How to spend it in… St Barths

Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s insider guide to the Caribbean island. Portrait by Jean-Philippe Piter

Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Shellona restaurant, Shell Beach
Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Shellona restaurant, Shell Beach | Image: Jean-Philippe Piter

“I’ve been coming to St Barths for 32 years and consider the island to be a home away from home. There’s a lot to love about it, not least that it’s three-and-a-half hours from my home in New York, which means that I get to visit three or four times a year. But also the diversity it holds – there are so many beaches, walks in the mountains and (importantly, for me) world-class restaurants to choose from. And no highways, so the pace of life is slower. You really can be barefoot 24/7. It is paradise.

Sailing with Cheval Blanc
Sailing with Cheval Blanc

 I first came with my business partner, Phil Suarez, who owns a home here, and I now visit every year at Christmas with my family – but any time between Thanksgiving and the end of May is good. Hurricane Irma really laid waste to much of the island in 2017, and it’s a real testament to the strength of the community that they were able to rebuild so quickly; so much so that this year, everything – hotels, restaurants, shops, infrastructure – is 90 to 95 per cent back to normal.

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Of course, getting to St Barths is half the fun. Or terror, depending on your stomach for flying – the Tradewind Aviation flights from St Maarten and San Juan come in over a steep hill and it’s basically the scariest landing in the world, on one of the shortest runways. I have twice been on a plane that ended up with its nose in the sand. Luckily, the instruments are more precise these days and everything runs smoothly. And you know immediately that you’re somewhere good because the views of the turquoise Caribbean are incredible. 

One of the rooms at boutique hotel Villa Marie
One of the rooms at boutique hotel Villa Marie

One of the best things the island has going for it is its hotels. There are all kinds of places, each with a unique feel, and fantastically, you won’t find any big‑brand names. And because there is such a limited number of rooms and homes available, it doesn’t feel rammed, even during peak holiday seasons. The restaurants do get more crowded then, but that’s another story…

The cuisine at Le Tamarin
The cuisine at Le Tamarin

Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France, right on Flamands Beach, reopened last year with new rooms and suites by Jacques Grange, much to everyone’s excitement. Le Guanahani, between Marigot Bay and Grand Cul de Sac, will reopen next year and is a classic – 67 rooms and suites spread across these charming little cottages. Eden Rock, on the highest point overlooking Baie de St-Jean – you see it when you fly in – is probably the island’s oldest hotel and its white-sand coral beaches are some of the best. It’s reopening next month, fully recovered from Irma. One of the smallest and most charming hotels is Baie des Anges, overlooking Flamands Bay. There are just a handful of rooms here, but the views of the crystal-clear sea are incredible. It’s discreet and the restaurant, La Langouste, is excellent as well – very local and full of creole influences – and while the hotel is modest compared to some of the others, it’s a perfect quiet hideaway. I also like Villa Marie, up in the hills of Colombier. It’s more boho chic and you have beautiful views of the bay.

A private rental villa through WIMCO
A private rental villa through WIMCO

I’m a big water guy, which is part of why I love St Barths so much: the beaches are incredible. There are so many good ones, but I like to send people to Colombier, as well as Grande Saline and Gouverneur, because they’re good for both swimming and snorkelling. Whichever you choose, you should bring a picnic of delicious sandwiches and prepared salads from Maya’s To Go. The last swim of the day, the place where we watch the sunset, is Shell Beach – ideally with cocktails in hand and Greek mezes on the table at Shellona, which is right on the water there. Baie de St-Jean is the best place for kids to swim, as there is no surf and the water is the purest blue. On the Atlantic side of the island is the Washing Machine, which is basically, as its name implies, rough, so not great for swimming – but there are natural pools that are nice for a dip; you can sit and watch the pelicans swoop down for fish. And the hike to get there is well worth it.

A leather and gold bracelet from Trésors de St Barth
A leather and gold bracelet from Trésors de St Barth

So within hours of waking on St Barths you will have worked up an appetite in the sun or surfing or hiking, which is good because there are any number of places to eat a wonderful late breakfast or lunch. While I have a restaurant here – the Sand Bar at Eden Rock – I love many others. My long-time favourite is Maya’s, just outside historic Gustavia Harbour. Maya Gurley, the owner and my good friend, is one of the most creative chefs anywhere. Her shrimp salad with green papaya and tamarind-spiced pork is excellent. 

Dinner at La Case
Dinner at La Case

They get really incredible food here now – things like Bresse chicken and French cheeses; the quality of imported ingredients available is outstanding. But all the tropical fruits – mangoes, papayas – come via Guadeloupe and Martinique so they are really fresh and flavourful. The perfect morning starts with a freshly baked baguette from La Boulangerie Choisy in L’Orient. For casual lunches I like L’Isola for Italian dishes using local fish, and also L’Isoletta for Roman-style pizzas. And Eddy’s Ghetto in Gustavia for the goat curry and fried catfish is a must. On the way to Grande Saline you’ll find Le Tamarin, which is one of the best places for dinner; it’s built around a massive old tamarind tree – it has a beautiful outdoor atmosphere and fantastic mahi-mahi and marinated local tiradito.

A cocktail at the Cheval Blanc White Bar
A cocktail at the Cheval Blanc White Bar

St Barths is famous for its nightlife, although after a day spent on or in the water, I tend to be in bed by 10pm. There are places that I like for a night out, however. Le Ti St-Barth in Pointe Milou is one of the best. Its owner, Carole, has been an island presence for many years and late-night table dancing is a regular occurence. Baz Bar is the place for impromptu music – Jimmy Buffett has been known to drop in and do a session – and the sushi is very good too. 

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Lots of people who come here stay in villas – WIMCO and Sibarth are both outfits that offer completely organised and well-stocked houses. Which makes cooking at home a pleasure because the quality of food here is so good. There is top fresh lobster, and fino, a local, pink fatty fish that’s perfect for tartare. You’ll find a great butcher called Boucherie Ché Yo’ in St Jean, just behind the airport, and Le Ti-Marché in L’Orient is the place for passion fruit, avocados and rum from Guadeloupe. There’s an abundance of liquor stores on the island, because there is no tax on alcohol. At Marché U, which is one of the biggest supermarkets, there’s a sommelier and a seriously impressive wine selection – they’ve been known to stock Pétrus.

The shopping here in general is excellent, with some one-offs you’ll not find elsewhere. The leather and pearl bracelets by Mignot and Trésors de St Barth make good gifts. I’m not a smoker, but if you’re into cigars you’ll find them from Cuba – and all over the world, really – at Casa del Habano. And Loulou’s Marine on Gustavia Harbour is a kind of brass-tacks, practical place, full of marine-canvas tote bags and supplies – and some nice Breton shirts. 

All of this is wonderful, of course, but I hope that the island stays small. It will never be like the 1970s again, but equally, there will never be a big golf course or a hotel with hundreds of rooms. The island is looking very green again after Irma, finally. And everyone makes you feel so welcome. So it’s still a petite paradise.”

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