At 2,133ft long, the airstrip on the French Caribbean island of Saint-Barthélemy is a challenging place to land an aeroplane. Barely long enough to host a fashion show, the runway is located near – and partly embedded into – a steep hill that aircraft must avoid before touching down. Pilots need special certification; passengers should check their travel insurance and horoscopes.
"Landing here is like threading a moving needle," said the pilot in my plane. "When the wind blows from the other direction and pilots land from the sea end, passengers complain that they don't get the thrill of the overland descent.
This part of the island is not called Plaine de la Tourmente ("stormy plain") for nothing. "But it is not the most dangerous runway in the Caribbean," the pilot adds. "That would be on the island of Saba, nicknamed 'the aircraft carrier'."
As I squeezed out of my insect-like aeroplane with luggage and body intact, a flock of butterflies greeted me. Butterflies can tolerate only the cleanest air, and on Saint-Barthélemy they are particularly fussy. They appear for 15 days following rain, then disappear. Considering it sometimes doesn't rain here for seven months at a time, the butterflies don't often get out, but they celebrate when they do – and parts of the island can resemble a tickertape reception.
Linguistically and politically, Saint-Barthélemy is French; it is technically part of the EU. Francophones abbreviate the name to St-Barth, English speakers to St Barts. It is the smallest of the French West Indies (after Guadeloupe, Martinique and Saint-Martin), and one of the harshest islands in the Caribbean: eight square miles of arid volcanic rock topographically resembling two people hiding under a duvet.
With few natural resources and no agricultural tradition, the island was never considered a colonial must-have. Columbus discovered it on his second voyage, in 1493, and named it after his brother, Bartolomeo. But thereafter the island suffered a succession of slights and belittlements. The Lesser Antilles were contemptuously dismissed as "coral reefs". The first European colonists arrived from France in 1648, and soon became dinner for the aboriginal Caribs: a number of severed heads were later found skewered on poles along the shore of Anse de Lorient, where today the best snorkelling is to be had and the beach restaurant is K'Fe Massaï.
Five years later, a group of around 30 Normans and Bretons fleeing persecution or the guillotine in France settled on the island, but in the absence of natural resources soon set about the business of plundering passing shipping. St Barts became a favourite hide-out of privateers, adventurers and "coastal brethren", as pirates were known.
Paris, where its colonial masters resided, had bigger Caribbean fish to fry. St Barts became a minor bargaining chip in 1785, when the French swapped it with the Swedes. France wanted trading rights in the port of Gothenburg, while Sweden wanted its own chunk of the Caribbean. For nearly a century the island was a minor subsidiary of Scandinavia.
The capital, Gustavia, was named in honour of King Gustaf III. (You could cover Gustavia, mainly comprising a few rows of toytown stone buildings with pink roofs clustered around the harbour, in 10 minutes.) But natural disasters and declining trade made St Barts too expensive a distant possession for Sweden to maintain, and in 1878 it was given back to France.
No one, it seemed, could ever make their fortune – until the dawning of St Barts' gilded tourist era in 1945. In that year, a London-born Franco-Dutch sailor and aviator named Rémy de Haenen arrived. He succeeded in putting an aeroplane down on the savannah in St Jean (after the sheep had been cleared from the grassland). Today, this is where the airport and one of the best beaches are located.
Hurricane de Haenen had arrived.In the 1960s and 1970s, he developed the island's water, power and roads. He also bought a plot near the airport for $200, built the Eden Rock hotel, and welcomed the jet set: Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes and Robert Mitchum, as well as his friend Jacques Cousteau. His efforts were abetted when David Rockefeller cruised by on his yacht one day in the 1970s. Seeing the plunging and often breezy coastline punctuated by delightful sandy anses (coves), he fell instantly in love with the island, bought property, built himself a house on Pointe de Colombier, the most north-westerly tip of the island, and then told his friends about it.
The island's reputation as the world's most glamorous piece of rock was sealed in the 1980s, thanks to Patrick Demarchelier. The Le Havre-born fashion photographer bought a house in St Barts and demanded that all his fashion shoots take place on the island. Ever since then, St Barts has been synonymous with the beau monde. Each December, for example, models take over the Guanahani resort for Victoria Secret's photo shoots.
De Haenen died last year, at 92, having witnessed a succession of A-list visitors to his island, headed by Elle Macpherson, Christie Brinkley, Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford. Following the fashion models were the celebrities and Hollywood stars – Sylvester Stallone, Brad Pitt, Richard Gere, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas. "The list goes on for ever," says Charles Walker, who runs an English-owned hotel on the island.
Today, you find four types of people on the island. The St Barthéleminois, as the locals are known, are indistinguishable from more recent French émigrés. Yet although the two groups look and speak the same, they seem never to mix.
I wanted to discover the most famous St Barthéleminois, living or dead. So I asked Sabine Masseglia, who runs the Guanahani hotel. "Marius Skatelborough," she shrugged. I looked blank, so she continued. "He started the Sélect bar in Gustavia 60 years ago, where locals, sailors and rich tourists used to meet and drink. Jimmy Buffett wrote a song, "Cheeseburger in Paradise", about Sélect." (The singer, at least according to Lonely Planet, says that the joint took the name from his song.)
Among the early settlers was a Monsieur Gréaux, and his surname recurs through St Barts' history and phone directory. Emile Gréaux, for example, drives a taxi. He is a charming man of Napoleonic frame. "My ancestors were farmers, fishermen and weavers," he smiled. "They made hats and bags. When I was 16, I would break rocks and sell them as building material."
Among the émigrés, many are from the Côte d'Azur – seeing in St Barts something of the informal atmosphere that the South of France enjoyed when it was still a high-glamour zone.
The third group comprises "ordinary" tourists (some 300,000 each year); and celebrities, some of whom own properties here – including David Letterman, Tommy Hilfiger and Roman Abramovich, who is presently building himself a second house on the island.
Many other "tropical paradises" are, of course, available. So what is it about St Barts that makes it such a magnet? The lack of resources that previously made life here such a hardship has been repatterned into a series of selling points. Several months without rain are hell if you are a farmer, but bliss if you're on holiday from a northern winter.
The island has no high-rise development, no resort hotel chains, no large buildings, no history of slave labour, no racial tension, no crime, no cruise ships, no package holidays and no natural water source (therefore no golf courses).
It is an exclusive, clean, expensive and safe delight, with an atmosphere unique among Caribbean islands. Given the French knack of trashing beautiful islands – look at Tahiti – this merits celebration. The only snag is the high-season traffic jams. The island has 8,000 registered cars for a population of just 8,500 – and only two petrol stations.
You can also expect the best food in the Caribbean, washed down by excellent wine lists. The best restaurants are Tamarin, Indigo (at Guanahani), Eden Rock, Le Gaïac and Maya's. If these places do not devour all your surplus wealth, you will look in vain for a casino.
There is also superb shopping in Gustavia: colourful, chic and expensive enough to discourage mass tourism. Ignore the outposts of famous brands such as Louis Vuitton, Bulgari, Cartier, Ralph Lauren, Armani, Christian Dior and so on. More interesting are the indigenous brands: Lolita Jaca, Poupette and KiWi.
"This is the most popular shop for beachwear," says Sophie Fournier, who has run the KiWi boutique near the airport for 10 years. "Americans always bring a lot of luggage, but the aeroplanes here are very small. So the luggage often comes later. If visitors lose their luggage, they come here for shoes, bikinis, dresses, shirts, shorts, hats and beach bags."
KiWi has boutiques in Miami and St Tropez, but the new collections always hit St Barts first. "I tell Miami and St Tropez what sells," says Fournier. "This summer's colours will be yellow, navy, polka dot and stripes." u
oIn central Gustavia, Giraud Poupette specialises in beautiful diaphanous dresses and sarongs that capture the glamour of St Barts. She typifies a certain type of French expatriate. "I came on holiday in 1979 for two weeks, stayed for three, went home, then came back again," she says. "I need the ocean around me. I love this place for the respect of life, the purity and the peace."
She showed me racks of gorgeous wafty dresses and sarongs, which she has made for her in low-cost Bali. "My collections are about lightness, colour and transparency." She produced a frontless, backless, sideless see-through ankle-length dress made of the frailest gravity-defying gossamer silk. "When you wear this one, it is like a clin d'oeil [wink]. Women are like that, no? They love to tease. My customers are the best in the world and very loyal." These regulars include Ivana Trump and Uma Thurman. "Every time they buy something from me, they take from me part of my soul."
Notwithstanding the island's dramatic topography, beaches and weather, people-watching is an undeniable draw. In this respect, St Barts is eating up St Tropez's turf.
"French people who normally spent the summer in St Tropez are turning to St Barts in July and August," says Walker. "We are also now seeing the English crowd that used to holiday in Barbados."
It is interesting to contrast British tourists to "our" parts of the Caribbean with the French visitors to St Barts. Flights from Gatwick and Heathrow to islands such as Antigua and Barbados tend to be filled with bling, tattoos and aspirational upmarket philistinism. In contrast, arrivals from Paris are full of devastatingly glamorous refugees from the Côte d'Azur. Which is not to criticise bling, tattoos and aspirational upmarket philistinism, because they have their place, especially in the Caribbean, which has a rich swashbuckling tradition of all three. It's just that, given the choice, I know which one I'd prefer over a few days.
If you are antagonised by the supercilious French manner you sometimes encounter in the mother country, you won't get it in St Barts. It is as if nonchalance, froideur and arrogance got lost in translation. The people exude ease and lightness. And, despite all the designer stores, there is a strong sense of understatement. If you can afford a holiday in St Barts, and are brave enough to handle the landing, there is an understanding that you have arrived. There is no need to show off. All you need to pack are shorts and T-shirts.
Besides a plethora of food, music and theatre festivals, the highlight of the St Barts calendar is the Bucket Race, which takes place this very weekend. The world's most beautiful sailing vessels join old America's Cup boats and the Maltese Falcon to race around the island. In lieu of a "real" prize, the winner receives a bucket. "It is beautiful to be around during that race," says Sabine Masseglia, "even if you are not a sailor."
Perhaps the most surprising thing about St Barts is the conspicuous lack of Club Med. Really, St Barts is every bit as much a man-made utopia as Club Med, albeit for the super-rich and super-glamorous. It is France's answer to Mustique: an island idyll created by – and for – a handful of men and women with vision, taste, wealth and fabulous address books.
Most travellers reach St Barts via the Franco-Dutch island of St Martin/Sint Maarten, to which Air France and KLM fly from the UK via Paris and Amsterdam. Travel on to St Barts by ferry (45 to 90 minutes) or by air on Air Antilles Express, St Barth Commuter and Winair. Or fly on BA or Virgin Atlantic via Antigua.
Staying and shopping there
Le Guanahani (00 590 27 66 60; leguanahani.com). Doubles from €378, including breakfast.
KiWi, Villa Creole, St-Jean (00 590 27 57 08); Poupette, Gustavia (00 590 27 94 49).
Contact the French tourist office in London: 09068 244123; uk.franceguide.com.