With one hand on the steering wheel and the other grasping a loaf of French bread, Francisco, our pilot, turned to me and said, “Get ready for the landing of your life.”
Our six-seater Piper Aztec was just approaching the Island of St. Bart’s in the French West Indies, and we were curiously close to the ground, with no landing strip in sight. As we headed straight into the side of a small mountain, just below the landing gear, people in convertible Mini-Mokes were waving at us. I thought they were trying to warn us of impending danger.
Just as we crested the hill, Francisco cut the engine and the plane nose-dived toward the ground. If I hadn’t been frozen in fear, I could have reached out the window and plucked a Chanel bag from a bronzed bystander’s shoulder.
Seconds later we were screeching to a halt on the 900-foot runway. The beach and a gleaming turquoise ocean, dotted with luxury yachts, was just a few yards away. “Welcome to paradise,” said Francisco, his mouth full of bread.
For decades St. Bart’s has been a playground for the rich and famous. Greta Garbo’s wish to be alone was granted here many times, and, in the ’40s, the Rockefellers and the Rothchilds partied together all over the 8-square-mile island. Today, as you stroll along one of the 20 secluded, white-sand beaches, you’re likely to bump into David Letterman, Jimmy Buffett, P. Diddy, Tom Hanks, Calvin Klein, Steve Martin, or a topless Mariah Carey.
What you won’t bump into are casinos, high-rise hotels, fast-food restaurants, cheesy tourist shops, cruise ships, or purse-snatchers. When you come to St. Bart’s, be prepared to entertain yourself with reading, sunning, napping, dining, and world-class shopping—the tiny town on Gustavia makes Rodeo Drive look like Grapevine Mills Mall. Every haute couture designer in the world is well-represented, and between the big-name shops like Gucci, Dior, Versace, and Jean Paul Gaultier, you’ll find small boutiques filled with luscious French lingerie, unique fashions, and local handicrafts.
French is the language, and the Euro is the currency, but, unlike France, everyone in St. Bart’s is bilingual. And also unlike France, the attitude is laid-back chic. The cuisine is as haute as the couture.
WHERE TO STAY
Checking into the Hotel Isle de France is like settling into a casually elegant private mansion on the beach. You are immediately surrounded by luxury—fine linen, private Jacuzzis, and, of course, French doors that open to a terrace overlooking the sea. Everything is beautiful, from the pools to the people.
This French-Caribbean-style hotel is what living large is all about. The biggest decision you have to make is whether to sun poolside overlooking the ocean or lounge on a padded chair at the water’s edge. Cocktails are delivered regardless of your chosen position.
Had too much sun? Retreat to one of the blue-canopied tables and enjoy a salade nicoise and a glass of Sancerre. Cloud cover? No problem. Head to the world-class spa on site to restore your mind and rejuvenate your body.
The staff goes out of its way to make you feel at home (even when you’re not rich or famous). At night, the outdoor dining room morphs into the romantic candlelit La Case de L’Isle, one of the island’s top restaurants. The ambience is surreal, with the sounds of hushed conversations in French, German, Spanish, and (yes) Texan.
Sleep comes easy when you’re nestled in your bed under the down comforter, listening to the sounds of the ocean and feeling the warm, gentle breeze across your cheek. You dream of the Prada shoes you spied earlier in the day. For tomorrow, they will be yours.
Hotel Isle de France (Baie des Flamands)
800-628-8929 or www.isle-de-france.com
Rates: autumn (Oct 15-Dec 19), $515-
$1,250; Christmas (Dec 20-Jan 4), $820-
$2,250; winter (Jan 5-Apr 11) $750-
$2,100; spring/summer (Apr 12-Aug 31)
$540-$1,300 (rates based on EUR)
WHERE TO SUN
The beaches of St. Bart’s are not for the shy. All are “clothing optional” and, unlike many topless beaches, the bodies here are close to perfect. There are 20 white-sand beaches to explore and, even during high season, none is overcrowded. Top Spots: anse des Flamands, anse de Colombier, anse de L’Orient, and baie de St. Jean.
WHERE TO SHOP
Grab your credit card and go. Here’s a hot tip: the island shuts down for hurricane season on September 1, so the sales in August are incredible. All the stores listed below are in the main town of Gustavia and are only a few blocks apart.
Jewelry: Bulgari, Guy Laroche
Clothes: Paradoxe (shoes), Hermès (scarves), La Perla (lingerie), Lolita Jaca (hippie chic), Ralph Lauren (prêt a porter luxe), Indigos (prêt a porter), Lacoste (sportswear), Raffia (children’s clothes), Made in St. Bart’s (local handicrafts, oils, scents)
WHERE TO EAT
Boubou’s (Mediterranean), Grand Cul de Sac in the Sereno Beach Hotel; François Plantation (French), Colombier; Maya’s (eclectic Creole), Anse de Public; La Case de l’Isle (French/Mediterranean), Hotel Isle de France; La Langouste (Creole seafood), Hotel Baies des Anges; Le Sélect (cheeseburgers), Gustavia; Vietnam (Asian), Gustavia.
A PARROTHEAD’S VIEW OF PARADISE
We are having a religious experience. My Parrothead pal is in paradise, eating a cheeseburger at the place that spawned the Jimmy Buffett anthem: the outdoor snack bar beneath the flame trees at Le Select, hard off the Gustavia harbor. We’ve already chatted up white-haired, one-named Marius, the bar’s founder, and he told us he has made “many friends in Texas, thanks to Jimmy Buffett.” This is people-watching paradise, too—diners with big diamonds and Dior beachwear wait in line for a famous Ti punch, while they chat casually with dreadlocked and barefooted locals. If you are indeed an over-exuberant, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing Buffett fan, St. Bart’s is one of the stops on the pilgrimage tour, right up there with Key West and the Gulf Coast of Alabama. Only St. Bart’s is much more exotic. Buffett lighted here in the late ’70s, stayed off and on for a decade, and still maintains a villa here. And his lone tour as innkeeper spawned the Caribbean-funk “Autour du Rocher,” from his most recent original album, Far Side of the World. The song details the wild excesses at the peculiar little hotel up a hill near anse de L’Orient. The funky little bar with bad wiring, according to the song, thrived at a time when St. Bart’s was a stop for the fabulously rich and the extravagantly quirky. Now, only the rich call it a vacation spot.