Back around the turn of the century (don’t you love that expression? –we should use it more often), I wrote an essay about spending a long vacation on the little island of St. Barthélemy, which lies nestled in the delicate southward crescent of the French West Indies, not far north of Venezuela, a stone’s throw from St. Maarten. Even then I knew St. Barts well, having visited it almost every winter for the preceding ten years. I described it then as
“French and predominantly white and historically poor and just now in the last stages of what can be called its pre-mainstream, jet-set era, sort of like Acapulco in the Sixties: after the waves of real celebrities have moved on to other shores, just before it becomes utterly de classé and touted by every travel agent in Des Moines as the place for Lindsay and Biff to have their honeymoon. Let’s face it, the place is crawling with smug middle-class Americans already, has been thoroughly raked over by the travel press, and even the Germans are beginning to look elsewhere. When third-generation Texas oil moguls in their thirties and their little blonde wives are buying real estate here (and they are trying), you know the end is near.”
I was wrong in most of this. The end was not near. While St. Barts is, in fact, now touted by every travel agent in Des Moines as the place for that overly-entitled young couple to honeymoon, real estate prices on the island have outpaced even the means of Texas oil moguls. Nowadays you have to be a Russian oligarch or own large swaths of Argentina to afford to buy land there, and it has become shockingly expensive even to visit (more on that later). Nonetheless I have bravely persevered in vacationing on St. Barts almost annually. I’ve just returned from a two-week stay and, as a public service, offer the following update.
As in my last report, I have no interest (or expertise) in recounting St. Bart’s history (a chaotic colonial badminton match between France and Sweden) or its climate (benignly tropical) or its terrain (seven disjointed miles of hills jostling each other above the Caribbean Sea), or the experience of landing on its famously-tiny runway (still heart-stopping), or which celebrities have most recently been there (don’t know), or which restaurants are in or out (ditto). There are travel sites galore these days that will do all that and more. I want instead to describe what it’s like to be there now that it has become a bit of a cliché.
Then as now, much of the attractive beachfront (and there is no unattractive beachfront on St. Barts) is owned either by the French government (St. Barts is a prefecture of mainland France) or by private individuals of stubborn Gallic temperament, and they and the island fathers have commendably continued to resist the incursion of big hotel chains and large cruise ships (though some smaller ones can occasionally be spotted offshore). Nonetheless, the place has become significantly more crowded. You used to be able to easily find a place to park in downtown Gustavia to shop, or over in St. Jean for lunch. Good luck with that now. There are simply more people on the island at any given time, mainly attributable to an explosion in rentable housing stock over the last decade. Most visitors rent a “villa” (which could be anything from a small bungalow to an actual villa). The few hotels here are small; some are quite old and faintly shabby, though the oldest, the Eden Rock Hotel, became Euro-chic sometime last century and these days is painfully hip. Sofitel is the one, notably French, hotel chain that has a foothold here, an odd little set of isolated bungalows on Pointe Miliou, a part of the island where, in Gallic irony, there is no beach. Apparently Louis Vuitton’s empire just acquired the Isle de France, a charming little formerly independent hotel on the beach of Flamands. Whether this bodes good or ill I cannot say, but I’m guessing ill.
The devastating hurricane of ‘95, which wiped out a lot of waterfront housing and all of that year’s tourist season, gave lasting license to new construction on the island, most of it more entrepreneurial than remedial. Rental villas have sprung up on every hillside, widened roads encircle the gussied-up airport, and some low-end motel-style structures have sprouted near the less-popular beaches like mushrooms after a long rain. Some changes are innocuous: the Match supermarket, where once, in headier days, I spied Gerard Depardieu padding along the aisles in his bare feet with a little red plastic shopping basket, is now a Marche’ supermarket (though my wife and I persist in calling it the Match). Gerard, I take it, has moved on to Russia.
And the Russians have moved here! I can tell how many Russians must live in New York City these days by how many of them are in St. Barts in February. Outside the main harbor of Gustavia, one of those aforementioned Russian oligarchs has berthed his enormous yacht, which looks for all the world like a CGI rendering out of a James Bond movie (truly, you blink at it, waiting for the credits to roll), for which privilege I’m told he funded most of the cost of the island’s brand-new soccer and tennis complex. A good trade, if you ask me. I played on the courts and they’re quite nice. (Thanks, Comrade Abramovich!) On the other hand, when we tried to get into the nice little unassuming restaurant on our beach for lunch one day, it had been taken over by a huge party of Russians celebrating one of their birthdays, or the Sochi Olympics, or something. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my many years, it’s that the French will take anyone’s money (they may not act like they like it, but they’ll take it).
At the east end of Flamands lies the perpetually renovated, 2000 euro-per-night Taiwana Hotel, a compact monument to managerial ineptitude in the guise of wretched excess. Back in the day, rumor had it that the owner spent two months in jail for importing undocumented workers to step up the pace of its development. I personally suspected a vast money-laundering operation, but then as now, that’s a story for a far more investigative reporter than I. All I know is that, despite the prices, they can’t seem to get the beachfront restaurant right, despite a prime location on one of the prettiest beaches on the island.
(One point of personal nostalgia: the beach of Flamands, pre-hurricane, was as wide as a soccer field, and densely fringed with palms and other foliage. We used to play touch football on it, with room to spare. The hurricane tore the palms away, and carried off much of the beach, which was later laboriously remediated. They’re going to have to do it again, as the portion of the beach in front of Taiwana is once again pitifully narrow, forcing the high-rollers who lounge there into a space little wider than a shuffleboard. As Isle de France is directly next door, and its beach is faring not much better, perhaps the good offices of Monsieur Vuitton can be brought to bear.)
In the antediluvian (literally) early ‘90s, a popular T-shirt sold in St. Barts showed an outline of the island and the words “No Phones.” This was true. When I and the investment banker friend with whom I shared the cost of a beachfront villa wanted to make a call to an important client (so as to pretend we were not on vacation), he and I would trudge down the road to the nearest pay phone with a plastic card loaded up with Francs (in those days) and pass the handset back and forth between us. Now, of course, Wi-Fi is ubiquitous, the New Yorkers at the Isle de France wander up and down the beach with cellphones stuck to their ears, and all the villas have satellite dishes sucking American television from the sky. Whereas in a former epoch I went without news for the duration of our stay (not a bad thing), now I read the Wall Street Journal on my iPad every morning over my Illy coffee. If you weren’t blinded by the sunlight or intoxicated by the intense blueness of the sea or distracted by the French language lilting around you amidst the Brooklyn accents, you might think you’d never left home.
Unless you looked at a menu. Did I mention the place is expensive? Modest little lunches for two, admittedly including a bottle of nice rose’ and perhaps a crepe suzette or cappuccino afterwards, will routinely run you a couple of hundred dollars. Dinner is in the price realm of high-end Manhattan venues frequented only by hedge fund managers and maybe Michael Bloomberg. A hamburger at Eden Rock will set you back sixty bucks (truffled fries are extra). In beachfront lunch spots with your toes in the sand, there are little fashion shows where aspiring French models practice their struts while wearing 500 euro hotpants.
Don’t get me wrong; after the initial shock and the rationalization that you can always take out a second mortgage, you cease to care. The French don’t really know how to cook badly, or make merely passable wine or so-so bread or indifferent coffee, and being surrounded by white sand and a warm turquoise sea sure hasn’t taught them. The food is unbelievably good for a small island that imports almost everything that doesn’t swim from Guadeloupe (except chefs, who are apparently imported directly from Paris). Any other Caribbean island will seem culinarily deprived by comparison, and you cry when you think about eating back home.
There are those who attempt to go to St. Barts on the cheap, as though they were backpacking through Costa Rica. This is not recommended. My wife and I witnessed a trio of none-too-svelte American women enter a restaurant at the height of “first seating” hour and announce that they were just there for dessert. The proprietor politely directed them to the bar, where they proceeded to cozy up to a man who appeared to be a direct descendant of Harry Belafonte, and openly mooched his dinner. One can only guess where this led later, but I’m sure it was nowhere good.
So what does one do here, other than eat? I get up when I get up, usually early by my own standards (what is it about the absence of a requirement that makes the result desirable?). In the kitchen of our little hillside villa, the automatic coffee maker has begun its interminable dripping of hot water through the French roast grounds, and maybe I’m off to the little patisserie up the road for a fresh, fat beignet stuffed with cream or jam, and the day’s baguette. Later maybe a brisk walk on the beach with my wife, and an hour or so plotting the next few meals. Then I grease myself up and lie down in the sun to read. (Another sea change: I used to ship a crate of books ahead to St. Barts and work my way through it during the stay. Now I just bring my iPad. I’ll accept this as progress.)
In the old days I would spend a few hours struggling with some guilt about work. I’m fortunately beyond that now. The fax machine in our villa has become a charming antique. Whereas previously a vacation was a frivolous interruption of my important job, now it is my job. I pull out my binoculars and with renewed seriousness study the topless sunbathers up the beach for signs of fleeting celebrity.
The days of a stay this long tend to assume the languid indeterminacy of a childhood summer. Is it Tuesday or Thursday? Did it rain yesterday, or was that Monday? And if it does rain for a day or two, you don’t panic with betrayed disappointment the way you would if those were two precious days out of your one precious week. I laugh at the rain, and open another bottle of Barbeyrolle.
And I sleep. Eight, nine, ten hours a day. Long, hearty, hungry draughts of sleep, filled with the kind of weird dreams you only have when your subconscious is rested up enough to take on your superego, and win. Extended immersion in water, wine, books, and good food will produce some strange and memorable visions, most of which cannot be recounted here.
In my report on turn-of-the-century St. Barts, I wrote: “Eventually the days dwindle down, as the song goes, and you begin to count the number left before you have to climb on the little twin engine turboprop that will haul you heavily out of here and back to the Calcutta that is the Princess Juliana International Airport of St. Maarten, and then get on some aging widebody for the long flight home. But for now there are a few more sinuous little mountain roads and rum-embroidered naps not yet taken, and sunset dips in the translucent sea, and though they are working on it all over the island, they’ve not yet succeeded in making St. Barts easy to leave. Not just yet.”