Magazine article The Spectator

Poseurs' Paradise

Magazine article The Spectator

Poseurs' Paradise

Article excerpt


THE little harbour is crammed with unimaginably expensive yachts, the quayside is wall-to-wall Hermes and Versace boutiques, and the girls sipping Camparis in the waterside cafes look as if they have stepped straight from the cover of Vogue magazine. St Tropez, perhaps, or could it be Portofino? No, this is the Caribbean, but not the Caribbean that Papa Hemingway would have recognised. This is St Barths.

St Barths - or, to give the island its full name, St Barthelemy - is not for the budget traveller or the fiscally challenged. It is not compulsory to furnish a copy of your bank statement when making reservations at the island's swankier hotels, but it is advisable to review your overdraft facilities before signing the bill. An island where the likes of Rockefeller and Nureyev made their homes does not wish to encourage an invasion of the shellsuited hoi polloi.

It was not always thus. The island was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1496, who named it after his younger brother, Bartolomeo. Nobody was much interested in the place until 1648, when a group of hardy Huguenot peasants from Brittany and Normandy established the first permanent settlement. The great powers Britain, Spain and France - were far too busy fighting over the rich sugar islands to pay any attention to a barren little rock with no water and hardly any arable land.

The settlers struggled hard to eke out a living, but things improved a bit in 1784, when Louis XVI sold the island to Sweden, in exchange for a warehouse concession in Gothenburg. The Swedes declared Gustavia a free port, which duly prospered as the smuggling capital of the Caribbean, and did very well out of transhipping embargoed Confederate goods during the American civil war. However, Sweden eventually got bored with it and sold St Barths back to France in 1878.

St Barths then fell asleep for the next hundred years, and when it woke up it cleverly reinvented itself as the chic resort island in the Caribbean; a little bit of France in the tropics. The credit for this nifty makeover, from impoverished colony to hideout for le beau monde, lies largely with rich Americans from the East Coast.

A whole lot of Noo Yawkers (never shy of promoting their own brand of elitism) decided that St Barths was the most exclusive place in the Caribbean to vacation during the winter months. The locals were not slow to respond with hotels and facilities designed to cater for the needs of the megarich and famous. …

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