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SAINT-BARTHÉLEMY - THE EUROPEAN CARIBBEAN
 
(2012 - Fall Issue)

Writer: MARK STEVENS



Last night a tropical storm roared through, scrubbing the sky of all but a handful of cumulous clouds, stark against the cerulean background, a sharp contrast to the aquamarine waters off la plage de St. Jean.

Lush rugged hills tower overhead—decorated by pointillist splashes of colour painted on villas that could hold their own on the Mediterranean Riviera. The Caribbean stretches before me like an indigo quilt. From the heights of Colombier I can see St. Maarten. On a clear day you can see St. Kitts and Nevis.

The waters are bathtub-warm. Blossoms of bougainvillea and poinciana flutter in the trade winds. Then I notice the fine linen and silverware spread out before me. I order another café au lait and consider a second croissant at Tom Beach Hotel, an intimate beachfront boutique hotel.

It hits me, listening to the desultory chatter of the staff, that it’s 9 a.m. I’ve been here more than an hour, and I’ve barely heard a word of English. Just then a young girl approaches, pretty as the subject of a Gauguin masterpiece. She speaks with a Catherine Deneuve accent.

Un autre café, m’sieur?”

And I answer, without even thinking about it. “Oui.”

I’ve made landfall in the European Caribbean.

Haute Monde

I could have deplaned in Monaco but for those heaven-hued skies and seas, the perfect weather. A quick island tour reinforces the perception—this is the land of the haute monde.

Martin Short waits to clear customs right behind me. Steve Martin and Jimmy Buffett own villas here. Red Hot Chili Peppers regularly rent a beachfront villa—one of more than a hundred offered by Sibarth.

Stroll the grounds of Hotel Guanahani and Spa and you may bump into a Hollywood A-lister.  No surprise there.  Last year Condé Nast Traveler rated their spa among the Caribbean’s top five.

One night I cruise Gustavia in a sailboat. We pass Eclipse, owned by Roman Abramovich. It’s the world’s biggest and most expensive private yacht.

Shades of Monaco.

Stroll Gustavia’s streets and I’m convinced—haute monde and European Caribbean both.

The streets are narrow and winding, guarded by historical buildings with terra cotta tile roofs. Think European (Swedish) and colonial architecture combined. Rue de la République runs into Rue du Général de Gaulle. But one street is also called Ostra Strandgatan. Talk about an island with a split personality.

Columbus named it for his brother Bartolomeo (no saint here) however the French controlled it for most of its history but for an intriguing interlude when they traded it to Sweden in 1784. They soon saw the error of their ways: it reverted to French control in 1878.

Nowadays designer shops smile down upon those selfsame streets, gazing approvingly at the quayside decorated with multimillion-dollar mega yachts docked stern-to, where uniformed staff serves hors d’oeuvres and cocktails on the aft decks.

Shops with display windows boast designer clothing, perfume and jewellery. No prices in these windows. If you have to ask the price you’re not really haute monde.

Haute Cuisine

One night I dine at Hotel Guanahani & Spa. All those A-listers have pretty good taste. Here I’ve discovered a Caribbean island where haute cuisine is the norm. The service is impeccable—possibly the best I’ve ever experienced. From amuse bouche to dessert, the tasting menu served up by chef Philippe Masseglia is the best meal I’ve had in the Caribbean.

If I exclude the dinner at Bonito, with its panoramic view of the twinkling lights of Gustavia, or the pasta dish at L’Isola—better than anything I ever had in Rome. Or the brunch they serve every Sunday at Le Toiny, where you might see Tom Hanks, Steve Martin or Leonard Nimoy at the next table over, sipping strawberry mimosas that send your taste buds into cartwheels.

They’ve discovered something crucial here: attract the haute monde with haute cuisine. Because the end result will certainly be a whole lot of joie de vivre.

Joie de Vivre

But my joy won’t be complete until I’ve sampled some local beaches.

One day we approach Saline Beach via a winding road past a salt pond, a handful of unassuming little bars, to a wide-open expanse dominated by rocky craggy hills and rolling dunes. Nude sun worshippers stake their claim to the eastern reaches.

Guarded by great towering boulders, Gouverneur Beach is approached by a steep switchback road. Sea grapes line the edge of this gorgeous beach, a swath of sand so alluring Abramovich built his pied-à-terre here—price tag $89 million.

Back at my hotel, staring out at the waters lapping at St. Jean Beach, I’m thinking this little oasis deserves its own entry on a beach-goers’ bucket list.

The fact that the couple at the bar celebrating her birthday insists I help them with their champagne may have coloured my judgment. It certainly helps with the joie de vivre—a heaping helping of which I imbibe later that night at Ti St. Barth.

European Caribbean? Try Toulouse-Lautrec and Moulin Rouge.

Red velvet is the decor. Champagne dominates here: great glass buckets recline on every table, glistening bottles—mostly magnums—under a kaleidoscope of spotlights. A crowd of people emerges from a back room sporting maid costumes, fishnet stockings and bustiers, multicoloured wigs. They climb up on a table, they shake their hips to the strains of Voulez-vous coucher avec moi amplified a hundredfold.

A waitress comes over. She points at the empty bottle of champagne in front of us, she raises her eyebrows.

And I answer without even thinking about it. “Oui.”

Oui. Oui. Oui.

 
 
 
 
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