On my piano in my New York apartment, Jeff and I display photos of the many trips and vacations we’ve taken, both as a couple and with our kids as they’ve grown: skiing in Deer Valley, spending a week in a Tuscan villa with another family, spring time in London…all the photos that tell stories of enjoyment, fun, pleasure. Then there’s the photo of Jeff and me in St. Barts, at lunch at La Plage, which tells a more unique vacation story. You can see something on our tanned faces that is different from other happy vacation photos; we are totally at ease and serene, feet in the sand, sipping a glass of chilled Rose Champagne from Taittenger. The French call it bien-etre, and on our recent first St. Barts vacation we achieved that sublime state of well-being.
But this photo tells so much more. We both look so natural, content, and relaxed. There are qualities of bien-etre that come to you in St. Barts that are so subtle and seductive that you don’t realize how the island’s sweetness fundamentally changes you until you are well into the metamorphosis.
Months earlier we had struck up a conversation about St. Barts at a dinner party, and a friend suggested we visit the French Caribbean island to tap into something that we unconsciously craved on so many levels…renewal. I learned that the island has few hotels, so renting a villa is the norm. Our friend suggested we contact WIMCO, a company that pioneered villa rentals on St. Barts. Our reservationist, Glennie, made planning the vacation easy and fun, and we ended up booking a modest two bedroom villa with ocean views.
My transformation began upon boarding the Tradewind Aviation flight in San Juan with direct service to St. Barts. You feel yourself going into downsize as the water below gets bluer, the islands get smaller, and the tiny St. Barts airstrip reaches up to the hillside to embrace the Tradewind’s perfect landing. Tropical, clean air enveloped us as we entered the tiny terminal and glided through friendly French Customs. Time to discard the first of many layers of clothes and urbanity we brought from the States.
After checking in at WIMCO’s cool offices across the street from the terminal, where keys, a gift bag, and a welcome iced towelette helped remove more layers of the city, our WIMCO guide, Zora, who doubled as our concierge for the week, led us in a Smartcar to nearby St. Jean where we wound up a short hill to Villa WV SAS, our airy, modern home for this week. Clearly the look and feel of St. Barts is classy yet unpretentious, reflecting a European design ethic and the best quality of imported woods, tiles, furnishing and appliances. Immediately we felt that we were some place different and exotic. The need for “outfits”, makeup, accessories, fixed hair and even shoes just melted away. Into the pool! Au natural, of course.
Our week was enchanted and as each day passed Jeff and I both felt this metamorphosis into a more natural and even sexy bien-etre. In lazy mornings we explored Gustavia and St. Jean, or drove to discover special coves and neighborhoods, each feeling distinct from others. We would often hit the beach for a lingering French lunch, such as our afternoon at La Plage on St. Jean beach, or La Gloriette on Grand Cul de Sac beach.
Other days we’d shop in local markets for baguettes, saucisson sec, chevre and a bottle of wine, pack a picnic and head to Gouverneur or Saline Beach, where no commercial buildings or restaurants spoiled the pristine cliffs and dunes of these spectacular grande plages. My one-piece bathing suits quickly evolved into bikinis with pareos and soon into just bikinis…and I felt confident, rather than self-conscious…we’d become part of the scene, not on-lookers, and it felt so natural and simple and right.
Nights out offered dining superlatives, starting with sunset drinks and tapas at Gustavia’s Hotel Carl Gustaf, over-looking an array of sailboats and yachts docked colorfully side by side in the picturesque harbor. Afterwards we strolled to Bonito, where breathtaking views, yellow and blue banquettes and unbelievable lobster risotto awaited. One night, seeking Italian perfection, we discovered the sumptuous veal and pasta dishes at L’Isola on the upper road heading out of Gustavia. Another night, looking for something more casual, we visited Andy, the gregarious British owner of Andy’s Hideaway where we savored thin crust pizza, goat cheese salad, and a bottomless carafe of Rhum Vanille. We bumped into others we’d seen at the beach, and chatted with locals we’d met at the market earlier in the week. St .Barts felt like a cozy French village in Provence, and we didn’t want to leave.
On our last romantic celebration at the end of our idyllic holiday, we headed to the iconic Maya’s, a sophisticated yet understated waterfront spot run by husband and wife team Randy and Maya that has set the standard for dining excellence on St. Barts for over 20 years. There we enjoy a Chambertin from Louis Jadot with roasted chicken and grilled asparagus, and were thrilled when Randy sat down at our table after dinner, sharing local news and talking about life as a restaurateur
On so many resort islands there is a dramatic chasm between locals and visitors; one is there to serve, the other to be served. On St. Barts, the visitor finds himself wanting to become local, to shed the trappings of home in favor of this easy going, relaxed, healthy lifestyle. In about a week the metamorphosis started to happen, and that is the bien-etre I see in our faces in this photo. Of course I’ll go back…who wouldn’t? How soon?