By Elaine Srnka
Photography by Sivan Askayo
“What’s your favorite destination?" As a travel editor, I’m asked this almost weekly, and yet I’ve always faltered in responding. How to choose? Different destinations appeal for different reasons, depending on why you’re going and who you’re with. Plus, I tend to be a passport-stamp collector – so many places, so little time – and rarely return to the same spot. But last year, I finally found a definitive answer to that recurring question: Saint Bart’s.
I fell in love soon after our plane landed on the French Caribbean island’s legendary airstrip – a routinely dramatic event, as the narrow tarmac is surrounded by steep hills on three sides. Even though it’s 4,000 miles from Europe, this overseas collectivity of France is très
chic, with lithe, laid-back residents (many of whom traded the motherland for the isle’s perpetually sunny climes), a jet-setting celebrity crowd, stylish hotels and shops, and, remarkably, a sophisticated food-and-wine scene that would make a Parisian proud.
Unlike fly-and-flop beach vacation destinations, Saint Bart’s beckons you to explore its mountainous terrain, thanks to its compact, accessible size – you can drive the entire eight-square-mile island in under an hour. Every day, staff at Le Sereno, the hotel where my husband and I were staying, packed our convertible Mini Cooper rental with a cooler, beach chairs, umbrellas, and towels, and sent us on our way. With the wind in our hair and Europop on the radio, we followed winding, narrow roads past arid scrub and sandy beaches, a roller coaster of a ride that rewards with hilltop views.
While dining may take a back seat at other Caribbean destinations, here we planned our schedule by our meals and never had a bad one. By day, we browsed boutiques in the main port town of Gustavia, beach-hopped (bathing suits optional), and lingered over long lunches in the sand with bottles of rosé, Saint Bart’s libation of choice. At night, we dined by candlelight at open-air restaurants and then danced into the wee hours at sultry clubs.
A word of warning: Prepare for sticker shock, even in the off-season – it takes a few days to embrace 25-euro cocktails. (Tip: Stretch those euros by picking up sandwiches from one of Saint Bart’s many boulangeries and picnicking on the beach.) Dining options abound, from newcomers such as Shellona on famed Shell Beach to longtime classics like Le Select, with its cheeseburger in paradise. Here are just a few of our favorites.
This opulent waterfront venue doubles as a bacchanal, often hosting late-night dance parties. Donning powdered wigs and elaborate eighteenth-century costumes for one evening’s theme, attentive waitstaff served bouillabaisse, seared scallops, and marinated veal chops with lemon confit and gamely amped up the energy for a fun night ahead.
Even on a weeknight, a lively crowd packs this hilltop restaurant overlooking Gustavia. At a communal table in the bar, we sampled lobster risotto, rock-shrimp ceviche, and foie gras with mango-ginger chutney, paired with elaborate cocktails such as the negroni with caramelized pineapple. The open-air space exudes an easy Caribbean charm, while a DJ spinning Euro tunes enhances the see-and-be-seen ambience.
The casual sister to upscale Italian hot spot L’Isola lacks a view, but fans only have eyes for its authentic Roman-style pizza, sold by the meter. Settle into a low table on the upstairs balcony and cross your fingers that your server offers you freshly shaved truffle as that night’s special to top your pizza.
Infamous as a racy beach-club spectacle, the chain outpost is worth a stop to say you did. Sip Champagne while watching planes land at Gustaf III Airport, a favorite island pastime, especially on weekends.
A sleeper recommendation, this simple spot offers incredible bird’s-eye views from its mountaintop perch. You can tell it’s the owner’s labor of love, from the fresh mahi-mahi with coconut to the langoustine club sandwich to the artful tomato tart.
Don’t let its seemingly remote locale deter you – a romantic dinner here is a must. Tamarin’s expansive, lush grounds set a dreamy stage, and its French-Asian menu includes lobster with vanilla coconut oil, shrimp tempura with ginger-lime tartar sauce, and other sublime picks. Find a fashionable memento at the well-edited boutique.
How To Arrive and Stay in Style
: Tradewind Aviation
offers daily turboprop shuttle flights from San Juan, Puerto Rico, as well as private charters. We loved its seamless VIP service, which made us feel like we were boarding a private plane – such a civilized way to fly.
Elegant 40-room Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France
holds court on Flamands Beach, one of the island’s most beautiful. Head to the beach bar for a table in the sand and lunch on Niçoise salad and truffled croque monsieur while leggy models put on a fashion show from the hotel’s tiny boutique. For a reprieve from the sea, stay in a garden bungalow surrounded by blooming foliage. Rumor has it the hotel will be expanding soon.
Sexy 34-room Eden Rock – St Barths
indulges glam guests with a location in the heart of the action in Saint Jean. Splurge for an epicurean meal at On the Rocks, the island’s most dramatic setting.
Situated on 42 acres high in the hills, 14-room Hôtel Le Toiny
continues to thrive under new owners, with a renovation that includes a popular beach club, a boutique, and more villa suites
(each with a kitchenette and private pool). Foodies flock here for its Relais & Châteaux status.
A family-friendly 67-room resort, Le Guanahani
wows with colorful, pretty rooms; multiple dining options; and wide stretches of beach. Don’t miss its spa, the largest on the island.
Tucked into a cove, 36-room Le Sereno
emanates a chilled-out, serene vibe, thanks to understated decor that plays backdrop to the vivid blue ocean just steps away. For the best
views, opt for the one-bedroom suite with private pool.
For even more privacy, consider one of St. Barth Properties’
225 villas, ranging from one-room apartments to 11-bedroom estates.
“Especially during high season, book reservations well in advance at restaurants, bars, and discos, so you can ensure the best seats in the house.”
– Tomas Perez, agency executive, São Paulo