A Sea Change In St Barts

Sanda Lane, The Daily Telegraph, September 19, 2013

The superyachts that have crowded the tiny horseshoe of Gustavia’s port throughout the winter months have gone and in their place are sailing boats that restore a sense of scale to St Barts’ cute capital. The pace has changed, too, with the rather frenzied air that accompanies the motor yachts giving way to a slower, carefree vibe. The designer labels and glittery sandals have been replaced by shorts and deck shoes; in the dockside bars and bistros people are enjoying each other’s company rather than craning their necks to spot a celebrity.

This is the week of Les Voiles de Saint-Barth, a quietly glamorous regatta that takes place every April. It brings yachties from all over the Caribbean and beyond to enjoy the end-of-season sense of relaxation, renew friendships with other sailors, and compete fiercely on the water. It’s a very different St Barts from the Beyoncé-on-the-beach place so beloved by the paparazzi.

The regatta was established four years ago by three sailing friends who live here. Already, it has its devoted regulars – among them the photographer Patrick Demarchelier, who owns a house on the island and a gorgeous 53ft Swan yacht called Puffy. For him, as for Jim Swartz, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and owner of Vesper, which swept the board this year, it’s a non-negotiable date. For others who turn up, it’s the result of success the previous year – the prize for the winner in each class is a week’s stay in a villa on the island.

Les Voiles signed up the watchmaker Richard Mille as principal sponsor from the start, which was a wise move. The regatta organisers and Mille’s management are determined to keep the event relaxed and emphatically paparazzo-free.

Most people think of St Barts (the name is an anglicism; Saint-Barthélemy is the island’s full, correct name) as a luxury playground for the wealthy – a winter-sun St Tropez. And, like St Tropez, St Barts has morphed over the years from barefoot hideaway to winter-season celebrity favourite. It even has a branch of Nikki Beach. That St Barts, as portrayed in the gossip magazines, is show-off central: there go Simon Cowell, Sean Combs, Gwen Stefani, Michael Kors, Mariah Carey, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Donatella Versace and so on.

But, in truth, even during those three intense months of winter, there’s a quiet life going on here. The genuine A-listers — Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, George Lucas — stay well under the radar, tucked away in secluded villas. You might fleetingly spot one in the supermarket, but you won’t see them in the clubs and bars.

To most of the locals, the stars are little more than a mild curiosity anyway. When you live all year round in paradise, you’re hard to impress. They are fond of relating how the obsessively private Steve Martin, when he first came to the island many years ago, would disguise himself with cap and sunglasses – until he realised that nobody cared who he was.

And, for the locals, Les Voiles marks the return of the island to the pace of life they prefer. Not so much St Tropez as Île de Ré – a chic idyll with a boho edge, constant sunshine and warm breezes. Its signature scent is a beguiling mix of frangipani blossom and the unmistakably French smell of freshly baked baguettes in the morning. Its colours would thrill Miranda Priestly of The Devil Wears Prada: it’s “not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean.” Actually, the sea is all of those – and every other tone between pale aquamarine and deep indigo. The hills are dotted with the sloping red roofs of traditional villas, the odd burst of bougainvillea, and dark green tropical trees. It’s just enough to tame the rocky island’s rawness.

And raw it still is, in places. We rented a small open-top 4x4 car, grabbed a gourmet picnic hamper prepared by our hotel and buzzed around the island’s narrow, twisty roads exploring its wild side and its glorious beaches.

Despite the island’s tiny size, each of its 17 beaches has its own character. Corossol, for example, is a step back in time – this is where some of the oldest St Barts families still live. We headed to Flamands, on the north-western peninsula – a surfer’s hang-out fringed by sun-faded cottages. Then, winding back up the hill, we parked as close as we could to Colombier and walked for 30 minutes down to the beach – a nature reserve where even those who come by boat are strictly monitored so they do not disturb the sea bed.

This is where David Rockefeller owned land for many years. Last year his sprawling villa was bought for a reported $90 million (£58 million) by Roman Abramovich – who has been showing up on one or other of his yachts for the past few years, and hosting a lavish New Year’s Eve party rivalled only by that held by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, on his yacht.

The hills above Colombier are home to some of the island’s most desirable properties, although a drive-by won’t reveal much. You won’t see any Hollywood Hills-style electric gates. Houses here are relatively isolated, in breeze-catching locations with fabulous views.

The same goes for Pointe Milou, the island’s north-eastern tip. On one side, villas spill down the hillside to Marigot Bay – its seclusion and tiny size making it, in effect, a private beach – and on the other, they face Lorient Bay and a string of offshore islets. The beauty is that many of these houses are available to rent; villas make up more than 60 per cent of the island’s holiday accommodation. The hotels, too, are little bigger than villas – the largest has 76 rooms and the smallest a mere eight.

Our hotel for the first couple of nights, the Christopher, is at Pointe Milou – set in a quiet corner where the waves break against the rocks below a vast infinity pool. It’s the epitome of understated luxury: limestone and polished-concrete floors, natural wood, fine linens. From the Christopher, we moved to a house at the quiet end of St Jean Beach. Here, without needing to lift my head from the pillow, my view in the morning took my eye across the lawn, beyond the palm trees, over the white sand to blue sea and blue sky. A swim before breakfast was the perfect prelude to a day’s sailing.

The infinity pool of the Christopher

For some people, Les Voiles is business. Peter Harrison is the CEO of Richard Mille for Europe and the Middle East, and is a keen sailor. He was racing here at the helm of Jolt 2, a custom-built Baltic 45 racer-cruiser that he bought last year. I was invited to help crew it. Given that Harrison had two professional sailors and another skilled racer on board, my role was limited, but sitting up there on the rail meant I could see the action, and catch the sun and spray as we circled the island.

An unfortunate accident (man overboard — one of the professional sailors, ironically) during the third day’s racing meant disqualification for Jolt 2, but at least it meant we were able to drop anchor in a quiet bay for a beach picnic. It wasn’t full compensation for dropping out of the race, but it helped.

As did the more formal dining. At the stylish, Latin American-accented Bonito, perched above Gustavia, we enjoyed a sublime dinner. We tucked into another memorable meal at Le Gaïac at Hotel Le Toiny, where Stéphane Mazières holds a Michelin star.

Les Voiles brings its own mood to St Barts. On the regatta’s official mid-week day off, a six-hour, rosé-drenched lunch at Nikki Beach culminated in dancing on the tables, with crew members and yacht owners all joining in and nobody giving a fig about how cool they looked. The “crew” barbecue at the toes-in-the-sand Dó Brasil bar-restaurant on Shell Beach was equally relaxed and democratic.

Yachts compete in Les Voiles de Saint-Barth. Image: Christophe Jouany

This inclusive style is the real appeal of Les Voiles. It embraces large and small yachts, world-class sailors and those who just love the buzz of being on the water. It’s fine, too, if you simply want to watch from the beach as the fleet sails by, then head to the regatta bar on the dock when the boats come in.

Out on the water, the race organisation is superb; courses are enjoyable for amateurs, yet technically demanding enough to satisfy sailors who have competed in the America’s Cup. But it’s not just the professionals who want to win the race; most of the yacht owners have got to where they are in life by competing fiercely in business, and they bring the same spirit to their sailing. For all the camaraderie, coming first matters a great deal to some. The official overall prize – a titanium Richard Mille RM 028 Diver watch – is just a bonus, especially when you’re the type of person who can easily afford to buy several of them.

And here’s the thing: when the season ends, it’s not that the money leaves St Barts along with the celebrities; it’s just that a different kind of money takes its place – the low-profile, or no-profile, kind. While it may be fashionable to say that St Barts is “over” at this time of year, it really isn’t; it’s magic.


Air France: flies via Paris from £1,588 in April.

Hotel Christopher: Contemporary style on the water’s edge at Pointe Milou (doubles in April from £385).
Le Toiny : Romantic villa suites above the bay of Le Toiny (doubles from £757).
Eden Rock : Deluxe Robinson Crusoe on St Jean Beach (doubles from £629).
Villas: St Barths Online has two-bedroom cottages from £1,875.

Bonito : Modern French cooking with a Latin accent in Gustavia.
Le GaÏac: Michelin-starred French cuisine.
Nikki Beach: The celebrities’ Caribbean outpost on St Jean Beach.
Dõ Brazil : Beach bistro on Shell Beach.

Les Voiles de St-Barth
Yacht charter: Performance Yacht Charter has yachts for experienced race teams to hire from £9,995.