As we head towards the famous track, a few meters from the beach of Saint Jean, the visions that cross my mind are those of the paintings saturated with colors of Henri Matisse. It’s my 15th visit to St Barths in 20 years but the visual explosion of arrival – foamy neon blue sea, acid green vegetation, bright red rooftops – still makes my heart skip a beat.
People imagine St Barths as a tropical version of St Tropez: pretty, charming but full of thrift stores and postures of wealth. And it can be that place, especially around Christmas, when Jeff Bezos, Barry Diller, Jay-Z and Beyoncé drop anchor just offshore, turning the harbor into a kind of floating parking lot. Or in April, during the annual eight-day sailing race, Les Voiles de St Barth Richard Mille (founded in 2010 and considered by many to be the ultimate Caribbean sailing competition), when up to 80 boats glide around the island like mannequins.
But it’s all just a fun show for the real star, which is the island itself. St Barths has character to spare – something I’m looking to capture for the book I’m writing about the colorful French territory (to be published by Assouline later this year). There are bakeries, caterers and pharmacies on every corner; even gendarmes in the streets. Not that it is entirely Gallic: Christopher Columbus was the first European to set foot there in 1493, giving it the name of his brother Bartholomew. The French then colonized, followed briefly by the Knights of Malta; later, Sweden kept it for nearly 100 years before returning it to France. All their traces are clearly visible today, from Gustavian architecture to the mixture of cuisines.
The island was never self-sufficient (largely barren and without a natural water source, which is why indigenous Caribbean communities never settled there for a long time); it was therefore only with the arrival of tourism – thanks to the vision of the French-Dutch aviator Rémy de Haenen, who landed the first plane in 1946 – that it flourished. He built the Eden Rock, eventually transforming it into St Barths first hotel. Rockefeller and Rothschild, Nureyev and Johnny Hallyday began to arrive. They fell in love with its outlines, built houses and the jet set started to arrive in droves. But the uniquely bohemian flavor goes to those who were born and live here – like outgoing chairman Bruno Magras, who for 27 years has held firm to his principles: no big hotel groups, no golf courses, no tour operators or casinos .
A small island, the widest point of which only takes 30 minutes to cross by jeep, much of St Barth had to be rebuilt following the damage caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017. I had heard rumors that the general vibe had become a bit more whimsical since then. But apart from the opening of two Parisian outposts, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Fouquet’s (part of the Hôtel Barrière Le Carl Gustaf, above Gustavia), the laid-back vibe of before continues. During this time, St Barths has achieved the nearly impossible feat of rebuilding itself in such a way that, if you didn’t experience Hurricane Irma, you wouldn’t even notice the difference.
Hotels have always acted as social magnets here. Of its estimated 200,000 annual visitors, around 130,000 stay on boats and numerous villas for rent. Only a tiny minority stays in hotels, many of which have only 15 rooms or less; but visitors flock to their restaurants and beaches. The two most famous hotels on the island, Eden Rock and Isle de France, were founded by British families: David and Jane Matthews and Charlie and Mandie Vere Nicoll, respectively (Vere Nicoll was, until recently, the only ordained Anglican priest on the island). The latter couple sold to LVMH in 2013 – the hotel is now called Cheval Blanc St Barth-Isle de France – and bought and refurbished a much-loved property, Le Toiny, on the wilder south-east shore. The three form, as they always have, the golden social triangle of the island, and each has its own quixotic character.
Eden Rock, which sits on a cliff in bustling Saint Jean, is a focal point – a place to eat and take the stage temperature. Over the years I’ve seen Rihanna, Leonardo DiCaprio and Bella Hadid walking around, and I remember David Matthews once telling me over a long, drunken lunch how he had recorded a song with Johnny Hallyday in the hotel’s mini-studio. Villa Rockstar. It’s been a little smoother since its post-Irma reconstruction, notably the new Rémy Bar & Salon, designed by Martin Brudnizki (the Oetker Collection, owners of the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, now manage the hotel) , but the young French beach team still jumps distributing frozen in paper cones, a French DJ plays daily, and the cuisine (under longtime chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a regular on the island for many years) is impeccable.
Cheval Blanc is somewhat the more adult – and demanding – cousin of Eden Rock. LVMH brought in Jacques Grange to redo the rooms and young French culinary star Jean Imbert to create the menus for La Case, the main restaurant, and La Cabane, further down the beach in the sand, where business is do during lunch and the models parade. The atmosphere is one of great luxury – Bulgari held a poolside fashion show while I was there, and there’s a Dior boutique on the premises – and pampering indulgence too (witness the private yoga sessions in the garden pagoda with Nicolas Legrez).
Le Toiny is located on the wildest side of the island; its 22 airy villa suites made of reclaimed wood and white linen with pops of pink or blue stretch along a bluff overlooking the bay where surfers congregate. It is a place of great light and great views. Little touches add up to an abundance of character – the adorable carts that take you to the beach club, for example, which is so popular everyone on the island can talk about. I have lunch during my stay with the Vere Nicolls (I met them 20 years ago on the beach of their first hotel, Isle de France), who greet all the tables and laugh with their waiters. “You know, our staff is like family to us,” Charlie says. It reminds me of Club 55 in St Tropez but via Tulum or Lamu, feet in the sand, raffia lamps swaying in the wind, music and happiness in the air, and a gazpacho strawberries and red peppers so good that I ordered two days in a row.
I find the photographer Antoine Verglas at L’Arawak Café for a drink during my last evening. He and his wife, Christiane Celle (of Calypso Shops), have owned a house on the island since the 90s. We dine at the new outpost of La Petite Plage, which overlooks the harbor water. The prices are high (as they tend to be everywhere: this is not a budget island), the music is loud and the French waiters dance on the tables all night long. “It’s always the same St Barth, isn’t it?” Verglas asks, as we bid each other good night. I’m thinking about it. There’s always been a chic person strutting around, but also cool French beauties who don’t care for fancy labels or blow-drys, who always wear bikinis under colorful Poupette dresses to dinner. There is still the sublimely beautiful road to Gouverneur Beach, which makes the heart soar when you catch that first glimpse of its outlines. Still my beloved Ligne St Barth bath and beauty products, founded by locals Birgit and Hervé Brin in 1983, who sold them directly to bathers on the beach in repurposed rum bottles. And much more. So, yes – on the whole, that’s very much the case.
Vassi Chamberlain traveled as a guest of Elegant complexesfly with British Airways from London Heathrow to Antigua, and with Tradewind Aviation from Antigua to St Barts
Beds, Barths and Beyond… Where to Sleep, Eat and Shop on the Island
Where to stay
Cheval Blanc Ile de France, from €750
Eden Rock St Barts, from €900
Hotel Le Toiny, from €890
Skipjack Just off the main street of Gustavia, this stylish restaurant offers spectacular harbor views and a Peruvian/Creole/French inspired menu. bonitosbh.com
Eddy’s Ghetto The atmosphere is old-fashioned tropical, the cuisine is French Creole. The green papaya salad with peanuts and goat curry are the favorites. eddysghetto.com
The Arawak Cafe Right in the heart of the Carré d’Or courtyard, between Hermès and Cartier, and a privileged point of view for celebrities in the early evening over cocktails and tapas. +590590-275 323
The Jean-Claude Dufour Spirit Set in a fairy-lit tropical garden on the edge of Saline Beach, this is one of the best on the island. It excels in unpretentious gourmet cuisine and has an excellent wine list. +590590-524 610
The Select Opened in 1949, this ramshackle open-air Gustavia charmer was Johnny Hallyday’s favorite haunt. Usually filled with savory locals smiling at the comings and goings of fuss. +590590-278 687
Le Ti St Barth The legendary barbecue-style restaurant turns into a late-night party with its own band, cabaret and table-dancing. Always booked weeks in advance. tistbarth.com
Where to shop
Click Bookstore and art gallery also selling beachwear and commissioned designer pieces, as well as homewares and limited edition prints. click.com
St Barts line The first beauty brand store born on the island and now sold worldwide. lignestbarth.com
Lolita Jaca St Barth’s original fashion spot, inspired by the flower-power girl of the 60s. Her iconic mini beach kimonos are a must-have. lolitajaca.com
doll Boho-chic treasure trove of form-fitting silk dresses, tops and palazzo pants in colorful prints; poupettestbarth.com
Tradewind Aviation operates private charter flights across North America and the Caribbean. Starting at $640 per person round trip.