Worth the Trip: A French Twist

A beachfront cottage at Les îlets de la Plage in St. Barth is the stuff of dreams

Those of us who live in South Florida are no stranger to the enduring allure of turquoise waters, white beaches, rustling palms and extravagant rum drinks. But beyond our own islands in the stream is a whole different version of island magic. And St. Barth may top that list.

St. Barth has long had the reputation of an exclusive luxury playground for the high-end European tourist, wintertime province of rock stars and mega moguls, a place of designer shops, aquamarine waters, quaint villages and five-star hotels—all in the context of an understated and elegant island a few hours’ plane ride from Florida to the French West Indies.

The island—with mountains rising from the sea—looks almost Polynesian from the air; and its main city, Gustavia on its west coast, overlooks a sparkling harbor full of sailboats and, farther out, super yachts in the wintertime. The main street, Quai de la République, is lined with designer shops and small restaurants (Le Select is the neighborhood hang) and businesses, and the town also has one or two historical attractions like the Wall House, whose exhibits highlight the island’s Swedish colonial era and 17th-century Fort Karl, perched high above Shell Beach. There are other towns dotting the island, and at only 9 square miles, you can see them all in a couple of hours by car.

There are 30 hotels on St. Barth (10 are five-star!)—over-the-top hotels like the Eden Rock and Le Serena, Hotel Christopher and Hotel Le Toiny. But we opted for a more understated and relaxed experience at Les îlets de la Plage, a longtime family-owned hotel (managed by an all-woman team) directly on St. Jean Bay, a dazzling topaz bay with a crescent-shaped beach and a long view to the ocean.

Les îlets has 12 villas (four on the beach) and one-, two- or three-bedroom apartments in the flowery hillside directly behind them. The Dutch Colonial charm of this “cottage colony” is tempered by contemporary amenities; each beach villa has a terrace overlooking the bay, a hammock drifting in the breeze, sunning chaises at the water’s edge. A lush swimming pool is just across the pathway, and a box of fresh pastries is delivered to your door every morning (along with an international newsletter).

The advantage of this island spot for me was that it felt like it belonged here; there was a comfortable (albeit luxurious) authenticity in its simplicity, as opposed to the overbearing glitz of larger resorts. You could breathe. You could walk along the beach. You could watch the rain coming across the bay from your little terrace, a glass of very good French wine in your hand and the book you are reading face-down on your lap.

And that’s the other thing about St. Barth. Food. Very, very fine food. We’re all used to getting a great fish sandwich or conch fritter just about anywhere in the Bahamas, but St. Barth ups that game to the French Olympics, with excellent cuisine (there are 80 restaurants!)—and a little Creole thrown in. Even a modest beachfront café has fine wine and exquisite entrees. The island has its food staples either sourced locally from nearby islands or flown in directly from France five times a week.

So, yes, this is an island, and a pretty one. But it is something else, too, worlds away from our sun-soaked Margaritavilles to a place with an exotic geography, a European lineage, and very French aesthetic. Sigh. Tu vas adorer cet endroit.


Travel Notes

GO

It’s easy to get to St. Barth from Fort Lauderdale (with a short stop in St. Martin before your 15-minute hop to St. Barth). We took JetBlue to St. Martin and hopped a small Winair flight to St. Barth.

STAY

LES ÎLETS DE LA PLAGE: Plage de St Jean F91733, St Barthélemy, French West Indies. To book your stay at Les îlets, or simply to make an inquiry, contact: +59/ 0590 27 88 57 or visit www.lesilets.com.

DINE:

MAYA’S: Dreamy waterfront French and Creole specialties from a longstanding favorite. Plage de Public, Gustavia 97133, St. Barth, +590 590 27-7573

BLACK GINGER: Authentic refined Thai cuisine in the heart of Gustavia. Rue Samuel Fahlberg, Gustavia, +590 590 29-2103

LIL ROCK: Fun, casual beachfront spot a short walk from Les îlets. Baie de Saint Jean, Gustavia, Saint Barthélemy, 97133 +590 690 40-56, lilrockbeach.com

LA LANGOUSTE: Caribbean and seafood dishes with a French influence, Main Road, Anse des Flamands, 97133 St. Barthélemy, +590 590 27-6361

LE REPAIRE: Open-air downtown café specializing in seafood and people-watching. Quai de la Republique, Gustavia, St. Barthélemy, +590 590 27-7248

MAYAS-TO-GO: Exquisite French takeout fare by Maya Henry, founder of Maya’s (above), is great for a night in or a picnic. Les Galeries du Commerce, St. Jean, St. Barthélemy, +590 590 29-8370

This story is from the March 2020 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.

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Marie Speed is group editor of all JES publications, including Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Worth Avenue, Mizner’s Dream and the annual publication for the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce. She also oversees editorial operations of the company’s Salt Lake City magazines. Her community involvement has ranged from work with the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce to a longtime board member position at Caridad Center. She is also on the George Snow Scholarship Fund review committee. She is a past officer of the Florida Magazine Association and a member of Class XVII of Leadership Florida. In her spare time, Marie enjoys South Florida’s natural world through hiking and kayaking, and she is an avid reader and an enthusiastic cook.