ABOUT ST BARTHS
A mere eight square miles of volcanic land and arid soil comprise the isle of St.Barths, an inarguably resplendent, highly coveted destination spot among tastemakers, celebrities and discriminating travelers from across the world. Despite a huge surge in popularity, it remains unspoiled and pristine - a quirky isle marked by charm, rich history, natural beauty and understated elegance.
The landscape is quite dramatic ; craggy coastline hover over crystalline seas, stretches of white sand beach yawn out to sweeps of cliffs. Below is Gustavia, the horseshoe-shaped port where pirates, merchants and mariners once held court. While bustling with mega-yachts and a boisterous nightlife in high-season, the lush and hilly terrain is freckled with villas shrouded in privacy.
Now peopled primarily by descendents of the original French settlers and transplanted Europeans, the island has played host to an eclectic cast since the Arawak Indians – from explorers, plunderers, renegades, displaced mariners and convicts to impresarios, Old Hollywood, and throngs of others.
In a place where agriculture could not thrive, settlers were often displaced, flux and uncertainty reigned. Changing sovereigns and morphing identities characterized its legacy as the island was passed off between kings, as if a trading possession. In turn, the island’s history is prismatic, with a legacy that runs from tribal Amerindians to Rockefellers.
It was a tropical stash box for pirate-plundered booty and a battleground for warring tribes; a thriving port during colonial wars, a playground for last Gilded Age , among others. Through the vagaries of this history, the island gained an authenticity and rich cultural weave , and more recently, liberated itself from the administrative yoke of Guadeloupe.
SOME RECENT HISTORY
Started a new era with the arrival of Remy de Haenen was a pivotal moment. Known as gentleman, lunatic, smuggler, activist, Playboy, renegade and aviator, the eccentric soon-to-be-mayor arrived on St.Barths with a brazen entrance in 1946, when, without warning, he landed his two seat toy plane among herding goats and ogling natives.
A steward of innovation, Rémy de Haenen purchased a small property for $200 soon after, which would become the legendary Eden’s Rock hotel. In the 1950s, tourists slowly started arriving at the tiny airport on small planes and private jets. That precarious strip of grass remained a makeshift runway for visitors until it was finally paved in the 70s.
In the past, outsiders came to St. Barths as a refuge. They valued privacy and detachment. They were interesting people, often eccentric, and preferred simplicity and meagerness to the hazards and resources of the wider world.
This elitist edge and surge in tourism began in the 1950s, the last Gilded Age. In the 1970's. A coterie of pedigree families, celebrities and adventure-seeking tastemakers established a presence. The first Gilded Age brought Greta Garbo, Jacques Cousteau and Howard Hughes to the island. Rockefeller and Rothschild’s came too, and bought land to develop. Over time the tasteful combination of Gallic chic, imported gourmet groceries, and tropical climate proved irresistible. A whole new generation of emigrants came, opening boutiques and restaurants, building hotels and villas.
But quick-thinking islanders created laws limiting mass tourism to guard their hard-earned lifestyle; as a result, you won’t see casinos, high-rise hotels or fast-food chains. To this day, the runway is a mere 1400 feet, restricting commercial aircraft. Only helicopters and toy planes can land. High property values and strict preservation laws work to keep this boisterous resort island pristine.
Today, St. Barths is among the quirkiest of all Caribbean islands. Topless Gauloise-smoking Parisians mingle with old Hollywood, bonnet clad natives speak in old Norman as Russian royalty hold court nearby. A once-quiet, sheltered harbor, pirate’s asylum, boisterous free port, the area is now overrun with mega-yachts in high season. No doubt the stock of this paradise has done nothing but appreciate, with its roster of $1,000-a-night hotels, restaurants, boutiques, and nightclubs.
Still, locals recall a simpler time - before telephones or electricity, when there was one automobile and 5,000 donkeys and it took a month to get a lemon from Europe.
Virgin landscapes and charmed ports remain. Although teeming with luxury yachts and throngs of nightclubbing pedestrians in high season, a quiet villa perched on highlands renders you invisible. The island maintains a casual elegance, a level of taste uncompromised and a chic retreat of luxury is one without pretense.