St Barths’ hotel scene turns up the heat

Change is afoot on the Caribbean’s most extravagant island, with British, American and Provençal forces bringing new openings and invigorating timelessly intimate favourites with buzz-generating global style. Mary Lussiana reports

Le Guanahani lies on a private 18-acre peninsula with cottages dotted around the tropical gardens and a destination spa
Le Guanahani lies on a private 18-acre peninsula with cottages dotted around the tropical gardens and a destination spa | Image: Eric Laignel

A little bit of St Tropez in the Caribbean” is how Charlie Vere Nicoll, the owner of Hôtel Le Toiny, likes to describe St Barths. It’s appropriate, then, that the latest establishment (and one of the most beautiful) to open on this island, high in the hills of Colombier, is the namesake of a similarly lovely hotel set equally high above the Bay of Pampelonne, in the south of France, amid parasol-pine forests. That hotel, Villa Marie, was one of the first in the stable of Maison & Hotels Sibuet, a highly original and eminently elegant hospitality group, and opened 14 years ago; Villa Marie Saint-Barth, as the new hotel is known, is the group’s newest venture.

Bright colours combine with eclectic furnishings at the plantation-style Villa Marie Saint-Barth
Bright colours combine with eclectic furnishings at the plantation-style Villa Marie Saint-Barth

And it is just one of a number of new arrivals on the island, where for so long the choice of luxury hotels was overwhelmingly dominated by two very photogenic juggernauts: the Eden Rock – St Barths and the Isle de France – the latter called Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France since it became part of LVMH-owned hospitality brand Cheval Blanc in 2013. Indeed, there is a fair old trade wind whistling across St Barths’ white-sand beaches; for right now, almost everywhere you turn there is change afoot, with the more established favourites upping their design and spa games just to keep pace. Some of the owners behind this new wave of openings are intensely private individuals who wish to remain that way; like so many island residents, they fell hard for St Barths’  charms on a holiday and chose to put down roots. Whatever the provenance story, it’s interesting how the Franco-Caribbean charms of the island are being recast through various dynamic prisms – Provençal, British and American among them.

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Take Vere Nicoll himself, the England-born hotelier who has been involved with St Barths in some shape or form since he and his wife Mandie first visited in 1986 – not least as the local vicar, a post he held for 16 years before retiring last autumn. In 1999, after years of being a guest at Isle de France, he and a group of friends bought the 40-room property, turning it into a chic, bare-feet-in-the-sand type of place with profusions of driftwood, billowing muslins and whitewashed pavilions, all conceived by the English interior designer Bee Osborn. When LVMH made him an offer he couldn’t refuse for Isle de France, it didn’t take him long to snap up Hôtel Le Toiny, a smaller, more private hotel on the wild and rugged Côte Sauvage – with no direct access to a beach. Some may inevitably see this as a handicap, but a visit to the new Le Toiny reveals that its charms are myriad – more than enough, I think, to compensate. The multimillion-dollar revamp, this one also courtesy of Osborn, has replaced the rather-too-Gallic formality of the previous incarnation with something lighter and more easeful, drawing on a mix of Belgian linen, sun-bleached teak, petrified wood and surfaces of shell and mother-of-pearl to create an elegantly harmonious “coastal chic” feel in the 14 standalone villa suites (a further eight are to be added at the end of this year). There is a new open-air oyster bar with a seductive pink design scheme, while in the restaurant the concept centres around island goodness, with specialities such as local yellow-fin tuna tataki with sweet soy sauce and grapefruit jam, grilled mahi-mahi and a supremely tender roast baby chicken – all simply served beside the hotel’s main infinity pool.

Le Barthélemy’s pool overlooks the bay of Grand Cul-de-Sac
Le Barthélemy’s pool overlooks the bay of Grand Cul-de-Sac

But it’s Le Toiny Beach Club that’s the best rebuttal to the naysayers. A newly landscaped beach, which is tucked underneath the hotel, is easily reached by shuttle or a few minutes’ walk. A pair of 18th-century cottages – two of the oldest structures on the island – act as centrepieces, one of which brims with bold and beautiful beachwear, while the other functions as the bar, serving tempting Copacabana-inspired concoctions (even the Brazilian coffee milkshake, batida de café, is enhanced with a drop of cachaça). The surrounding sand is studded with coconut palms and casuarina trees, bending in the breezes above the smattering of sunloungers. It’s flirtatious and inviting – effortlessly extending the hotel’s appealing notes down to the seashore.

A villa at Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France, which has just acquired the neighbouring hotel
A villa at Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France, which has just acquired the neighbouring hotel | Image: Pierre Carreau

Much of Le Toiny’s success at creating such a welcome no doubt derives from its being both privately owned and privately managed – a combination that invariably seems to result in a more original, and genuine, home feeling. But the same kick-off-your-heels vibe is gratifyingly present in the just-opened Villa Marie Saint-Barth, despite the fact Maisons & Hotels Sibuet will number a full 13 properties by the end of the summer (when a new ski lodge, Terminal Neige – Refuge, opens in Chamonix). This is almost entirely down to the portfolio’s founder-owner Jocelyne Sibuet. “I only acquire hotels I fall in love with,” she says, “and they must have history and soul for this to happen.” It is that perceived soul that inspires her to “tell a story” through each project, whether it be drawing on the Renaissance-era stone courtyard at Cour des Loges, her hotel in Lyon, to inform the comprehensive design, or introducing a mix of riotous colours – parrot-green, pop-yellow and flaming reds – into this, an old plantation-style property surrounded by mature, exceptionally lush tropical gardens.

Hôtel Le Toiny’s seductive new open-air oyster bar
Hôtel Le Toiny’s seductive new open-air oyster bar

The 21 bungalows and two villas (one of which has a private pool) are scattered up the hill above Flamands Bay. Every accommodation is unique; there are a few outdoor claw-footed baths, a handful of four-poster beds, a collection of gorgeous seashell macramé chandeliers. The furnishings have been sourced by Sibuet from across the world – chests of drawers inlaid with mother-of-pearl from Rajasthan, rugs from Tunisia and lamps from Indonesia. It is the fabrics, though, that stamp this hotel with its wonderfully uplifting tropical-chic atmosphere. Some are from Diane von Furstenberg, others from Pierre Frey, some bougainvillea pink, others sea blue – but all sing brazenly against the cool white colonial backdrop. Chef Emmanuel Motte delivers the freshest local flavours enhanced by French refinements and presentation to an already buzzing crowd, which comes from across the island (if they’re wise, they will have stopped first at the Rum & Cigar Bar for a Dark and Stormy, the formidable rum-based house cocktail).

Shell Beach, in St Barths’ capital Gustavia, is home to the new restaurant-beach club Shellona
Shell Beach, in St Barths’ capital Gustavia, is home to the new restaurant-beach club Shellona | Image: Pierre Carreau

More French capital than French Caribbean – which is to say, far more muted than Villa Marie – is the 46-room Le Barthélemy. Also recently opened and privately owned, Le Barthélemy, unlike Le Toiny and Villa Marie, has a prime beachside position on the crescent-shaped bay of Grand Cul-de-Sac, which forms part of the island’s only nature reserve. The light-filled interiors, by Sybille de Margerie, use natural woods and a tranquil, cool-and-neutral colour palette to allow the exterior turquoise hues to be the showcase. The hotel has a pronounced Parisian accent, from the Hermès in-room amenities to the cuisine, overseen by Michelin-starred Guy Martin of Le Grand Véfour. Martin has beautifully adapted his menu to the Caribbean: dishes such as foie gras marinated in dark rum, passion fruit and coffee sing with both Gallic elegance and exoticism. Le Spa here is equally top of the range and a major draw, with a 24-hour, ultra-high-tech fitness centre and entirely personalised facials utilising only La Mer products.

Hôtel Barrière Le Carl Gustaf is partnered with Shellona and will open next year
Hôtel Barrière Le Carl Gustaf is partnered with Shellona and will open next year

Wellness has historically also been a pillar at one of the older hotels on the island, Le Guanahani; now, fresh from celebrating its 30th anniversary with the completion of a four-year, £33m renovation, it is more so than ever. Le Guanahani lies on a private 18-acre peninsula between Marigot Bay and Grand Cul-de-Sac, which culminates in a point bookended by two pristine white-sand beaches like reverse parentheses. The 67 cottages dotted within the tropical gardens, all painted in bright island hues, have been updated by Miami-based interior designer Luis Pons. The revamped beauty and wellness offerings here have a definite Gallic slant, with a host of new massage and facial treatments customised specifically for Le Guanahani by the haute-organic aromatherapy line Body Bliss, and an amply enhanced menu of treatments at Spa My Blend by Clarins, to capitalise on the resort’s position as one of only eight in the world – and the only one in the Caribbean – to offer My Blend treatments.

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Over at Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France, exclusive Guerlain treatments were introduced to the spa when the hotel was acquired by LVMH, giving Le Guanahani a run for its money. However, the arguably more significant competitive gesture is Isle de France’s very recent acquisition of its neighbouring hotel, the 22-room Taïwana. Together, the two properties claim an entire cul-de-sac and point on Flamands Beach to themselves. The Taïwana is already closed for renovation, and design details are expected shortly, but the removal of what was rather a blot on the scenic serenity of Isle de France’s surroundings will much enhance the hotel. This is true not least for the larger tract it will command of what’s considered the island’s best parcel of shoreline – beautiful for early-morning walks, when the sea and sky are awash with gentle pinks – but so too for barefoot lunches of yellow-fin tuna tartare or linguine tossed with local lobster in the resort’s boho-chic beachside Cabane de l’Isle.

Another acquisition of note is the Do Brazil restaurant, on Shell Beach in the heart of red-roofed Gustavia, which has been reinvented as Shellona, a restaurant-beach club serving elegantly plated, supremely tasty Mediterranean dishes to a background track of live music and internationally renowned DJs. This is the first step in the arrival of what will likely be the talk of the ville next year: the opening of Hôtel Barrière Le Carl Gustaf, perched directly above the beach. Long an emblematic hotel on the island, Le Carl Gustaf closed in 2013 to subsequently be bought by the Barrière group (which is also behind the reinvention of Shellona, now partnered with the hotel). After a top-to-toe renovation by Parisian interiors firm Gilles & Boissier (responsible for the Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech and the Baccarat Hotel in New York), it will offer a suite, three-room loft and 13 cottages, each with its own pool, behind its fresh colonial façade (also on property will be a purpose-built six-bedroom villa). Apart from the DJ-led ambience and fresh seafood at Shellona, the hotel will offer an outpost of Le Fouquet’s, with an à la carte menu overseen by Pierre Gagnaire. Grand indeed – but just one of so many eye-catching, buzz-generating venues to consider. Call it the uniquely St Barths privilege of being spoiled for choice.

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