By Alan Flusser
This summer, courtesy of last-minute minutia surrounding my book’s completion, I did not get to go off to my beloved southern Italy and France. Trying to find a French beach substitute, my better half Hope and I found ourselves discussing the possibility of voyaging to the French Caribbean island of St. Barthélemy, a place neither of us had ever been. Of course, the first hurdle was getting Hope to accept that in flying there, we would have to first take a ten-minute flight in a small plane from St. Maarten to St. Barts, culminating in what everyone promised was a harrowing drop above a protruding mountain range down to a short runway.
Despite a longstanding fear of heights (you will not find me climbing up a ten-foot ladder for any reason), unlike Hope I’m okay in small planes landing on rudimentary runways in faraway places. Jetting our way down to St. Maarten, however, we braced for the next leg. May I say the collective warnings were not totally unjustified. The descent has no difficulty fixating itself in your permanent memory.
Arriving physically intact, we were hustled off by the hotel’s airport staff. Checking in at our Villa Marie Hotel, we inquired as to whether the air conditioning was up to American sub-70 degree standards. Was it ever. Escorted to our bungalow with its panorama view of the island, my next act followed strict tradition: I opened up the room service menu. You can learn a lot about a hotel’s self-image and sophistication from what they recommend in the way of food. I ordered a Chicken Caesar salad for the Madame and a watermelon and Chevre confection for the Monsieur. In no time, I was tucking into the most divine feast any NYC foodie could possibly imagine. Exhorting Hope to come running, after a few bites she was likewise gesticulating to the stars. The food’s gastronomy was simply off the charts. Everyone had explicitly warned us that the island’s food was expensive, but no one had bothered to tell us it was extraordinary.
The next day we rented the smallest of cars and took off to explore and hopefully uncover what made St. Barts such a favorite with the international jet set. We soon realized the other bit of information no one had bothered to share with us: the driving conditions. As much of St Barts is built on, or around, or carved through steep formations of rock, the roadways are no wider than the precisely calibrated width of two Mini Coopers. You drive at your own considerable peril. After returning home and re-engaging the subject, all of a sudden the responses were more like, “You couldn’t pay me to drive down there.” So much for knowing the right questions to ask when choosing a vacation retreat!
We continued celebrating our first full day by having lunch at the famous Nikki beach club. Although usually slammed from stem to stern with party-minded denizens (there’s a full-time DJ and entertainment on weekends), we just waltzed in to commandeer any table of our choosing. The food was impressive; a better Pina Colada, gazpacho soup, and Chicken Caesar salad cannot be imagined. Should you be so inclined, at most of the beach clubs you can kick off your shoes between courses and saunter down to the beach, taking a quick dip in the azure Caribbean to cool off before returning for the next dish. Our concierge encouraged us to take some beach towels for just such an opportunity.
There is no way to get around it: St. Barts is not for the weak of wallet. It tends to attract the type of vacationer familiar with the deeper-pocketed side of life. As there is virtually no food grown on the island, everything is imported, mostly from Europe. (Hence the food prices.) The most high-falutin hotels are the first to fill up, while many regulars prefer the multiple bedroom butlered villas, with a chef and full staff. Those traveling high on the hog anchor their fully-stocked yachts just off the coast for easy access to and from the island. Having booked so late, we were fortunate to find our hotel from St. Tropez — Villa Marie — with its own recently-opened resort that fit our budget and palates just fine.
June is a far cry from St. Bart’s high season or a travel agent’s likely recommendation, but over the course of our week we slowly came to the conclusion that it may well be the best month to actually decamp there. Regaled by locals as to just how tourist flooded the St. Barts winter season can get, the typical wait for even a pre-reserved lunch could add another hour to the proceedings. As for navigating the island’s claustrophobic driving grid, one accident could easily bring an entire neighborhood to a standstill. Au contraire June found us purring along with no traffic to contend with, dropping into restaurants for lunch or dinner at our leisure, and according to many locals the weather is amongst the island’s most enjoyable and dependable.
Of course, no world-class playground for the Sancerre set can exist without a serious shopping component. Perusing the island’s principal shopping district, it became evident that many of St. Barts’ brands shared the same Mediterranean outposts: St. Tropez, Capri, and Ibiza. In fact, St Barts’ retail center was laid out in a kind of St. Tropez-like warren of small streets and boutiques, with even its central meeting place modeled on St. Tropez’s famous Senequier Bar (the unusual shape of its chairs and tables being a dead giveaway).
With its beautiful shoreline, its brand of high-brow yet low-key luxury, and a cuisine that inspiredly combines Caribbean and Gallic tastes, St. Barts is definitely a style destination all its own. That being said, what might be the island’s most compelling attraction is its people. Whereas most Americans favor the Italian’s warmth over the French’s supposed hauteur, St. Barts may well be one of the best advertisements for France and its historical culture that for centuries defined the art of living and luxury for the rest of the world.
Unlike other Caribbean islands where the locals can be at odds with their own tourist industry making it sometimes unsafe to wander about, the St. Barts police station closes at 5PM. As the island’s evening draws to a close, any unpleasantness must be set aside for the next day.