Fantasy islands

Christine Rush joins the international jet-set in St Barths and St Martin, and discovers Caribbean life served with a sophisticated Gallic twist

Even before you set foot on the island, it's evident that the typical dress of the Haute Caribbean is not an easy style to pull off. Boarding an eight-seater aircraft to St Barths, we shuffle on behind a skinny, bronzed beauty in sequinned mules and a strappy dress. Her carry-on luggage? A boxed disco ball. It's an illustration of how far removed this part of the French West Indies is from the Caribbean package-holiday scene. Always sold out over Christmas and New Year, St-Barthélémy has become the exclusive playground of wealthy Americans and Europeans who have tired of St-Tropez and The Hamptons. Some hire a private villa or, like Sean "P Diddy" Combs, throw all-night parties on their superyachts in Gustavia harbour. Many, however, choose to retreat to one of the discreet hotels.

Even before you set foot on the island, it's evident that the typical dress of the Haute Caribbean is not an easy style to pull off. Boarding an eight-seater aircraft to St Barths, we shuffle on behind a skinny, bronzed beauty in sequinned mules and a strappy dress. Her carry-on luggage? A boxed disco ball. It's an illustration of how far removed this part of the French West Indies is from the Caribbean package-holiday scene. Always sold out over Christmas and New Year, St-Barthélémy has become the exclusive playground of wealthy Americans and Europeans who have tired of St-Tropez and The Hamptons. Some hire a private villa or, like Sean "P Diddy" Combs, throw all-night parties on their superyachts in Gustavia harbour. Many, however, choose to retreat to one of the discreet hotels.

Carl Gustaf, a four-star hotel on a hill above the harbour, is one of these, and its staff are naturally the epitome of chic. On arrival, waif-like young women swathed in cream Greek-goddess shifts greet you with a single bird of paradise stem, and the sort of serene smile that comes from living year-round in the tropics. The hotel manages to appear luxuriously exclusive without being too flashy. Should guests wish to indulge their taste for luxury they can slip into the private plunge pool on the patio, crack open the complimentary champagne and admire the views of Gustavia.

Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 (although that must have been news to the original Carib inhabitants), the island has seen many questing colonists arrive only to be defeated by its barren terrain and lack of exploitable resources. It passed through French, Swedish and British hands before finally becoming part of the French commune of Guadeloupe. These days, however, the flight to St Barths is about as adventurous as life on the island gets. It's a bumpy ride over the strait dividing it from St Martin, then suddenly you're swooping over a hill and plunging down towards the runway, with seemingly only feet to spare before the Plage de St Jean at the end. It's little wonder that many inhabitants prefer the ferry.

Within glass-raising distance of incoming flights is one of the most blinging little beach cafés I've ever seen. With outlets in St-Tropez, Miami Beach, Marbella and Mexico, sexy male servers and pumping soundtrack, even on a lazy afternoon the Nikki Beach is a top draw for the party-goers. The menu falls firmly into the "fusion" category, mixing Oriental and European styles with Caribbean ingredients. Mindful that I'd be appearing in a bikini after lunch, I nibbled on a selection of Oriental appetizers, then chose the "Crazy" sushi roll. My neighbour graciously shared some of her creamy seafood linguini with me, and - what the hell, I was on holiday! - I couldn't resist a few spoonfuls of crème brûlée. There were no culinary surprises, just beautifully fresh, light dishes suitable for the smart set - "smart", which meant chinos and bare chests for the men; minute black bikinis under a tight lacy dress for the women.

If you're a bit squeamish about food miles, though, this may not be the place for you. Tropical temperatures might conjure up images of papaya, pineapples and bananas growing on every doorstep, but fresh water is scarce here and even fruit has to be flown in. Guadeloupe and the Dominican Republic are key exporters, but the rigorous quality control demanded by the island's gastronomic kitchens means that France is the more common source of ingredients. It's a tough choice for star chefs, I guess: spend years sweating it out in a Parisian basement kitchen, or run your own in a tropical paradise. Emmanuel Motte, the head chef at Carl Gustaf, naturellement chose the latter. The young Frenchman flies in fresh produce from his native country twice a week, then works his magic with five staff late into the night.

Even the original Carib inhabitants of St Barths were plagued by drought. To get around this geographical misfortune, these days the island's rubbish is incinerated, the energy from which is used to power a vast desalination plant. Still, the process yields little, and any rainwater is collected in cisterns for general use, so even in the swanky hotels water-saving showers, rather than baths, are the rule. Shortly before our visit, the normally drought-prone island had been drenched for four weeks running - the best rainy season in five years (although visitors from cooler climes may have been less than pleased). The result was a verdant, supremely pretty place bursting with vitality. Succulents, hibiscus, colourful shrubs and banana trees are abundant. Still, the authorities have to strike a delicate balance between nature conservation and tourism development. Currently, any further new housing has been banned - though one host suggested that with enough money, one might progress any pet building project.

The issue of authority is a hot one at the moment. Back on St Martin, Bernadette Davis, the animated director of the local tourist office, tells us that the island's inhabitants recently voted to leave the dominion of Guadeloupe, while remaining in French jurisdiction.

The island is divided into two legally separate entities, albeit with no immigration controls - legend has it that the borders were settled after a French and a Dutch settler stood back to back in the middle of the island and set off for the coast. The Dutch claimant, however, was apparently too drunk to notice his opponent carving off the greater portion. The island's only airport is on the Dutch side and is made up of a strip of tacky casinos, cyclone-ravaged blocks and super-cheap duty-free supermarkets (a litre of Jameson's for £5, anyone?). The island's population of 60,000 is a merry mix of 100 nationalities, most of whom speak at least three languages: Creole, French, English, but also Dutch, patois and Spanish.

Davis, whose own mother tongue is "franglais", believes the mixed nature of the island has served it well down the centuries, and doesn't foresee any problems with semi-independence. "Because of the diverse populations, the French mayor campaigns on the Dutch side and vice versa. The leader of the Dutch side is French-born. There are two political systems, two currencies. When people from both sides meet, they speak English. We've been practising the European Community long before you guys. This is one country that can give you change in three currencies at the drop of a hat."

We're at La Belle Epoque, one of the cheaper eating establishments on the marina at Marigot, the capital of St Martin. Although Americans and wealthy French love the island, and ensure that the holiday villas are rented out for half the year, Davis' target market is now Francophile Brits, whom she hopes to divert from Antigua, Anguilla and St Barths. "The route nationale that begins in Paris ends in Marigot. A ticket to St Martin gives you five islands for the price of one. Every one of them has their own experience." She says visitors will appreciate the Continental savoir faire, with American standards of service and universal speaking of English. European chic filters through to the dress code - "gracious informality" is the key phrase here.

One of the main draws for those visitors Davis hopes to attract is the La Samanna resort. Housed in a Greek-style whitewashed building and discreetly hidden beachside suites, it has the only fully equipped Pilates studio in the Caribbean, and boasts a beach-side water sports cabana as well as an impressive, glassed gym. Although it's mostly a destination for couples on honeymoon or celebrating an anniversary, the facilities allow for conference groups too - although the hotel notes sternly forbid "group name tags, corporate banners and amplified speeches" in the public areas. Bare feet and bare chests are a no-no at all times, and topless sunbathing is frowned upon.

A horror of another kind awaits beige-favouring diners - the waitresses all wear voluminous skirts and tops in the acid-bright tartan that is the traditional costume of St Martin. A few rum cocktails may ease the shock, however, and your gaze will soon be diverted by the fabulous, wide open views of the sea and the tranquil inlet of Baie Longue - a perfectly pleasurable match for a cup of passion fruit ice-cream.

A different sort of dining pleasure is to be had at Yellow Beach, on Pinel, a sliver of sand only a $5 (£2.60) ferry ride away from Orient Beach on the other side of the island. Here, your toes burrow in the cool sand beneath the table while bikini-clad waitresses serve crab croquettes, delicious skewers of mahi-mahi, baked potato, ice-cream and rum punch. The afternoon slides away, and another murky bottle of home-made rum appears: passion fruit or banana and vanilla, taken in shots. It's here that I learn why the cocktails are so lethal, and my memory of the trip so hazy - fruit juice is the more expensive ingredient in the mix. Bottoms up...

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Air France (0845 0845 111; www.airfrance.co.uk) flies daily to St Martin via Paris from Heathrow, Aberdeen, Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham and Southampton. Returns start at £503.

STAYING THERE

The writer travelled to the French Caribbean with Great Hotels of the World (0800 032 4254; www.ghotw.com). The Carl Gustaf (00 590 590 29 79 00; www.hotelcarlgustaf.com) on the hills above Gustavia on St Barts, has one-bedroom suites from €580 (£414) including welcome champagne, transfers and breakfast. On St Martin, doubles at the La Samanna resort (00 590 590 87 64 00; www.lasamanna.com) start at $425 (£224) including breakfast. Both hotels are bookable through Great Hotels of the World.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Saint-Martin Tourist Board (00 590 590 875 721; www.st-martin.org). St Barthélémy Tourist Board (00 590 590 278 727; www.saint-barths.com)

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