Cheval Blanc Hotel – St. Barth Isle de France
The top hotel on St Barth’s is beach-fit after an intriguing makeover.
I always thank the good fortune that took me to St Barth’s one Christmas 12 years ago, when a friend invited my family to stay. We’ve been back every year since, and when I’m away I hanker for it like a lovesick teenager.
That first year I fell in love with the beauty of St Barth’s, a perfectly sized, immaculate and hilly island where there are no Barbados Versailles-like follies or Mustique Taj Mahals. It’s French territory, so gendarmes walk the streets wearing kepi hats, the supermarkets sell Vacherin and fond de veau and the restaurants (Maya’s, Bonito and L’Esprit Saline are the holy trinity) are better than in the South of France.
In Gustavia (the main harbour where everyone takes a walk at six o’clock each evening to check out the super-yachts, have a cocktail in the Carré d’Or square and see who’s arrived), the Hermès, Cartier and Louis Vuitton boutiques are always packed, but it’s the kooky shops that I love so much – Calypso for beautiful boho kaftans, or Poupette for pretty dresses and hessian clutches. The beaches, where everyone is topless, are perfection, unspoilt by restaurants, shops or ridiculous lunchtime discos. Even Diane von Furstenberg and Stephanie Seymour lie on towels on the sand, their drinks in plastic coolers. There is a Nikki Beach, but it’s a sorry little spot where the uninitiated go on their first trip.
The biggest attraction is the people, an extraordinary mix not shy to show their plumage, rich and not so rich, beautiful and interesting-looking, extravagant, creative but most of all excited and hungry for life. It makes me laugh when people tell me they’ve heard the social side of St Barth’s is too hectic, like St Tropez. The truth is there’s a lot going on, but it’s all very chilled and last-minute, with no pretension.
That first year a friend of a friend invited us to a party hosted by Russell Simmons, the co-founder of Def Jam records. Puff Daddy was there, and Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mary J Blige. The DJ played hip hop and R’n’B; we didn’t dare dance but we felt young and happy. There was a tropical storm as we left, but we kept the top down on the Jeep and sang in the rain all the way home. Another time we went to a party on Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s 415ft yacht Octopus, where Jon Bon Jovi sang.
As in all the best places, there is a grand old lady who has the social scene clutched to her bosom. The Côte d’Azur has the Hôtel du Cap; here it’s the Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France. Until last year she was just called the St-Barth Isle de France, but she recently married into the LVMH family which owns the Cheval Blanc hotel trio (Courchevel and the Maldives are the other two), a union that many old-timers, despite the newcomer’s excellent pedigree, were nervous about.
I had never actually stayed (I’d had sleepovers in friends’ bungalows and room service more nights than I can remember) but because I know many who have, she felt like an old friend. I’ve spent many days hanging out drinking rum punches on the beach, spying Jay-Z and Beyoncé in the restaurant, Marc Jacobs canoodling with a new boyfriend and Ryan Seacrest turning the music up while the staff weren’t looking. The low-built hotel sits on the perfect arc of Flamands beach, where a few billionaires also live in discreet houses along the sand.
They leave their villas at lunchtime and head for the hotel, strolling down the beach five-abreast with their important guests like penguins migrating to the next ice floe.
At first glance, nothing has changed, particularly the hotel’s heart and soul, the staff. They were always young, charming and professional, only now they’re dressed in cute seersucker uniforms – from Damien on the beach to Cristelle the manager. The decor (whitewashed French country furniture and pretty fabrics) has been upgraded with touches of the palest salmon-pink on everything from glasses to beach towels. It’s a lovely shade that was meticulously researched and has been used with restraint, lighting everything up like a young girl’s bedroom.
There are rooms and suites on the beach and bungalows in the garden at the back. All have huge, modern bathrooms, and the beds are fluffy and cosy like the kind you find in a ski resort. Every night a treat was delivered to our room – an infusion of garden flowers, a beach bag and flip-flops, a pareo embroidered with my name. It sounds ridiculously luxurious, and it is; but there’s something very décontracté about it, like a person who has been rich for a very long time and no longer needs to show off about it.
I visited just before Thanksgiving, when the exacting New York crowd was starting to arrive, and you could see everyone breathe a sigh of relief. All was as it had been, or even a little bit better. The food in the two restaurants (La Case de l’Isle in the main part of the hotel by the pool, and La Cabane de l’Isle on the beach) has always been excellent, and the perfect balance remains unchanged. There is still the same mix of gazpacho, salmon tartare, the best frites in the world (no exaggeration) and sole meunière. It’s a feat of restraint on the part of LVMH to have understood how good the product they inherited already was. The old lady of St Barth’s has had a little work done, but she still reigns supreme.