St Barths: French Fancy

Hotels in St Barths are reopening following the wrath of hurricane Irma two years ago

Landing on the tiny French island officially known as Saint Barthélemy isn’t for the faint-hearted. Its minimal Gustaf III airport boasts one of the shortest commercial runways in the world, just over 2,000ft long, with a dazzling white-sand beach at the end. After our nine-seat turboprop plane swoops down over turquoise bays speckled with super yachts, the pilot has to slam on the brakes hard to avoid an unscheduled swim in the glistening sea.

It’s a suitably exhilarating way for my wife, Alice, and I to arrive in a celebrated sunshine escape that marries the French Riviera’s chic charms with the Caribbean’s warmth and vicacity. Passing through immigration and customs takes all of two minutes, then we’re met by a chirpy valet from Hotel Le Toiny who sports the athletic look that’s de rigueur for staff on this fashion-savvy isle. That means top-knots and tattoos for the guys, while all the girls bounce around in short white skirts, as if they’re off to play tennis just as soon as they’ve delivered madame’s kir royale.

Speeding across this topsy-turvy island in a liveried SUV, it’s hard to believe St Barths is only 10 square miles but packs in 16 beaches, almost 100 restaurants and 28 hotels – a quarter of which are five-star. It’s even harder to appreciate that as recently as September 2017, it was being pummelled by the 185mph winds of hurricane Irma that caused devastation across the island. “The water infiltrated everywhere,” one resident told me. “Windows trembled, and my husband had to hold the front door shut for almost three hours.”

We see little signs of damage now, but roads are still busy with construction trucks as the island rebuilds. “The only good thing about Irma was it brought sand to our beach,” says Maria Visé, front office manager at Hotel Le Toiny, as she ushers us into an elegant suite with a private heated pool, Sonos sounds and Bamford toiletries.

Set on the island’s Côte Sauvage, this English-owned hillside property is rich with masterly touches, from the à la carte breakfast delivered to your terrace to the customised Land Rover that takes guests down a bumpy track to its soigné beach club. As the hotel is a Relais & Châteaux member, we expect to eat well, but the competition between St Barths’ leading restaurants means chefs – in this case, South African Jarad McCarroll – must come up with culinary fireworks night after night. As we dine under the stars on red snapper tartare paired with Domaine William Fèvre chablis, I begin to see how St Barths has earned its reputation as a playground for honeymooners, celebrities and the super-rich.

Dressing the part

While eating well on St Barths is a given, the shopping is, frankly, hilarious. You’ll never see so many bikini shops, and the smaller the outfit the higher the price. In Gustavia, the capital, we find Rue de la République lined with fiercely air-conditioned mini branches of all the big luxury brands. Bvlgari, Hermès, Prada, Chopard – they’re all here, pandering to the super-yacht squad who mass in the harbour in high season. The style here sees women in classic nautical blue and white, floaty boho chic or the aforementioned barely-there bikinis. And for regular blokes like me? Well, let’s just say that if you haven’t packed some shorts in lollipop colours you’d better 

hot-foot it to Be-Store, also in St Tropez and Puerto Banus, which sells them in fetching shades of lime, mustard, fuchsia and Damien Hirst-style spots.

As we stroll around this bijou port, where a pompous town hall proclaims ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ and a plucky Anglican church, St Bartholomew’s, chimes its bells, we’re surprised to find the street names in both French and Swedish. Rue du Bord de Mer is also Östra Quayen – a reminder that, until 1878, this minuscule Valhalla belonged to Sweden for almost a century.

Gustavia is well worth a potter, but it won’t be the reason you book a holiday to St Barths. Anyone lucky enough to have the readies to splurge on a trip comes to this unashamedly ritzy isle because it’s a sun-kissed whirl of fun and indulgence that effortlessly mixes fabulous hotels, gourmet cuisine and glorious nature. This becomes apparent the minute I start exploring its steep hills, potholed lanes and infuriating cul-de-sacs, which we do in a bright red Mini Countryman because it’s all that’s available. Vehicles are often in short supply here but it does pay to call around – as we’re in the EU, there are no roaming charges, and it’s not long before I find one for almost half the rate offered at our hotel.

Be prepared – there’s barely a straight or level road on St Barths. Suddenly we’re caught up in a bizarre cavalcade of mokes, scooters, electric cars and quad bikes ridden by locals in stilettos. Vehicles pop out from every direction, which means this is one place where it’s probably a good idea to take out that extra insurance the rental companies are always flogging us. We don’t, but fortunately Alice’s scarlet lipstick proves ideal for touching up the odd scuff.

So where do you head? The beaches, naturellement. These are impressively varied, from the pristine sands of Anse du Grand Colombier, accessible only by foot or boat, to family-friendly St Jean and the incredible Anse de Grand Cul de Sac, a shallow, reef-fenced lagoon where we snorkel with turtles, rays and a galaxy of brightly coloured fish and coral. The true stunners, though, are Anse du Gouverneur and Anse de Grande Saline – although, as we learn to our cost, you need to pack a picnic first. While most Caribbean beaches are a predictable run of rum bars, sarong stalls, under-the-palm-tree therapists and dudes selling jet-ski trips, here the French keep their impeccable sands blissfully unsullied by commerce. At the entrance, there’s invariably a neat line of empty soft drinks cans on strings for depositing cigarette butts, while some places provide a cute row of paintbrushes for dusting the sand off your twinkle toes on departure.

Down by the shore at Salines, the sea is so bewitchingly blue and the sand so blindingly white I feel I’ve entered heaven’s arrivals lounge. Forget the headline-grabbing parade of royals, film stars and supermodels that frolic here – what makes St Barths memorable is how close you can feel to raw nature, albeit with a chilled glass of Whispering Angel in hand. On this fairytale island, the mighty waves crash, frigate birds rule the sky, turtles wave a friendly flipper and abundant red-footed tortoises bravely cross the road at a top speed of around 100 yards an hour. Unbelievably, these patient plodders have the right of way here and I’m touched when we see a driver suddenly pull over and move one out of danger. That’s how it goes on St Barths – a shimmering holiday paradise where you can live life just as fast or slow as you fancy. 

Book it: Elegant Resorts offers seven nights at Hotel Le Toiny from £4,225 per person including breakfast, transfers, flights via Antigua and UK lounge passes.