A couple of weeks ago, I spent four days on one of the Caribbean’s most exclusive islands, St Barths. On a magazine assignment to cover a classic luxury hotel, one of the island’s most exclusive, I flew from New York down to this French West Indies outpost with a friend.
It was my first visit to this ultra-chic hideaway known for its celebrity clientele and exorbitant prices. I had been hearing about it for years from a friend who is a Caribbean expert and claims St Barths as her favorite island. I was curious to see what the buzz was about.
In retrospect, I can say that the hairy landing to St Barths’ tiny airstrip, known as one of the world’s trickiest, was the most exciting part of my sojourn on the island. The runway here is so short that the pilots are required to get a special license for landing here.
We stayed in a gorgeous villa with our own private pool and a dramatic vista of the island’s “wild side”, its southeastern coast. The coast is apparently the least developed part of St Barths. I learned that our first day on an informative island tour with Hélène Bernier, a guide and owner of Easy Time tour agency.
A tenth-generation resident whose family has been on the island since 1648, Hélène was a great person to discover St Barths with. In her sturdy van, we drove along hair-raisingly curvy and narrow roads to beaches loved by locals, famous viewpoints, salt ponds (up until the 1970s, St Barthelemy was exporting salt to the nearby islands) and pristine strips of sand like the famed Saline.
I can’t deny the beauty of its beaches, the enchanting sea breezes, the lush hills and scenic roads. St Barths has got it all. But truth be told, I was shocked at the overdevelopment of the island. Practically everywhere my gaze fell, another humongous villa or gated community obstructed the view. There didn’t seem to be a hillside without an ostentatious building plopped in the middle.
Why wasn’t I surprised when Hélène told us that the hotelier Andre Balazs (of The Standard fame) was trying to build an “eco-resort” right on the protected Saline beach. The island was beyond help, or so it seemed. Hélène then proceeded to tell us the story about the petition she had spearheaded and helped circulate, which – at least for now – had prevented the hotel construction from continuing.
It turns out this soft-spoken tour guide is also an environmental activist, and the founder of St Barth Essentiel, a non-profit association which thrives to protect the island’s historical, cultural and environmental heritage.
Hélène tried to show us the “real” St Barths, such as the fishing village of Corossol where an old lady weaves dried latanier palm leaves into handbags, placemats, hats and baskets. With her passing, this old-fashioned handicraft will likely disappear, too.
Hélène drove us to the gorgeous beach at Grand Fond, said to be a vortex of energy, told us of different hiking routes around the island and shared local lore (if a woman spots the island’s only snake, called couleuvre, she will get pregnant within a year). Her love for the island was palpable.
Yet all along, I kept on wishing I had visited St Barths some thirty years ago. Perhaps as it was then, pure, simple and wild, it would have stood a chance of enchanting me. As is, I keep my fingers crossed for Hélène and like-minded island folk who are trying to keep St Barths from losing that little bit of magic it still has.
Like the magic I felt one early morning. Grand Fond beach. 7am. Only waves broke the silence.