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June 10, 2011 10:01 pm

Easy living

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Gustavia harbour

The harbour at Gustavia, Saint Barthélemy, where people can leave their doors open at night

On Nikki Beach, New Year’s Eve 2009, Beyoncé struts her stuff, doing her celebrated performance of All the Single Ladies – at a reputed cost of $2m for a 20-minute set – courtesy of the host, Gaddafi’s fifth son, Hannibal. The Cristal pops and people in Gustavia harbour hear the music pulsing across the water. Bienvenue à Saint Barthélemy – more commonly known as St Barths by the French, or St Barts by the Americans.

This is the image the outside world has of this eight-square-mile island, populated by year-round inhabitants of 9,000 people. It is the Caribbean St Tropez – a place of conspicuous consumption and ostentatious wealth. But is this the reality? The island remains distinctly French in spirit, feel and inhabitants.

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The island acquired an air of exclusivity in the 1960s when the likes of Edmond de Rothschild and David Rockefeller discovered this forgotten corner of France and were enchanted by its natural beauty. Back then there were goats on the recently created landing strip, which is today only accessible to propeller planes rather than the jets that wish to land.

The reality is that the 10 days from December 24 to January 3 do not represent the real St Barts, only the media’s perception of it. Yes, the island is expensive and it’s difficult to access. But the essential spirit of barefoot chic remains intact. The local government has been assiduous and wise in retaining this heart. There is no building that is above two storeys, there remain only 450 hotel rooms on the island and 1,200 villa rooms to rent – when the owners are not in residence. There is no package tourism, there are no cruise ship dockings; just the private yachts of the wealthy line Gustavia harbour.

Charles Vere-Nicoll, the owner of the Isle de France hotel, tells me that one of the reasons he loves the island is the equality. “The local plumber could be sitting next door to a tycoon,” he tells me. “I’ve never known anywhere else like it, a place that has such social equilibrium.” He should know, as he’s the local Anglican vicar. In 1999 he was offered the chance to buy the Isle de France; his initial reaction was one of incredulity. The stars aligned, the local bishop asked him to be the vicar, his wife supported their new adventure and, as he tells me in his fashionable hotel with a sprinkling of celebrities lying behind us on the beach, “it’s been the most exciting 10 years of my life”. He believes in the island, the essential egalitarian spirit of it and supports the universality that is the appeal of the place: “There is an easy mix between tourists and residents – there is no underlying poverty, which helps make it completely safe,” he goes on.

St Barts map

Time after time, I talk to people and they return to this fundamental appeal – forget the beauty, forget the cuisine, the beaches and coves, the glamorous holidaymakers, the proximity to New York; the island is without crime and people leave their doors open at night.

So how does one grab a little piece of this paradise island? Beyond the prize hotels – Isle de France, Eden Rock, Le Sereno, Le Toiny, Guanahani – the way to visit is to rent or to buy. Roman Abramovich bought his house above Gouverneur beach for €65m. It was a record-breaking price and there were fears of a Russian invasion but St Barts is the opposite of those oligarchified French resorts – Courchevel and San Tropez – for it’s all about understatement. Contrary to concerns of a Russian influx, they represent at most 5 per cent of the visitors, while the ever-chic Brazilians (now with a direct flight and no need for a visa) make up 10 per cent, the French an equal number (though more in summer than winter), while the majority of visitors remain American. Anne Dentel, senior lettings agent for Sibarth, has lived on the island for 15 years; she’s from France. She tells me the average rental is between $15,000 and $20,000 per week for a villa. It’s normally two couples sharing a two double-bedroom/bathroom property with pool, maid service and the accoutrements of modern technology. I scout the island looking for the best.

Hill House in Lorient sits high above the water, looking across bays and beaches and a liberal scattering of islands. The main open-plan reception area is framed by two pavilions of high-ceilinged elegance, with the centrepiece being a black concrete infinity swimming pool. This is surrounded by expansive wooden decks and the best views I’ve seen. The volumes of the interior areas are beyond generous, like a pasha’s palace. Each of the four suites is self-contained with a private terrace. At $40,000 per week it seems (ludicrous as it may sound) good value compared with other properties I’ve seen. This is the place to rent.

On the purchase front, there is little available and the market is driven by size of plot, property and view. George Economou, Greek shipping tycoon and art collector, is a lover of the island. He’s in the process of building three spectacular properties, each standing in their own plots of 10,000 sq m near Gouverneur Beach. He has used local architect François Pécard who has international experience and designed the Isle de France hotel.

Each of the houses has a distinct feel, one being Balinese-inspired, with buildings separated by walkways and individual pools of water; the other has a contemporary New York-loft feel – high ceilings, open-plan rooms and a stunning outdoor kitchen; while the third is a more traditional Caribbean house (with all the modern luxuries) and set around a 23m infinity pool. Each of these “trophy” houses comprises 300 sq m of internal space, along with decked areas and views stretching from the beaches of Saint Jean, Gouverneur and Saline. They will be completed by the end of this year. The quality of material and workmanship is outstanding. For a slice of St Barts, they’re hard to beat and come at a price that reflects this, costing between €20m and €25m.

I arrive at the airport at the same time as my pilot. Ten minutes later, we are airborne and curving past the beach enjoying a view of the island and inhabitants, as the tanned bodies glitter in the sparkling water. As reality and home beckon, I think: vive l’esprit de St Barths.

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Rental/buying guide

Pros

● St Barts is so safe that residents leave their doors open at night

● The island is tax free

● Great French food

● Constant beautiful weather

Cons

● Expensive to live on for full-time residents

● All products are imported

● No fresh water on the island

Contacts:

Sibarth Villa Rentals, Anne Dentel, villas@sibarth.com, tel: +590 590 29 88 90

Hill House: $40,000 per week (high season) $25,000 per week (low season), www.villabowes.com

The contact for the three villas for sale (between €20m-€25m) is Christina Kokkinopoulou, secretary to Mr George Economou, ckokkinopoulou@cardiff.gr, tel: +30 210 8090580

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