If you like resorts with beaches lined by high-rise hotels, plenty of action in the night clubs and for a quick snack lots of fast-food spots a la McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, don't come to the little Caribbean island of St. Barthélemy (St. Barts for short).
Under local laws, only one- or two-story buildings are allowed on this eight-square-mile speck, aimed at keeping it much like it was for hundreds of years when Sweden, England and France alternately ruled the roost here. Aimed at the same target, McDonalds et al are also on St. Barts' no-no list.
Perhaps you flew to the island's airport at St. Jean on a twin-engine turboprop from the regional air hub on nearby St. Maarten. Or maybe you came by boat, docking at St. Barts' capital at Gustavia. Either way, if you're hoping to whoop it up at night clubs or the casinos, forget it. They pretty much roll up the streets after dinner. And there are no casinos.
What's more, wander around and you won't see any of the Caribbean's notorious timeshare salesmen (nor anyone else hustling you to buy something). And down on those gorgeous white powdery sands you can soak up the rays without being bothered by beach vendors (laws booted them out, too).
Another familiar sight in the Caribbean are throngs of passengers from cruise ships mobbing the islands' duty-free shops. You will find duty-free shops here, but without the mobs – because the big lines dock aren't allowed to dock at St. Barts.
Visitors who rent cars or motorized two-wheelers to get around – as most do – are happy to find the traffic rarely jams up on St. Barts. What's more, the island has no stop lights.
There's no crime to speak of, either. “It's totally foreign to our culture,” says Nils Dufau, one of four vice presidents in St. Barts' government of 19 elected officials. He notes he doesn't lock his car or his home.
St. Barts, which had been part of a multi-island French “department” in the Caribbean, made a big move toward independence in 2007 when it elected to become an allied “collective” of France. Dufau explains, “We're not (our own) country yet, but close.”
The collective is debt-free, so the 9,000 or so people who live here pay few taxes – chiefly on their use of water, gas and electricity and for some services. There is no income tax.
If all this sounds like a tropical Shangri-La, it comes pretty close. There's only one catch: St. Barts ranks among the most expensive getaways on the planet. One reason is that everything from hats to hankies has to be shipped in, sometimes from places as far away as France. But the big reason is because the island caters to upscale visitors who can afford things like $20,000-a-night stays in posh villas.
The story of how St. Barts became the so-called “St. Moritz of the Caribbean” goes back to the mid-1950s, when the über-wealthy Rockefeller and Rothschild families discovered the centuries-old charm of the island. Couple that with a laid-back ambiance, friendly locals and (at the time) cheap land, and this was just the spot to build million-dollar estates overlooking St. Bart's virgin beaches.
Word of this tropical bonanza soon got out, and the world's glitterati began beating paths to the island. One report compared the stampede to “a Caribbean gold rush, including panners who turned scores of the little red-roofed homes dotting the island's hillsides into lush villas and boutique hotels.”
Today, they're the homes away from homes for the world's silky set, from land barons, oil titans, hi-tech CEOs and other corporate moguls to people who sit on thrones back home to Oscar-winning movie stars to A-list rockers and rappers of the likes of Paul McCartney, Sting, Beyonce, Jay-Z and Jon Bon Jovi.
There are about 30 hotels on the island with a total of some 600 rooms. As you might guess, their tabs are pretty hefty. At the tony, 12-room Tom Beach Hotel, for example, peak season (December-April) rates – converted from euros to U.S. dollars – run from about $600 a night to a little over $900. Off-season, nightly prices tumble to around $430 to $660.
Built to please St. Barts' particular breed of visitors, the island is peppered by villas of all sizes, typically with jaw-dropping views of its 16 main beaches. Off-season rates at the villas start at about $300 a night and soar up to $15,500. In the high season, figure on shelling out at least $480 a night for your villa and as much as $29,000 (yes, a night).
One reason why people who can afford rates like these come to St. Barts is that the locals respect their anonymity. “Regardless of who they are, they know they'll be left alone,” says Bertrand Charneau, second-generation owner of Hotel Le Village near St. Jean. Even asking for an autograph is a no-no on the island.
Charneau, whose father moved his family from the island of Guadeloupe to St. Barts in the late 60s to open the hotel, says he works hard “to make our visitors feel like part of our family” – an ambiance that prompts a large number of repeat visitors to Le Village's 25 rooms and two villas. He admits his guest list includes “a lot of famous names,” but like most local hoteliers he won't say who they are.
Visitors new to the island sometimes take awhile to wind down to the laid-back pace here, says Charneau. At first they might expect things to happen fast and like clockwork, he says, but they soon find out how easier it is on your blood pressure when you start doing things on “island time.” That's especially important over the Christmas and New Year's holiday season when as Charneau puts it, “things really get crazy here.”
Behind its old-world ambiance, it's been said that St. Barts is “an island brimming over in chic-ness, from its edgy shops to its casually elegant art and beauty salons.” It's no slouch in the dining department, either. Thumb through the local guides and you'll find no less than 60 restaurants, most with gourmet-quality ratings.
Clustered around Gustavia are spots on the coq au vin circuit like Cote Port, Les Boucanniers, Le Repaire and the legendary Wall House. Others are in smaller towns such as St. Jean and Salines, with the rest scattered around the island on hillsides and beaches.
Restaurant prices are typically stated in euros, but they'll be happy to take U.S. dollars. Just remember to bring plenty of them.
More info: Visit St. Barts' tourist office, the Comite du Tourisme de SaintBarthélemy.