St-Barths: The Tropical Paradise Playground Celebrates Its Renaissance
Originally published in Polo Lifestyles magazine, republished with permission and gratitude
Surrounded by sparkling blue water, the island of St-Barthelemy, or St-Barths as it’s better known, first appeared as a speck on the horizon from the window of our Tradewind Aviation jet that took off from San Juan only 45 minutes earlier.
Descending closer, we circled the tiny island as the pilot informed us that afternoon winds dictate an alternative landing pattern on the super-short runway at the Gustavia (SBH) airport. The typical landing pattern is a westward approach over the harbor of the perennially chic Gustavia and small mountain range that separates down-town from Saint-Jean. Once the planes are just over the grassy green peaks of Saint-Jean, they descend rapidly, nearly grazing the heads of tourists gathered at the roundabout to photograph the famous landing. Our landing from the east; however, included an aerial tour of the Saint-Jean Beach and a gentle landing as the sun was low against the western hills and mountains.
Within minutes, we were off the plane and whisked through customs where smiling officers welcomed us to the French West Indies. On the other side of customs, our bags were neatly sorted by concierges from the island’s varied hotel and villa rental companies. Bid me adieu as my concierge from West Indies Management Co. (WIMCO) introduced herself. Jules would be our concierge for the week in St-Barths. He was assisted, surely, by an unknown number of assistants and helpers, as he navigated our tricky requests (restaurant reservations for a group of 11 twice a day), our schedules and particular needs, grocery shopping and other essentials like magically making the WiFi work on multiple occasions. He hoisted my bags into the trunk of the car and assured me we were only minutes from the villa.
With only minutes until dusk would set in, we sped toward the villa on the charming narrow and winding roads of St-Barths. Up the mountain pass above the airport, we hooked a right at the roundabout that doubles as a lookout for planes landing over the island, and headed over to Flamands, passing the bakery La Petite Colombe, where we’d pick up our morning essentials daily. One hairpin turn later, we arrived in front of a modern gate that slowly opened as we approached. Ambient lighting on stone walls, a water feature and the name, Villa Eternity, mounted and lit on the wall welcomed us to the villa- and we’d only arrived in the parking area. I was the last one of our group to arrive; the others having come in on earlier flights from San Juan or via the ferry from St-Marten.
The entrance to Villa Eternity was placed above the compound by a designer who surely never planned to arrive with the number of bags I did. An ultra-wide staircase of 12 stairs led to the main part of the compound: kitchen and living areas, a few of the independent bedrooms and the first of two pools. A master bedroom with deluxe bathroom and attached massage room was placed at the end of the pool for to-die-for-views from sunrise to sunset. Pool loungers with perfectly placed, rolled towels dotted the perimeter of the pool. The rest of our group greeted me with champagne and hassled me about the number of bags I had brought from San Francisco.
Flashback: I left San Francisco 15 hours earlier on the red-eye flight to Charlotte, N.C., where I connected to San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was glad to land in San Juan on-time for my connection to St-Barths with Tradewind Aviation. As I disembarked at the gate in San Juan, a very friendly Puerto Rican in a Services St-Barths yellow polo shirt approached me as though we were old friends. Services St-Barths had arranged for our VIP transfer from American Airlines to Tradewind in San Juan. Grabbing my bags, he whisked me through the airport to the elevator that would take me up to the Tradewind lounger. Pointing out important airport real estate, like bathrooms and where to get the best food. My checked bag would be arriving shortly, but he took me up to the lounge, promising to bring the bag once he claimed it and before he rechecked it.
The lounge was simple, but private and well-stocked with snacks and drinks. Everything was help-yourself, but a mindful staff was careful to replace any items running low in the fridge or in the snack baskets. Wary of having a glass of wine on an empty stomach, I ventured back downstairs in search of the airport’s “best food.” I found friendly locals serving up traditional Puerto Rican specialties. Back upstairs in the lounge with my local fare, a glass of Chardonnay and my feet up, I mingled with other travelers heading to various Tradewind destinations.
The porter re-appeared with my checked bag. Slightly apologetically, he told me he’d have to check both of my limited edition carry-on bags. “It’s basically a private jet,” he reassured me. “Your bags will be very safe.” I grabbed my zipper pouch with my passport and cash and surrendered the rest.
Ten minutes prior to our scheduled departure, an agent appeared to summon us individually. How did these people know exactly who we were time and time again? I still don’t know, but I loved it. We walked through a basic security set up where a guard mostly just smiled and waved us through. Well, because we were about to board a private jet to St-Barths.
Our shiny jet sparkled in the full Caribbean sun and staff indulged us while we posed for photos in front of the aircraft. Hashtagging @flytradewind with my selfie before boarding has got to be great for business referrals; no wonder that staff had all the patience in the world for the perfect snap.
On board, we were a group of six. I sat in the back near the cooler next to Connie from New Jersey. As we passed waters and Heinekens back and forth to other passengers, we’d compared notes on our trip itinerary. Given the size of St-Barths, I should have known that Connie would re-appear over the next few days. Just about the time we were settled in, we began our descent into St-Barths.
I toasted my first sunset in St-Barths with Nicolas Feuillate Champagne and Instagrammed it with @wimcovillas because that’s what you do in such glorious moments, right?
My bedroom en suite bath was on a lower level that included another independent bedroom with bath, a fitness center and our own pool. When the drapes were open, I had a front and center view of the lush landscape. Along with the Caribbean Sea in the distance. It was heaven.
From what I had seen about St-Barths, I expected colonial charm. But Villa Eternity was very modern: square lines, sparkling white stucco walls, an all-white kitchen, white dining room table and white leather furniture in the living room. The accents and modern art provided welcome pops of color. The villa felt enormous, with plenty of room for all of us.
Whenever I needed a moment of tranquility, I escaped to our private pool downstairs.
Following Hurricane Irma, it was the local population that managed to re-open the airport and clear roads sufficiently so that supplies could be flown in and distributed. The damage to St-Barths was mind-boggling: hotels, homes, stores, roads, ranches, farms -all gone.
While there is still evidence of destruction, so much has already been built back. Power lines across the island have been buried and new construction has been built with updated codes to withstand another natural disaster. The property that we visited the next day was a testament to that.
Le Barthelemy Hotel & Spa was the recommendation of Jules for lunch on Sunday. Served beach-side on long, umbrella-covered tables, it was picturesque. It was also completely, utterly brand new. Rebuilt from the ground up after Hurricane Irma, “Le Barth” sparkled in a low profile of white bungalows to one side and a two-story, traditional hotel complex to the other. The extensive spa was completely booked even on a Sunday.
Staff abounded, checking on tables, picking up minuscule pieces of debris, changing out loungers and towels, and answering all questions with a smile. The island’s only rooftop bar, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, is perched above the main building and outfitted with swanky lounge chairs, suspended tear drop cabanas, a bar and DJ booth. The views of the entire property, the island’s hills and the sea are second-to-none.
And there was Connie, whom I sat by on the Tradewind flight from San Juan, at the next table. St-Barths is like that- you see people out and about over and over again. It truly creates a community within a destination.
With our lunch only just served beach-side, we felt the first sprinkles of afternoon rain. Was this the premature end of our beach-side lunch? Suddenly, it was a deluge out of nowhere. Staff appeared with more umbrellas and trays, escorting us to their indoor restaurant, Aux Amis. We were reseated and more or less dry considering the weather. Our food wasn’t as lucky. The restaurant manager replaced anything cold, soggy or questionable with new, hot food a few minutes later.
This kind of service and attention was paramount throughout our visit. From our WIMCO concierge to the Services St-Barths VIP porters in San Juan and St-Marten. From restaurant servers and boutique managers, who not only welcomed us into their places of work but greeted us on the street a few days later when everyone on the island, it seemed, descended upon downtown Gustavia for Mardi Gras and the Carnaval parade.
It would be remiss to not brag about downtown Gustavia. Imagine a port-side main street in colonial fashion, with a fashionista’s dream-come-true of luxury shops side-by-side. There are hanging baskets of ferns and flowers, bright window displays and the parking is street-side but not unmanageable. On the harbor side, yachts and boats of every size and shape imaginable line the waterfront. As passengers descend and the crews carry on more champagne, locals mix with vacationers in the boutiques, cafes and shops.
There is a Cour Vendôme, a four-story shopping complex with the luxurious Italian linen brand, 100% Capri. As well as a two-story Vilebrequin, where the store manager convinced me that I needed the limited-edition St-Barths trunks. Venturing further into downtown, the streets split and double and the high-end shopping continues. Toward the end of the shopping area, Le Bar de L’Oubli dominates the intersection of Rue de la Republique and Rue de la France on two sides. We grabbed sandwiches and cold drinks at L’Oubli several times during our week. L’Oubli was also the site of some of our celebrity spotting on Mardi Gras. Cleverly hidden behind masks, several of them almost went unnoticed but then the keen eye of Eric spotted Bono and his entourage from across the restaurant.
St-Barths’ Mardi Gras, locals promised me, was a familial Carnaval in true Caribbean fashion. Every shop and business closed by 2pm in order to participate. Carnaval began in the heat of the day and finished that evening at Le Ti St-Barths. The parade brought out groups of friends and family in coordinated costumes: traditional and national costumes mixed with super hero themes, a little BDSM, and more. The industries of the island and their lavish floats “chars” complete with blasting music, dancing troupes, confetti and drinks, headlined the Mardi Gras parade. Behind the makeup and costumes, we recognized employees from shops and hotels. Drinks were shared and spilled from one cup to another.
Before the afternoon was over, our group broke and headed to the beach by the way of the furthest outlying grocery store that was still open on Mardi Gras.
We headed to Saline Beach, accessible only by climbing up a not-too-steep sandy incline and then back down to where the waves meet the shoreline. Since it was Mardi Gras, the beach was quiet and our group was nearly alone.
We broke out our supplies and made a picnic of cheese, bread and drinks on the beach towels. The sun was hot and the water was refreshingly cold on our skin. The water’s salt level on this cove made floating in the water the most enjoyable way to enjoy the waves.
That evening, in search of the island’s best party, we arrived at Le Ti St-Barths, home to a raucous nightly cabaret show. Le Ti St-Barths is another example of building back better after Hurricane Irma. The restaurant and its shops and bars expanded their blueprint with the rebuild.
The famous costume shop, where locals will assist you in finding the perfect get-up for the evening, operates on a tips-only basis. Meaning the costumes are free to use and return; clients are encouraged to tip generously. Claire and I were tickled with our finds in the costume shop. We even picked up a few things for the more reserved members of our groups.
When I showed back up at our table in a venetian mask and dreaded wig, no one even recognized me for a moment. Claire’s Marie-Antoinette wig towered above her head as we joined the crowd dancing on a cabaret stage. While there would be no cabaret show that night, the Mardi Gras after party went strong until the wee hours of the morning, though.
Every table at Le Ti St-Barths, it seemed, was VIP. Magnum and Jeroboam bottles were hoisted on the backs of the most handsome servers on the island. Even their bubble contents poured into the eager flutes of equally gorgeous party-goers. For a cabaret restaurant and party scene, I didn’t expect much from the food, so I ordered filet mignon. I figured you couldn’t really goof that up. It was delicious. In fact, everyone at our table bragged about their own plates. For a group that was big into sharing and trying each other’s entrées, I don’t think there was much sharing that evening.
As the next day was starting early for us, we didn’t make it until dawn. But, Le Ti St-Barths is a night no one will soon forget (but do take plenty of photos in case the bubbly is hard on your memory).
The next morning, half of us headed to Form Fitness in Lurin for our 7:30am sessions. While the others enjoyed a private yoga session at Villa Eternity organized by Nanda Yoga. After sweating out last night’s sins, we carb-loaded from La Petite Colombe- picking up mini quiches, croissants, pains aux chocolat, baguette and two custom-ordered cakes.
That night, we headed to La Guerite at Jules’ suggestion. This waterfront, mediterranean-inspired restaurant served up all of our favorite mezza plates and entrées to share. On our end of the table, four of us split a whole fish that was presented to us and expertly filleted at the table prior to serving steaming hot with rice and vegetables.
As part of the service, the servers presented us with a sweet, spiced rhum to finish the meal. Similar to the rhum bottled by La Gloriette, our only disappointment that night was the La Guerite doesn’t bottle their own recipe for sale. Before we left, we stopped by La Gloriette to purchase several bottles similar to the version served at La Guerite.
Before we knew it, our trip had wound to an end. I was the first to depart. Jules picked me up and we chatted on the short drive to the airport. As he handled my check in, someone handed me a coffee and a selection of magazines. Every transaction was like this: simple and flawless. It was a joy to vacation where you can simply revel in the experience without having the hassles of lines, paperwork or bags.
Upon arrival back in San Juan, the Services St-Barths porter took me through a private customs and immigration office where my passport was scanned and the paperwork- already filled out for me- was stamped. Services St-Barths escorted me all the way to the American Airlines check-in counter. With a nearly five hours layover, he suggested that I take a cab to Old San Juan for breakfast. Before I could barely agree, he had flagged a cab and negotiated the price. I was off to breakfast with a fresh tan, a smile on my face and not a worry in the world- thanks to St-Barths, WIMCO Villas, Services St-Barths, Tradewind Aviation and my 11 travel companions, who made the experience all the more memorable.
Make Your Reservations For the Island’s Fine Dining Scene
Ah, fine dining: the joys and the frustrations. Sumptuous bites and novel entrées. Navigating the process of getting the table you want with the maître d’hotel. Wine pairings and specialty cocktails de la maison. St-Barths is a haven for all of the above, and with a few perennial favorites and fresh, can’t miss hot spots, you definitely won’t go hungry or dissatisfied.
Armed with our knowledgeable and connected WIMCO concierge Jules, we planned out our dining reservations daily. Jules’ insider information as well as holiday schedules (we visited St-Barths over Mardi Gras) really helped us out. From fresh and light beach-front service at Shellona. To unexpected Thai fusion food at Black Ginger. And how would I forget the late-night sliders at La Cantina, here’s what we ate and where.
Located in the heart of Gustavia, Black Ginger serves authentic and refined Thai fusion cuisine. The interior’s courtyard opens to the moon and sky. Contemporary design mixes with minimalistic furniture with a palette of red and black colors in a softly lit atmosphere. Signature dishes include the crying tiger (grilled beef fillet) and the Massaman curry-coconut milk.
L’Esprit’s completely renovated locations in La Saline delivers a modern eclectic cuisine that blends traditional cooking with innovative techniques. Chef Jean-Claude, formerly of Eden Rock, oversaw the complete rebuild of L’Esprit. He constantly changes his menu to offer the season freshest ingredients. We loved the rotisserie pigeon.
Shellona may be known as a party spot in the evenings, but we went there for lunch. The service and presentation is perfectly curated and executed- from the perfectly grilled calamari to drinks served in polished half-coconut husks. The atmosphere is created by celebrity sightings, upbeat music, beach-side dinging, and breathtaking views of yachts on the sea scape.
Nestled in the harbor of Gustavia, La Guerite is another excellent choice for Mediterranean cuisine. With entrées to share for two, three, or four people, this was a perfect restaurant for our group of 11. The service was excellent and appropriately friendly. The restaurant organized a cake for dessert for the birthday boy in our group. We ended the meal with their traditional spiced rhum made in-house. Our only complaint is that they don’t sell the rhum.
Ociela serves up a Mediterranean culinary journey in a chic dining room perched on a hillside of Gustavia with views over the port. At night, the yachts twinkle in the distance.
Ociela’s secluded off-the-beaten-path location ensures a private dining experience. No one on foot is going to walk by and snap your photo here. Enjoy the set menu that includes Foie Gras and Tuna Mille Feuille.
This restaurant situated on Saint-Jean beach is a stone’s throw away from your beach chairs. After indulging in a delicious lunch here, you can take a long walk on the beach. You’ll be crossing near where planes and take off at the SBH airport every 20-30 minutes during peak season. Playing in the shallow waters in front of Pearl Beach is another great way to work up an appetite or burn off the calories you consumed at lunch, either way you look at it!
Bar De L’Oubli
This establishment at the intersection of Rue de la Republique and Rue de la France dominates the daily social scene. The menu is simple and the food arrives quickly.
The drinks are cold and strong. We parked ourselves here for the Mardi Gras parade and enjoyed the sights from the shade. Bar de L’Oubli may not be fancy, but it’s a must-have for lunch while you’re in St-Barths.
Another pleasant surprise! We found La Cantina on Ash Wednesday after most of the other restaurants and bars had closed. La Cantina is dancing-on-the-tables, swinging-from-the-chandeliers kind of place where you can also bring your kids. Enthusiastic servers, a straight-forward menu of sliders, charcuterie and cheeses; along with their location right on the Bord de Mer create an atmosphere that’s fun- whether you dance on the tables or watch from your seat on the patio.
Putting a Face on Concierge Services
Today’s market for concierge services demands the highest attention given to the smallest detail. And in the world of luxury villa rentals, concierge reputation is everything. West Indies Management Co., or simply WIMCO, whose portfolio of properties in St-Barths continues to become more and more luxurious, found that making concierge services more personable is key to happy, returning costumers.
“At WIMCO, our principle of concierge service is to form a bond with and be accountable personally to clients,” explains WIMCO president Stiles Bennet, who’e been with the company for 11 years.
“From behind the traditional hotel desk, to your front door delivering champagne, gluten-free snacks, SIM cards- you name it.”
In St-Barths , concierges are the single largest booker of reservations at restaurants. Upon arrival at many restaurants in Gustavia, it’s easier to find the reservation under the name of your concierge than your party. Just mention that Jules from WIMCO made your reservation at 9pm and you’ll be whisked over to Jules’ favorite table.
WIMCO rents their luxury villas year-round and our group was fortunate enough to experience life in two of them: Villa Eternity and Villa La Plage.
Villa Eternity is a modern marvel in all white with pops of color in modern sculpture and art throughout the property. Perched on a hillside, it overlooks Flamands and is a two minute drive to the local bakery, La Petite Colombe. The bedroom arrangement of independent units with en suite baths was perfect for our larger party. It allowed the perfect amount of privacy. With two pools and a hot tub, a common kitchen and open-concept dining room-living room combo it was easy to gather for breakfast, plan for the day and go.
Villa La Plage, in Lorient, was beach front with more traditional Caribbean features. A long low profile along the water and a steeply pitched roof to resist damage from hurricanes. As well as a separate kitchen great for a private chef to work without interruption; a large common room with three sitting areas and a grand piano. Along the front, the pool paralleled the ocean. Five independent bedrooms with en suite baths were situated behind main living areas. Down a few steps from the pool and deck was the path to the beach and private beach front property.
The State of Real Estate in St Barths
“The St-Barths real estate market attracts a diverse, global collection of affluent clients,” said Bennet, who is active on the St Barths Real Estate side as well. Doug Foregger, director of WIMCO International Real Estate confirmed the spike in real estate activity.
“Additionally, under French law, there are zero comparables. This creates and imperfect market as well as opportunity,” he said. Purchasing property in St Barths is easy and the process can take as little as four months. More than 50% of real estate sales are to Americans, Foregger said. “We’re seeing a record number of sales and we’re on track for our best sales year in 30 years.” With a few transactions over $75 million this year, it’s easy to see why.
Almost everyone can agree: St Barths is one of the world’s most unique places. The sense of safety and security you feel because of the seclusion of the island, the quality of people who vacation here and the reputation as a luxury destination all correlate into villa rentals and real estate sales. “St Barths has no private clubs,” Foregger said. “Once you’re here, you’re in the club.” And that is exactly the feeling you get during your time in St. Barths.
Check out some of WIMCO’s luxury villas below!
Villa La Plage, also known as WV VLP, is a 7-bedroom villa located on Lorient Beach. This prime locations is minutes from the beach and shopping areas. This villa offers breathtaking views of the sea and beach. The large living room has beautiful slate flooring, several sofas and chairs, and large sliding doors that open onto the terrace. The kitchen has space to prepare gourmet meals, while the gas barbecue on the terrace is ideal for grilling local ingredients. SEE MORE
Villa Blanc Bleu, also known as WV BLB, is an elegant 6-bedroom estate. The villa provides guests with luxury, sunset views in a private setting. Maison Blanc Bleu is an understatement. In reality, this vast villa offers much more than two basic colors. From the villa’s stately driveway, to the 60-foot heated pool and private paddle tennis court, there is plenty to brag about. SEE MORE
Villa Eternity, also known as WV ETY, is a contemporary 5-bedroom villa located in Flamands minutes from the beach and shopping. This hillside villa offers lovely ocean views. The main living area is located on the upper level. It is well-equipped with a kitchen/dining area and spacious living room with modern furnishings. A plasma satellite TV is located at the end of the living room and can be raised to watch a movie or lowered to enjoy the ocean view. SEE MORE
See all St. Barths Villas
Polo Lifestyles April 2019 Issue