The Lap â€‹of (Relaxed) French Luxury: St. Barthélemy French West Indies
Leave the big hotels and resorts for the tourists. Vacation in style in your own private villa on this enchanting island.
Saint Barths falls into a cache of ultra-luxe, sun, sand, and black-card destinations, along with getaways-to-the-stars Saint-Tropez, Capri, Monaco, et al. But, while there are regulars aplenty worth name-dropping (Steve Martin, Johnny Depp), the my-yacht-is-bigger status quo is, for the most part, less apt than legend.
Despite its reputation, the island’s inclination towards private ownership (versus behemoth, outsourced hotel chains) means the options are semi-egalitarian in that you, too, can live the life, temporarily, at one of the several hundred palatial and super-private villas available to visitors through operators like Sibarth, the island’s original such rental/management company.
Under Ashley Lacour—whose French father and Greenwich, Connecticut-born mother started the brand in 1975, decades before the island was known as a “destination” to the jet set—and his partner, Kristina Popova, Sibarth boasts not only a staggering portfolio of stunning villas, but also lifestyle-minded residents/experts who know the tight-knit island and its colorful cast in and out—from the yogi/masseuse to hire during your stay to where to scope out authentic local art.
During a four-day sojourn, I was struck by the depth of experience offered by the 8.5-square-mile territory—and the ease of avoiding the see-and-be-seen scene altogether. In the main port town of Gustavia, you’ll find a mix of high-end shops (from Cartier to custom jewelry designers) and chic, French-inflected boutiques, as well as high-low galleries and restaurants housed in historic, Hemingway-esque buildings. (Admire the harbor over a café au lait and omelette du fromage at Le Repaire before a leisurely stroll to the fish market, or grab a burger at Le Select, which some say was the inspiration for Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise”; US dollars are cheerfully accepted everywhere.)
There’s more casual shopping around St. Jean, a kid-friendly beach bordered by Euro flip-flop bars/bistros and water-sport stands. But for an excursion to one of St. Barths’ signature “white-sugar sand” beaches, head to Saline, a secluded spot that’s worth the trip mileage alone—and involves an easy climb up Jurassic Park-like dunes, making the reveal of the wide, unspoiled vista that much more gobsmacking. Revel here in nature’s naked glory—with plenty of space to distance yourself from fellow sunbathers who might be reveling in their own.
Then there are the villas, where imperialistic views stretch from lush green hilltops to azure waters below in perfect, concentric flow. While an uninterrupted expanse, or several, overlooking your personal stretch of ocean is practically a requirement, the rest of the details are yours to dictate, whether a terraced, waterfall infinity pool is a must-have; or a state-of-the-art fitness center or professional kitchen (world-class chef optional); or, an on-premise nightclub—seriously, that’s an option.
Reach aesthetic nirvana in an independently designed living space ranging from elegantly Asian-inspired to classic Caribbean-colonial; clean-lined contemporary to sparse Greek-island—but with all of the amenities and conveniences of a full-service resort, and then some. (Sibarth’s small, personable staff takes special pride in fulfilling “impossible” requests, around the clock.) There’s an impeccably appointed option for every party, from honeymoon retreats to a pathway-connected, eight-bedroom compound for a large family, or several sets of couples.
Whether you choose understated or extravagant luxury for your home-base oasis, don’t worry about dressing up the rest of the time. Sandals, shorts, and sea-tousled hair are the norm at most places, including Eddy’s, a second-generation Creole-Caribbean-French hideaway serving traditional dishes like goat stew and plantains, plus fresh catches and ginger- or passion-fruit-infused rhum. (Other options: Try L’esprit for dinner with a group; don’t miss the chocolate cake at waterfront Maya’s Restaurant; and eat your conch fritters in the sand at locals’ secret La Gloriette).
In the morning, stop by the boulangerie for fresh-baked croissants to take to the beach of the day, even if it’s the one accessed steps from your villa door. (Besides Saline, Gouverneur is especially worth exploring.) Adventurous travelers can also try hiking the dry, volcanic landscape; caving; and plenty more off the beaten track—just ask your Sibarth host. Of course, it’s tempting to spend the entire time en repose, sipping Champagne in your immaculate villa—which I yearned to do—but then, you’d be missing out. —Katie O’Donnell
Details: The tiny island is busiest from Christmastime through New Year’s (and during the annual Bucket Regatta in March)—go a few weeks before or after to avoid the crowds and holiday premiums (in effect December 15 to January 5 for select villas). Winter rates, for one-bedroom apartments to eight-bedroom estates, range from $1,197 to $100,000 per week (low season) to $1,701 to $150,000 per week (high season; holiday rates are separate).
Getting There: There are no direct flights; skip customs in New York by flying through San Juan and booking a connecting two-crew executive puddle-jumper through Oxford, Connecticut-based Tradewind Aviation (tradewindaviation.com), the only US turbine air carrier certified to fly commercial into St. Barths; daily flights and private charters are available; there’s AC and complimentary drinks/snacks.
Contact: Sibarth, La Maison Suédoise (888) 610-1060; sibarth.com