Travelogue – Saint Barthélemy
Last summer we spent a week for my birthday in the volcanic Caribbean island of St. Barts, or Saint Barthélemy (St. Barths) as the French call it in the French West Indies. Miami is 3.5 hours away and St. Barts lies 160 miles east of Puerto Rico and immediately south of the French and Dutch shared island of Saint Martin, where we flew into to jump on a noisy seaplane for a 15-minute journey across the water to St Barts. The flight is not for the faint hearted but there is the option of a boat, which takes slightly more than an hour.
The island has a jet-setting reputation of photo shoots, paparazzi and huge homes owned by billionaires that mostly sign idle. The haunt monde reputation began in the 1950’s when David Rockefeller bought two plots of land, including one on Gouveneur Beach. That move compelled the Rothschilds to follow and they arrived with a suitcase of cash and developed an estate in a coconut grove nextdoor to the Rockefellers. Today the Rothschild property is the Hotel Guanahani & Spa.
The island certainly has an air of chic. A mixture of St-Tropez sophistication with Caribbean laissez-fare, but the island doesn’t come across as pretentious. Just over 9,000 people permanently live on St. Barts, although around 200,000 tourists visit the just over 9 sq. miles during it’s summer months.
Discovered by Columbus in 1493, and named for his brother Bartolomeo, St. Barths was first settled in 1648 by French colonists from the nearby island of St. Kitts. Except for a brief military takeover by the British in 1758, St. Barths remained in French hands until 1784, when it was sold suddenly to Sweden by one of Louis XVI’s ministers in exchange for trading rights in the Swedish port of Gothenburg.
France repurchased the island almost a century later, and then in 1946 other French West Indies island’s Martinique and Guadeloupe, which governed St. Barths, were given the legal status of a Department of France with the same privileges and responsibilities as those living in France. The citizens of all three islands were given French passports, were expected to pay French taxes, and obey laws formulated in Paris.
Suddenly a man living on the streets of St. Barts had the same equal rights as Louis Vuitton! Following a referendum in 2003, which came to fruition in 2007, the residents of St. Barts sought separation from the administrative jurisdiction of Guadeloupe and became an Overseas Collective. A governing territorial council was elected for its administration, which has provided the island with a certain degree of autonomy, similar to the relationship between the United Kingdom and Bermuda. Oddly St. Barts was in the EU until 2012, when it finally ceased being it’s furthest outpost. The Euro is the island’s currency and close your eyes and it is easy to forget that you are not in French France.
There are still elements of the Swedes’ time on the island, particularly in the architecture, and also the name of the island’s capital Gustavia, named in honour of King Gustav III of Sweden.
Gustavia, once a place to buy arms and trinkets, is now the place to barter for expensive handbags and watches, but it had certainly retained it’s charm and simplicity. Still a major port town and home to the countries deft-defying small runway and airport, it was well worth a meander around the cobbled streets. Handsome wooden and stone buildings remain with vestiges of the Swedish era everywhere. Little Anglican churches perch on hills and houses coloured in Caribbean pastels glimmer in the sunshine.
Pelicans skirt around the harbour and the myriad of very nice, and very expensive boats. The Rue du Bord-de-Mer is full of restaurants, high end shops and real estate agents. On the other side of the harbour is the renovated Wall House Museum (below), a survivor of the Swedish era. This two-story stone building houses the island’s library as well as its principal history museum.
A very pretty beach can be found at the end of the runway at the Gustav III Airport as tiny planes fly low above, but access to the zone right at the end of the runway is strictly forbidden. 17th century forts line the water, although a very odd statue of a ginormous bear with a camera around it’s neck stood at one end! Wasn’t really sure to the relevance.
Gustavia is very casual by day, although when I say day, I mean afternoon. Not much happens here before midday. Tom’s Juice Bar was a great stop for coffee, smoothies and lunch, but it was pretty sedentary during the day. However after dark, high heels, busy restaurants and noisy bars set a different tone.
People watching is at a premium and tourists and locals watch from waterfront cafe terraces sipping on fancy drinks. Up in the hills above the narrow streets restaurants peer over the town. Bonito was one. It had one of the most extravagant drinks list I had ever seen, one of which was served in a mini bath with a rubber duck. Between the two of us we pretty much went through the card! Dinner was a blur, but Bonito was fantastic helped by a brilliant bartender.
For a couple of days we hired a little Fiat 550, which was a lot of fun to drive around the islands’ narrow roads and secluded sandy beaches.
Saint Jean has a battery of canons in the middle of the bay and is surrounded by green hills. If it’s trendy boutiques you want then the island’s best are here along with plenty of nice looking restaurants including the outdoor Le Piment, where I ate the best garlicky clams. The highlight of Saint Jean’s coast is Eden Rock, the island’s first hotel, and a well known haunt to the rich and famous. The hotel was built by Rémy de Haenen, an adventurer and pioneer of aviation in the Caribbean, and who served as the island’s mayor from 1962 to 1977.
The hotel stands like a jewel on a rocky promontory surrounded by shallow clear water and coral reef. One day we had lunch at the hotel’s Sand Bar, whose tables and chairs reflect of the water. Masterminded by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten the menu was excellent as was the service, whose waiters, as my starry-eyed-other-half reminded me, were very handsome in their ‘Beach Boy’ t-shirts.
Better still was Shellona, sat on a beach with an inexhaustible amount of small shells. Shellona is below the Hôtel Barrière Le Carl Gustaf. Equal parts restaurant, bar scene and beach club the Greek inspired food was magnificent as was the people watching. Pretty young things, men and women, sipping on French rose and dressed in a mere nuance of a bathing suit. It made a old man on his birthday very happy.
We stayed in Pointe Milou, a north-eastern peninsula without a beach, which was fine by us as the stunning infinity pool at the Hotel Christopher hung over the ocean from it’s cliff top position. The views were breathtaking, and the staff excellent. Tortoises roamed nonchalantly around the gardens, one of whom almost made it into our luggage as our daughter wanted to take one home. The Mango Bar was perfect to sit and do nothing and the Taino restaurant served good food, but the lack of options reminded us that we were staying during the final week before the hotel was shuttered for the winter.
The Hotel Christopher was closing from the end of August until the end of November, when Christmas brings the island’s busiest season. This and the majority of the other hotels close around the same time also for the hurricane season, which brings me onto the main reason I waited to write this Travelogue.
It had been 37 years since the last major hurricane invaded St. Barts, but less than a week after we left St. Barts and flew from Saint Martin’s Princess Juliana International Airport, Hurricane Irma battered both islands and caused widespread destruction and disastrous flooding. Wind gusts were recorded as high a 199mph. Scores of homes and buildings and much of the island’s infrastructure was fatally damaged with the majority of the island’s population left stranded without water, electricity or phone service. The estimated economic losses were put at $500 million with total insurable damage across both St.Barts and Saint Martin put at $4 billion. 11 people died in St. Barts and Saint Martin as a result of Irma.
It was a tragic story, although 90 miles east Barbuda was practically ripped off the map and it is hard to comprehend that one day my family are sat in the airport in Saint Martin and a few days later a hurricane ripped it to shreds.
So, I have been keeping an eye on the restoration work in St. Barts and I am pleased to report that it is making a strong recovery. St. Barts airport bounced back quickly, although there was little there to damage. Half of the island’s 28 hotels do remain closed including Hotel Christopher, which plans to open in time for Christmas as does Eden Rock. The Hotel Barriere Carl Gustaf where I spent my birthday has struggled and is not expected to re-appear until 2019, although Shellona I believe does have some kind of restaurant service. St. Barts is home to approximately 800 villas and more than 50% have re-opened and the remaining 400 plan to be open for the upcoming winter season.
70% of the Hotel Christopher suffered damage and it’s restaurants were completely destroyed, but work continues on the €8m renovation. The Bonita Resturant was severely damaged and lost it’s roof and most of it’s furniture and the bar we were sat at. Bonita did re-opened in March.
Some islands won’t be as fortunate, such as Puerto Rico where 9,000 homes are still without power, this as the hurricane season returns. But in St. Barts the green hills are back as is the spirit. Undoubtedly there are people willing to invest in the restoration of St. Barts and not just the billionaires, and the Go Fund Me campaign #stbarthstrong has helped many small businesses back into operation.