Covering an area of just eight square miles, St Barths has a reputation as one of the world’s most alluring sunshine playgrounds – thanks to the maverick French aviator Rémy de Haenen. In the 1950s he constructed the island’s first airstrip and opened a small guesthouse on a rocky promontory nearby that overlooks the dreamy sands of Baie de St-Jean. Here, this “Lord of the Air” welcomed celebrity guests including Howard Hughes, Greta Garbo and David Rockefeller, and his name now graces the Rémy Bar in what grew to become the island’s flagship luxury hotel, Eden Rock – St Barths.
The reopening of this French Caribbean icon at the end of last year has at last brought closure to the calamity of Hurricane Irma, which devastated St Barths in 2017. Rémy’s rock stayed firm, but the resort was pummelled by 40ft waves that meant it had to be completely rebuilt. This has been done in an assured and art-loving style by owner Jane Matthews, working with local architects, artisans and the Martin Brudnizki Design Studio. The result demonstrates that even the fiercest storm clouds can have a silver lining.
Today Eden Rock is a splendidly reborn mini-citadel that jumbles 41 rooms, suites and villas beside bewitchingly turquoise waters. Refreshingly, the interiors remember that the seaside is a place for fun – in my “Rock Room” (which sits at price-level four in a bewildering menu of 11 room categories), the TV is hidden away, there’s a cocktail-making kit, and the bedside pencil chirps “You Rock My Eden”. This being St Barths there’s a bijou library that also sells diamonds and watches, an extensive Eden Being boutique stocking exclusive collections from Orlebar Brown and Stella McCartney, and more than half the rooms come with a private pool or hot tub.
Commendable additions include an Eden Spa buried inside the rocks with caulked floors and assiduous French therapists, and a sunken beach bar where a jolly white cart dispenses potent glasses of frosé. Capping all this is Sand Bar, an all-day restaurant that has become a new beating hub for island life thanks to its zippy staff, zestful menus by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and a talented and intuitive resident DJ, Tito.
Is Eden Rock once again the place to stay on St Barths? That depends, because thanks to Irma the island now has a wealth of rebuilt five-star hotels. My advice is to split your time between two properties, perhaps one up in the hills, savouring the peace and panoramic views, then another by the sea where you can swim, party and nose about. Eden Rock is perfect for the latter – providing you love bright red, which has been thrown around with the verve of a toddler who has got hold of mum’s lipstick. It is there on every roof and balustrade, it sings from the striped beach loungers and complimentary flip-flops, it blazes from the trousers of the bouncy waiters delivering your breakfast toast à l’avocat avec poudre de chili.
Today no top-notch hotel on St Barths can be without a signature colour, as if they were all teams at a school sports day. Over at the Christopher, where the owner loves Hermès, the prevailing shade is orange, while up at Villa Marie all the cushions, napkins and polo shirts are egg yellow. This season the St Barths palette gained another hue – blush pink – with the completion of Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France, a “Maison” bordering the sands of Anse des Flamands. Here a new beachfront wing adding 20 rooms and a restaurant designed by Jacques Grange has upped the luxury stakes.
I found dining here hit-and-miss, but this theatrical, LVMH Group-owned property deserves “A for Effort” for its desire to create a beach hotel far beyond the norm. Instead of receptionists there are “alchimistes”, while checking into your room is like opening a toy cupboard full of branded freebies, from fans and rucksacks to sarongs. At turndown the air is sprayed with a “tropical chic” perfume specially created by Thierry Wasser, head “nez” at Guerlain, while the pillows are embroidered with wishful words like “Voyage” and “Paradis”.
If this all sounds ridiculously choreographed, don’t be put off. With 61 rooms Cheval Blanc is the most eager-to-please property on St Barths, and if you’re not fussed about being right on the beach its Garden Bungalows, wrapped in foliage with a view of the stars, are a good pick. At Eden Rock you can walk out and find chichi shops and restaurants, whereas here a 45-minute hike takes you to the beach at Colombier, which is only accessible by foot or boat and remains as wild and unspoilt as the day De Haenen flew in.
Hotels may come and go, with their changing fashions and competing fripperies, but the beauty of St Barths is timeless.
A six-night package comprising three nights at Eden Rock and three at Cheval Blanc costs from £3,589 per person with Inspiring Travel Company (01244 435113; inspiringtravelcompany.co.uk). The price also includes return flights with British Airways from Gatwick to Antigua, inter-island flights, transfers and breakfast.