Once upon a time, the island of Saint-Barthélemy, perhaps the most exclusive, elitist destination in the Caribbean, was deemed to be worth so little, it was sold for a pittance.Indeed, more than once: in the very early days of colonization, back in 1653, Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy, Lieutenant Governor of the French West Indies and Bailiff Grand Cross of the Knights of Malta, purchased Saint-Barthélemy, the French half of Saint-Martin, the French portion of Saint-Christophe (modern-day St. Kitts) and the uninhabited island of Saint-Croix on behalf of the chivalric order for 120,000 livres. The venture was unsuccessful to the point where the Knights sold it back to the newly-formed French West India Company in 1664, but by this time Saint-Barthélemy was uninhabited, following a murderous raid by Amerindians in 1656, which exterminated the colonists’ settlement. Then, in 1784 the French King, Louis XVI traded the island to the King of Sweden, Gustaf III, in exchange for trading rights in Göteborg, into the Baltic Sea.
Under Swedish rule Saint-Barthélemy enjoyed a brief spell of prosperity as a free port (which it still is) and trading post, primarily, though not solely, through the slave trade. But the abolition of slavery in Sweden in 1847 brought an end to the island’s riches, and thirty years later the French were again on the buying end of a transaction involving Saint-Barthélemy. This time they paid 320,000 francs for the island. In comparison, Sweden had received a compensation of 24 million francs from France in 1814, in exchange for Guadeloupe, which, under British occupation, had been awarded to them during the Napoleonic Wars. Go figure.
It might be hard to believe, but a similar trend ran straight through the history of St. Barths until well into the 20th century. While property in the island today commands some of the highest prices in the region, round about 60 years ago two to three hundred US dollars would have bought you a plot of land right near St. Jean. That is precisely what Rémy de Haenen, the inventor of modern-day St. Barths and the island’s leading political figure from 1953 to 1977, paid in the late forties for a rock. There he built the first luxury hotel in the northeast Caribbean, the Eden Rock (named after the famous Eden Roc in Cap d’Antibes), which opened its doors in 1951 and entertained first class celebrities and movie stars who sought privacy away from the madding crowd. Greta Garbo – disguised and incognito, despite de Haenen’s assurances that nobody would even recognize her – Robert Mitchum, Howard Hughes, Jacques Cousteau, all basked in the sun in St. Barths during the first Golden Age of the island.
Things went quiet again for a while until the next boom loomed large, sometime in the 1980s – and nothing has been able to stop St. Barths since. The island was already famous when Patrick Demarchelier shot his renowned beach-session with Claudia Schiffer in 1991, which officially incorporated the world of fashion and photography to the jet-setting elite assiduous to Gustavia and its shores. To this date, St. Barths remains extremely popular among this crowd, both commercially, with, for instance, H&M; setting its worldwide advertising campaign for its 2010 Summer collection in the island’s beaches, and socially, where being seen is probably almost as important as not being bothered in an island that once made its reputation for its seclusion. Ah, the irony of it all!
But there is a lot more to St. Barths than its café-society visitors. There is, for instance, a charm that will scarcely be found elsewhere in the Caribbean: a charm that is made palpable as you walk through the fashionable and highly profitable shops of Gustavia, anything from franchises of global brands, such as Bvlgari, Cartier, Armani or Max Mara, to local boutiques like Donna Del Sol and Lolita Jaca; a charm that exudes from the yachts that face the promenade in town, à la Saint-Tropez, as you sip a cocktail at the Le Yacht Club or enjoy a meal at the Wall House; a charm that extends to the boutique-hotel tradition in the island – whether it be the elegant Isle de France, the mythical Eden Rock or the wonderful Le Toiny, all hotels in St. Barths have less than fifty rooms, giving them a cozy, personalized atmosphere.
For the brave, who wish to venture beyond the beauty and the comfort of the beach at St. Jean, a trip to the Atlantic side of the island will make your visit unforgettable. Roads in trendy St. Barths have not improved much over the years, even if the hard Mini Moke has been replaced with much friendlier Mini Coopers, but taking a convertible up Morne du Vitet, the highest point of the island, peaking at a massive 938 feet (286 meters), strolling through the town of Vitet, rolling down the hill to the attractive Anse de Toiny and making it all the way to the beach at Petit-Cul-de-Sac, a lovable lagoon more known to locals and experts than to the average passer-by, will provide an authentic taste of the Caribbean aspect of the island and will give you much to boast about at the Nikki Beach later on in the night.
From the rich and famous to the shop-a-holic to the simply curious, everyone should go to St. Barths at least once in their lifetime – and once you have, who could blame you for going back?
A SHORT PIECE ON ST BARTH, PUBLISHED IN EXPERIENCE ST MARTIN/MAARTEN 2012.