Surrounded by sparkling blue water, the island of St-Barthelemy, or St-Barths as it’s better known, first appeared as a speck on the horizon from the window of our Tradewind Aviation jet that took off from San Juan only 45 minutes earlier.
Descending closer, we circled the tiny island once as the pilot informed us that afternoon winds dictate an alternative landing pattern on the super-short runway at the Gustavia (SBH) airport. The typical landing pattern is a westward approach over the harbor of the perennially chic Gustavia and small mountain range that separates downtown from Saint-Jean. Once the planes are just over the grassy green peaks of Saint-Jean, they descend rapidly, nearly grazing the heads of tourists gathered at the roundabout above the airport to photograph the famous landing. Our landing from the east; however, included an aerial tour of the Saint-Jean Beach and a gentle landing as the sun was low against the western hills and mountains.
Within minutes, we were off of the plane and whisked through customs where smiling officers welcomed us to the French West Indies. On the other side of customs, our bags were neatly sorted by concierges from the island’s varied hotel and villa rental companies. The concierges were crisp in their polo shirts, shorts and white tennis shoes. The other passengers from the flight, still chic from our layover in the private lounge of the San Juan airport where we had met only hours earlier, bid me adieu as my concierge from West Indies Management Co. (WIMCO) introduced himself. Jules would be our concierge for the week in St-Barths. He was assisted, surely, by an unknown number of assistants and helpers, as he navigated our tricky requests (restaurant reservations for a group of 11 twice a day), our schedules and particular needs, grocery shopping and other essentials like magically making the WiFi work on multiple occasions. He hoisted my bags into the trunk of the car and assured me we were only minutes from the villa we’d rented for the week.
With only minutes until dusk would really set in, we sped toward the villa on the charming narrow and winding roads of St-Barths. Up the mountain pass above the airport, we hooked a right at the roundabout that doubles as a lookout for planes landing over the island, and headed over to Flamands, passing the bakery La Petite Colombe, where we’d pick up our morning essentials daily. One hairpin turn later, we arrived in front of a modern gate that slowly opened as we approached. Ambient lighting on stone walls, a water feature and the name, Villa Eternity, mounted and lit on the wall welcomed us to the villa – and we’d only arrived in the parking area. I was the last one of our group to arrive; the others having come in on earlier flights from San Juan or via the ferry from St-Marten.
The entrance to Villa Eternity was placed above the compound by a designer who surely never planned to arrive with the number of bags I did. An ultra-wide staircase of 12 stairs led to the main part of the compound: kitchen and living areas, a few of the independent bedrooms and the first of two pools. A master bedroom with deluxe bathroom and attached massage room was placed at the end of the pool for to-die-for-views from sunrise to sunset. Pool loungers with perfectly placed, rolled towels dotted the perimeter of the pool. The rest of our group greeted me with champagne and hassled me about the number of bags I had brought from San Francisco.
Flashback: I left San Francisco 15 hours earlier on the red-eye flight to Charlotte, N.C., where I connected to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Everything was fairly smooth for domestic, red-eye travel and I was glad to land in San Juan on-time for my connection to St-Barths with Tradewind Aviation. As I disembarked at the gate in San Juan, a very friendly Puerto Rican in a Services St-Barths yellow polo shirt approached me as though we were old friends. Services St-Barths had arranged for our VIP transfer from American Airlines to Tradewind in San Juan. Grabbing my bags, he whisked me through the airport to the elevator that would take me up to the Tradewind lounge. Pointing out important airport real estate, like bathrooms and where to get the best food, the porter was charming and efficient at the same time. My checked bag would be arriving shortly, but he took me up to the lounge, promising to bring the bag by once he claimed it and before he rechecked it.
The lounge was simple, but private and well-stocked with snacks and drinks. Everything was help-yourself, but a mindful staff was careful to replace any items running low in the fridge or in the snack baskets. Wary of having a glass of wine on an empty stomach, I ventured back downstairs in search of the airport’s “best food.” I found friendly locals serving up traditional Puerto Rican specialties. Back upstairs in the lounge with my local fare, a glass of Chardonnay and my feet up, I mingled with other travels heading to various Tradewind destinations.
The porter re-appeared with my checked bag. Slightly apologetically, he told me he’d have to check both of my limited edition carry-on bags. “It’s basically a private jet,” he reassured me. “Your bags will be very safe.” I grabbed my zipper pouch with my passport and cash and surrendered the rest.
Ten minutes prior to our scheduled departure, an agent appeared to summon us individually. How did these people know exactly who we were time and time again? I still don’t know, but I loved it. Out a side door, we walked through a basic security set up where a guard mostly just smiled and waved us through, because, well we were about to board a private jet to St-Barths.
Our shiny jet sparkled in the full Caribbean sun and staff indulged us while we posed for photos in front of the aircraft. Hashtagging @flytradewind with my selfie before boarding has to be great for business referrals; no wonder the staff had all the patience in the world for the perfect snap.
On board, we were a group of six. I sat in the back near the cooler next to Connie from New Jersey. As we took drink orders and passed waters and Heinekens back and forth to other passengers, we compared notes on where we’d be staying and what we’d be doing for the duration of our respective visits. Given the size of St-Barths, I should have known that Connie would re-appear on the scene multiple times over the next few days. Just about the time we were settled in, we began our descent into St-Barths.
I toasted my first sunset in St-Barths with Nicolas Feuillate and Instagramed it @wimcovillas because that’s what you do, right?
My bedroom with en suite bath was on a lower level that included another independent bedroom with bath, a fitness center and our own pool. When the drapes were open, I had a front and center view of the lush landscape dotted with white houses with red and green tin roofs along with the Caribbean Sea in the distance. It was heaven.
From what I had seen about St-Barths, I expected colonial charm but Villa Eternity was very modern: square lines, sparkling white stucco walls, an all-white kitchen, white dining room table and white leather furniture in the living room. The accents and modern art provided welcome pops of color. The villa felt enormous, with plenty of room for all of us.
Whenever I needed a moment of tranquility, I escaped to our private pool downstairs.
Following Hurricane Irma, it was the local population that managed to re-open the airport and clear roads sufficiently so that supplies could be flown in and distributed. The damage to St-Barths was mind-boggling: hotels, homes, stores, roads, ranches, farms – all gone.
While there is still evidence of destruction, so much has already been built back that you can say St-Barths is truly better than ever. Power lines across the island have been buried and new construction has been built to updated codes to withstand another natural disaster. The property that we visited the next day was a testament to that.
Le Barthelemy Hotel & Spa was the recommendation of Jules for lunch on Sunday. Served beach-side on long, umbrella-covered tables, it was picturesque. It was also completely, utterly brand new. Rebuilt from the ground up after Hurricane Irma, “Le Barth” sparkles in a low profile of white bungalows to one side and a two-story, traditional hotel complex to the other. The extensive spa was completely booked even on a Sunday.
Staff abounded, checking on tables, picking up minuscule pieces of debris, changing out loungers and towels, and answering any and all questions with a smile. The island’s only rooftop bar, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, is perched above the main building and outfitted with swanky lounge chairs, suspended tear drop cabanas, a bar and DJ booth. The views of the entire property, the island’s hills and the sea are second-to-none.
And there was Connie, whom I sat by on the Tradewind flight from San Juan, at the next table. St-Barths is like that - you see people out and about over and over again. It truly creates a community within a destination.
With our lunch only just served beach-side, we felt the first sprinkles of afternoon rain on our backs and heads. Was this the premature end of our beach-side lunch? Suddenly, it was a deluge out of nowhere. Staff appeared with more umbrellas and trays, escorting us to their indoor restaurant, Aux Amis. We were re-seated and more or less dry considering the weather. Our food wasn’t as lucky. The restaurant manager replaced anything cold, soggy or questionable with new, hot food a few minutes later.
This kind of service and attention was paramount throughout our visit – from our WIMCO concierge to the Services St-Barths VIP porters in San Juan and St-Marten, and from restaurant servers and boutique managers who not only welcomed us into their places of work but greeted us on the street a few days later when everyone on the island, it seemed, descended upon downtown Gustavia for Mardi Gras and the Carnaval parade.
It would be remiss to not brag about downtown Gustavia. Imagine a port-side main street in colonial fashion, with a fashionista’s dream-come-true of luxury shops side-by-side. There are hanging baskets of ferns and flowers, bright window displays and the parking is street-side but not unmanageable. On the harbor side, yachts and boats of every size and shape imaginable line the waterfront. As passengers descend and crews carry on more champagne, locals mix with vacationers in the boutiques, cafes and shops.
There is Cour Vendome, a four-story shopping complex with the luxurious Italian linen brand, 100% Capri and a two-story Vilebrequin, where the store manager convinced me that I needed the limited-edition St-Barths trunks. Venturing further into downtown, the streets split and double and the high-end shopping continues. Toward the end of the shopping area, Le Bar de L’Oubli dominates the intersection of Rue de la Republique and Rue de la France on two sides. We grabbed sandwiches and cold drinks at L’Oubli several times during our week. L’Oubli was also the site some of our celebrity spotting on Mardi Gras. Cleverly hidden behind masks, several of them almost went unnoticed but the keen eye of Eric spotted Bono and his entourage from across the restaurant.
St-Barths’ Mardi Gras, locals promised me, was a familial Carnaval in true Caribbean fashion. Every shop and business closed by 2 pm in order to participate. Carnaval began in the heat of the day and finished that evening at Le Ti St-Barths. The parade brought out groups of friends and family in coordinated costumes: traditional and national costumes mixed with super hero themes, a little BDSM, and more. The industries of the island and their lavish floats “chars” complete with blasting music, dancing troupes, confetti and drinks, headlined the Mardi Gras parade. Behind the makeup and costumes, we recognized employees from shops and hotels. Drinks were shared and spilled from one cup to another.
Before the afternoon was over, our group broke and headed to the beach by way of the furthest outlying grocery store that was still open on Mardi Gras. We headed to La Saline Beach, accessible only by climbing up a not-too-steep sandy incline and then back down to where the waves meet the shoreline. Since it was Mardi Gras, the beach was quiet and our group was nearly alone.
We broke out our supplies and made a picnic of cheeses, bread and drinks on the beach towels. The sun was hot and the water was refreshingly cold on our skin. The water’s salt level on this cove made floating in the water the most enjoyable way to enjoy the waves.
That evening, in search of the island’s best party, we arrived at Le Ti St-Barths, home to a raucous nightly cabaret show. Le Ti St-Barths is another example of building back better after Hurricane Irma. The restaurant and its shops and bars expanded their blueprint with the rebuild.
The famous costume shop, where decked-out locals will assist you in finding the perfect get-up for the evening, operates on a tips-only basis, meaning the costumes are free to use and return; clients are encouraged to tip generously. Claire and I were tickled with our finds in the costume shop, even picking up a few things for the more reserved members of our group.
When I showed back up at our table in a Venetian mask and dreaded wig, no one even recognized me for a moment. Claire’s Marie-Antoinette wig towered above her as we joined the crowd dancing on a cabaret stage. While there would be no cabaret show that night, the Mardi Gras after party went strong until the wee hours of the morning, though.
Every table at Le Ti St-Barths, it seemed, was VIP. Magnum and Jeroboam bottles were hoisted on the backs of the most handsome servers on the island and their bubbly contents poured into the eager flutes of equally gorgeous party-goers. For a cabaret restaurant and party scene, I didn’t expect much from the food, so I ordered filet mignon, thinking you can’t really goof that up. It was delicious. In fact, everyone at our table bragged about their own plates. For a group that was big into sharing and trying each other’s entrées, I don’t think there was much sharing that evening.
As the next day was starting early for us, we didn’t make it until dawn, but Le Ti St-Barths is a night no one will soon forget (but do take plenty of photos in case the bubbly is hard on your memory).
The next morning, half of us headed to Form Fitness in Lurin for our 7:30 am sessions while the others enjoyed a private yoga session at Villa Eternity organized by Nanda Yoga. After sweating out last night’s sins, we carb-loaded from La Petite Colombe – picking up mini quiches, croissants, pains aux chocolat, baguette and two custom-ordered cakes.
That night, we headed to La Guerite at Jules’ suggestion. This waterfront, Mediterranean-inspired restaurant served up all of our favorite mezza plates and entrées to share. On our end of the table, four of us split a whole fish that was presented to us and expertly filleted at the table prior to serving steaming hot with rice and vegetables.
As part of the service, the servers presented us with a sweet, spiced rhum to finish the meal. Similar to the rhum bottled by La Gloriette, our only disappointment that night was that La Guerite doesn’t bottle their own recipe for sale. Before we left, we stopped by La Gloriette to purchase several bottles similar to the version served at La Guerite.
Before we knew it, our trip had wound to an end. I was the first to depart. Jules picked me up and we chatted on the short drive to the airport. As he handled my check in, someone handed me a coffee and a selection of magazines. Every transaction was like this: simple and flawless. It was a joy to vacation where you can simply revel in the experience without having the hassles of lines, paperwork or bags.
Upon arrival back in San Juan, the Services St-Barths porter took me through a private customs and immigration office where my passport was scanned and the paperwork – already filled out for me – was stamped. Services St-Barths escorted me all the way to the American Airlines check-in counter. With a nearly five hours layover, he suggested I take a cab to Old San Juan for breakfast. Before I could barely agree, he had flagged a cab and negotiated the price. I was off to breakfast with a fresh tan, a smile on my face and not a worry in the world – thanks to St-Barths, WIMCO, Services St-Barths, Tradewind Aviation and my 11 travel companions, who made the experience all the more memorable.