Hanging out with tortoises in turquoise cottages on the Caribbean island of St Barts
The descent into Gustaf III Airport on the Caribbean Island of Saint Barthélemy – otherwise known as St Barts – is not for the faint hearted. We depart nearby Saint Martin strapped into a 12-seater Twin Otter plane and soar over the sea towards a small landmass. We spot yachts and catamarans sailing aquamarine waters below, and tropical green hills, villas and swimming pools as they come into view. Approaching fast, the nose of the plane dips and cuts through hillsides, gliding down the runway until we come to a triumphant halt about 20 metres from the ocean. We have arrived.
St. Barts – an Overseas Collectivity of France – has been immortalized as a playground for the rich, famous, and fabulous since it gained popularity in the 1970’s. With a wealth of upscale restaurants, bars, boutiques and hotels it’s not surprising that celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Beyonce regularly retreat to this jewel of the French Antilles.
The island lies 400km East of Puerto Rico, with natural beauty to match St Lucia and crystal clear waters to rival the Bahamas. St Barts is more rugged and hilly compared with its neighbours in the Caribbean. The candy coloured architecture of the capital, Gustavia, conjures images of Curaçao and Havana. Yet it is more commonly compared to Turks and Caicos, the epitome of superstar luxury.
On a private 18-acre peninsula within the Reserve de Grand Cul-de-Sac lies a nirvana and the embodiment of dreamy French joie de vivre – the Rosewood Le Guanahani. The only full-service resort on the island, it originally opened in 1986, and was recently renovated following extensive damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017. Unfolding across the property are 66 signature accommodations: coloured cottages in shades of butter yellow, turquoise, and lavender, a nod to Provence.
At Le Guanahani, the private lagoon has lucent shallow water – ideal conditions for sighting six types of sea turtles
Touches of French sensibility meet California chic across the elegant, open-plan interiors. Spread across the communal gardens are painted rocking chairs which move gently in the warm wind – you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in the Deep South. Or perhaps Hawaii, with abundant species of palm tree and frangipani and a comparable landscape.
The Marigot Suite is our home for the next five days, a two-bed villa that rises over the resort with 180-degree views across its namesake, Marigot Bay. In addition to a pool, we have a private spa entrance, an outdoor shower and a jazzy mini bar that resembles stacked luggage. A large group of rocks and cacti sit at the bottom of our garden, providing direct access to the ocean and – to my delight – refuge for a family of unfazed tortoises. The daddy of the group, who I name Jean-Paul, looks hopefully at my watermelon wedge before sauntering off towards the sea. It would be easy to just stay here drinking negronis and eating petit almond croissants with Jean-Paul but the view across the bay would make anyone curious.
Imposing mansions with twinkling lights straddle the cliff edge, and we can’t help but wonder – who on earth lives here? It’s hard to deny that St. Barts holds a myth and legend type status. The key to understanding its popularity is to look back to nature. The island has 300-plus sunny days per year and is home to a plethora of secluded beaches best explored by boat. At Le Guanahani the private lagoon is expansive, with lucent shallow water – ideal conditions for sighting six types of sea turtles. Located at the meeting point of the Atlantic Ocean is Colombier Beach.
Made famous by David Rockefeller, this spot is perfect for merrily surveying tropical fish with your snorkel. The glistening waters at Gouverneur are a desert island experience, but after spotting a DO NOT ENTER sign in the trees, it does start to feel a little bit like ‘Lost’. The owner of the sign and the estate laying behind this pristine strip of white sand is Roman Abramovich. Later, at remote beach Anse de Grande Saline, we luxuriate in the warm sea, chatting nonsense and doing handstands. A gentleman appears from nowhere and swims backstroke past our boat, totally oblivious and totally naked. We are all embracing the laissez-faire mindset.
More unbothered tortoises sit calmly in the shade, oblivious to our selfie-taking shenanigans – they are the real VIPs here
With its winsome red roofs and busy harbour, the island’s capital Gustavia is steeped in charm. Fort Gustaf, a relic of the island’s Swedish past, sits above the town and houses a red and white lighthouse. Also residents are more unbothered tortoises who sit calmly in the shade, oblivious to our selfie-taking shenanigans – they are the real VIPs here.
Here we are flâneurs, privy to normal life for the locals and expats. We stroll the hilly avenues admiring the street art and modest architecture, drink €15 Carib beers in humble dive bars (yes, it’s the Euro here), and tour the many scenic churches, each decorated by tall palm trees. Given the crowd, you might expect to find Lamborghini’s lining the streets. In fact, the Mini Cooper is the car of choice: well suited for navigating the windy, narrow roads.
Despite its small size, Gustavia has an established food scene. Bonito is a must, with nautical white furnishings, an open kitchen and waterside views. The cuisine may be French-South American, but the vibe is very much International-Cool. We’re treated to tuna ceviche, wagyu tiradito and cocktails as flamboyant as the clientele. Try the Sex in the Bath. At Le Guanahani, Executive Chef Cedrik Ollivault’s menu boasts an impressive selection. Take a long, lobstery lunch poolside or a surf and turf beach BBQ by candlelight. Best of all is the delectable Pâtisserie in fanciful shapes with winning flavours including hazelnut and blackberry.
Our host describes the other big hotels on the island as the ‘high-heel’ or ‘midi-heel’, assuring us that Le Guanahani is very much the ‘flip flop’ of the gang. Sense, the Rosewood spa, is the largest wellness facility on the island with a range of decadent therapies including quartz massages and spa journeys inspired by Creole practices. After my personalized massage I melt in the type of tranquil silence, the type you’d expect when entering an ancient basilica.
There are feet peddling furiously underwater to ensure St Barts – which is self-sufficient in energy and water – runs like a well-oiled machine for high-spenders.
Those feet belong to French seasonal staff whose work takes them to the most exclusive destinations across the globe. They tell me about working in Bora Bora and the Maldives, but neither has the pull of this island Jean Paul the tortoise calls home. “Year on year, we return faithfully to St Barth,” a young waiter vows in a thick Parisian drawl. “I mean – wouldn’t you?”
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Do St Barts yourself
Rates at the Rosewood Le Guanahani start from: High season: starting EUR 1,850 per night + tax (5%) – Shoulder Season (May to December): EUR 1,150 per night + tax (5%)