Like the Cote d’Azur transported to a small Caribbean island, St. Barth can feel suffocatingly glitzy and dripping with excess—too many entitled A-listers with their multi-million-dollar yachts and villas—unless you know how to avoid it.
One sure bet is the Cheval Blanc Isle de France, a resort that’s never less than ultra-luxurious but still retains a sense of place. Glamorous without being vulgar, social enough while guaranteeing total privacy (which attracts the odd celebrity or 12), it sits astride Flamands Bay like Brigitte Bardot lounging on a chaise in Cap Ferrat.
St. Barth is roughly an hour’s flight from Puerto Rico, with one of the dodgiest airport landings in the Caribbean, making it advisable to travel with a carrier whose pilots know the turf well, like Tradewind. Upon arrival, a house car from the Cheval Blanc—in all likelihood driven by a devastatingly handsome and deeply tanned young Frenchman—will whisk you to the hotel in a matter of minutes.
The present Cheval Blanc Isle de France is a new incarnation of what was once a family business. For years, the resort was a swanky mom-and-pop operation that attracted glitterati looking for a low-key but luxurious escape. However, in 2013 it was acquired by LVMH and added to its Cheval Blanc hotel portfolio, which includes outposts in the ultra-chic French ski resort of Courchevel and another tropical favorite of the rich and famous, the Maldives.
Not surprisingly, the property is heavily branded, with everything down to the cocktail straws emblazoned with a rearing white stallion. In all the public spaces, the delicious signature scent, appropriately called “Tropical Chic,” wafts subtly through the air, and it awaits guests in their bathrooms in the form of body oil and body wash. Meanwhile, the brand’s signature colors of white, pink and gray are beautifully deployed on such charming touches as the sailor-style duffels (in gray) for men and the chic beach bags (in pink and white) for women. Ditto for the flip-flops and beach blankets. And what’s that? Your sunglasses are smudged? One of the beach attendants will happily supply you with a glass-cleaning cloth that’s gray on one side and pink and white on the other. Lest any of this sound excessive, it’s so tastefully done that the average person will barely notice it until they’re packing to leave and realize they need an extra suitcase to take home all the swag.
The hotel itself is a wonderfully deconstructed affair, with 40 rooms, villas and suites spread across the main Maison, the gardens and up the hillside. For the true baller, the Flamands villa boasts three bedrooms with adjoining bathrooms, a sumptuous living room, a fully equipped kitchen, a private fitness room and a home theater, with a dedicated majordomo. The Hillside Bungalows command sweeping views from a beautifully appointed living room/deck, complete with a private swimming pool, but even the most basic rooms, located in the Maison itself, are comfortable and posh enough to satisfy the most demanding sybarite.
All of this is oriented toward Anse de Flamands, one of the most beautiful beaches on an island famous for them. Protected by the bay, it’s one of St. Barth’s most swimmable (though surf tends to kick up mid-winter), and water sports such as diving, snorkeling, jet skiing, surfing, laser sailing and water skiing are easily arranged. A bonus is that Colombier, a beach accessible only by water or a sweaty hike, can be reached by catamaran, which arrives well-provisioned with rosé and a picnic deserving a Michelin star or two. Land-lubbers, meanwhile, might prefer tennis, archery or hiking…or simply sitting in the shade with a nicely chilled bottle of Ruinart.
Acclaimed chef Yann Vinsot oversees all things culinary at the Cheval Blanc, combining French flair with fresh local ingredients (think conch and Caribbean lobster). However, to augment them, a weekly supply boat from France brings fresh produce, meats and delicacies like foie gras to the island, as well as enough rosé to sink a ship. (Technically, Champagne and rosé are St. Barth’s most popular forms of sustenance.) The resort’s fine dining option is La Case de l’Isle, a breezy and unpretentious outdoor restaurant. If that’s too far to venture from the beach, La Cabane de l’Isle (literally a toes-in-the-sand cabana) serves everything from cheeseburgers to caviar. On an island known for fine dining, both are sought out by people staying elsewhere, and upon entering an always-booked restaurant like the wildly popular Bonito in the main town of Gustavia, even the maître d’ is likely to give you a look saying “If you’re at the Cheval Blanc, why go out to dinner?”
Indeed, going into Gustavia, while always entertaining, is unnecessary, even when your M.O. is retail therapy. The resort’s boutique carries a carefully curated sampling of local and international designers, like Pucci, and an informal fashion show highlights the hand-selected offerings every lunch at Cabane de l’Isle and every Tuesday evening at the White Bar. The inevitable result of all this lotus-eating self-indulgence is, of course, exhaustion, which can only be cured by a good spa treatment, and the Cheval Blanc delivers in spades. The only Guerlain spa in the Caribbean, it’s tucked into the jungle-like gardens and has only four treatment rooms, assuring the utmost in privacy and zen.
Many resorts in the Virgin Islands have a corporate, canned and contrived feel, and anyone hoping for an authentic experience of the island’s culture ends up having to leave the property. And then there are resorts like the Cheval Blanc Isle de France, where there’s no real reason to leave and the luxe but laidback vibe of St. Barth permeates the place. Unfortunately, unlike the Hotel California, you can check in anytime you like, but eventually, you’ll probably have to leave.
-High season hits during the holidays, when traffic at the island’s roundabouts gives Route 128 during rush hour a run for its money, and everything is more expensive. The ideal time to visit is between April and June, when room rates and airfares are lower.
-As mentioned, the runway at the airport on St. Barth is extremely short, and for nervous fliers, it might be better to fly into nearby St. Maarten and take a ferry.
Cheval Blanc Isle de France stbarthisledefrance.chevalblanc.com