These days glitzy St Barthelemy is best known as a haven for the smart set, but there’s also a complex colonial history to explore, says Kate Simon in this travel piece for London’s Independent.
Where am I? The coat of arms I’m looking at offers no definitive answer. Its escutcheon bears three French fleurs-de-lis, three Swedish crowns, and the Maltese Cross, while along its ribbon is written “Ouanalao”. France, Sweden, Malta and somewhere I wouldn’t be able to place on a map. It’s confusing, to say the least.
Of course I know where I am, though no thanks to that heraldry. I’m in St Barthélemy, aka St Barts (Ouanalao turns out to be the Caribs’ name for the island), a premium hump of extinct volcano at the top of the Leeward chain in the eastern Caribbean, just 21sq km and home to fewer than 8,000 souls.
I’ve come to sample a little Caribbean style in France’s ritziest outpost, to knock back Puligny-Montrachet in the heat of the tropical sun. And I’ve arrived in appropriate style, on a new flight with Tradewind Aviation. This US-based airline now connects Antigua, one of the main gateways to the region for British travellers, with St Barts in under an hour.
Yet, standing on a street of quaint gingerbread cottages in the capital Gustavia, I seem to have stumbled upon the most exotic quarter of Sweden, too. For a tin plaque on the wall tells me I am, at once, on the Rue du Bord de Mer and the Ostra Quayen. And amid the stone buildings with their brightly coloured clapboard and shingle cladding, which line the neat grid of streets first laid out between the mountains and the sea by the Swedes in the 1790s, I spy an example of Gustavian style in the shape of an overhanging gallery, which still provides passers-by with much needed shade.
You don’t expect to find Swedish heritage in the Caribbean. Indeed, St Barts was the Scandinavian kingdom’s only conquest in these parts (other than a brief spell ruling Guadeloupe). In fact, the Swedes did a swap. The French, who first settled the island in 1648, only to find it had poor soil, gave it up to Gustaf III in 1785 in return for lucrative trading rights in the port of Gothenburg. (This wasn’t the first time the French had sold on the island. The Knights of Malta had previously bought it in 1651 but were slaughtered five years later by the Caribs.)
Still, the Swedes made the best of it, by turning their attention to St Barts’s splendid natural harbour, a large cove sheltered by mountains. They created a duty-free port, open to all ships and nationalities, which thrived when other islands limited who could access their waters during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.
And though the island’s fortunes have been mixed over the intervening centuries – the opening of more free ports in the area prompted the Swedes to hand back the territory to the French in 1878 – the ruse to create a tax-free haven continues to profit the island today. Where clipper ships once filled the harbour, I see superyachts disgorging passengers to browse Gustavia’s designer boutiques and stock up on essentials at Chanel and Cartier.
St Barts’s current good fortune has been boosted, too, by the development of another moneyspinner: luxury tourism. The seeds were sown with the arrival in 1945 of the London-born adventurer and playboy Rémy de Haenen. He swooped down to the island in his two-seater plane, hopping over a cliff to land on a short strip of grass by St Jean’s Bay. By doing so he simultaneously identified the spot for the island’s future airport and created the necessity for special training for every pilot who flies in the small aircraft that can set down here.
This is the second shortest runway in the Caribbean, after that belonging to the nearby Dutch island of Saba – also De Haenen’s creation – and regularly figures among the top five most dangerous airstrips in the world. The local taxi drivers make good money taking tourists to wait beneath the cliff to see, close up, a plane jump over them to make the daredevil final descent.
While you’d think such a perilous entrance would discourage visitors, the clearing of an airstrip in fact signalled the slow beginnings of St Barts’s tourism industry. In 1953, De Haenen bought a rocky outcrop in St Jean’s Bay and built a small guesthouse on it, Eden Rock, where his style of remote luxury attracted the likes of Robert Mitchum, David Rockefeller and the King of Sweden.
With the airstrip finally concreted in the 1970s, the gentle flow of visitors began to form a tide. Now, 70,000 come to stay in the island’s villas and hotels each year, while a further 130,000 call by in boats.
One of the main draws remains Eden Rock, from whose sunbeds you can watch the thrilling sideshow of Twin Otters and Cessnas buzzing in and out of the airport. (Signs on the beach at the end of the runway politely advise against sunbathing in this particular spot.) The appointment of New York-based French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten to oversee the kitchen will surely keep this hotel a favourite with Americans, as in De Haenen’s day. However, its look and footprint have changed somewhat since the current owners, David and Jane Matthews, bought the property from him in 1993 after spotting it from the deck of a friend’s yacht.
The 34 rooms and suites set on the rock and along the beachfront deliver serious luxury. I take a look around to see what all the fuss is about. It is indeed a beguiling place. My favourite room is the Howard Hughes Loft Suite. Styled in honour of one of De Haenen’s most famous guests, the vast bachelor pad, clad in wood, has three terraces, a home cinema, two bathrooms with copper walls, and a wealth of amusing detail referencing the recluse’s love of aviation, such as the cute wooden propeller on the bookcase. The glamorous suite named after Hollywood icon Greta Garbo, who also stayed here, comes a close second. It’s stunning, frilled with feminine ornaments and furnishings that create an ambience of her heyday, the Thirties and Forties, with a huge double bed at its centre crowned by an 8ft-high hand-stitched, white-leather headboard.
But for many, the real jaw-droppers will be Eden Rock’s latest propositions for today’s bottomless wallet: two sleek contemporary Ultra Beach Villas on the sands, which cost from £20,000 a night. The two-bedroom Villa Nina comes with private art gallery, while the four-bedroom, two-cabin Villa Rockstar has a fully equipped recording studio featuring the console used by John Lennon to record “Imagine”. Put all thoughts of economic recession from your mind. Demand is such for this level of luxury that Eden Rock has introduced a new collection of 30 hand-picked villas of various sizes for when the hotel is full, offering guests a B&B service and the use of all the hotel’s facilities, too. Prices, of course, on application.
Later that day I find myself firmly back on French territory, lunching at La Case, in the pure white splendour of the island’s other fêted five-star property, the 39-room Hotel Saint-Barth Isle de France. (Four new suites will be added on the beach later in 2013.) Lunch here is no ordinary affair. Today it comes with a fashion show starring Lena, a beautiful young model who manages a shop in Gustavia when she isn’t pacing the decking here in creations on sale in the hotel’s boutique. She drifts by in a floaty hand-embroidered creation in emerald. “It’s a top but I’m wearing it as a dress,” she notes. I’m free to buy it for €295 if I think I can carry it off.
As my preferred look is sartorially challenged, I return my attention to the rack of lamb before me, which is served with rosemary and mustard mashed potato laced with white truffle oil. It has been prepared by La Case’s chef, Frenchman Yann Vinsot, whose life, he explains, like his counterparts in kitchens across the island, revolves around sourcing the very best ingredients.
With no agricultural industry to speak of, no expense is spared, no food mile is saved, on getting the very best produce on to the island, which arrives each day by plane from Paris.
I’m beginning to despair. Is there anything authentically Caribbean about St Barts? Perhaps the landscape is the key to this island’s soul.
I take a tour with Sébastien Blanchard, a young man of French Creole descent, who can trace his family back to the mariners from Normandy and Brittany who came here to work the arid soil. “We speak patois in the east and creole in the west,” he offers as a sop to my concerns that everything here seems to have been imported. Then we head off to see the island’s natural highlights.
We make for Grande Saline, where salt ponds provide a prime spot for watching migratory birds, and one of St Barts’s top beaches can be found. It seems that nude bathing has received a Gallic go-ahead here, a most un-Caribbean pursuit. Then we head east to the ridge above Grand Fond, in the shadow of the island’s highest mountain, Morne du Vitet (286m).
As we look out at the ocean, at the point where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean, Sébastien tells me that all the metal pitch roofs of the houses below are green or red because they are the only choice of colours allowed. Even the untamable foliage is given a sense of style.
Onwards. We loop around St Barts’s east coast, passing by Maison Noureev at Toiny beach, where the dancer Rudolf Nureyev once lived, and calling in at the seaside hamlet of Grand Cul-de-Sac, where the water is so shallow you can walk out to the reef. Finally we reach Point Milou for views of some of the tiny islands that surround St Barts: Chevreau, Frégate and Toc Vers. There’s little sign here of interference with nature by outside forces.
Back west through L’Orient, its beach a favourite with snorkellers and surfers, we stop at the viewpoint at Colombier. Sébastien tells me that a 20-minute walk will take you to the beach of the same name, one of the island’s best. Then, for our final stop he takes me to his own village of Corossol, a little fishing harbour in the far west that looks out to the Dutch islands of St Eustatius and Saba.
It’s a delightful cluster of colourful gingerbread houses, their shutters thrown open to embrace the cool breeze off the ocean, where boats painted in bold primary shades bob about on their moorings, awaiting the next voyage. The scene stops me in my tracks. This feels like a place I haven’t yet experienced on St Barts: the Caribbean.