St. Barthelemy, French West Indies
A late-afternoon tropical squall has passed through with a vengeance as though to erase the illusion, no, the truth, that this place is one of Nature’s finer creations despite its reputation as ground zero among Page Six’s archipelago of celebrity haunts.
It’s a dry mountainous place with cacti, salt ponds, and a preponderance of wild goats, terrestrial turtles, and lizards, all of it surrounded by blue Caribbean sea. The Carib Indians called the island Ouanalao, “Lizard Island.” The roads are narrow and steep. Yesterday, while climbing one, our rented car approached a goat that was crossing. Defying gravity, the animal bounded up the side of a near-vertical cliff, raining small rocks onto our roof as it went. Pelicans soar. Small finches say shhhhh in the branches.
The French language, more musical to my ears, perhaps because of my ignorance of it, complements the island’s sounds: the constant trade wind that inspires tall grass, latania palms, and beach grape to whisper and rattle their presence day and night. The waves hiss and thud on the shore, a blowhole sighs, and the sun is hot.
La Select is an open-air bar, dockside in Gustavia, the island’s capital and harbor to some of the grandest yachts in the world. The watering hole is a salty, multilingual place frequented by locals and yacht crews and situated at an intersection of streets with stores whose contents could pay the national debt of several nations.
Back to the rocks bouncing off the roof of the rented Hyundai like arrows off medieval body armor:
It’s a fact, uncomfortable perhaps, but a fact nonetheless, that the beauty of St. Barth is protected by an armor of massive wealth. True, the French run a tight ship, but up until 2007 the island was a tax-free zone. For most of its history, the island was forgotten. Early on, its Carib natives dabbled in cannibalism, certainly a deterrent to settlement. It had little arable land, precious little freshwater, and so was virtually immune to French, English, and Dutch colonization. France wound up with it and Napoleon traded the island in exchange for warehouse space in Sweden during his Russian phase, but after a few years, Sweden gave it back as useless. In recent times, the international wealthy claimed the island for its beauty, for sure, but mostly for what it lacked — taxes.
In place of resorts that have homogenized other islands into Disney versions of the Caribbean experience, beautiful villas cling to St. Barth’s precipitous mountainsides like its own tenacious goats. What hotels there are, are small, elegant, and casino-less.
Of course there’s a downside, an underbelly. Despite the transforming efforts of human beings, nature rarely surrenders what comes naturally. The island still has little fresh water. For a time in the early ’70s, champagne was literally cheaper than water. What water it does have — except for the untold gallons of it imported in plastic bottles — comes via oil-guzzling desalination plants, many discretely custom fitted, Oz-like, to individual villas to supply the rain forest side of tropical splendor.
There are a few chinks in the armor of the mighty Euro. There would have to be for me to be here. Wine is relatively inexpensive and so is food at the super marché. Accommodations are another thing. Unless your pied a terre is free, you, and most of the world cannot afford to live here.
One refreshing chink is La Select. The rum is cheap and the tables give one a catbird seat for the parade of yacht denizens, Russian oligarchs, French financiers, gods of Silicon Valley, and yes, Hollywood stars.
I’m sipping a Mount Gay, thinking of the island’s reefs, its surf, lizards, wild goats, diving seabirds, and glorious sand beaches, and so as I watch two women gliding down the Rue de Revolution (you can’t make it up) wearing diamond-studded Rolex watches, Louis Vuitton signature LV totes, strings of Bijoux la Mer Tahitian pearls, nips and tucks and see-through linen pants and blouses, I don’t think conspicuous opulence, I think St. Barth body armor. What the hell, let them eat cake.