On holiday with the scruffy billionaires of St Barts

Sitting behind the cockpit, we flew low in the V between two peaks, navigating the high ground, skimming 30ft above a mini-roundabout; a few passers-by stopped to watch, arms held aloft, their flimsy clothes and wet hair blown about by the whoosh of the propeller. Through the pass, the pilot pushed the joystick forward in what felt like a dive before pulling up to flare. Ahead, I saw the airstrip end abruptly at a beach; after touchdown, the pilot pressed hard on the brakes. He unlatched the door and in poured the humidity, a hint of kerosene, sea salt and coconut. 

This tricky landing and short runway have gone some way to protect St Barthélemy, known more casually as St Barts, from the mass tourism experienced by other Caribbean islands. 

“We’re lucky that it’s difficult to come here,” Bruno Magras, the island’s president, told me. “Some say we should put 300m on the runway and open up the harbour, but that would devastate us.” 

The island’s little runway


The additional flight, usually via the neighbouring island of St Maarten, or further-flung Antigua, might ward off some holidaymakers, but it shouldn’t. Even in the context of the lovely Antilles archipelago, this speck is especially beautiful. It’s both a coral island and a volcanic island, which has created a spectacular terrain of craggy rocks, sheer hillsides and castaway offshore islets, fringed by pretty, protective reefs.

Ironically, in centuries past, it was this rugged, unproductive landscape of rocky soil and no freshwater springs that saved St Barts from some of the region’s worst ravages. The island never had lucrative sugar cane or banana plantations; it survived, at a struggle, on fishing and piracy. The upshot, though, was that the island never experienced slavery. And without the weight of that history, there is a lightness of being here, rare in this part of the world.

One of the island’s stunning beaches


The mythmaking around St Barts began in the late 1950s, when US power couple David and Peggy Rockefeller cruised in by sailing boat. From the deck, they gazed up at a promontory and swore to build a home, here in the French West Indies. It turned out to be a spectacular house designed by Nelson W Aldrich using parabolic shapes and undulating curves. They invited friends and anointed the island as a refuge for the rich and royal at a time when celebrities were cool; Rudolf Nureyev came (and then also built a home here), along with Robert Mitchum, Greta Garbo and Gore Vidal. 

Today, the Rockefellers’ former home might lie in ruins, but the location above the bay of Colombier has lost none of its allure. It’s inaccessible by car, so I took to the steep serpentine littoral trail. Above me, pelicans soared as I spied iguanas stock-still beside the path and giant tortoises travelling remarkably swiftly. As the trail petered out towards the shoreline, I donned my snorkelling gear and spotted green turtles in the shallows before flopping on to the sands to eat a baguette in the shadow of the Rockefeller home.

Magic like this can feel impenetrable, eternal, but in the summer of 2017 Hurricane Irma devastated the region. It took a few years, even for St Barts – with its deep pockets, A-list residents and French state support – to rebuild and recover. Then, just as some of the flagship hotels were set to reopen, Covid hit and the island near-enough shut down again. Now it is hoping for better times, as the forthcoming high season looms. With fewer than 100 cases of Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, and no deaths, St Barts is seen by some as a safe haven, just as it has been for decades. 

The island has no shortage of A-list residents


One night I had dinner at the oldest restaurant on St Barts, Maya’s, owned by Martinique-born Maya Beuzelin Gurley and her American husband, Randy. Like the Rockefellers, they also came here by boat. “We sailed into harbour and found this jewel of an island,” Randy told me. “We didn’t even have to clear customs because there was nobody in the office.” Maya added: “There was so much freedom back then; I could cook – so we set up a restaurant and lived on our boat.” 

So many I met had this same story of arriving by yacht, dropping anchor, becoming bewitched and conjuring up a business to make a life here possible. David and Jane Matthews sailed here 20 years ago, saw the promise of a shabby-looking Eden Rock and snapped it up, in spite of no hotel experience. “It has a special magic,” David said. “A small tropical island without any troubles or tensions – and Frenchness at every turn.” Eden Rock, recognised as one of the world’s best hotels, is in good company, with properties such as Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France, owned by LVMH; the beloved Le Sereno, designed by the late Christian Liaigre; Villa Marie, with a sister property of the same name in St Tropez; and Le Guanahani, newly taken over by Rosewood. 

Eden Roc

With hotel pedigree like this, St Barts sounds irrepressibly glamorous, but in reality it’s not quite like that, at least not all year. The status-seekers tend to come for the Christmas holidays, when “it is all about villas, yachts and Russian prostitutes,” as one hotel driver bluntly described it to me. During the other 355 days, it is the unhurried Caribbean, where chickens scratch about and hummingbirds hang about by hibiscus stamens.

There’s two sides to the island


That pace is epitomised at the nondescript bar Le Select in the capital Gustavia, where everyone always suggests to meet. I ordered a Ti’ Punch at one window, a hot dog from the kiosk and waited for my date, happy to while away the afternoon. As the sun moved, I shifted my chair, finding shade under the quenettier and flamboyant trees. Around me were a rag-tag bunch of sailors, artists and scruffy billionaires, that uniquely St Barts mishmash. For an island of just 9,000 inhabitants, there is a disproportionate number of fun, fascinating people living here, or passing through. 

Before I left, I spent a morning on the beach at Lorient with its rickety clapboard houses, little motor boats bobbing about offshore and easy waves for newbie surfers. I collected handfuls of cone shells, while to my right a young boy skimmed stones; further down, a young family were all immersed neck-deep in a rock pool. 

Outside the brightly painted surf shack, I met one of the instructors, David Blanchard, a deeply tanned fifth-generation islander, who was waxing a board. Slightly awkwardly, I asked him what kept him here, as if I couldn’t guess. He studied me hard, his brow furrowed, before speaking softly and pointing at the waves. “Here the orientation of the swell is perfect and there’s a little reef pushing you in. Over there is Pointe Milou with an amazing point break.” He paused, waiting for me to concede. “It’s paradise,” he added. “How could I leave?” 

Le Sereno

How to get there

Double rooms at the Eden Rock hotel (oetkercollection.com) cost from €900 (£819) per night B&B. Other hotels: Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France (chevalblanc.com), Le Sereno (serenohotels.com), Villa Marie (saint-barth.villamarie.fr), Le Guanahani (leguanahani.com).

British Airways (ba.com) flies from London Gatwick to St Barts via Antigua with onward travel on Tradewind Aviation from £1,274 return. The Tradewind flights restart on Nov 18 and dovetail with BA services. Both St Barts and Antigua are currently on Britain’s quarantine exempt list. 

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