As we bank towards the famous runway, metres from the beach of Saint Jean, the visions that fleet across my mind are of Henri Matisse’s colour-saturated paintings. It’s my 15th visit to St Barths in 20 years but the visual explosion of the arrival – frothy neon-blue sea, acid-green vegetation, brilliant-red roofs – still makes my heart skip.
People imagine St Barths as a tropical version of St Tropez: pretty, charming but teeming with the frippery and posturing of wealth. And it can be that place, especially around Christmas, when the likes of Jeff Bezos, Barry Diller and Jay-Z and Beyoncé drop anchor just offshore, turning the harbour into a sort of floating car park. Or in April during the eight-day annual sailing race, Les Voiles de St Barth Richard Mille (founded in 2010 and considered by many to be the Caribbean’s ultimate sailing competition), when up to 80 boats glide around the island like supermodels.
But that’s all an amusing sideshow to the real star, which is the island itself. St Barths has character in spades – something I am looking to capture for the book I am writing on the colourful French territory (published by Assouline later this year). There are boulangeries, traiteurs and pharmacies around every corner; even gendarmes on the streets. Not that it’s entirely Gallic: Christopher Columbus was the first European to set foot here in 1493, naming it after his brother Bartholomew. The French then colonised, followed briefly by the Knights of Malta; later Sweden held onto it for almost 100 years before returning it to France. All their traces are very much visible today, from the Gustavian architecture to the mix of cuisines.
The island has never been self-sustaining (largely barren and with no natural water source, which is why indigenous Carib communities never settled there for any length of time); so it wasn’t until tourism came along – thanks to the vision of French-Dutch aviator Rémy de Haenen, who landed the first plane in 1946 – that it prospered. He built the Eden Rock, eventually turning it into St Barths’ first hotel. Rockefellers and Rothschilds, Nureyev and Johnny Hallyday started to arrive. They fell for its contours, built houses, and the jet set began to come in droves. But the unique bohemian flavour is down to those who were born and live here – such as outgoing president Bruno Magras, who for 27 years staunchly maintained his principles: no big hotel groups, no golf courses, no tour operators or casinos.
A tiny island, whose widest point takes only 30 minutes to traverse in a Jeep, much of St Barths had to be rebuilt following the 2017 damage wrought by Hurricane Irma. I’d heard rumours that the general atmosphere had gotten a little fancier since. 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 laidback mood of before persists. Meanwhile, St Barths achieved the almost impossible feat of rebuilding itself in a way that, if you didn’t know about Hurricane Irma, you wouldn’t even notice the difference.
Hotels have always acted as social magnets here. Of its estimated 200,000 yearly visitors, approximately 130,000 stay on boats and many rent villas. Only a tiny minority stay in the hotels, many of which have only 15 rooms or fewer; but visitors flock to their restaurants and beaches. The island’s two most famous hotels, Eden Rock and the 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 revamped a much-loved property, Le Toiny, on the wilder south-eastern shore. The three make up, as they always have, the island’s golden social triangle, and each has its own quixotic character.
The Eden Rock, which sits on a bluff in buzzy Saint Jean, is a focal point – a place to eat and take the temperature of the scene. Over the years I’ve seen Rihanna, Leonardo DiCaprio and Bella Hadid all wandering around, and I remember David Matthews once telling me over a long, boozy lunch how he’d recorded a song with Johnny Hallyday in the mini-studio of the hotel’s Villa Rockstar. It is a little slicker since its post-Irma rebuild, particularly the new Rémy Bar & Salon, designed by Martin Brudnizki (the Oetker Collection, owners of the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, now manages the hotel), but the young French beach crew still jump around handing out frozés in paper cones, a French DJ plays every day, and the food (under the direction of long-time chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, an island regular for many years) is impeccable.
Cheval Blanc is a bit like Eden Rock’s more grown-up – and demanding – cousin. LVMH brought in Jacques Grange to redo the rooms and young French culinary star Jean Imbert to create the menus at La Case, the main restaurant, and La Cabane, further down the beach in the sand, where deals are done over lunch and supermodels parade. The atmosphere is one of grand luxe – Bulgari hosted a pool-side fashion show while I was there, and there’s a Dior shop on the premises – and also of cosseting indulgence (witness the private yoga sessions in the garden’s pagoda with Nicolas Legrez).
Le Toiny is situated on the far wilder side of the island; its 22 airy villa suites done in reclaimed wood and white linen with touches of pink or blue stretch along a cliff overlooking the bay where surfers congregate. This is a place of big light and big vistas. Little touches add up to an abundance of character – the sweet carts that take you down to the beach club, for instance, which is so popular it’s all anyone on the island can talk about. I have lunch during my stay with the Vere Nicolls (I first met them 20 years ago on the beach at their first hotel, Isle de France), who shout hellos to every table and laugh with their waiters. “You know, our staff are like family to us,” Charlie says. It reminds me of St Tropez’s Club 55 but via Tulum or Lamu – feet in the sand, raffia lamps swaying in the breeze, music and happiness in the air, and a strawberry and red-pepper gazpacho that was so good I ordered it two days in a row.
I meet up with photographer Antoine Verglas in L’Arawak Café for a drink on my last night. He and his wife, Christiane Celle (of the Calypso boutiques), have owned a house on the island since the ’90s. We dine at the new outpost of La Petite Plage, which hangs over the water in the harbour. The prices are steep (as they tend to be everywhere: this is not an island for anyone on a budget), the music is loud and the French waiters dance on tables throughout the night. “It’s still the same St Barths, isn’t it?” Verglas asks, as we bid each other goodnight. I think about it. There’s always been some fancy person strutting around, but also cool French beauties who don’t give a fig for smart labels or blow-dries, who still wear bikinis under colourful Poupette dresses to dinner. There’s still the sublimely beautiful drive down to Gouverneur Beach, which makes the heart soar as you catch that first glimpse of its contours. Still my beloved Ligne St Barth bath and beauty products, founded by locals Birgit and Hervé Brin in 1983, who sold them directly to sunbathers on the beach in repurposed rum bottles. And a lot more besides. So, yes – on balance, it very much is.
Vassi Chamberlain travelled as a guest of Elegant Resorts, flying with British Airways from London Heathrow to Antigua, and with Tradewind Aviation from Antigua to St Barths
Beds, Barths and beyond… Where to sleep, eat and shop on the island
Where to stay
Cheval Blanc Isle de France, from €750
Eden Rock St Barths, from €900
Hotel Le Toiny, from €890
Eating & drinking
Bonito Just off Gustavia’s main street, this slick restaurant has spectacular harbour views and a Peruvian/Creole/French-inspired menu. bonitosbh.com
Eddy’s Ghetto The ambience is old-school tropical, the cuisine is French Creole. Green papaya salad with peanuts and goat curry are favourites. eddysghetto.com
L’Arawak Café Smack bang in the Carré d’Or courtyard, between Hermès and Cartier, and the prime vantage point for early-evening celebrity spotting over cocktails and tapas. +590590-275 323
L’Esprit Jean-Claude Dufour Set in a fairy-lit tropical garden on the edge of Saline beach, this is one of the island’s best. It excels at unfussy gourmet cuisine, and has a great wine list. +590590-524 610
Le Select Opened in 1949, this open-air, ramshackle Gustavia charmer was Johnny Hallyday’s favourite hangout. Usually packed with salty locals smirking at the chichi goings-on. +590590-278 687
Le Ti St Barth The legendary BBQ-style restaurant turns into a nightly party with its own band, cabaret and table-dancing. Always booked up weeks in advance. tistbarth.com
Where to shop
Clic Bookstore and art gallery that also sells beachwear and commissioned designer pieces, as well as homeware and limited-edition prints. clic.com
Ligne St Barth The first store of the beauty brand born on the island and now sold all over the world. lignestbarth.com
Lolita Jaca The original St Barths fashion spot, inspired by the ’60s flower-power girl. Its trademark mini beach kimonos are a must. lolitajaca.com
Poupette Boho-chic trove of form-fitting silk dresses, tops and palazzo pants in colourful prints; poupettestbarth.com
Tradewind Aviation operates private charter flights throughout North America and the Caribbean. From $640pp round-trip.