling me over an extended, boozy lunch how he’d recorded a track with Johnny Hallyday within the mini-studio of the lodge’s Villa Rockstar. It is slightly slicker since its post-Irma rebuild, significantly the brand new Rémy Bar & Salon, designed by Martin Brudnizki (the Oetker Collection, house owners of the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, now manages the lodge), however the younger French seashore crew nonetheless bounce round handing out frozés in paper cones, a French DJ performs on daily basis, and the meals (beneath the course of long-time chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, an island common for a few years) is impeccable.
Cheval Blanc is a bit like Eden Rock’s extra grown-up – and demanding – cousin. LVMH introduced in Jacques Grange to redo the rooms and younger French culinary star Jean Imbert to create the menus at La Case, the primary restaurant, and La Cabane, additional down the seashore within the sand, the place offers are achieved over lunch and supermodels parade. The environment is one in every of grand luxe – Bulgari hosted a pool-side vogue present whereas I used to be there, and there’s a Dior store on the premises – and in addition of cosseting indulgence (witness the personal yoga classes within the backyard’s pagoda with Nicolas Legrez).
Le Toiny is located on the far wilder aspect of the island; its 22 ethereal villa suites achieved in reclaimed wooden and white linen with touches of pink or blue stretch alongside a cliff overlooking the bay the place surfers congregate. This is a spot of huge gentle and massive vistas. Little touches add as much as an abundance of character – the candy carts that take you right down to the seashore membership, as an illustration, which is so standard it’s all anybody on the island can discuss. I’ve lunch throughout my stick with the Vere Nicolls (I first met them 20 years in the past on the seashore at their first lodge, Isle de France), who shout hellos to each desk and giggle with their waiters. “You know, our staff are like family to us,” Charlie says. It jogs my memory of St Tropez’s Club 55 however through Tulum or Lamu – toes within the sand, raffia lamps swaying within the breeze, music and happiness within the air, and a strawberry and red-pepper gazpacho that was so good I ordered it two days in a row.
I meet up with photographer Antoine Verglas in L’Arawak Café for a drink on my final evening. He and his spouse, Christiane Celle (of the Calypso boutiques), have owned a home on the island because the ’90s. We dine on the new outpost of La Petite Plage, which hangs over the water within the harbour. The costs are steep (as they are usually in all places: this isn’t an island for anybody on a finances), the music is loud and the French waiters dance on tables all through the evening. “It’s still the same St Barths, isn’t it?” Verglas asks, as we bid one another goodnight. I give it some thought. There’s all the time been some fancy individual strutting round, but additionally cool French beauties who don’t give a fig for sensible labels or blow-dries, who nonetheless put on bikinis beneath vibrant Poupette clothes to dinner. There’s nonetheless the sublimely lovely drive right down to Gouverneur Beach, which makes the center soar as you catch that first glimpse of its contours. Still my beloved Ligne St Barth bathtub and wonder merchandise, based by locals Birgit and Hervé Brin in 1983, who offered them on to sunbathers on the seashore in repurposed rum bottles. And a lot extra in addition to. So, sure – on stability, it very a lot is.
Vassi Chamberlain travelled as a visitor of Elegant Resorts, flying with British Airways from London Heathrow to Antigua, and with Tradewind Aviation from Antigua to St Barths
Beds, Barths and past… Where to sleep, eat and store on the island
Where to remain
Cheval Blanc Isle de France, from €750
Eden Rock St Barths, from €900
Hotel Le Toiny, from €890
Eating & consuming
Bonito Just off Gustavia’s primary road, this slick restaurant has spectacular harbour views and a Peruvian/Creole/French-inspired menu. bonitosbh.com
Eddy’s Ghetto The atmosphere is old-school tropical, the delicacies is French Creole. Green papaya salad with peanuts and goat curry are favourites. eddysghetto.com
L’Arawak Café Smack bang within the Carré d’Or courtyard, between Hermès and Cartier, and the prime vantage level for early-evening superstar recognizing over cocktails and tapas. +590590-275 323
L’Esprit Jean-Claude Dufour Set in a fairy-lit tropical backyard on the sting of Saline seashore, this is without doubt one of the island’s finest. It excels at unfussy gourmand delicacies, and has an important wine checklist. +590590-524 610
Le Select Opened in 1949, this open-air, ramshackle Gustavia charmer was Johnny Hallyday’s favorite hangout. Usually filled with salty locals smirking on the chichi goings-on. +590590-278 687
Le Ti St Barth The legendary BBQ-style restaurant turns right into a nightly celebration with its personal band, cabaret and table-dancing. Always booked up weeks upfront. tistbarth.com
Where to buy
Clic Bookstore and artwork gallery that additionally sells beachwear and commissioned designer items, in addition to homeware and limited-edition prints. clic.com
Ligne St Barth The first retailer of the wonder model born on the island and now offered everywhere in the world. lignestbarth.com
Lolita Jaca The unique St Barths vogue spot, impressed by the ’60s flower-power woman. Its trademark mini seashore kimonos are a should. lolitajaca.com
Poupette Boho-chic trove of form-fitting silk clothes, tops and palazzo pants in vibrant prints; poupettestbarth.com
Tradewind Aviation operates personal constitution flights all through North America and the Caribbean. From $640pp round-trip.