St Barths is a funny island. While it’s indisputably in the Caribbean, it is not, in many ways, of the Caribbean. It escaped much of the region’s fraught history, trading hands between the French and the Swedes in the 18th century before settling back under the former’s jurisdiction in the 19th. Today it’s an overseas collectivity; its people are all French citizens and it has senate representation in Paris (though its elected prefect, Bruno Magras, is autonomous). The euro is the official currency. St Barths’ some 9,000 inhabitants are well-to-do, and the island is almost devoid of serious crime.
These somewhat mundane stats help to explain why this 21sq km mountainous dot in the West Indies enjoys its anything-but-mundane reputation. St Barths is like a tiny parcel of the Côte d’Azur, excised from France, festooned in equatorial finery and dropped into the Caribbean with its mild Gallic hauteur and splendid gastronomic patrimony intact. It is replete with luxury hospitality and retail diversions (a stroll down the Rue de la République in Gustavia reveals that there is possibly not a single luxury watch marque that cannot be acquired here). Its population swells by the thousands over the Christmas/New Year high season, when its 250-odd luxury villas are booked solid, its hotels (most with fewer than 40 rooms; the largest has under 70) are filled – and have waiting lists – and Gustavia’s harbour buzzes with the comings and goings of yacht tenders. East Coast Americans (the US makes up around 60 per cent of St Barths’ visitors) love it for its proximity, social scene and the little Francophile hit it provides without the transatlantic slog. The French are right at home (in terms of ease of access, it is as Puerto Rico for Americans, except more exclusive by a factor of about a hundred and with immeasurably superior pâtisserie). Russians arrive in moderate numbers, as do, increasingly, Brazilians. And the British, though far fewer in number than on Antigua or Nevis, have always had a stalwart presence here.
Two British couples in particular – David and Jane Matthews and Charles and Mandie Vere Nicoll – have long and illustrious form with St Barths. Both owned small properties and evolved them into unique, independent, world-class establishments, largely as labours of love. Both have helped define the island as much as its sugary beaches and candyfloss shop fronts have. And both their hotels (the Matthews’ Eden Rock – St Barths and the Vere Nicolls’ Hotel St-Barth Isle de France) are now, within 18 months of each other, in the hands of large European operators with no local bona fides to speak of, but with formidable global reach.
Such shifts are happening across the region, with major luxury-world players staking out territory where once the presiding ethos skewed more to the independent and, if not quite discreet, genuinely exclusive. On Virgin Gorda, the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda – part of northern Sardinia’s glittering marina destination – opened a second location on Oil Nut Bay three years ago. The YCCS’s 38 slips host boats up to 88m long and lure a gilded European contingent. It’s perhaps not the gentlest dovetailing with the British Virgin Islands’ historically more purist sailing traditions, but the major regattas it has brought to the region – among them the Loro Piana Caribbean Superyacht Regatta & Rendezvous and the Rolex Swan Cup – will inevitably make it the Caribbean’s prime nexus for cruising (which is, of course, the point). Planned expansions this year are significant, including world-class retail and restaurant outlets, with additional club accommodation and residences also in the pipeline.
On Anguilla, it was instead the arrival a few years ago of a sprawling hotel flying the Viceroy flag that signalled a shift in that island’s profile. Whereas St Barths is French in spirit, Anguilla – some 40km to the northwest – is more British, with, latterly, some well-bred Americanism layered in. It’s also more low-key; after the New Year, the modestly inclined drop anchor here to decompress post St Barths’ social gymnastics. The island is flat, mostly scrub- and mangrove-covered, but its beaches are fantastically pretty; its locals laid-back and accommodating to the monied castaways who pitch up on the decks of beachside bars at Shoal Bay and Island Harbour; and its restaurant kitchens among the most celebrated in the West Indies.
The Viceroy Anguilla is impressive – a study in sensual, tonal stone, leather, brass, linen and driftwood. It is also, apparently, for sale, after less than six years of existence. The investors are currently narrowing offers, a fact that might be hospitality business as usual, but might equally speak to whether a hotel with 166 rooms and 30 villas belongs on a 26km-long island that otherwise has gone to pains to keep things on the small and easy-going side.
These days, though, a reopening is in the spotlight. The 44-room Malliouhana dominates the east end of Anguilla’s Meads Bay, a compound of low white villas clinging to the bluff overlooking its world-famous beach. Taking its name from the Arawak word for the island, Malliouhana was created in the early 1980s by the late Leon Roydon, an Englishman who commissioned the American midcentury architect Laurence Peabody to build it. With public spaces coffered in dark woods and rooms simply accoutred with rattan furniture and white-tile floors, the old hotel is recalled as having been run by Roydon as an “exclusive” – in the purest sense of that word – enclave: those who didn’t “get” it fairly quickly came to “get” that they didn’t, and usually sought welcome elsewhere. Those who did, mostly English and Americans, returned season after season.
In 2010 Malliouhana was acquired by a rather unlikely owner, given its English provenance: Chicago-based AJ Capital Partners, which appointed Auberge Resorts – a quintessentially Californian luxury company with properties in the Napa Valley, rural Oregon and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, among other places – to manage it. Now, after a three-and-a-half-year closure and a multimillion-dollar renovation, Auberge has reinvented Malliouhana. The dark, burnished country-club elements have been nixed; in their place are pink ikat, turquoise hessian and vibrant yamamaks and dhurries layered on the floors. The fauvist-inspired paintings that used to sparely adorn the suites have proliferated, and now hang in extravagant tight clusters along lemon-chiffon and aquamarine walls. Four-posters are lacquered shiny white, chests of drawers are fronted in bevelled glass, ornate sconces sprout from walls of floor-to-ceiling mirror. The entrance has real wow factor, with columns piped in green and pink, the stairs spilling down a shallow gradient straight through to the terrace, where the Caribbean delineates the horizon in a line of bright blue. The hotel’s section of Meads Bay beach is a dream setting: creamy-yellow sand, limpid, crystal-clear water and a squadron of beach boys who nearly tumbled over each other in their efforts to top up my iced water, proffer fruit skewers or snorkelling kit, or just ask me, once again, if I liked their beautiful island.
You’d be remiss not to sample some of Anguilla’s culinary offerings, from Blanchards, an easy stroll down Meads Bay beach, to Scilly Cay, just off Island Harbour (you can swim there, if you’re feeling on form), where Eudoxie “Gorgeous” Wallace has cooked up the same menu of barbecued chicken, lobster, fish and crayfish every night for more than two decades, with no generator; diners eat by candlelight. But Malliouhana’s executive chef Jeremy Bearman has made such forays much less tempting with his superb food. Everything that landed on my table dazzled: whipped coconut yoghurt scattered with fresh mint leaves; tuna dressed vibrantly with chilli, toasted sesame and a hint of white soy; and pillowy Neapolitan-style pizzas. The new Malliouhana is a happy, hyper-coloured take on West Indian tradition, created from deep reserves of American enthusiasm. Many will find the aesthetic joyous and to their liking; minimalists, you have been warned.
Back over on St Barths, the Eden Rock has always had an equally polarising effect, its design the embodiment of the individuality of its owners. David Matthews, formerly chairman and CEO of an automotive and finance group, and his family acquired it in 1995 from Rémy de Haenen, who built it in the early 1950s. The 34-key hotel began existence as de Haenen’s own two-storey plantation-style home and grew as he acquired small surrounding cottages, resulting in a hodgepodge of bungalows spilling down the rock and along St Jean beach. About a week after Matthews took possession, two massive hurricanes slammed into the island within days of each other. But he shored up foundations, patched roofs and fortified water-treatment systems, and within a few years Eden Rock was a go-to for those lured by the buzz of St Jean (a literal buzz, as charter planes zoom in and out of the nearby airport, banking thrillingly over the bay), the brazen, vaguely rock ’n’ roll style of the rooms and suites, and the staff, whom Matthews describes as having “a bit of a grin, a bit of cheek, but also superior competence. We have never enforced much in the way of rules, but we insist on a lot in the way of manners.”
So it was something of a surprise when, in the middle of last year, Matthews turned over Eden Rock’s operations, and a minority ownership stake, to Oetker Collection, part of a German group whose hotel portfolio is dominated by established old-school names: Le Bristol in Paris, Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa in Baden-Baden, Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes. Oetker is not a brand that makes a conspicuous show of its presence; the hotels rule the day and benefit from the expert operations Oetker executes behind the scenes. “Eden Rock was never meant to be just a hotel; it was intended to be a way of life. We’ve made that product, and it’s a good product. But you’ve always got to recognise that you can be better,” says Matthews. “[Oetker] is helping my standards to subtly improve” – largely by opening up a worldwide network of professionals, many trained in Europe, which Eden Rock can now tap. To wit: the new executive chef, imported from Eric Frechon’s Michelin-starred restaurant over at Le Bristol. The agreement, says Matthews, was to subtly elevate “without diluting at all our ‘coconut’ charm”. With its laid-back but super-capable staff and design that unselfconsciously pushes flamboyance to the edge of outré, the Eden Rock has real character. Though I’d not categorise the rooms as entirely to my taste, there is some ineffable magic in the balance of insouciance and rigour, colour and restraint, secluded privacy and the buzz of proximity – to other guests, to the airport, to the beach with its low-key music and afternoon cocktails – that is sexy and truly original.
The Matthews-Oetker rapport is quite new, but Oetker Collection is no stranger to St Barths. Two years ago its flag was already flying on the island, atop the Hotel St-Barth Isle de France on Flamands Bay. Charlie Vere Nicoll, that hotel’s charming progenitor (equally loved on the island for his role as its longtime vicar), had signed Oetker on to effect a similar, subtle elevation of his hotel’s operations and service. Then one day in 2013 LVMH chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault paid a visit. LVMH had had St Barths in its sights since the inception of its hotel brand, Cheval Blanc, several years earlier. But Oetker already had the management contract at Isle de France. Those who follow LVMH’s business trajectory in this or any other publication will know that Arnault is not easily deterred; so in July 2013, Cheval Blanc acquired the hotel from majority owner AJ Capital Partners, Vere Nicoll and others – despite its original assertions that it had no designs on owning hotels, just operating them.
When I visited Cheval Blanc Randheli, LVMH’s Maldives resort, in November 2013, it had been open just three days and was launching mostly untested operating standards. But the staff were prompt, competent and genuinely warm. Things more or less hummed along without a glitch – pretty remarkably, given the circumstances. But Randheli was a ground-up, soup-to-nuts LVMH endeavour. At Isle de France, Cheval Blanc has a different animal on its hands – a full-grown one, with training and skill sets Cheval Blanc has inherited, not shaped. And unlike at Eden Rock, where to the guest the Oetker name is barely discernible (though its presence and agency now subtly permeate the whole experience), the Cheval Blanc identity is, by definition, high profile (we are talking about an LVMH brand). How to impose the ethos, look and standards of a globally recognised luxury marque on a hotel that already very much possessed an identity in its own right? And one, incidentally, its many repeat guests probably don’t think required changing at all?
Slowly would seem the response, if my experience was anything to measure by. For this first season, Cheval Blanc’s design team layered in the brand “experience” carefully: the signature pink shade (Randheli’s is yellow) shows up in linens and crystal, the Leonor Greyl amenities and smatterings of beautiful contemporary ceramics and glass. But then Isle de France’s looks hardly required improvement; it is seriously pretty, the garden cottages cast in satisfying white-on-white colonial sleekness and the one-bedroom beach suites hewing to a more Flemish aesthetic. The restaurant is perfection, with deep, plush white banquettes.
If the lovely surroundings were not 100 per cent matched by flawless service (and there were blips – not major, but in their aggregate undeniable), my inclination is to call this an anomaly, part of the growing pains that inevitably occur when two entities with established cultures merge. There was also the fact that I arrived only 15 days into Cheval Blanc’s tenure as owner-operator (which was also two weeks after Hurricane Gonzalo wrought havoc island-wide, from which Flamands Bay was still recovering). In every instance, smiles and elegant comportment made up for the few missed cues or late responses. Monsieur Arnault and his team know quality when they see it, and Isle de France ticks every box for qualification as that. And because elevation is LVMH’s game – a game at which it wins almost every time – I’d bet that getting Cheval Blanc Isle de France 100 per cent right, and then making it even better still, is almost certainly already mission accomplished.