There's a new wrinkle, and a very nice one, regarding St. Barths. Sure, you already know that for 50 years this tiny island near St. Martin has been a Mecca for celebrities, models, and hedge-fund managers with a penchant for topless sunbathing. You also know that St. Barths, unlike many other islands, has restricted growth and maintained its ambience as a uniquely French outpost in the Caribbean.
Here's the new wrinkle, the one people aren't quite grokking: St. Barths is in the eurozone, and the euro has fallen -- dramatically -- against the dollar. See where I'm going with this?
And now, a two-minute guide to the best of St. Barths:
1. You don't have to speak French. I asked hotel managers on St. Barths – aka St. Barthélemy, St-Barts, St-Barth – what percentage of their guests from the United States can get by in French. A few said it was about 40%, but most said it was more like 5%. Translation: You can do this.
2. By and large, St. Barts is for travelers who don't mind driving. Instead of staying at big, self-contained resorts -- there are no large resorts -- people stay at small luxury hotels or villas and zip around to other hotels, beaches, restaurants, boutiques, and, well, scenes.
3. That said, the roads may scare the hell out of you, at least at first. We're talking skinny roads that ascend vertiginous hills, twist left and right at radical angles, and challenge your brakes on the downhills. When I first got to St. Barts I relied on taxis until I felt more comfortable with the roads; then, and only then, did I have a rental car delivered to my hotel, Le Sereno. (Incidentally, my suite there -- this photo cannot do it justice -- was the most stylish room I've ever stayed in, and I've slept around.)
One other tip: Rent the tiniest car you can. You'll thank me for this.
4. Places to stay where you might not need a car: A different island. Okay, okay, I'll be serious: If you want a traditional resort with enough beach, water sports, tennis, spa facilities, and restaurants so you needn't go anywhere else, Guanahani is a true, full-service resort with a superb spa and sports facilities, although this being St. Barts, even this place has fewer than 70 rooms. But if you want to stay at an even smaller hotel and go out into the St. Barts scene yet not rent a car, you do have some options: Stay on or near St. Jean's Beach, which rocks. It's also just a short cab ride from the resto-bars of Gustavia, the capital.
- Eden Rock, if you're as swellegant as I think you are. Feeling flush? Blow your 401K on Howard Hughes's suite or the beachfront Rockstar Villa, which really is what it says it is. Shown here: an un-rock star in the white gold(!) master bath.
- TomBeachHotel is a hip, compact place with an art gallery entrance, a wonderful beach bar/restaurant/scene (La Plage), terrific bands, and a beach-bar bikini brunch on Saturdays.
- Les Ilets de la Plage has a variety of cottages, including a three-bedroom villa that's great for three compatible couples; in high season it costs about $350 per couple, a good value on St. Barts.
- LeVillage St-Barth (below), on a hill overlooking St. Jean Beach, charges relatively modest rates and offers a stylish vibe, glorious vistas, a pool and gym, and suites with terraces featuring outdoor kitchens that can save you a bundle because dining on St. Barts, my dear, is dear.
5. There are more villa than hotel rooms on St. Barts. Here's what you must ask yourself:
- WIMCO and St. Barth Rental Properties offer high-season villas ranging from $2,000 to six-figure figures for which you could buy a house. What is your budget? (Okay, you knew I'd ask you that.)
- You get more bang for your buck if you rent with another couple or two.
- On St. Barts or anywhere else, it might be a good idea for each couple to have their own car.
- Do you want to be on a beach, near a beach, or up high on a mtn w vue?
- Some villas have colorful, informal tropical decor, as you'd expect in the Caribbean, but many others are designer sleek. (Hey, this is St. Barts.) Some people who love the informal look find the modernist villas cold, while minimalists may view tropical Caribbean decor as hokey. Know thyself.
- Most important of all, do you want to be off on your own, perhaps with a private plunge pool, or would you prefer a villa that's on a hotel property (say, at LeVillage or Le Sereno) so you can also use the hotel's services, such as the beach or spa or restaurant?
Top two photos by Ed Wetschler; third by Catherine Charneau; fourth photo courtesy of Hotel LeVillage St Barth