The Best of St. Barthélemy
St. Barthélemy, or St. Barth, as its habitués call it, is an island slice of paradise just 12 harrowing minutes by plane from St. Martin. But once you survive the plunge between two hills and what must be the world’s shortest runway, you’ve landed somewhere very luxe, very chic, and very French. Just 8.5 square miles in area, the island rises out of an azure sea, its beaches unparalleled not only for their white sand and glorious swimming but also for their uncrowded bliss and topless (even bottomless) sunbathing. In its hills, behind lush foliage and stone walls, fabulous homes are celebrity retreats, many of which can also be rented by mere mortals.
So much separates St. Barth from every other island in the Caribbean as to make it truly unique. Zealously guarded by a building code that precludes any building over three stories, the island is as famous for what it lacks as it is for what it stands for: a little corner of France without a stoplight in sight, with no hotel boasting more than 67 rooms, no golf, no gambling, and no real dress code. Gentlemen can leave their jackets at home and ladies can explore their casual chic side. Gustavia, its ‘downtown’, boasts a harbor filled with world-class yachts and streets filled with world-class designer boutiques. And then there’s the food. From the simplest barefoot beach bar to outstanding fine-dining restaurants, St. Barth cuisine is unparalleled anywhere in the West Indies. For all the reasons listed, St. Barth’s devotees return year after year. This writer just clocked his 28th visit to the island. Here is my list of St. Barth’s best in 2017.
A car is pretty much essential to a stay on St. Barth. You can stick to the island’s reliable cab services, but for true freedom, rent a car. While all the big brands are there — Hertz, Avis, Budget — my go-to is the local Oscar Car Rental.
Not only does Phillipe Mayot, Oscar’s owner, rent the car-of-the-moment, the Cooper S Mini Convertible, his rental agency has the distinction of having its own parking lot right in downtown Gustavia, a place with a perennial shortage of parking spots. This alone would be reason to rent from Oscar, and with the company’s superb customer service, there’s really no contest.
Hotel or Villa
For hotel or villa Rentals, the West Indies Management Company (WIMCO) is at the top of the heap. Agent Bethany Ludwick has an encyclopedic knowledge of every place to stay on the island. WIMCO has the most carefully curated collection of hotels and villas to suit every taste. Once on the island, WIMCO’s ground service is impossible to beat. A concierge is assigned to every guest with service that starts when you step off the plane and lasts until you take off going home. Your luggage is whisked to your villa, where your concierge explains every amenity, champagne arrives about an hour later, and your first morning’s breakfast of croissants and fresh orange juice is delivered to your door.
Your departure is similarly handled right up to your flight. Unbeatable.
Markets and Food Purveyors
The island is amazingly well-provisioned with a far greater selection of foodstuffs than we’ve seen on much larger islands. But then, the French take their food far more seriously than most.
One of France’s premier supermarket chains, Marche U, has two outposts on the island. Its competitor AMC has an amazing mini-mart in L’Orient and a larger store in downtown Gustavia. There’s also Meat My Fish, run by a local fisherman, and Ti Marché with vegetables imported from nearby Guadeloupe — and no visit to St. Barth would be complete without stopping in at one of two La Petite Colombe patisseries. Here the croissants aux amandes are divine, and you’ll find all kinds of great things for lunch from rotisserie chickens to croque monsieurs.
For such a small island, St. Barth lays claim to an extraordinary number of restaurants. These range from pizza by the slice at Isoletta to full-on French cuisine at Villa Marie. Because we visit these restaurants just once during our island stay, ranking them would be unfair. Instead, we’ll highlight the ones that stood out for a variety of reasons: service, ambience, and cuisine. We also have the advantage of having been to these places year after year. Some years, restaurants surprise us with improvements. Other times, a chef leaves and the kitchen isn’t what it used to be. We’ll ignore our disappointments (with one exception) and just give you our impressions of the best the island has to offer.
New this Year…
Villa Marie opened last November, 10 years after François Plantation closed leaving its hilltop restaurant and lovely individual suites to await this wonderful rebirth. The hotel’s restaurant has retained its Ralph Lauren, out-of-Africa look. The wrap-around terrace is ideal for drinks, the bar offers an amazing selection of rums and the food is sublime. This is a true French restaurant. The tableside service sets it apart from virtually every other restaurant on the island. And the food, start to finish, is superb. It may also lay claim to being at the top end of restaurant pricing but, to our mind, it is worth every cent.
Le Barthélemy hotel and its restaurant, Aux Amis, are new this season too. The luxury lodging took the place of the St. Barth’s Beach Hotel, which for years was a bargain hunter’s favorite. Le Barthélemy is a stunning piece of architecture with Aux Amis at its center. You can dine on the outdoor patio listening to the gentle surf of Grand Cul de Sac or sit in the enormous open dining room which features an astonishing glass sculpture of flying fish flying overhead. If only the food lived up to the setting! There is, however, a pizza menu, which is pricey but may be your best bet.
Practically next door, Sereno Beach Hotel’s Restaurant Le Sereno calls itself a Mediterranean bistro. Its food has a distinct Italian accent while its setting, right next to the beach, could not be more Caribbean. It melds local delicacies like spiny lobster with linguine, but its house specialty is gnocchi le sereno, a recipe with roots in its sister property in Lake Como. You can choose to eat with your toes in the sand or in the restaurant itself beautifully designed by Christian Liaigre.
Orega is the talk of the town and the toughest table to get on the island. This is not just a feature of the restaurant's relatively small size. It has more to do with its Franco-Japanese fusion food and the talents of its welcoming owner Greg and his entire crew. Orega excels in serving beautifully-cooked food with wonderful takes on familiar French favorites given an Asian accent; order a confit duck or mahi mahi and see. But leave room for the chocolate bombe at dessert, a spectacular ending both visually and taste-wise.
Bonito will always take the prize for its setting alone. It’s virtually the only restaurant overlooking the yachts in Gustavia Harbor. What’s amazing about this lovely blue and white room isn’t just the view. It’s the consistency of the offerings here. There’s a whole menu of Peruvian tiraditos, a kind of South American sushi that’s incomparably fresh. The main dishes run the gamut from fish to fowl to lamb. My partner, who grew up loathing beets in any form, left the restaurant a convert just for the beet puree that accompanied his seared scallops. Don’t miss this one.
Le Tamarin is another great renewal story. For years, this garden restaurant, with its resident parrots, was a wilting but familiar standby until it was taken over several years ago by a young French couple. The new owners made over the garden, planted water lilies in its ponds, and spruced up a place that sadly needed it. The kitchen became much more focused on fine food. The result is one of the most dramatic settings on St. Barth. The place is very popular with locals, which is always a good sign on this food-centric island.
Eddy’s is the island’s premiere Creole restaurant. It’s as local as can be, but its Gustavia garden setting is lovely, its food reliably good, and its menu reliably wallet-friendly. Here’s the place to try accra (codfish fritters) and wonderful fresh fish curries. Eddy himself, now a grand old man in his eighties, still presides over his restaurant, which is always filled with a mixture of islanders and visitors enjoying true St. Barth food.
La Gloriette’s only failure is that it’s no longer open at night. You’ll have to settle for lunch here, which is hardly a hardship. Sitting under the palm trees, this wonderfully budget-friendly Creole restaurant does at lunch what Eddy’s does at dinner. Our meal consisted of grilled shrimp with green curry cream sauce and multiple glasses of rosé that set us back all of 35 euros.
Finally, there’s Grain de Sel — which, we confess, we never made it to. But in terms of a referral, our oldest island friend, Nancy Robbins (whose wonderful house in Colombier is for rent), swears that this restaurant, right next door to Saline Beach, has her favorite food on the island. Given that both Nancy and her husband Michel are retired chefs, we’ll take her word for it and put it on our list for 2018. Until then, au revoir, St. Barth’s. Same time next year?