In the era of revenge travel where unprecedented competition forces travelers to choose between the luxury and style of Paris or the fun and sun of the Caribbean, Le Carl Gustaf of Saint Barthelemy says: you deserve both!
There is nothing quite like that feeling where the wheels of the plane touch down, after jumping a mountain to my favorite seaside airport. Sure, it might have the infamous reputation as one of the scariest airports in the world, but it is all about one’s attitude. Having just lived through the Top Gun sequel I breeze out the airport doors with my aviator sunglasses and already feel as though I’m home. A driver from the resort awaits with a fresh juice and warm washcloth as he whisks me down the cobblestone streets of Gustavia. The boastful sun dances off the waves in the distance but my eyes instinctively dart to the Caribbean Champs-Élysées that perfectly personifies the island: a tropical facade housing every high-end boutique shop and restaurant for every desire.
Downtown Gustavia is like a village around the bay: a horseshoe polka dotted by mega yachts, sailboats, palm trees and crimson colored tin roof villas. An alcove of a city, French kissed between the hillside and the sea, allows for a close-knit yet private environment unrivaled in the islands. Past the hustle and bustle we ascend a hillside road, passing mansions beyond white walls and purple queen bougainvillea until swiftly arriving at Le Carl Gustaf.
Before I can emerge from the transport a hat magically dons my head and a flute of champagne fits into my hand like a glove. Any potential travel exhaustion immediately fades upon stepping into the open-air lobby where the stunning classic beach decor cannot fairly compete with the front row seat view of the entire town overlooking the bay. While I want to explore the rest of the grounds, I want to check my phone, I want to take a hundred photos, I want to check my emails…I remember the book I read on the flight over, Aldous Huxley’s masterpiece, ‘Island’. The story features tropical birds that float around the mystical land chirping “Attention” to remind people to be present; to remember all that matters is the here and now.
So instead of my usual planning and always-busybody mentality, I pretend I have such a bird on my shoulder, I stop and pay attention. I sit down and sip on the champagne, stare at the view and nothing more. I let the sight imprint on my mind, soaking in everything around me.
Eventually, the present pulls me from my reverie and I’m guided to my room. The hotel features 21 deluxe rooms, suites, cottages and bungalows on the main grounds; however I’m fortunate enough to be staying in one of the rooms at Villa Diane across the road. Almost a hotel in its own right, the villa sprouts three stories from the hillside, housing separate suites that share a common relaxing space and magnificent infinity pool overlooking the entire town. My room rests adjacent to the pool practically spilling over the hillside, which also boasts its own private oversized patio and outdoor shower. It is understandable to focus on the exterior, however, inside is just as exquisite.
After undergoing a renovation two years ago, the suites were designed by renowned Dorothée Boissier, merging classical French style with Caribbean ease. The special touches, big and small, are too many to list, from the coral sculptures, custom-made furniture, warm woods, art – on and on, for every modern comfort that travelers with a knowing eye have come to expect. It is as if the hotel has read every question in your mind and already answered them for you.
A bottle of champagne and several beach-going gifts greet me in the bedroom, not simply for this lucky writer but for all staying in this room. After a soak in the oversized tub housed in a marble enclave, I become fully immersed in my island-time mindset, sauntering down the curved hill past several parked scooters overlooking the sea and wonder if I’m in Nice.
The open-aired Le Fouquet’s restaurant, sister to the Michelin-starred masterpiece in Paris, sits like a crow’s nest perched atop the main hotel, providing a priceless vantage of the sunset, followed by the twinkling lights of the town and boats below. I’ve had the privilege of dining at the original restaurant in Paris, which while exquisite, cannot claim this view. Michelin starred Chef Pierre Gagnaire’s menu reflects the Parisian classic with many Caribbean influences.
I begin with a Grande Dame champagne and gin cocktail, accompanied by a different type of paring: orange Amere Verveine perfume, sprayed in the air and on my glass to further enhance the experience. I have the opportunity to taste a variety of tapas: tuna crisps, wahoo carpaccio and grilled octopus, all leading up to the pièce de résistance of a salt-baked snapper prepared to perfection right at the side of my table. Afterwards, several dessert sculptures appear, followed by our server who becomes a part-time chef, setting up a hot plate to finalize the finale of crêpes – but of course.
The next morning I awake in bed to the automated curtains reeling back, as if attending a Broadway performance, to reveal the sun shining over the entire city down to the sea for another beautiful day. I stroll back to Fouquet’s where a tower of croissants, jellies, meats, and cheeses awaits along with the always-present chirping birds and panoramic views. While the tower is more than enough, I try the fresh salmon eggs benedict and Nutella crepe for good measure.
Afterwards, I tour the grounds that resemble the hanging gardens of Babylon. The entire hotel is almost shaped like a cruise ship in a ‘V’, with each ‘deck’ leading to another row of spectacular bungalow-style suites, with the dropdown design that allows for every room to have their own frontrow seat to the show of the city below. While every suite consists of the same style, each possesses its own unique attributes, many with a plunge pool or jacuzzi, private decks with sleeper lounges – all telling guests that you must return to try a different one next time.
My tour ends at Spa Diane Barrière, a tropical spin on the Paris landmark. In addition to offering every luxe treatment imaginable, there is also a fitness center and open-aired yoga space with a sea view. Even though the hotel has already sunk me into complete relaxation, one can never be too relaxed and so I step downstairs to one of the private massage rooms where, as usual, every detail has been perfected. As soon as I lie on the massage bed I see the succulent plant below me and smell lavender in the air. With the press of a button the table levitates, and after floating in the air my masseuse manages to find and remove every stress knot I didn’t even know I had.
Le Carl Gustaf does not label themselves as a beach resort per se, however, a one-block stroll to the sand is the definition of a beach property in my book. Its central location provides the best of both city and beach views. I stroll down the hill and several goats cross the road before joining their friends up the hill in the brush, bleating a hello.
Shell Beach lies in the quiet cove between two stunning hillsides and the old Fort Karl that now only protects a nature hike. Shellona Restaurant, also a part of the hotel, is the type of beachfront oasis reminiscent of Mykonos.
I set up at a sunbed under a row of white umbrellas and order a cocktail that appears in a green goblet and tastes too refreshing to be tequila. Next is a ruby-colored, coconut-crusted glass of gin that lives up to its candy name. I step into the turquoise water and even as I swim away from the shore I can still see straight to the bottom. ‘Attention’ I remind myself, feeling the shell sand between my toes. I close my eyes and listen to the sound of the waves. I smell the sea salt and lunch wafting over from Shellona.
Upstairs at the beach chic café, I continue watching the waves in between bites of octopus croquettes, nicoise salad and mahi tacos. A lobster the size of a Land Rover conquers the table next to me, but I don’t have the requisite appetite to dare. Instead, the red snapper cooked “Spetses Style” is the perfect light, yet filling, seaside lunch to keep my hard work of tanning alive. I spend the rest of the afternoon on the sand, followed by a dip in the villa’s infinity pool, sipping champagne and soaking up the sun while watching the all the boats below.
Back on my private patio, I step right into the tiled tunnel of an outdoor shower, with all the size, comfort, and hot water as the indoor shower, but with that openair atmosphere that makes this type of simple pleasure all the greater. Dressed for the evening, a driver from the hotel takes me down the hill to the bay where I board a catamaran, aptly named the ‘Good Life’, for a sunset cruise. After passing by the dozens of surrounding sailboats and superyachts, we circle around waves crashing against a chain of rock islands before reaching the secluded Colombier Beach.
I dangle my feet in the bright blue water, sipping on a rum punch while watching the sun glide like our anchor into the sea. In the distance, a modern mansion hangs over the cliffside. Our guide explains it originally belonged to Rockefeller, who after bringing his wealthy friends to visit the island helped to spark the St. Barts renaissance.
By the time we return to town night has fallen, but the evening is just warming up. I take a seafood reprieve and order the curry goat at local favorite, Eddy’s Restaurant, who for three generations has been cooking up some of the island’s best dishes under a canopy of trees. Secluded from the bustling nightlife, it is a perfect intimate setting for a classic dark and stormy followed by aperitifs of homemade juices mixed with rum shots that provide all the kick I need to make it up the hill and back to the cool comforts of my plush bed.
While this is still the Caribbean with verdant trees and flowers abound, one would expect tropical rainfall as well. However, I’m surprised in the morning to find yet another sunny day. Given the island’s latitudinal locale it rests in that happy middle of cacti and luscious landscapes. For breakfast at Le Fouquet’s, I skip the tower and opt for a delicious yet light avocado egg sandwich.
The hotel offers the use of its bicycles with an electronic assist to boost one up more difficult terrain. I coast down the hill and into town where cars politely wait for me to cruise by. Past the creperies and boutique shops I loop around the docks to the other side of the U-shaped bay, all the way up to the largest old Fort that now acts as a police station. But with no real crime, the structure sits like a flower-drenched relic to another time.
I pass along the high cliffs and ascend to the nature preserve overlooking Shell Beach. A telescope offers whale sighting opportunities, but all I see are the many beautiful sailboats fighting the tide. After my bike ride I hop in the pool, followed by the outdoor shower, and back to the bar at Fouquet’s for a cocktail masterclass. While the famous mixologist Emanuele Balestrais is not here for his bi-annual delivery of perfumes from his rooftop botanical garden at the Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic in Cannes, our charismatic bartender fills in spectacularly, demonstrating step by step how to concoct several of the hotel’s most popular cocktails.
The tastes and smells of the Cosmopolitan Regatta provide such a different experience with the perfume pairing. Trying to choose favorites between the Safran Mule, Campari cocktail, and Paloma is like trying to choose between Paris and St. Barts. I’m allowed to go behind the bar and assist with the shaker, but I admit I’m more skilled in photo-ops than cocktail construction.
Having already begun an early happy hour, the party continues down at Shell Beach where I opt for a bottle of Carib beer, helping me somewhat hydrate under the afternoon sun. For lunch at Shellona I try the Soutzoukaki lamb, and with homemade pita bread I again have to wonder if I’m in France, the Caribbean or a Greek Isle. After a day of food, drink, and sun, the prospect of hiking up the short yet steep hill helps me understand why some guests might be weary of the trek. However, the hotel is happy to drive anyone wishing to go up or down to the beach so it’s never a problem.
As it’s my last full day I take the opportunity to make the most of every moment, and rather than returning to my room for a nap I instead soak up the sights from the villa pool.
For my farewell dinner at Fouquet’s I’m treated to another sampling of delicacies including a seasonally special frog tapa with forest-green sauce, bright red beets with the filet, and so many other vibrant colors for every plate. I have no room for dessert, but thankfully it’s a refreshing coconut based ice cream that acts as the perfect palate cleanser.
‘Attention’, I say to myself while staring off into the night, the heat washing over me like a blanket, the sea wind kissing my face. This has truly been a type of magical stay, the kind that feels impromptu yet has been planned in the background by Le Carl Gustaf step by step. I’ve made so many friends and memories with the staff on this short stay, and this island will be a treasure that I carry with me always. Jeff Sobel