by Heather W., Editor
The view above Lorient Beach. It would be hard for this island to be more beautiful.
Christmas and New Years have been spent on St. Barths from age 1 to 28. I recall my version of the early days, with cocktail parties at Topalino and the original Eden Rock restaurant (Michael’s) on the Pelican side of St. Jean. The P. Diddy “era” was particularly memorable for me. Sneaking on to boat parties at age 15 with my sister was most definitely a thrill. The opening of our dedicated WIMCO St. Barths office in 2010 is a particular highlight. The team there is some of the warmest, most hardworking people I’ve ever met.
I’ve seen the island evolve, and I’ve also experienced it at different seasons – March (family filled), Easter (chic & couple centric), May (hot!), and November (budding with anticipation, and full of sales). But admittedly, I was nervous to go for the holidays this year after the devastating hurricanes in early September 2017. I’d seen pictures. I’d spoken at length with our CEO who spent two months there. And yet, I thought our experience would somehow drastically disappoint. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
With every major hotel on the island closed, I expected it to be even less busy than it is in the off-season. While some savor the quiet, I’m the opposite. The traffic jams, the running late, the bumping into friends…I relish all that comes with the special excitement at New Years. Quite frankly, I wasn’t ready for it to be different.
Flying overhead, I was shocked at the green landscape. In May, for example, the island is sunny and hot and rarely has showers. While still beautiful, St. Barths becomes noticeably drier – more rock-like then lush. Picking up my trusty Terios, I drove to Mont Jean, passing St. Jean, Lorient, and Camaruche along the way. Were my eyes tricking me? I couldn’t tell that much had happened. I noted it to my friend and colleague Thibault, our pre-concierge. “You’ll start to notice all the missing roofs.” Ok, I thought.
Throughout my two weeks on St. Barths, I searched for signs that the island was different, somehow damaged or less perfect than as it lives in my mind. My guess is, I wanted to validate ahead of time that the vacation would be “less than” and adjust accordingly. The signs never came, though. Instead, what I felt is all those familiar feelings:
I like driving barefoot, sand all over the floor from a quick dip at Gouverneur, with the anticipatory buzz of scooters passing you on those narrow streets, shifting into low gear up the steep hills. I love the scent of jasmine in St. Barths, and how my mother genuinely makes me stop to smell them. She soaks up the scent in such a way it’s as if that flower has healing powers. I love the feeling of landing in St. Barths in tight jeans and all black – pale and uptight – and how I leave in loose clothing, relaxed and sun-kissed. It would be hard for a hurricane to decimate all of those senses.
On one hand, I want to share my experience. I genuinely couldn’t tell any palpable difference on the island. On the other, this opinion seems unfair, selfish, and a privileged one to have. I hope Antoine, one of the wonderful concierges at WIMCO, won’t mind that I share what he said about Hurricanes Irma and Jose. He said it was the only time in his life that he thought he would die. The most difficult part was that after the horrific, battering destruction of Irma on September 6, it was expected that Hurricane Jose would hit just three days later.
Any reparations halted, and after withstanding the trauma of Irma, the residents had to take cover once again. Thankfully, Jose passed to the east and north with no damage. And then, just 10 days later, the island once again prepared for Hurricane Maria, which had strong winds but did not impact St. Barths significantly – it battered Puerto Rico. I’m not sure if the residents who experienced this wish to forget it and look to the future. Perhaps discussing it is helpful to them. I suppose that each person differs. This is all to say that despite the good news I’m sharing here, I wish to be sensitive to those who were utterly terrified, without water, power, access to a shower, or the ability to communicate to their family, for days or weeks.
Our days on the island took a familiar pattern. In the mornings, I’d walk through Mont Jean or do some exercises at the house. By that time someone had usually brought back a few croissants and baguettes to the house. I’d find my place on the cushy lounge chairs, Kindle in hand, absorbed in the novel A Little Life. With my 10 month old nephew nearby, we’d play on the grass, or I’d sing him the words I remembered from The Sound of Music.
Every other day, Fred, one of the private chefs on the island, came to our villa to prepare lunch, a gift my sister and her husband graciously arranged. Starters were often chilled soups (gazpacho, the one thing I might eat every day if I could) and grilled Mahi or curried chicken, and a pineapple carpaccio for dessert. Sitting down to lunch in just a bathing suit and cover up, being as loud as we wanted or as quiet as wished, there were no external forces to stir up fights – and so we got along, laughed, and left the table whenever we were ready. I looked forward to these lunches, hoped they would never end, and tried to imprint the feeling of being so happy.
Most nights we went out to dinner (you can see everywhere that is open here). I love the glamour of Tamarin, the flavors at Black Ginger and the decadence at Isola. At WIMCO, we had so many last-minute bookings for villas over New Years and it didn’t surprise me. Where else can you go to, on a relatively short flight, with such a dynamic food scene in such a spectacular setting?
Night is when I felt pangs for the New Years of past…as much as I like staying in and waking up refreshed, I like going for “just one drink” at Baz Bar, or being cajoled into stopping by a party. St. Barths and its nightlife offer an entrée into interesting conversations and meetings. The island is small and often penned as exclusive – but it’s also inclusive – there are no red ropes or red carpet. While doing “business” might be gauche, there’s always one person with whom you might exchange emails and something great comes of it. I missed the parties but I know they’ll be back. Baz Bar just opened last week.
And I also missed Maya’s—where art and commerce dine together—and which acts as a clubhouse for those who visit perennially. When I was 7 or 8, my vision of that restaurant was servers buzzing about, lots of kisses on cheeks, the clang of the xylophone, ordering tomates et mozzarella, and, of course, chocolate cake. Oh, that chocolate cake. I suppose if it is flourless it must be calorie-less, too. While I don’t know all the families who go each year, I like watching their children grow up. They’ll sit on the leopard-print cushions Randy puts out for the under 3 feet. Sometimes they’ll doze off and exit in the arms of a loving Dad. Around age 8 is when the Gameboys (now iPads) come out, and then the braces, and suddenly they’re telling us where they’re going to college. It is a family place, and you feel part of the family when you’re here.
If it sounds like I’m mourning a place that’s taking a brief one year hiatus – forgive me –I just didn’t realize until it wasn’t open how much I really loved it. It was in some of the absences that I realized how precious this island is to me, and it was in the unexpected details that gave me some excitement.
With more villas available, for example, we were able to stay at the sensational Villa JAY. Each room felt so private and luxe, with its high thread counts, his and her bathrobes, and American outlets. The kitchen is poised for entertaining, and the view makes it hard to leave. We were six, plus my baby nephew and his wonderful nanny. Being somewhere where we felt we could both stretch out and congregate was so essential. It was also conducive to us sharing a lot of moments together. In years past we’ve spent less relaxed time at the villa together, and this was an unanticipated delight.
We enjoyed the flexibility that we don’t often feel at New Years – one night my boyfriend and I played tennis at 7pm on a whim. We showered and changed quickly, then went for a late dinner at Black Ginger and just walked in, sans reservations. There was a certain spontaneity to this post-Hurricane St. Barths that it made it feel even more like a vacation.
Hiking down to Colombier – one of my favorite things to do. Along the way, you can see signs of the hurricane – some fallen trees and brush – and so many butterflies coming back to life!
Others who visited in these first few months might have different opinions. Some neighborhoods were more construction prone than Mont Jean where we stayed. Others felt like the lack of lunch options got boring. (I wish they had known about the private chef, or the pop up restaurants on Lorient and St. Jean.) Many people had difficulty finding flights at the last minute with St. Martin not fully up to speed, and fewer flights running from San Juan.
But the one common thread had to do with nature – how luscious the beaches were, how many butterflies were fluttering around (the first inhabitants to return), and how happy the residents were to see visitors. If there’s any overwhelming feeling I felt, it’s that – I want to keep coming back here, with my family in the next 10 years, and hopefully with my own family down the line. For as long as I can remember, the last week of December is my favorite of the year, and this year in St. Barths was no different.