“Paradise” is a word that you shouldn’t bandy about, but at least reserve it for a place that is undeniably one, such as St. Barth. The variety of the undulating terrain’s is never monotonous; you can reach the furthest point from wherever you are in 20 to 25 minutes; the ocean views are mesmerizing and the sandy beaches clean and inviting; the French chicness, sophistication and accents infuse the entire island; and the shopping reaches international standards. The entire ten days that I was there, the day-time temperature always seemed stuck at 81 degrees with only a few brief showers.
Before arriving, we had trepidations based on the possibility that St. Barth had “gone commersh”, as they used to say, with overdevelopment– something we were reminded of every day that we ventured out from our house on the Côte d’Azur. Since my last visit in 1996. there are many more hotels, restaurants (closing in on 100) and strip malls, but strip malls with a bit of charm. No structure, business or residential, is more than two stories high, and nearly all of them have distinctive four-sided roofs that come to a flat rectangle at the top, which gives the island a visual consistency. So while there has been considerable building going on, it strikes me as controlled. I would even go so far as to say that St. Barth is better now because of it. What was once sleepy Gustavia is now burgeoning with several blocks of shops with all the usuals such as Cartier, Louis Vuitton Dolce & Gabbana and Hermes, as well as locally-owned boutiques. (For a brief moment standing by the water in front of a row of shops, it felt like being on the Croisette in Cannes). What impressed me as much as anything, however, was the large, surprisingly well-stocked French supermarket Marché U across from the airport where I found a raw-milk Vacherin Haut-Doubes possessed of the requisite spoon-served unctuousness, packaged selections of other raw-milk cheese, and many kinds of Caribbean fruits and vegetables, my favorite of which are the small, sweet pineapples. For anyone renting a villa and doing some self-catering, the market is a godsend. The one disquieting sign, however, is the villa-building activity taking place on the Windward side close to the toney Le Toiny Hotel, which used to be open, unbroken terrain the last time I was there.
St. Barth cuisine won’t win any guidebook awards, but will serve you in good stead for a long stay, if need be. Having lunch beachside at one of the upscale hotels will make you more tolerant of less-than-perfect dishes. Although the restaurants are quite dependent on the food-bearing planes that land in St. Maarten twice a week from France and the meat deliveries from America, there is a meaningful amount and variety of fruit, vegetables and seafood from the region. Other than the tiny number of Creole restaurants, which I haven’t yet visited, I found that the upscale restaurants made only occasional use of Caribbean fruit and vegetables, sweet potatoes seemingly the most offered. Instead, all of them, with the exception of a sushi restaurant and casual restaurants such as Jo-Jo’s Burgers, have followed a path I call “light and bright”, reminiscent what you would encounter on the Cote d’Azur and other Mediterranean outposts. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to call it a formula, as there are variations on a theme. As St. Barth is a resort island with Americans making up the large majority of visitors and restaurant-goers, nearly all the restaurants cater to them, particularly the more-expensive ones. Menus are quite copious (no all-tasting-menus that I was able to find). Seafood dominates because in the surrounding waters there is tuna, mahi-mahi (or dolphin or Pompano), octopus and calamari from waters further north, and the ubiquitous spiny lobsters- clawless crustaceans that I found a little inferior in taste to the meaty, rich-textured Maine lobster. Fish in its various raw variations such as tartare, ceviche, and sashimi are in all the more-ambitious and expensive up-scale beachfront hotels. Of course, sandwiches, burgers, salads and pastas are on the menus for both casual and hotel restaurants, and because of the reliance of imports, the choice of meats in a variety of forms and cuts is limited. There are more fish dishes than meat ones, but if you like your cooked fish with the requisite springiness, keep in mind that according to the owner of the restaurant Santa Fe, there are sous-vide preparations in his kitchen and in many others. But how much will you mind in such a privileged, care-free atmosphere?
Thee are no famous chefs in St. Barths. There’s only one restaurant with a chef’s name. But two hotels, the Eden Roc and the brand-new Le Bartholomy have, respectively, Jean-George and Le Grand Vefour’s Guy Martin who visit the island from time to time (every two months for Guy Martin) to work with the chefs de cuisine to execute their dishes. Dinners there and at other expensive hotels are more Frenchified, sometimes with the accompanying attitude.
Some quick impressions of some of the restaurants we visited: Given the 83 or so restaurants on the island, I barely scratched the surface, leaving some significant ones for the next trip. Le Tamarind is spread out away from the beach in its own small park filled with palm trees, plants and winding paths with outdoor dining tables. It is a paradisiacal place to have dinner. I had a very nice tuna sashimi dish, but someone sprayed truffle oil on a black-truffle risotto, creating a dish we had to send back.
Santa Fe on the road to St Barth’s best beach, Ainse de Gouverneur, is one Americans love. We dined there three times. The marmite of seafood was our favorite dish of all when we had it the first time. The second time we ordered it, the sauce had lost its balance of flavors. Thursday is the weekly delivery of moules bouchot, the plump mussels grown on rope.Santa Fe has them, as does, among others. a casual restaurant we enjoyed in Gustavia, Le Repaire. Aux Amis, with the Guy-Martin-run kitchen is worth a visit at least for lunch. My seafood ceviche with crushed peanuts and lime served in a coconut shell sticks in my food memory bank. The restaurant’s outdoor tables have a beautiful ocean view looking out on to the clear blue water and island outcrops. On the same road is the casual outdoor beach restaurant La Gloriette where we both ordered a whole grilled spiny lobster, our most enjoyable one of the several we had .
The weak link in St. Barth dining is the meager, unexciting wine lists, Be it the weather, the heat that makes wine cellars untenable, the reluctance to inventory wines over time, or the relative casualness of the dining, we did not see anything beyond modest, overpriced bottles, There are some quite large wine shops in Gustavia and St. Jean, including one inside the Marché U opposite the airport. I didn’t see there any what you would call collector’s wines, but a substantial choice to indulge yourself especially if you are renting a villa, which brings me to the question of whether to do that or stay in a hotel.
Foot-loose and fancy-free souls who like hanging around swimming pools looking for adventures and anyone else who enjoys socializing or meeting people are no doubt better off staying at a hotel. For visitors like us who like being left alone to enjoy our privacy, we now are partial to villa-renting, which is what we did for the first time on our recent visit. It goes without saying that if you want to cook with local ingredients and special ones from France along with drinking better wines, then renting a villa is more appropriate. There is no shortage of them, over 400, the prices of which vary wildly depending on the month of the year. We rented two of them, and what we found out is not to rent one through a travel agency such as St. Bart’s Blue that co-brokers through Sibarth, but rather directly from Wimco. We have been on both sides of villa rentals, and Wimco is the best rental company of several we have ever dealt with. Whenever we needed someone to address a situation, our Wimco host either answered or came to the villa as quickly as humanly possible, which wasn’t the case with Sibarth.
St. Barth doesn’t come cheap. During the holiday season from December 15 until right after New Year’s, prices can be double than what they are in the fall and the rest of the winter. A meal for two in the better restaurants with an adequate bottle of wine—rosé, Sancerre, modest Bordeaux or Burgundy- will be around $200. or more. The better hotels are priced much the same as 5-star international ones. Yet when the wind is howling and the snow is blowing, St. Barth is likely to be a great escape well worth the premium.